The Path Forward for Constitutionalists

By Jim Jess










Jim Jess is the Chairman of Franklin Roundtable and President of the Foundation for Constitutional Education.

Recent elections in the United States have left many who seek to restore our Constitution discouraged and demoralized. Candidates we believed would work to bring the needed changes to our government were defeated at the polls. Some in our movement believe we will never be able to restore our republic as our Founders intended it to function. Others see us suffering from stolen elections and heading into a dark night of tyranny.

For those who seek to restore our Constitution, which I will refer to as “constitutionalists,” there is a path forward, and we do not need to wallow in despair. It’s important to get a sense of the “big picture” and recognize that while we face challenges, all is not lost by any measure. In fact, the future is bright as many opportunities to advance the principles of freedom and limited, constitutional government are before us.

First of all, we, the people, still enjoy great personal freedom and the ability to speak up and work for change in our nation. While some in government and the media desire to suppress dissent and opinions that challenge the elites in power, we are not without the ability to bring about change. But we must recognize certain realities.

Congress and the White House are not dominated by people who think like we do. There is a minority of members of Congress who truly seek to restore our Constitution. Some of these great leaders in Congress are working very hard for restoration, and they are part of key policy discussions. To the extent we are able, we should support their efforts to bring about fiscal responsibility and a less intrusive national government. This means more responsible federal budgets and reduced spending, rolling back intrusive regulations from Washington and the return of many federal functions to state and local authorities where they belong. In the short term, however, we will not likely see the dramatic changes we desire.

Having said this, it should be noted that the recent elections put Republicans in control of the U.S. House of Representatives. This will provide a check on overreaches by the Biden Administration and an opportunity to reshape the federal budget, spending priorities and appropriations for the next two years.

Where constitutionalists and other advocates of limited government can have much more success right now is at the state and local levels. It depends on where you live and which public officials are in power as to whether the right kinds of policy solutions will prevail. Those who wish to engage in advocacy on behalf of sound policies should form relationships with state legislators and other local officials where they can work with them to enact good public policy solutions. In recent years, limited government advocates have experienced some genuine policy victories that are notable.

Real Progress in Georgia

In the past two years in Georgia, advocates working with state representatives and senators in the Georgia General Assembly have seen significant policy victories. In 2021, Georgia became the first state to pass significant election reform after the 2020 elections. The Election Integrity Act requires the use of a driver’s license number or state-issued identification number instead of signatures when applying for absentee ballots. It restricted the use of drop boxes so they could only be placed inside elections offices where they could be supervised at all times. And it requires that emergency rules adopted by the state election board be subject to a majority vote of the House and Senate Judiciary committees for approval. Voting machines are also subject to testing prior to each election. A number of other procedures were included in the bill to make elections more secure and efficient.

In 2022, the Georgia General Assembly passed a Parent’s Bill of Rights, which provides greater transparency to parents so they can be knowledgeable of materials and curriculum used to educate their children. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also signed a bill to block the use of divisive concepts in the classroom, including the use of Critical Race Theory, which has been used to stigmatize and intimidate students based on their race. Second Amendment advocates saw the enactment of Constitutional Carry in Georgia, where it is now legal for any law-abiding citizen to carry a firearm without a license, with very few limits on this constitutionally protected freedom.

In each of these legislative victories, advocates did not get everything they wanted in the legislation that was passed, but they got most of it. This is the definition of legislative success. It’s about “moving the ball down the field,” not necessarily throwing a touchdown pass for every play.

The point of this story is that in states like Georgia, advocates for limited government solutions can be effective if they work together on common objectives. Much more is available for us to accomplish in state legislatures than in Washington, D.C., because of the current partisan stalemate. The Founders set up our national government so that only the most pressing measures that had wide support would become law. But in recent years, Congress has shown its inability to enact even the most basic and necessary measures, such as protecting our border and reforming immigration policy. Until we send many more wise legislators to Congress, gridlock will remain. Any unilateral attempts by a president to impose new policies by executive orders remains unconstitutional.

In the absence of federal action, the states will act on their own—to the extent they have the authority to do so.

The Path for Those Who Love Freedom

What is to be done to reform Congress and force its members to act responsibly? To use another sports analogy, constitutionalists must play the “long game.” What does that mean?

James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, said the following in a speech concerning the state of Congress and the nation in the late 1800s:

Now more than ever the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave, and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature … If the next centennial does not find us a great nation … it will be because those who represent the enterprise, the culture, and the morality of the nation do not aid in controlling the political forces.”

What did he mean by “aid in controlling the political forces”? He was referring to business leaders, cultural leaders, and leaders of educational and religious sectors of society leading the people to demand that those in Congress behave responsibly and fulfill their oaths of office.

Our culture is reflected in our public bodies, especially Congress. While it is obvious that our government at all levels cries out for sound reforms, why is that? It is because the people, collectively, have allowed irresponsible behavior from our public servants. The only way to eradicate such irresponsibility is to change the culture.

So, to change our culture, we need to improve the spiritual and moral character of our people, or to put it another way, we need to transform the spiritual and ethical climate in our nation. Government cannot do this, only people can. This improvement comes generally through the forces of spiritual renewal or some other kind of moral improvement. Spiritual and religious leaders, leaders in educational enterprises, and perhaps even some business leaders, must exercise real leadership to encourage the people to bring about genuine change. It must be more than change for the sake of change. It must be a change in our state of mind. Each individual must accept personal responsibility and consider the long-term benefits for society, instead of instant gratification. This change in thinking must see work as honorable and duty as a desirable ideal. It must be a change of heart that rejects government dependency and strives for excellence, self-mastery and personal responsibility. This is the great change that we need in America.

While an American renewal will require enlightened leaders to lead it, there is nothing to prevent every individual from doing his or her part to advance this social change. Fathers and mothers should be teaching their children around the dinner table. Co-workers can share sound habits with co-workers. Anyone who can teach one other person can impart sound values and best practices. Change that is genuine, from the bottom up, will have the most profound and lasting impact on society and accomplish what government cannot. In the end, this transformation will impact how people view their government, its responsibilities and their own duties as citizens. But all social change begins with one person or a few people teaching others and others accepting it and sharing the same ideas with others.

The educating of the next generation is a key component to restoring our nation. That means teaching our founding principles, especially about our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. A number of excellent organizations are involved in this work, notably Hillsdale College, Wallbuilders and the National Center for Constitutional Studies, to name just a few. These organizations provide courses on the Constitution and our founding principles, and some of the courses are free and online.

Constitutionalists must also face the possibility that we may not see the lasting reforms to our government in our lifetimes. All social change takes time. Sometimes it takes a generation or more. So, the question is, if we cannot see the changes we desire to see right now, what actions should we take?

We must work to lay the groundwork for renewal for today’s society as well as the next generation. What does that mean? That means we take education about our founding principles seriously. Education is the most productive long-term work we can do. It is the hard work we must all do. If we educate someone about our founding principles who is 20 or 30 years old, they will carry this knowledge with them for the next 50 or 60 years. And some of these individuals will pass it on to future generations.

As we continue to educate, advocate and “fight the good fight” of ideas, who knows what avenues for change may open up? There may be a “flashpoint” event, a situation in which the principled, constitutional way of thinking is suddenly consulted by those in power, with the result that many sound, constitutional policies are adopted. But this will never happen if constitutionalists stop fighting. We MUST continue to work to advance our principles.

Besides changing our culture and educating citizens to be custodians of freedom, we must also communicate sound policy ideas to public officials. Each citizen can do this by picking up the phone and calling their elected officials, attending a town hall with a public official or writing a letter or email message. If you care about a public policy proposal, such as a bill before a legislative body or an action taken by the government, reach out to the appropriate public official. They work for us. They need to hear from us.

A lot of the motivation to pursue the path forward comes down to WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE? If you believe our nation’s demise is inevitable, then you are of little use to our cause as we fight for freedom. You will drown in your depression, apathy and inaction, and you will tend to lead other people in that same direction. But if you believe that our best days are ahead of us and that a gracious God will open up a path for victory in our nation, then welcome to the fight.

In the darkest days of Valley Forge, General George Washington prayed continually and “kept the faith.” He never gave up, and the patriots of his day eventually prevailed. We will also prevail if we keep a positive vision before us. We know our cause is just and right. We know freedom is the right path to follow and worth fighting for. Let no one say we gave up when the pressure was on, but that we pushed forward, always forward—to victory.

© Foundation for Constitutional Education, 2022