When President Donald Trump and his minions attack the Census, they are messing with the U.S. Constitution and the better angels of the American experiment. This is no small matter. And this is no small fight. Progressives should understand it as such and respond accordingly – not merely with a strong defense but with an even stronger offense.
Yes, the Supreme Court has delivered a smackdown to the administration’s scheme to add a citizenship question to the survey. And, yes, the administration appeared to signal that it was backing down when it allowed the printing of 2020 Census forms to begin. But appearances can be deceiving. Trump is now asserting that, no matter what courts and law and printing deadlines may say, he’s still interested in getting the citizenship question into the mix. So the advocates for a full and fair count must be prepared to defend the ground that has been gained. We must, at the same time, go on the offensive, promoting an understanding of the Census as what it is: “a cornerstone of our democracy.”
That is how a group of Democratic senators described the Census in a letter urging the administration to end efforts to “delay and jeopardize the Census Bureau’s ability to conduct a full, fair, and accurate decennial census as required by the U.S. Constitution and the Census Act.”
The Constitution did not mention democracy, and it did not outline universal voting rights. It did not propose political parties, primary elections or – and this may surprise Trump – the monarchical flight of fantasy that is “executive privilege.” But it did mention the Census. Right up at the top, in Article 1, Section 2, the document requires that an “enumeration shall be made” within terms of 10 years. That means that since 1790, the federal government has organized a decennial counting of the people.
The point of this enumeration is a radical and democratizing one. The founders of the American experiment, who had experienced colonial abuses that included taxation without representation, developed a strategy for counting every American and using the results to establish representative democracy.
“Enshrining this invention in our Constitution marked a turning point in world history,” explainsthe Census Bureau. “Previously censuses had been used mainly to tax or confiscate property or to conscript youth into military service. The genius of the Founders was taking a tool of government and making it a tool of political empowerment for the governed over their government.”
The Census is a protection against the kingly privileges and abuses against which the American Revolution was waged. Few suppressions could be so severe as a mangling of the Census. That’s the reason civil rights groups rallied to prevent the addition of the “citizenship question.” This rallying of the forces of democracy has been strikingly successful. But it cannot be the end of anything. It must be the beginning.