Which Way Did They Go? I'm Their Leader

Published March 30, 2012

House Speaker Thom Tillis might have said more than he thought when recently remarking that even if voters approve the Marriage Amendment in the upcoming election he suspects it will be overturned within twenty years.

Is Tillis seeking cover in the event it doesn’t pass? Is this a commentary on the changing nature of public opinion? Or is the Speaker saying he doesn’t think this amendment should be passed but was forced to allow it to be put on the ballot because the people wanted it?

Public sentiments change. The crowds convinced Roman leaders to crucify Jesus. They sat silently while Hitler exterminated Jews. People accepted slavery and tacitly allowed racism, sexism and segregation. North Carolinians tolerated involuntary sterilization of 7,600 people. We are outraged at many past actions that were popular or accepted in their time, wondering how people could have thought and acted as they did.

Former Charlotte Mayor and Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot recently emerged in opposition to the marriage amendment, saying that if the leader of his party, the party that put the amendment on the ballot, doesn’t think it will stand why go through the process to begin with?

Vinroot is correct. Our founders believed the Constitution was a living, breathing document that could be amended, even revised, from time to time. Since North Carolina adopted the Constitution of 1972, we have proposed 36 amendments, counting this one, and 28 have passed. But I don’t know of a single instance when we voted to amend this constitution knowing or even strongly suspecting the proposed change would be overturned, either by courts or popular opinion. To alter this document because of the mood of the moment is a fool’s errand. It is far easier and more practical to change laws instead of our constitution, but we already have a marriage law.

Make no mistake. The Speaker of the North Carolina House is able to postpone, alter or kill any legislation he or she thinks wrong, as we have often witnessed. We hope Speaker Tills was not saying he opposed but allowed a constitutional amendment to be put on the ballot just because of popular opinion. If asked, a majority of people would say they opposed paying taxes, didn’t want to work, favored free housing or any number of impractical and impossible ideas. Is an amendment, or even a law, warranted just because a notion is popular?

Tillis’ statements speak as much to leadership as to the marriage amendment. The oft-quoted axiom begs repeating: “Which way did they go? I’ve got to find them. I’m their leader.” To be sure leaders need to have a sense of the people, but by definition they are not followers, but persons who guide, direct and manage. Because of their positions they frequently have more and better information. We expect them to have the courage of their convictions, to convince us and lead us in the right directions instead of just bowing to what is popular.

If North Carolina is about to amend our Constitution, suspecting it will be overturned in the near future it is wrong to put so many people through so much emotion and upheaval for naught. That’s not leadership. That’s followership.  Which is it going to be, Mr. Speaker?