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Conference for a Constitutional Convention

gmoke's picture

The Conference for a Constitutional Convention at Harvard Law School on September 24 and 25 was supposed to be an opportunity for the Left and Right to talk together about the possibility of ending our broken political system through a discussion of a new Constitutional Convention. Lawrence Lessig of Rootstrikers (http://www.rootstrikers.org/), represented the Left and Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots (http://www.teapartypatriots.org) represented the Right.

From my point of view, the conference wasn't really the advertised meeting of the Left and the Right. Lessig himself was a Reagan delegate to the Republican Convention back in the day; and although there was a good bit of representation from the Tea Party Patriot group, there was nobody there explicitly from MoveOn or anything really further left than the ADA wing of the Democratic Party, with the exception of a couple of folks from the Revolutionary Communists who were hawking their Constitution For The New Socialist Republic In North America (pdf alert: http://revcom.us/socialistconstitution/S...). It did, however, reveal a subculture that has been working towards a Constitutional Convention for decades.

It appeared to be a very white, very post-middle age, economically comfortable crowd and maybe, maybe 20% of the attendees were women. There were three women panelists although four in total had been scheduled to appear and two more women co-leading breakout groups on Sunday. No ostensibly non-white men spoke. The only Afro-American woman I saw was one of the panelists, George Friday of the Independent Progressive Politics Network (http://www.ippn.org/), and she told me she was invited at the last minute. She and Annabel Park, a Korean-American, of the Coffee Party (http://www.coffeepartyusa.com) were the two best panelists in my opinion because they talked outside of the electoral politics and legal haggling that was the main thrust of the presentations. Park and Friday broke that frame by addressing our broken political system as a cultural and social problem rather than a purely legal or political one. They proposed that it is not only about laws, regulations, candidates, and campaigns but about our own perceptions and uses of personal power, about a culture that talks incessantly about our fears but rarely if ever about our hopes and dreams.

Bill Walker of the Friends of an Article Five Convention (http://foavc.org/) is one of the people who has been working on this Constitutional issue for a long time. He says there have already been enough calls from individual states for a Constitutional Convention that Congress now has a clear obligation to call one. In fact, a legal case is currently in process to try and force this issue. He believes a decision, one way or the other, will be forthcoming very soon now. The only question, he thinks, is whether we will have the guts to make it happen. Other groups, like the Goldwater Institute (http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/) which has done extensive research, all available online, on an Article V Convention, the Madison Amendment (http://www.madisonamendment.org/) which proposes that states should have the same power to propose Constitutional amendments as does Congress, the Public Check on Congress (http://www.publiccheckoncongress.com) which wants a nationwide referendum on Congress every ten years requiring at least 25% support, and Rebuild Democracy (http://www.RebuildDemocracy.org) which is an effort across the political spectrum to enact clean elections, Congressional term limits, and end gerrymandering were on hand. (Personally, I think term limits are a deal-breakingly bad idea. They ensure that institutional memory and long-term experience will be vested outside elected office, in the bureaucracy or, more and more likely these days, the lobbyists.)

Glenn Reynolds gave the keynote on the Right only part of which I saw as I had a previous commitment to take part in the Moving Earth event in Boston. He pointed out that people think things are broken in Europe too so maybe a Constitutional Convention isn't the answer. He didn't mention corporate globalization which immediately sprung to my mind nor did anyone mention the Spanish demonstrations this Spring which protested their form of parliamentary democracy as well as economic conditions. Reynolds said that today we have the worst political class in history. What I heard of his speech had about equal representation between legal scholars and science fiction writers which I thought was a little strange.

Larry Lessig gave the keynote from the Left that evening. It was a magnificent presentation with animations and visuals illustrating his points. He really knows how to speak and delivered a detailed, logical thesis on the idea that money in politics is the root of the problem. We have developed a system where politicians raise campaign money through the threat (or benefit) of regulation and legislation and ask how any move - regulation, deregulation, oversight, or look the other way - will affect their campaign coffers' bottom lines. This results in a corruption of dependency between Congress and their funders, who are not the "people" by any sense or reason. In this election cycle, only Buddy Roemer is addressing this issue. He has 4 principles for funding with only small donations:

First principle: the system should not silence anyone or any view. This was the kernel of truth in the Citizens United court decision. The fact that it’s a corporation speaking does not, by its nature, make the speech any less valuable or important to our system of democratic deliberation. We need to hear all sides, particularly the opposition, in a healthy debate. Second: no system should force any citizen to support political speech that he or she doesn’t believe in. Third: it is the people, not the bureaucrats, who should determine the resources available to run a campaign. Fourth: any system must encourage individuals to give at least small amounts of their own money to campaigns in which they believe. Politics is not passive anymore. The Internet allows everyone to have skin in the game. And what makes it possible for me to run is why I haven’t done this before. I’ve dreamed about it for twenty years, since I left Congress. For twenty years I knew it was coming. The Internet makes it possible.
from http://www.bostonreview.net/BR36.4/ndf_b...

Lessig also quoted Rep Jim Cooper of TN who says congress has become a farm team for K street:

Congress used to be an honored destination, but now it is a steppingstone to special-interest wealth. Because of this revolving door, Congress has long been a farm team for K Street; after Citizens United, it could become a wholly owned subsidiary.
source http://bostonreview.net/BR36.3/ndf_jim_c...

Lessig's strategies are to convene an Article V Convention although Congress already has the power to propose amendments to the states; to show how to do it don't just tell it; to unleash the power of amateur politics which may now be better than professional politics; and to begin a series of "mock" Constitutional Conventions using James Fishkin's deliberative polling (http://cdd.stanford.edu/polls/docs/summary/) ideas across the country as rehearsals for a possible legally empowered Convention.

In this manner, we be able to break "the business model of polarization," as Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots calls it.

This series of trial Conventions may actually happen. At the conference were at least three separate groups who are already working on different versions of this idea:
Blair Henry of http://www.FutureNetwork.tv is planning to do mock Constitutional Conventions as a TV series
Thomas Brennan, former Michigan Chief Justice of http://www.conventionusa.org is organizing an online convention to propose Constitutional amendments
John de Herrera of http://articlevconvention.org/forum.php , is seeking funding for a documentary on a student mock Constitutional Convention

During the Q and A, I suggested that one possible funder for this series of mock Conventions might be the Colbert SuperPAC and was able to hand that idea over to Buddy Roemer, who has appeared on the Colbert Report and showed up at the end of the last formal session on Sunday.

This reads to me as an attempt to reintroduce a generation or two to the principles of civics which have been driven out of the public discourse as well as our educational system and has, really, very little to do with Constitutional Amendments and a Constitutional Convention. We have forgotten how to talk to each other as citizens, to argue the issues rather than just argue. Perhaps a series of mock Constitutional Conventions can remind us how to do so.

Mark Meckler in his wrap-up on Sunday disagreed with Lessig. Meckler believes that money is the surface root but the tap root is the size and power of government, and this disagreement may be one of the fundamental differences between left and right. (Another possible fundamental difference was identified by Ben Manski at one of the break-out sessions as human rights versus property rights.)

Lessig replied that the money root precludes any move toward a smaller or less powerful government, that we can't do anything without cutting through that knot first. He thinks we need complementary movements from both the left and the right to move forward and http://www.callaconvention.org has been established to link into this effort.

I went to this conference out of curiosity, to see what Lessig was up to, what were the issues around a Constitutional Convention, and, primarily, to see what a conversation between the polarized Left and Right would look like. I don't believe that I saw that dialogue. It was an attempt, perhaps a noble attempt, but the diversity necessary and the open structure required for a full debate was not present at Austin Hall in Harvard Law School. For an initial attempt, it was a good try.

I also found it amusing and interesting that in the men's room downstairs there were postcards advertising the Revolutionary Communists' Constitution For The New Socialist Republic In North America on top of the urinals and a Federalist Society, an organization of Conservative and Libertarian jurists, flyer posted on the back of the door to one of the toilets. I didn't see any notices for the American Constitution Society, an organization for Liberal jurists.

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Submitted by jawbone on

I have to admit that was my first thought.

Second was wondering what Koched up funding could do to pack any state level Constitutional Conventions or meetings with mostly Tea Party/Rightwing/Republican types....

Third was, dang, I knew nothing about this at all.

Fourth, it could be a really good way to reintroduce civics, if managed fairly.

Then, I wondered HOW it could be managed fairly. And what bothered me was remembering how some of the Obama supporters took over caucus meetings and froze out non-Obama supporters....

Terrific write-up. Thank you.

Joe's picture
Submitted by Joe on

Just wanted to thank you for writing this all up. I've been wondering what about the status of Lessig's efforts.

Submitted by scoff on

I can remember him posting on DKOS at least 6 or 7 years ago, maybe more, about the need for a Constitutional Convention. I can also remember he was routinely scoffed at, reviled and dismissed as a troll or a nuisance. Personally the idea of a convention appeals to me because our Constitution needs to be updated for our modern times and to eliminate some of the offensive ideas that were included in it. I think language that codifies human rights should be incorporated into a modern Constitution written for the 21st century and the future.

While I'm at it, I think a stronger federal government is necessary today. The idea of allowing different states to decide differently on things as crucial as education policy or environmental standards (or marriage/gender/sexual orientation equality) doesn't sit well with me.