Saturday, October 18, 2008

Shall There Be A Constitutional Convention?

The short and sweet answer to the question “Shall there be a constitutional convention?” ought to be a resounding “Yes!!!”

The question appears on ballots once every twenty years, with predictable results. This year the party of the status quo – all the special interests that for years have been suckling on the now withered breasts of Mother Government – is especially enraged by the idea, which was put into the state constitution by committed Jeffersonians.

It was Thomas Jefferson, a son of the enlightenment, who thought that the government of these states should participate in a bloody revolution every so often to clean the entrails of Mother Government of its detritus. After the French Revolution, Jefferson settled for constitutional change. The past, Jefferson thought, was younger than the present, because the past had not the advantage of current experience.

The forces in Connecticut that have conspired to obstruct the calling of a constitutional convention obviously disagree. By raising $830,000 so far -- a sum certain to increase -- to defeat the prospect through television ads and other propaganda, they now have put their pocket books where their intentions lie.

Ralph Waldo Emerson later summed up the entire American Experience from colonial days, through the revolution to his own contentious time in a single catch phrase: To become perfect is to have changed often.

But change – any change, even efficacious change – is the enemy of the permanent government, which is not always the elected government. The ruling estate is interested chiefly in nurturing the ruling estate. Any American worth his salt, in whom the promise of the American Revolution still beats like a tocsin and sounds like the trumpet of the last judgment, should be ashamed not to ally himself instinctively and temperamentally with efficacious change.

The best thing that can be said of John Woodcock, the Thomas Paine of the current movement to call a constitutional convention, is that the American experience, this very nearly religious faith in restorative change, is not dead in him.

There are two important possible changes that a Constitutional Convention may bring about. The “may” here is necessary because delegates to the convention will be selected by the current crop of legislators, many of whom are the high priests of the status quo.

The convention may choose to enact ballot initiative. Ballot initiative allows “factions,” as the opposition calls them, to place on election ballots propositions that may be ratified by popular vote into law. No convention will allow the factions to determine the vote; a ballot initiative that is not ratified by a majority of citizens cannot pass into law. Ballot initiative, in other words, is a method of correcting measures that are unpopular with the people but popular with powerful “factions” that have persuaded the legislature to vote into law measures that serve their narrow special interests.

The convention may choose to enact referenda. Referenda will be familiar to townsfolk in Connecticut who have voted on municipal budgets they believe are extravagant. In budget referendums across the state, it is not a minority but a majority of town voters that decide budget referendum issues.

The argument usually brought against ballot initiative and referenda is that both are un-republican. In a republican form of government, it is said, the people elect representatives who then vote “their conscience” on bills presented before them. If those bills are unpopular, the people can then elect to change circumstances by voting out the unpopular representatives and by this means effect the changes they wish. This vision of things does not anticipate a compromised conscience or a bought legislature.

And this means of change is possible only in a system of government in which there is a healthy roll over in representatives. The dominance of a single party in the legislature, gerrymandered districts, the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by incumbents, a compromised media adverse to change, the evident capture of certain incumbents by permanent factions in the state; these are all signs that the democracy itself has been overcome by unrepresentative ruling forces that are perfectly willing to act athwart the will of the people, who are unorganized and rendered powerless.

Under these circumstances, initiative and referenda are aides to a more representative, less sclerotic government.

The question that lovers of liberty should be asking when they go to the polls to vote on the convening of a constitutional convention is this: What would Jefferson do?

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