We’ve been taught to believe not only that Americans can’t achieve consensus around key issues, but that we can’t even tolerate each other enough to carry on a meaningful debate. Yet last weekend nearly 400 of us gathered at Harvard and did just that.
We came together around a simple point of agreement: From the Right and the Left, citizens increasingly believe that our Republic does not work. Reform of any kind is stalled by a status quo that profits from blocking change. No side in the political debate benefits from this inertia.
The question before us was whether the appropriate response is to push for an Article V Constitutional Convention: According to Article V of the Constitution, if two-thirds of the state legislatures pass resolutions calling for a convention, then Congress must convene one. All sides would then have the opportunity to argue for the changes they believe will restore our Republic. Any amendment that gets proposed by the Convention must then be ratified by three fourths of the states to become law. Three-fourths means 38 states. So 13 states have the power to veto any change, guaranteeing that no extremism from either side could ever have an effect.
Attendees included unionists and anti-war activists, states’ rights-ers and balanced budget advocates, electoral reformers and people who want to amend the amendment process. There was neither shoving nor shouting, no bullying or bloviating: We got along, we had a productive conversation, and we built a foundation of understanding that we can add to later.
Granted, our discussion wasn’t contorted by the incentives that warp conversations in Washington, or on cable TV. Attendees weren’t sifted through that same array of filters that makes it next to impossible for an ordinary American to win a seat in Congress. Nor was the conversation steered by cable TV producers constantly aware that only sizzle earns ad revenue. We were free to listen and speak, without worrying about whether being boring would cost us money. And what we found was that being boring bought us understanding. As Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots put it, there is a business model that profits from “teaching us to hate each other.” Everyone there was working against that model.
And that, ultimately, was the point of the conference: Most Americans can surely agree that Congress, as much as possible, should be unconstrained by incentives that compel it to behave differently than would a representative sample of Americans, coming together to try to do what’s best for our country.
But instead we have a Congress that’s so thoroughly captured by narrow interests, subject to so many perverse incentives, that it’s overwhelmingly disdained by the people whom it’s supposed to represent — with recent polls showing only 12% confidence ratings. Whether you want smaller government or more effective government, this system is not working. And it is foolish to expect Congress on its own to institute the necessary changes — as it is, by identity, composed entirely of people who’ve found success playing under the current rules.
Madison reports that at the first Constitutional Convention in 1787, Virginia’s George Mason argued that if the proposing of amendments were to depend “on Congress, no amendments of the proper kind would ever be obtained by the people, if the Government should become oppressive, as he verily believed would be the case.”
Not everybody at our conference agreed that a Convention was the right remedy, at least not yet. But most — even those from some pretty austere and established institutions, including the Goldwater Institute — were open to exploring the idea further.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out CallAConvention.org.
But if you’re just interested in bloviating, tune to your favorite cable TV news show. Or C-Span’s coverage of the floors of Congress.