Manifesto For A New Constitutional Convention
By Robert S. Becker
01 November, 2007
Our federal government has degenerated into a scary specter that neglects core public interests, such as infrastructure and natural disasters, while distracting us with exaggerated foreign threats. Worse still, like Iraq, workable solutions remain out of sight.
Stunned by lost liberties, an autocratic president, a cowed Congress, and an unfeeling judiciary, angry voters across the spectrum feel the machinery is broken and the “problem” transcends one smirking president or insular administration.
This crisis clearly extends beyond “domestic tranquility.” Overseas, America has a monumental image problem, the worst in our history. 90% of the world stands aghast at our go-it-alone, belligerent militarism (where diplomacy is dead), violation of citizen rights, and torture, rendition, and secret prisons that defy historic Geneva Conventions.
Despite global warming, America’s prestige has chilled badly, the result of freezing out international co-operation with a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach. For too many, elections aren’t working, a certain sign of systemic breakdown in a democracy. The urgent task is long-term: to (re)establish core values at home and America's status as beacon of liberty and trustworthy partner among nations.
Back to our revolutionary future
This crisis invokes our earliest days, when following the Revolution the bankrupt, sputtering Continental Congress called for a Constitutional Convention to rework the feeble Articles of Confederation, our first-draft Constitution.
This was also when true conservatives like Thomas Jefferson voiced skepticism towards permanent, man-made systems, famously advising, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”
His call wasn’t for violent overthrow but periodic retooling to clean-out the inevitable gunk and corruption clinging to power-hungry rulers. Favoring sovereignty of the people above all, Jefferson welcomed a bottom-up, democratic resurgence of Yankee principles informing the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
In the same spirit, modern conservative and distinguished constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein calls for immediate impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney. Fein is no Bush-hating partisan (formerly, Reagan's associate deputy attorney general) but concludes only impeachment will save our system by allowing in-depth inquiry into White House violations and/or abuses. Fein is a patriot who worships the Constitution as “utterly indispensable” for “keeping the country in balance, avoiding the extremes and hubris that comes with unchecked power.”
Alas, impeachment is a political tactic and House Democrats, wisely or not, exiled it “off the table.” Even less likely for Mr. Bush or Cheney is court-martial, though that's the penalty former Iraqi war commander, General Sanchez, would exact from serving officers whose “dereliction of duty” produced Iraq, for him “a nightmare with no end in sight.” Short of rebellion, no army of generals upends our commander-in-chief.
A Convention by the Spring
Corrective, individual Constitutional amendments would work, but that requires vision by a servile Congress, takes years, and requires 34 states to ratify.
There is a final “insurance policy” when the system stagnates: call a Constitutional Convention, which also requires 34 states but no specific agenda and cannot be vetoed by Congress. Yes, getting 34 state houses to agree on the time of day is a challenge, but that percentage is below the 70% negative on Iraq or the 75% who disapprove Bush’s performance.
In fact, getting grassroots citizens pushing for a national roundtable is exactly the bottom-up “revolutionary” spirit Jefferson loved. It’s certainly been a generation since the last upheaval, beginning with rejecting Vietnam and culminating when Richard Nixon resigned for abusing executive power.
A Constitutional Convention need not be partisan, nor must it reinvent the original document. Its opening intentions may be simply to restore American laws and traditions, identify violations, and regain lost civil liberties. Here is a national forum to assure foreigners we don’t (and won’t) torture, reject secret prisons, and forego unilateral, pre-emptive invasions against sovereign countries not about to attack anyone.
Restating what made America great
A Constitution Convention could certainly reinforce America as a secular nation, not beholden to one religion. We could certify we’re a scientific nation, open to the best, wisest thinking on global warming and international pollution plus address more co-operative responses to genocide, pandemics, population explosions, and a growing arms race.
The notion of periodic, systemic retooling already exists on the state level. Illinois must vote every 20 years whether to call a state Constitutional Convention. Why not make that option a first agenda item for a national convention?
Finally, there's no need to fret over a glorious mission statement. Here the existent “Preamble to the Constitution:”
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“We the people” – the very best instrument to redeem a great nation in dire need of rebalancing priorities and power relationships, even, alas, advancing the dream of a “more perfect Union.”
Robert S. Becker, Ph.D. UC Berkeley, began with university teaching, then spent 20 years in business, and now writes on politics and culture. He lives in Mendocino, California.
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