11 January 2010

Another Call for a Constitutional Convention

While most of the recent agitation for a "people's convention" to revise the New York state constitution has had an anti-"big government" slant, the latest call for a convention comes from the archetypally liberal Mario Cuomo in an op-ed co-written with academic Gerald Benjamin. The most interesting thing about its piece is the authors' determination to refute any argument against having a convention. Against the objection that a convention would change nothing because established politicians would be in charge, Cuomo and Benjamin propose excluding active state legislators from serving as delegates. They would force legislators to step down if they want to become delegates, but it might be a better idea to exclude them entirely. They dismiss the second objection, that "everything might change" (implicitly for the worse) as a false fear. Since the process as they envision it would involve three separate votes by the people (to authorize the convention, to elect delegates, and to ratify the revised constitution) they believe it has enough accountability built in to prevent undesirable changes. The third objection is related to the second, but the argument that "the wrong things will change" is dismissed by the authors as purely partisan. Republicans and Democrats alike, or liberals and conservatives alike, fear a convention simply because the other side might prevail. Here's how Benjamin and Cuomo answer:

There are two reasons why the argument that "the wrong things would change" is the most disheartening of all. First, it says the people are only worth trusting when the outcome is certain. This is fear of democracy. Second, it suggests that protecting particular views and interests is more important than pursuing the broader public interest. This is fear of change.

I'd add that the revision of a state constitution, not to mention the federal constitution, should be an occasion when there are no parties and, ideally, no ideology. Obviously each delegate will have some ideal of how government should work, but the real object of any convention should be the enactment of a practical system of government that would allow any ideological faction to have its way if it can win the support of the electorate, not the enactment of one that would raise ideologically motivated permanent barriers to practical measures desired by the people. The making of a constitution is one of those events that requires everyone to participate in the deliberative process at some stage or other. It's not something anyone should try to prevent because they'd rather not bother or they're afraid they wouldn't get their way. Not everyone gets his way in a democracy, but if you believe in democracy you have to acknowledge that at some level the majority does rule. So let's find out if the people want a convention or not and not worry about how messy or dangerous it might be if they do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would hope that one major change is that the people would have a more direct voice in government, at least on major issues vis a vis a public reforendum that would get voted on by the people, rather than passed or failed by politicians with less than the public good in mind.