Could a new Constitutional Convention help reform America? Is it worth the risk?

Summary:  Many people seek changes to the Constitution as a palliative to our problems.  Disappointment awaits them, especially if they succeed.  Proper treatment requires accurate diagnosis, and even a cursory look at America shows that our problems have a simple cause.  Us.  Tinkering with the Constitution will not make us neither more active citizens nor ones more protective of our liberties.  This is a summary of evidence presented at length in the posts listed at the end.

“All peoples have the government that suits them.”  “Every country has the government it deserves”
— Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre. From Étude sur la souveraineté (1794) and Lettres et Opuscules (1811)

This is the third in a series:

(1)  Is it time to take the drastic step of calling a Constitutional Convention?
(2)  Was the 1787 Constitutional Convention a runaway, in effect a second revolution?


  1. Why we need a new Constitution
  2. Why amendments or even a new Constitution cannot help
  3. Now for the bad news
  4. The good news
  5. For more information

(1)  Why we need a new Constitution

We need a new Constitution for the simplest and most compelling of reasons:  the old one has died.   Any specific date of death is arbitrary, but 6 May 2011 will do:

“A missile strike from an American military drone in a remote region of Yemen on Thursday was aimed at killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric believed to be hiding in the country, American officials said Friday.”  {source:  NYT}

The government has assumed the authority to kill citizens off the battlefield, no violent crime in progress, without conviction, without trial, without arrest warrant.  There is no greater authority, no more fundamental violation of the Constitution.  Once officials cross that line the other lines mean nothing; they will cross all the other lines in time.  That is, those that they have not already crossed (e.g., indefinite detention, surveillance without warrant, torture — see the links at the end for more evidence).  Meanwhile the Tea Party obsesses over far more minor flaws.

They have done so publicly, apply the last test of our ability to govern ourselves.  Much as undertakers used to test a body before burial to ensure that it was dead.  We failed the test, by our apathy showing that the Constitution has died in our hearts.  It’s just words, its only life can be in us.

“If implicitly assuming a citizen’s guilt without a trial and then punishing them with death isn’t unconstitutional, then nothing is.” {Salon, 7 May 2011}

“That’s why the Bush/Cheney claim that the whole world is a ‘battlefield’ — adopted in full by Obama — is so radical and dangerous. On active battlefields, there is no law, virtually no rights, no Constitution. The Commander-in-Chief’s power there is virtually unlimited. To declare that the whole world is a ‘battlefield’ – including the U.S. – is to apply that deprivation to every inch of the world.  The problem isn’t so much with declaring war on Terror a ‘war’ as it is treating the whole world as an ‘active battlefield.’ So even when Awlaki (or you or I) are sleeping in his house or driving in his car, he can be deemed a ‘combatant’ on a ‘battlefield’ and treated as such. {Salon, 7 May 2011}

— Glenn Greenwald (attorney, specialist in Constitutional law)

It’s not the document that preserves our freedoms nor makes our government work.  It was us.

For more about this see The guilty ones responsible for the loss of our liberties.

(2)  Why amendments or even a new Constitution cannot help

The Constitution died on our watch through our apathy.  Of course, we’ve dumped e pluribus unum as our informal national motto for “it’s not my fault.”  So we ignore the cause of death (“it just happened,  Dad”) and focus on the cure.  Something simple.  No work by the public required.  We want a deus ex machina — a god out of the machine.

If we cannot make the Constitutional machinery work, no tinkering will motivate us to turn the cranks.

(3)  Now for the bad news

{In the movie “The Battle of the Bulge” where} the German commander shows his subordinate a chocolate birthday cake intercepted from an American soldier’s mail — still fresh because it had been flown across the ocean. This proved the hopelessness of their situation, fighting an enemy who could afford to fly cakes across the ocean for a private.

Today we’re up against people who can afford to pay Ben Stein tens of thousands of dollars to talk for a few minutes. They can afford to pay Jonah Goldberg a living wage for what he does. The heaps of money they spend on the propaganda for public consumption is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, there is the unfathomable mountain of lobbying cash ready to sink any progressive efforts. And that iceberg just gets bigger all the time.

— njorl, comment posted at ThinkProgress

The Constitution has died, becoming little more than a procedural rulebook (more like loose guidelines) for the powerful elites that run America.  But at least its corpse can inspire us, and it’s legal status provides some legal basis for efforts to rebuild the Republic.    But sharp minds among our elites and their servants find the current system untidy, and prefer to codify the emerging plutocracy.  An article V convention would provide an opportunity to do so.

Their well-paid advocates will work very hard to capture any Convention and turn it to their purposes.  The capture of the Tea Party shows how easily that can be done with today’s breed of Americans.  A movement born in opposition to the Bush/Obama bank bailouts has evolved into a Republican tool, the same Republican Party that today seeks to gut bank regulation in order to maximum their profits.

“In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”
— Spencer Bachus (R-AL), Chairman of the House Banking Committee, The Birmingham News, 9 December 2010

And a nation of sheep will watch very brief snips of the proceedings on TV, be told lies about what it all means, and eventually wonder where it all went wrong.  Rest assured, we will find someone else to blame.

“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
— Calvera, bandit leader in the movie “The Magnificent Seven” (1960)

(4)  The good news

The websites advocating revisions to the Constitution seem sincere, often anguished, in their desire to reform America’s government.  But much of their writing about a Convention seems like a desire for a magic cure that transcends the hard work of politics.

The good news:  we hold elections every two years.  Getting good delegates for a Convention would be no more difficult than electing good people to Congress.  The House of Representatives is the cog of the government most vulnerable to popular action, the weak link in the slide to plutocracy.  More about this on another day.

(5)  For more information

Articles about our dysfunctional government:

  1. The Empty Chamber – Just how broken is the Senate?“, George Packer, The New Yorker, 9 August 2010 — A powerful indictment of our sclerotic Republic, which has lost the ability to reform itself.
  2. We Have to Fix Congress’s. Dysfunctional Incentives“, Center for Collaborative Democracy, 2010 — In brief, we’re great but the machinery needs some tinkering.

For a full archive of links to articles about this topic see the FM reference page America – how can we reform it?

Other posts about the Constitution:

  1. The most important post on this website:  Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
  3. Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
  4. See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
  5. Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
  6. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  7. Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
  8. What comes after the Constitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008
  9. Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
  10. Listen to the crowds cheering Sarah Palin, hear the hammerblows of another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 8 February 2010
  11. Another nail put in the Constitution’s coffin, but we don’t care, 9 February 2010
  12. The Feds decide who to lock up for life (not just at Guantanamo), another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 2 June 2010
  13. Code red! The Constitution is burning., 5 August 2010
  14. An Appalling Threat to Civil Liberties and Democracy, 8 August 2010
  15. Every day the Constitution dies a little more, 1 September 2010 — About US government assassination programs
  16. What do our Constitution-loving conservatives say about our government’s assassination programs?, 2 September 2010
  17. Cutting down the tree of liberty, 9 September 2010 — Government secrets trump fair trials.
  18. The guilty ones responsible for the loss of our liberties, 11 September 2010
  19. A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution, 10 October 2010
  20. This week’s news: many stories showing that the Constitution is dead, 8 December 2010
  21. We’re at war, again. Another shovel of dirt on the corpse of the Constitution., 21 March 2011
  22. Conservatives tells us not to worry about the Constitution’s death, 23 March 2011
  23. Can the UN give Obama the authority to send US forces in the Libyan War?, 1 April 2011
  24. Tearing the Constitution is a bipartisan sport!, 4 April 2011

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