INTRODUCING THE IDEA OF THE PEOPLE’S CONVENTION
by Kelly Gerling
The idea of a People’s Convention is one that reflects common practice around the world for exercising the basic sovereignty of the will of the people. This self-evident, inalienable right is stated this way in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the current Virginia Constitution:
“That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.”
This basic, fundamental idea is that the people are sovereign over their government. Our own Declaration of Independence states that all of us:
“. . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. . . . when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government . . .”
This means that when a government is conceived as a metaphorical “tree” with three “branches” of government, then the trunk of that tree—the people—both controls and is served by those branches. The roots and nutrients that feed the trunk of the tree must include the basic idea of the sovereignty of the people.
This is an idea that Jefferson understood well. He said, in 1787, in a letter to James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights:
“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. After all, it is my principle that the will of the majority should always prevail. If they approve the proposed Convention in all it’s parts, I shall concur in it chearfully, in hopes that they will amend it whenever they shall find it work wrong.”
Dan Lazare, in his book The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy, concludes by saying:
“The most fundamental freedom of all is the freedom of the democratic majority to alter the society around it as it sees fit, without any traditions or constitutional restraints to get in the way. This is the freedom on which all other freedoms depend. There can be no assurance that the people will use this freedom wisely, just as there can be no assurance that they will make wise use of free speech or a free press. But there is a total assurance that in the absence of such freedom, politics will atrophy, society will die, and civil liberties will go with it.” P. 310
And that is exactly what has happened in America. Politics is atrophying; society is dying; and civil liberties are vanishing. Will we wake up? Will we develop the capacity, to see ourselves as one sovereign people? Will we do the hard work of thinking our way out of this corporate, plutocratic totalitarian coup? Will we create the means to exercise our inherent, self-evident, inalienable sovereignty?
I say yes.
I say we Americans will wake up.
And one way to begin is to open our eyes and look at the exercising of the sovereignty of the people in other nations, and in our own states.
The Case of New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s
In 1985, New Zealand began a process of changing their First Past the Post, Winner Take All, Most Voters Lose, two-party system (FFTP). They didn’t like the way it worked. It had some unfair results. And there were only two major parties. In this way, their system was much like ours in America (minus our vast corruption by private and corporate money to fund elections). What did they do? Through their parliament, they appointed a commission (what we would call a congress or a convention) to study their system and alternatives to it. It deliberated and wrote a report which chose four alternative systems. They were Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), Single Transferable Vote (STV), Supplementary Member (SM) and Preferential Vote (PV or IRV).
In 1992, a non-binding, national referendum was held asking the New Zealand people to decide if they wanted a vote to change their system, and to choose between the four alternative systems the one they liked the best. Eighty-five percent of the voters chose to change their system and 70 percent preferred the MMP system adopted by Germany. Then, in 1993, they held a binding national referendum pitting the alternative MMP system against their traditional two-party FPTP system. The people of New Zealand voted 54 percent to 46 percent to change systems. They had their first MMP election in 1996, reconstituting Parliament with both district members and party members. The result over time was that ”Parliament has become much more diverse and representative of modern New Zealand society – in 2006 39 women, 21 Maori, four Pacific Islanders, and two Asian MPs are among the 121 MPs.” This process is documented here.
Of course, what a nation with this kind of direct democracy can do if they make a mistake is to undo that mistake. How? In November 2011, the New Zealand people will vote in another national referendum to decide whether to keep their MMP system, and if not, what of four systems to change it to. Why do New Zealanders have rights to exercise their sovereignty that we Americans don’t?
On January 25th, 2011 the Egyptian revolution began in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Within two months, Egypt held a national referendum to amend their Constitution. It passed by 77 percent. It paved the way towards more fair elections in the aftermath of the fall of the Mubarak regime’s fall from power. Among its provisions of nine amendments was the requirement that the newly elected parliament write a new constitution within 60 days, and propose it to the Egyption people in a subsequent referendum or plebiscite. See the details here.
Why do Egyptians have rights to exercise their sovereignty that we Americans don’t?
According to Wikipedia, “In 2010, the Turkish parliament adopted a series of constitutional amendments. The amendments did not achieve the required two-thirds majority (67%) to immediately implement the changes. However, they did receive a majority of 330 votes (60%), which was sufficient to present the amendments to the electorate in a referendum.”
The series of 23 amendments passed by a majority of both the Parliament and the popular referendum of the Turkish people.
Why do the Turkish people have rights to exercise their sovereignty that we Americans don’t?
Canadians have exercised their right sovereignty in several national referendums, as well as many more state referendums. See a summary in this article. Here is a link to the recent citizen’s assembly in British Columbia.
Why do the Canadian people have rights to exercise their sovereignty that we Americans don’t?
Our American States
American states exercise these rights regularly. I’ve been in discussions for over a year with John Dinan, author of The American State Constitutional Tradition. Here is John Dinan’s summary of the exercising of sovereignty by residents of American states in 2010:
“Constitutional amendments appeared on the ballot in 2010 in 37 states, which is higher than the 30 states voting on amendments in the last even-year election in 2008 and slightly higher than the 34 states voting on amendments in the last midterm election in 2006. One hundred sixty-five amendments appeared on the ballot in 2010 and 116 were approved.”
“Four of the 14 states that require automatic submission of a convention referendum at regular intervals held referendums in 2010: Iowa, which requires a referendum every 10 years; Michigan, which requires a referendum every 16 years; and Montana and Maryland, which require a convention referendum every 20 years.”
Why do the residents of all of these states have rights to exercise their sovereignty that we Americans as a whole don’t?
It is because of something I call a blind spot. Blind spots are especially insidious because people with blind spots don’t know what they can’t see. It is a situation much like the retinal nerve blind spot each sighted person has. Any sighted person can see evidence of their own natural, retinal blind spot by going to this link and looking at the demonstration exercise for it. We cannot easily see what we cannot see.
The American Blind Spot about National Sovereignty
All of these sorts of cases above notwithstanding, the American people don’t get the idea that we are sovereign as one people, even though such a basic right is self-evident and inalienable. We have never had a national referendum. Not even for electing our president.
Why are we blind to our rights as one people to assemble, deliberate, propose amendments, and vote on them in a national referendum?
The answer is something Leo Tolstoy discovered in the 1890s in a book that greatly inspired Gandhi. He wrote this in Chapter 7 of The Kingdom of God is Within You:
“The difference between those hypnotized by scientific men and those under the influence of the state hypnotism, is that an imaginary position is suggested to the former suddenly by one person in a very brief space of time, and so the hypnotized state appears to us in a striking and surprising form, while the imaginary position suggested by state influence is induced slowly, little by little, imperceptibly from childhood, sometimes during years, or even generations, and not in one person alone but in a whole society.”
This kind of mass social hypnosis is the current corporate regime,through its corporate media, exerting its influence over our minds to make sure we remain subservient, impotent and helpless before their economic and political power.
How do we shake ourselves out of this hypnotic trance which has wrongly convinced us that we cannot be designers of our destiny, not captains of our fate?
Reading. Study. Discussion. Analysis. Hard intellectual work. Thinking hard. Thinking long. I’ve been engaged in that hard work, reading book after book, article after article, and engaging in dialogue with scholars, experts and activists, for over 35 years.
We need to understand the Constitution for not only its good parts, including the Preamble and the Bill of Rights, but also understand it for its limitations. Our Constitution was written in the 1700s. It has a limited amending process for elected officials to use, Article 5, which requires up to 95 percent approval. That 95 percent number exists because 13 small states (over 1/4), with a population of about the LA metropolitan area, can veto any amendment. That’s because Article 5 requires three-quarters of the states (38 of 50). This sort of supermajority requirement is not only undemocratic, it places an obstacle in front of reform efforts because too many of the American people believe that the only way to amend the Constitution is by using the Article 5 procedure. So we’ve only had 17 amendments since 1790, a period of 221 years. During the same period, our American states have adopted over 12000 amendments to existing and to 150 new state constitutions.
This meager list of 17 amendments to the national Constitution since 1790 have not been enough to guarantee the will of the people shall be the law of the land. They haven’t protected us from the predatory corporations and their plutocrats.
Several legal scholars assert that since the Constitution nowhere states that the Article 5 amending process is exclusive, and that the sovereignty of the people is a self-evident, inherent, inalienable right, that the democratic majority in America can amend the Constitution by a convention assembly or congress assembly under Amendment 1, which guarantees the right of assembly. In this concept, a congress or convention deliberates and drafts amendments, and then submits to the people. Then, in a binding, legitimate national referendum, the people, by majority vote, decide whether to adopt the amendments and make them law. One such scholar who makes this argument eloquently is Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, who wrote about it in a short paper.
Many of these ideas have been exhaustively presented by these authors and books for many years: Sanford Levinson (Our Undemocratic Constitution), Doug Amy (Real Choices, New Voices, The Case for Proportional Representation), Daniel Lazare (The Frozen Republic and The Velvet Coup), Bruce Ackerman & James Fishkin (Deliberation Day), Akhil Reed Amar (For the People), Larry Sabato (A More Perfect Constitution), Steven Hill (Fixing Elections, 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy, and Europe’s Promise), Christian Fritz (American Sovereigns), and John Dinan (The American State Constitutional Tradition).
When we do the reading we begin to snap out of our collective trance of political impotence.
We have reached the situation both Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln talked about.
Ben Franklin said at the 1787 constitutional convention that:
“. . . there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address that:
“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.”
There was a coup beginning in the 1970s as a response to the protests and unrest in the 1960s. It was a coup by business interests, corporations and would be plutocrats. Their efforts to defeat the forces of democracy are well-documented in this memo by Lewis Powell. He describes progressive activist Ralph Nader as “the single most effective antagonist of American business.” They saw a problem threatening the rule of the plutocrats. They made a plan. They implemented the plan over many decades. And they won. We lost. WE. LOST. They now control the nation and its policies. And the situation is an unmitigated disaster for the nation and the world.
At this stage, there are no solutions within the corrupt government and its corrupt institutions. But the people must nevertheless fight back and defeat them. We must democratize our political system, our economy, our corporations, and our foreign policy. The simplest, most direct way of accomplishing this is by improving our system of government with constitutional amendments to create enduring protections against the abuse of power by illegitimate minorities to bring about America as a democratic republic.
We’ve neglected to exercise our self-evident sovereignty for a very long time. But it is not yet too late. It is time now to create a people’s congress or convention to deliberate on the amendments needed to bring about a new government: whereby we will defeat the corporate plutocrats; whereby we will alter our government so public opinion becomes public policy, and whereby the will of the people shall be the law of the land. Doing this fits the call by the Occupy Wall Street New York City General Assembly to:
“. . . create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone”
Join us in this cause and bring about a peaceful second American revolution and a democratic America. Help us establish the People’s Convention and subsequent national referendum to create a democratic America.