Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Let’s Just Start Over; Abolish the Constitution

with 8 comments

I went off on a bit of a tear this morning on Twitter and wanted to put it into a slightly more coherent form before I went about my day: my suggestion is that liberals, progressives, and liberal-leftists should look at the results of the last six years and conclude that there is simply no hope for significant reform within the existing constitutional order.

I’ve been saying this for years now, but here it is again: Obama swept into office at the head of a mass movement with a congressional supermajority during the worst crisis in 70 years, with the opposition party totally and absolutely discredited. That was the chance, the only chance, that the existing system had to reform, and he either blew it or betrayed it, however you come down on him. There’s no reason to think there will ever be another 2008 for the liberal-left. It’s over. The only hope now is a radical shift in the constitutional order, which can be achieved by calling for a new constitutional convention as prescribed within the existing constitution. It’s a legal move; it’s just never been tried.

Now, we know that the existing order is on course to destroy civilization within our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children; we have to weigh any possible outcomes against that. But even bracketing climate change entirely, we have to understand that progressive and leftist economic policy can’t win within the existing order because it’s rigged for paralysis. A constitutional order with this level of malapportionment and this many chokepoints inevitably favors the political right. Even the best-case, most generous reading of Obama’s colossal failures demonstrates this to be true.

A new constitution would be a gamble, but it’s a gamble we take against a certainty of failure; recall that Clinton ’16, Clinton ’20, ClintonVP ’24 is the mainline Democrats’ most optimistic scenario, the one where they hit gold every time and never miss. And there’s good reason to think a new constitution literally couldn’t be worse than what we have now. A new constitution couldn’t get away with shortchanging CA and NY 14 senators, just for starters, much less any of the other crazy stuff that seems normal to us now; there’d be no way to justify it. Even a new constitutional convention that failed and saw the country break up into a loose confederation or into smaller states would be, on balance, an improvement for the world. With the experience of 2008-2014 — not to mention every other thing that’s happened in American politics on either the state or federal level for as long as I’ve been alive — it’s hard to see how a new system could possibly be worse for progressive hopes that the current system, which at this point we have to accept is guaranteed to always steamroll us.

A movement for a new constitution that took ten years to get off the ground would be catching fire at the end of Clinton’s second term, maybe; one that took fifteen years to get off the ground would hit just as whoever follows Clinton was taking office post-reelection. Do you honestly think politics in fifteen years will be better than it is now? Will the system be more just, more peaceful, more ecologically sustainable? Do you think we’ll be glad then that we stuck with the existing system, so Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo and Jay Nixon can save us?

In short my recommendation to the liberal-left and to progressives is to simply stop caring so much about whether Democrats win or lose and to devote themselves instead to advocating that we just start over, aligning with whatever savory and unsavory characters on the right we can get to sign on to the plan so that the convention happens and things at least have some chance to improve things before capitalism has fully and finally destroyed all hope for the future. At this point it’s not even really a gamble; there’s nothing left to lose, we’ve all already lost.

#teachthecontroversy #readyforHillary #despair #nihilism #breadsticks

8 Responses

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  1. I’ve long thought that the current system is unworkable and a new Constitution is needed, but if we can’t even pass the lightest of immigration reforms through Congress I have no idea how a there would ever be the consensus necessary to approve a new constitution, especially with a large number of people in this country viewing our current one as holy writ.

    I think within my lifetime the Constitution could be replaced, but not by a convention. We live in a country where the military and police are the two most trusted institutions. If our politics continues to be this dysfunctional and divided, I could imagine a military coup happening. Two centuries of constitutional government is no guarantee against it, just look at Chile.

    • I’ve wondered about a police or military coup; the Oathkeepers movement has always disturbed me. But I think ideological attachment to civilian rule is pretty strong — it would take a serious crisis for the military to be perceived as stepping in legitimately, something with a lot more teeth than Ebolaghazi fluff.

      As for the question of consensus, I want to emphasize that I believe a stalled or failed convention would also likely be a better outcome than continuing under the current order. My limited understanding is that no one knows what happens once the convention box is opened: what the rules would be, what the scope would be, what the failure mode would be, etc. I still think we should choose that chaos rather than what we already know won’t work.


      November 6, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    • Oh, and re: consensus: I guess I’m a realist/pessimist on political opinions. It seems to me that they’re driven largely or entirely by party ID, rather than by rationalistic evaluation of competing claims. That is: if Democratic elites start saying “let’s have a new constitution” that’ll be a mainstream position held by a lot of the country in a lot less than ten years.

      And people wouldn’t like it, but there’s a good number of people on the right you could get on board, on a pro-life basis alone. I did say “unsavory” but it’s less outlandish than it seems, I think.


      November 6, 2014 at 1:05 pm

      • I think you’re right about the party ID thing. The big obstacle is that even movements that have challenged the status quo (civil rights, pro-choice, etc) have invoked the Constitution. Everyone has to act as if it is the fount of our freedoms, making it a kind of sacred totem, and not just for conservatives. It will take a lot more before this idol gets smashed. Like you, I am a pessimist and feel tremendous guilt that I brought two children into this world.

  2. But what happens when you *unbracket* climate change? Even assuming a new constitution is the right strategy (and while I do see your point, I’m far from convinced), it’s a 10 year time frame under the most optimistic scenario. More likely 20-30, if possible at all. By that point, we’re screwed.

    I’m not saying there *is* some clear solution: I kinda think that we’re just screwed at this point. But if I’m going to go with utopian, unrealistic hopes, I think I’d go with “mass movement so large that it paralyzes the country and convinces the business elites that they need to do something, and that (along w dems) push it past existing barriers”. Granted, it’s wildly unrealistic; but then, I think a new constitution is too. And at least this dream scenario works (were it to follow the utopian plan) quickly enough to possibly save us. In theory, mass movements big enough to disrupt existing order could happen tomorrow if everyone who says they believe in climate change just walked outside and started shouting. Whereas even if it worked as hoped, a new constitutional process is just too slow.

    Stephen Frug

    November 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    • I don’t really see that as disagreement (or better maybe to say that I don’t disagree with what you’re saying). To me you’re just saying “we need to get to the next order as fast as possible,” but it’s still an endorsement of the central proposition that the current order has no future. If a mass movement of the sort you described forced a revolution in government, instead of a prolonged formal process, it’s not that different in the end from what I’m saying. And I don’t think it would happen without some sort of grassroots movement like you’re talking about. The elites have no interest in changing anything, that’s clear.

      I’ve become such a pessimist on climate change though that I bracket it almost out of habit. I really think what’s going to happen is they’re going to try to invent some sort of process to pull carbon out of the air on a mass scale and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. There doesn’t seem to be any hope of any other sort of intervention in the industrial machinery; there’s hardly even a constituency for it, even among those who “believe” in climate change.


      November 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm

      • I think we disagree on A) how to frame the issue to maximize success (while both admitting it’s a long-shot): you’re pushing for the-system-is-broken-we-need-to-scrap-it, and I’m arguing for the-sky-is-falling; B) what step we think everyone should take (“let’s hold a constitutional convention” versus “nationwide general strike!”), and C) whether we’ve given up on climate change. I think A & B stem from C, really (although, again, I’m not convinced that the constitution is the right route to go… I think any hypothetical constitutional convention would have outcomes as bad as the current constitutional process, and for similar reasons (half the country’s stark mad & money controls everything).

        As for pessimism on climate change… I think you’re probably right. But I’m too scared to face up to it, because of what it will mean. So I keep hoping, lacking any better ideas.

        Oh, and Naomi Klein seems to want to bridge the gap between us by saying (roughly) USE climate change to GET a radically different system, although she focuses on capitalism not America’s “I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Democracy!” government. I hope she’s right. I don’t see it.

        I guess what it comes down to is that I think that if we’re going to try and shoot the moon, I’d like to go for something that will keep civilization from collapsing. (On the Calvin-and-Hobbes principle of “while I’m wishing…”). Even if it works as you envision, a new constitution wouldn’t.

        Stephen Frug

        November 6, 2014 at 6:23 pm

  3. Under what liberal democratic constitutional order is there hope for reform? Look around the world. The existing order is hegemonic from the local to the national to the supranational no matter the constitutional arrangements. Correlation or causation? More to the point, isn’t the existing order a reform of the liberal order, the undoing of the damage done to it by the state of exception that was the New Deal era (see Matt Stoller’s review of “The New Democrats and the Return to Power” by Al From:

    There is no path of reform out of the liberal order — least of all by tinkering with its constitutional arrangements — and all “reforms” within it end up perpetuating it. Reformers are enablers. As it ever was.


    November 7, 2014 at 2:11 pm

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