What should the Democrats run on? Alerting every voter to what is in store for them if the radical right succeeds in its endgame to enchain American democracy.
Lurking behind the full-frontal assault by Donald Trump and his enablers lies a more far-reaching threat. If the Republicans gain control of both Houses of Congress, expect a state-authorized Constitutional Convention to eviscerate core rights and protections most Americans hold dear.
Imagine living in a country without Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, the right to organize a union, civil rights enforcement, and clean air and water protections, let alone action to stop climate collapse. The Constitutional Convention, in the plain language of the leading organizer for it, aims “to reverse 115 years of progressivism.”
That’s big talk, 115 years. Think it can’t be done? Although the convention push has been all but ignored by the commentariat and national Democratic leaders, it has powerhouse backing. The Koch network and other dark-money donors are generously funding it. The corporation-underwritten American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has supplied “model legislation” and training to Republican state legislators. Endorsers include Mark Meadows, Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Sean Hannity, and many more. Convention of States Action (COS), the 501c(4) organization leading the campaign, whose head was a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, has recruited and deployed volunteers to lobby their legislatures. (It also offers training in “biblical citizenship.”) COS has held three practice conventions with legislators from nearly every state. The Heritage Foundation—the 800-pound gorilla on the right—recently signed on in “a game-changing report” that such a convention would be “a potent check on federal power” and is “a worthy cause.” That endorsement is likely to drive even more cash to add to the over $70 million in IRS-traceable contributions that groups solely focused on convening such a gathering have garnered from 2012 to 2022, in findings of the Center for Media and Democracy. That figure does not include contributions to ALEC, which has promoted the convention since 2013; its revenue hovers around $10 million annually.
Promoters have been methodically lining up authorizations from the states since the 2012 election showed them that most Americans reject the kind of society they seek, even Mitt Romney’s mild version. So strategists concluded that the only way to permanently entrench minority rule by plutocrats and theocrats is to encase it in a dramatically altered Constitution.
They count on most of us remaining in the dark until it is too late to stop their scheme.
So far, that’s proved a good gamble. How many of us know that there are two routes to amending the Constitution—the usual one, and the nuclear option never yet tried?
Under Article V of the Constitution, Congress “shall call a convention for proposing amendments” when it receives applications from two-thirds of the states. In reality, this is hard, because one party would need to control both houses of 34 state legislatures (or 33 plus unicameral Nebraska). But ALEC has fabricated a claim built around the idea that enough states have made past calls for a convention, some going back decades, for the idea to proceed. It plans to use these outdated state resolutions to argue to the courts that they should force Congress to convene one.
But it gets worse. If Republicans control Congress, they won’t have to bother with litigation, because it would be up to the majority in control to determine the validity of the applications—and Article V lacks the guardrails to prevent this manipulation.
So how exactly would a convention nullify the Democratic agenda, past and current? The six amendments adopted by the Simulated Convention held in Williamsburg, Virginia, on August 4, 2023, would dismantle reforms We the People have won over generations. The centerpiece amendment, entitled “Fiscal Restraints,” is a one-two punch to knock out popular programs such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. By mandating that two-thirds of both houses of Congress would have to agree to any tax increase, it would force annually balanced budgets, while making it all but impossible to raise revenue from the wealth-hoarding ultrarich who back this radical agenda.
Another amendment takes dead aim at all federal regulation since 1937 and civil rights and environmental policies since then. It would obliterate the “administrative state,” the bugbear of the hard-right coalition. The measure would in short order end fair labor standards, antitrust enforcement, environmental protections, safeguards for workers who choose to unionize, civil rights on the job and in public accommodations, and the Affordable Care Act, among other hard-won reforms that ease hardship and protect us from corporate domination.
Still another amendment would allow a simple majority of state legislatures “to abrogate any action of Congress, President, or administrative agencies.” That could stop federal intervention to ensure the equal citizenship rights established in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
The simulated convention’s last adopted amendment would be a gargantuan gift to fossil fuel corporations. It would require Congress to turn over to state control virtually all federal lands and mineral rights, including any national park, monument, or wilderness area designated since 1975.
But this is madness, you will say. These reactionaries could never get away with rewriting the Constitution!
Except they could. First, because the instigators have already adopted a representation scheme for the convention based on one-vote-per-state, chosen by the legislatures; it gives near-empty states like Alaska and Wyoming the same power as California and New York. Second, because by crooked counting (“aggregating”) of ancient authorizations with those recently obtained, planners claim that the threshold needed to call a convention under Article V has already been met: two-thirds of the states. Third, because most of us aren’t even aware that this is happening.
For the American people to realize how much is at stake will require vast and to-the-point popular education. While the right has been tutoring its base in its version of the Constitution for years, the left has dropped this ball badly, particularly on such vital but wonky matters as how interpretation of the Commerce Clause after 1937 enabled all the federal regulations demanded by voters that had been overturned until then by reactionary justices.
But here’s the silver lining as we approach November. Democrats could jiujitsu this. Why not use the right’s menace to the Constitution to energize turnout to reclaim for Democrats state legislatures lost since 2010? The consummation of the right-wing plan depends on convention backers being able to control most statehouses. If Democratic get-out-the-vote workers train voters to fill out the entire ballot, including state legislative and judicial races, progressives could reclaim vast power to enact the popular agenda that Republican elected officials have blocked.
This urgent emphasis on winning at the state level could pay off handsomely. It might even help top-of-the-ticket candidates. Few know it, but the 2016 election was likely the first time a president was swept into office on the “reverse coattails” of Senate candidates (thanks to a flood of last-minute money from corporate donors afraid of losing the upper chamber in the predicted Hillary Clinton sweep). Wouldn’t it be a delicious inversion if President Biden won reelection and Republicans suffered a shellacking in House and Senate races because informed voters turned out in epic numbers to keep the right from rigging the Constitution?