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Jeffrey Abelson Headshot

Diversionary Dangers of Amending the Constitution

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Rising out of the fierce backlash to Citizens United v. FEC are a growing number of calls for a Constitutional Amendment to neutralize the effects of that controversial case. It's easy to empathize with these passionate activists -- after all, do corporations really need more political influence? But pursuing an Amendment could prove to be a very bad idea as it will suck so much oxygen out of the political conversation that it will further divert attention away from fixing the civic flaw that really threatens our democracy.

Before getting to that, let's first consider the merits -- through the lens of a real life test case -- tthe push for a Constitutional Convention in California that's been under way for some time now.

Everyone in this state knows we have a crazy glue gridlocked legislature, and an insane initiative process, fueling an Orwellian orgy of minsinformation and special interest spin. State politics is bankrupt, financially and intellectually. In response, a movement advocating for a state Constitutional Convention is reaching critical mass, having recently been endorsed by the LA Times Editorial Board and other eminent institutions and individuals.

As a citizen of the Golden State, I've wrestled long and hard with the pros and cons of holding a convention. On the one hand, California government is beyond broken, and it's hard to believe it can ever be repaired by elected officials, so a complete re-boot initiated by concerned citizens seems more than reasonable. And I'm all for considering all the tools in the woodshed of democracy.

Plus, if such an exercise worked, it would be a grand statement of citizen-led democratic action, which we need everywhere in America. And since California often leads the way in many aspects of life and politics, this could be a great object lesson.

On the other hand, so much could go wrong, so much could spin out of control, so many unintended consequences could ripple forth allowing partisans and advocacy groups to co-opt it all for their benefit. Or for affected moneyed interests to use their wealth to wage an ad war to persuade citizens one way or another on individual Amendments, as most people will not have formed well reasoned opinions of their own. This all makes me hesitant. Very hesitant.

But at least the people pushing it have as brilliant a set of strategies as one could hope for. And at least the goal -- updating the state's political structure to enable functional governance in the most populous state in the land -- is an unarguably necessary goal.

Not so the case for a Constitutional Amendment to offset the influence of the Citizens United decision. Aside from the goals being far too narrow to risk open heart surgery on the most valuable patient in America's political system, I suggested in a previous post that all the sturm and drang about corporate spending might not be the best use of energy for the politically engaged among us. That we should be less concerned with who spends money on campaigns, or how much they spend -- and more concerned with changing the dynamic that enables that spending to have such a profound effect. Namely, the ill-informed citizens who are actually influenced by 30-second TV commercials. Which, sadly, is the vast majority of Americans.

Conventional thinking may hold that the culprit behind our mindless and money-drenched politics is a malfunction in the system -- sucking politicians of all stripes into its honey-trap, never to emerge uncorrupted, and what we need is a mechanical fix to this corrosive system for the benefit of passive citizens. But conventional thinking, as we know, is often wrong. Especially when it fails to dig deeply enough to discover and deal with the roots of a problem.

Consider a typical election. It may be difficult for anyone reading this blog (obviously informed citizens all) to wrap their heads around the fact that an otherwise intelligent and responsible American could be so grossly uninformed about the big issues, and the candidates' stands on them, that they could actually be swayed by TV spots, and cast their precious vote accordingly. But such is commonplace in the home of the brave, where 70-80% of us remain willfully ignorant and/or disengaged, enabling all the political chicanery that follows.

Note the word willfully. We are not a stupid people. Not by a long shot. We are inherently quite capable. We've just gone so long without flexing our civic muscles that they've atrophied. What we desperately need is an aggressive ten year citizen exercise program to transform ourselves from citizen slackers to citizen superheros -- and usher in a new kind of high performance nation, run by responsible, enlightened, accountable grownups, innovating our way out of our problems, with massive supermajorities of informed, engaged citizens paving the way.

Until then, most citizens are not prepared to effectively play their part in such a profound and challenging civic action as improving our Constitution. And that should never be a job for elites alone.

Which is why, as a means of dealing with this true root cause of our dysfunctional democracy in a substantive way, we need less calls for Constitutional Amendments, and more calls for a culture-wide, transpartisan effort to find ways to motivate and inspire fellow Americans to take their jobs as citizens much more seriously. If not for their own sake, then for their children's. Because no top-down system fix will accomplish change on the scale necessary as long as the selfs in self-government never show up for work.

And because this is the only way to inoculate ourselves against the influence of money in politics. Money, per se, is not the problem. It's the TV spot's toxic love affair with ignorance. Cure the ignorance, kill the spot's effectiveness. Do that, and money in politics won't matter nearly as much.

But that is then and this is now. As long as the root problem remains ingrained, I'm scared as hell of what might happen in the complex process of amending the U.S. Constitution. The canvas on which manipulators can operate will be so large and tempting that there's no way -- in today's political and media climate -- to protect against all the potential damage that could be done.

Damage that would further shred the fabric of our democracy, which -- given its currently tattered state -- is already in danger of becoming nothing more than frayed loose threads flapping in the wind of memory.

No doubt there are many political problems that could benefit by a thoughtful tweak of the Constitution by enlightened statesmen, monitored by deeply thoughtful citizens. Would that we were blessed with the latter two.

Simply and starkly put -- messing with the Constitution while citizens are failing every test of civic and political literacy, and venting their inchoate frustration by fuming and stomping rather than rolling up their sleeves in the hard work of self-governance, is riskier than opening a Pandora's box wired to a cluster bomb.

Even the very idea of an Amendment or Convention being discussed seriously by major thinkers and organizations can't fail to encourage interest groups of all kinds to start pushing thier own narrowly framed ideas for Amendments -- or a full Constitutional rewrite. Think we have polarization and gridlock now? Just wait.

So I hope all concerned will take a step back from their analysis of what truly ails this nation and reflect on the empirical data about the sad state of the American political mind and consider whether the huge amounts of time, energy, and money required to press for an amendment wouldn't do a hell of a lot more good being redirected to sparking a full blown citizen renaissance in America, then tuck their idea for surgically altering our only connective tissue back inside the womb of democracy, hopefully to emerge some other day down the line, when we-the-citizens are ready, willing, and able to fulfill the mission our founders intended for us.

Or at least better able to vaccinate ourselves against the misinformation machine, and the deep pockets that fuel it and which would ferociously compete for dominant influence in any amendment process.

I'd love to live in a country that is politically mature enough to discuss and debate and decide on enlightened ways to upgrade our core document. That moment is not now. So let's put the cart back behind the horse for the moment. Or put your horse's blinders on yourself, because you won't like what you see when all the king's horses and all the kings men collide on democracy's biggest battlefield, while bored citizen spectators alternately cheer, jeer, or change the channel.