If you observed current conditions in the United States abroad, how would you describe that country? Would you say the country is a democracy? How would you assess the level of civil conflict and civil unrest, and the likelihood of civil war or social disintegration? Lastly, would that country’s tribulations interest you a great deal, or would you regard them as business-as-usual, and therefore insignificant?
I argued in a post not too long ago that the United States’ best hope for resoluton of its difficulties without more violence is a convention of the states. A framework for such an assembly lies, of course, in our own Constitution. Therefore we would likely call it a constitutional convention, or a Second Convention. We would not, however, have to refer explicitly to the Constitution, if doing so decreases the likelihood of such an assembly. We might call it an assembly of states, or even a great assembly.
Most important would be that the assembly take place outside the authority of our current institutions in Washington. In fact, delegates to the assembly would have extraordinary authority, in that their decisions, ratified by the states, would bind institutions in Washington. In that way, the assembly and its delegates would operate under authority granted them in our Constitution. Delegates would assemble with one large purpose: to reframe our republic, to do so before our republic ceases altogether to exist.
What are the chances that such a gathering could conduct useful business, given the country’s current state? Not great: political processes do not follow predictable tracks. Yet if we remove constitutional decisions about the future from self-interested political parties, if we refer them to an assembly that pointedly meets outside Washington, and answers to no one in it, you have the possibility of political negotiation that results in durable change. Most would say that if you wait for such change to come out of Washington’s political processes, you will wait a long time.
How to organize an assembly like this one would not be difficult. It should take place in a medium size city in the country’s geographical center: Des Moines, Iowa, or Lincoln, Nebraska. Each state would send as many delegates as it likes, yet states would prefer reasonably unified delegations, as each state has one vote at the assembly.
In this way, the assembly’s decision making process accords with the first constitutional convention in 1787, and with the Constitution’s requirements to amend that document. Nine of thirteen colonies had to ratify the Constitution in 1787, and the Bill of Rights shortly thereafter. Today, thirty-four of fifty states would have to approve changes to our founding document, or other changes that affect our current Constitution.
Organizers would have to trust that such an assembly would not go off the rails. Without leadership that fosters tolerance and business-like processes, the assembly could make conflicts worse. The original convention had George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. The Senate in 1856 had Preston Brooks, who beat Charles Sumner near death on the Senate floor. The nation regarded the attack as a sign of things to come. Leadership would have to make civility a watchword for the assembly’s proceedings.
Without civility, without reasonable results to bring back to their states, delegates and citizens who appointed them would conclude the meetings a waste of time. With a commitment to constructive outcomes rooted in good-faith negotiations, however, the country as a whole would tolerate a high level of conflict. Most important, sober delegates who act in good faith would return to their constituencies confidently. They could submit the assembly’s decisions for approval without doubts.
The same would go for power centers in Washington. So long as the assembly conducts its business in accordance with the Constitution, the Death Star in Washington would have to obey. By using that term, I acknowledge that many in Washington would not likely accept any reduction in their dominant control over the states. The assembly must adhere to legitimate processes, to show that Washington no longer has moral, political, or legal authority to maintain its power. If Washington tries to rely on force, so be it. It will lose.
The Supreme Court and civic pressure would ensure they do. If, for example, the assembly enacts a breakup of the country into several autonomous regions, and thirty-four states approve the new arrangement, representative assemblies in Washington would have to go home, not to return. The executive branch would become superfluous as well.
If the assembly directs that income tax revenue no longer flows to Washington’s Treasury Department, the federal government has lost its operating funds. If the assembly directs that all armed forces answer to the states, the Department of Defense ceases its operations. If states decide they control their own borders, Homeland Security has nothing to do. If states decide they enact and enforce all laws within their borders, Department of Justice likewise loses authority along with the legislative branch. And so on.
Two-thirds of the original thirteen states had to approve the 1787 Constitution, in order to create the federal government. What has become a leviathan continues to exist at the sufferance of the states. If two-thirds of the states decide now that the federal government has outlived its usefulness, it ceases to exist. That counts as a revolution, to be sure, a legal and non-violent one. If the federal government refuses to disband under those circumstances, or refuses any other directive approved by the states, we would all know after that where legality resides.