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AS Californians begin demanding fundamental reforms to their state government, business-as-usual hunkers for a fight.
Benjamin Franklin was said to have quipped that doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result was the definition of insanity. Dr. Franklin, welcome to Sacramento. Where despite the shame, humiliation, and human suffering caused by California’s horrific budget catastrophe, proponents of doing the same thing have unleashed a campaign of fear against convening a Constitutional Convention, and in doing so have rushed to the defense of the status quo.
In a June 18 Op-Ed appearing in the Capitol Weekly, a union official representing the State Building & Construction Trades Council essentially called on Californians to fear their neighbors.
“Think about the person you know – a relative, friend, neighbor, colleague – whom you disagree with the most. That person may well be in a jury pool and could be selected. Is that the person you want spending the next several months…deciding how California should be run?”
This is not an argument against a Constitutional Convention, its an attack on the entire pantheon of American values, from trial by jury to universal suffrage.
And yet, this is only slightly more hysterical than the rationale given by a coalition of 6 taxpayer groups opposing a Constitutional Convention because of “fears that the process can and will be hijacked” by special interests, oblivious to the fact that special interests rule the entire roost right now.
While it is clear that those on the far-left and far-right fear a Constitutional Convention, and believe you should fear one too, their rationale is not so clear. For example, are they afraid that citizen guided reforms will make California’s schools the worst in the nation? They already are. Do they fear pan-generational neglect of our water infrastructure? That has already happened. Are they afraid that millions of poor children will suddenly go without healthcare? We’re already there. That our beloved state parks will close? That our prisons overflow? Done and done.
Just last week a colleague of mine gave a teary-eyed account of the real cost of the ruined California government. Driving with his two small children, they passed a elementary school weighted down with chains and shackles. The marquis read:
“Sorry, no summer school. Budget cuts. Have a great summer.”
As we approach the moment of truth, we expect the fear mongering will only increase. This is unfortunate because history teaches us that when you give citizens the responsibility to reform their government, the American people rarely disappoint.
When Illinois voters called for a Convention in 1968, delegates drafted a short document that established basic rights, established the “Home Rule” principle that gave cities and counties more control over their own resources, and created what is all-around considered to be a model constitution.
Likewise, Michigan held a Constitutional Convention in 1963 that brought it into the modern era. Hawaii alone has convened two Con Cons since 1960. All told, there have been 232 State Con Cons in US history. In each of these and other states, Constitutional Conventions are regularly debated on the merits of the moment and by the facts on the ground, not by fear, mistrust, and misinformation.
During the 1963 Michigan Con Con Wayne State teamed up with Michigan State University to produce what has since become a classic black and white documentary about American democracy. At the closing moments of “Michigan Can Lead the Way”, the narrator summarizes the experiment:
“Perfection is never an outcome of human enterprise. There had been fears the convention would be too conservative; fears that it would be too liberal; fears that it would be racked by politics…Pro-labor or pro-farmer or pro-business…Favoring the present, trapped in the past, lost in the future. The convention had been all of these, it was not an assemblage of angels. It was a convention of men and women. Taking the best it could agree on for our time and for our people…This was the process. Sometimes calm, sometimes not so calm. Either way, it was the people’s way. It was the way of a free democracy.”
For California, doing nothing and expecting different results is the worst option of all. And defending the status quo is not only scary, it’s insane.