Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has had it. The plainspoken conservative stalwart is leaving Congress at the end of the year, but he’s hardly finished with politics. There’s just one catch: Our only hope, he says, is a new Constitutional Convention.
Take a number and get in line, Senator.
The fantasy of a fresh constitutional start has been kicking around in earnest for years now—and despite ever-deepening frustration across the political spectrum, it’s not any better an idea now than it was then.
In fact, it’s a recipe for disaster. That’s a painful realization for any liberty-friendly strategist, especially one who finds hope in the possibility of a working coalition of reform-minded radicals right, left, and center. The prospect of a new convention has drawn together the likes of Lawrence Lessig and Glenn Reynolds for encounters that do, importantly, build cross-partisan trust. But radicals of every stripe need to temper their zealotry by recognizing that radicalism and nationalism are a dangerous, unstable mix.
To understand why, think about what’ll happen if we focus so much on the content of the Constitution that we neglect the role it serves in American life. To be sure, the Constitution we’ve got is hardly a perfect document. (Much like people, even really good political frameworks can’t work perfectly.) On the other hand, it possesses a degree of integrity that no constitutional convention can replace: as a founding document, it’s more than the sum of its parts.
What’s more, however, the constitution’s authority is exceedingly fragile. Polls show Americans now struggle to take our foundational institutions seriously. Last year’s Wall Street Journal/NBC survey suggested that only the military boasts strong—if declining—public confidence. From a distance, it might seem that the Constitution commands respect even in today’s cynical, of-the-moment culture.
Look closer, however, and I suspect a different picture will emerge. Most people are far too busy to reflect on constitutional matters. Very few people ever have the kind of personal interaction with the Constitution that they have routinely with institutions like the IRS, the auto industry, Wall Street, the press, or Congress. As a result, the Constitution’s reserve of authority is like the cobwebbed pile of books grandpa still keeps in the attic. Go up there and poke around, and you’ll start to wonder why nobody’s thrown out the old junk.
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