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The Conference for a Constitutional Convention at Harvard Law School on September 24 and 25 was supposed to be an opportunity for the Left and Right to talk together about the possibility of ending our broken political system through a discussion of a new Constitutional Convention.  Lawrence Lessig of Rootstrikers (, represented the Left and Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots ( represented the Right.  

From my point of view, the conference wasn't really the advertised meeting of the Left and the Right.  Lessig himself was a Reagan delegate to the Republican Convention back in the day;  and although there was a good bit of representation from the Tea Party Patriot group, there was nobody there explicitly from MoveOn or anything really  further left than the ADA wing of the Democratic Party, with the exception of a couple of folks from the Revolutionary Communists who were hawking their Constitution For The New Socialist Republic In North America (pdf alert:  It did, however, reveal a subculture that has been working towards a Constitutional Convention for decades.

It appeared to be a very white, very post-middle age, economically comfortable crowd and maybe, maybe 20% of the attendees were women.  There were three women panelists although four in total had been scheduled to appear and two more women co-leading breakout groups on Sunday.  No ostensibly non-white men spoke.  [Correction:  Eric Byler of the Coffee Party was a panelist and is proud of his Chinese-American heritage.  I apologize for my mistake.]  The only Afro-American woman I saw was one of the panelists, George Friday of the Independent Progressive Politics Network (, and she told me she was invited at the last minute.  She and Annabel Park, a Korean-American, of the Coffee Party ( were the two best panelists in my opinion because they talked outside of the electoral politics and legal haggling that was the main thrust of the presentations.   Park and Friday broke that frame by addressing our broken political system as a cultural and social problem rather than a purely legal or political one.  They proposed that it is not only about laws, regulations, candidates, and campaigns but about our own perceptions and uses of personal power, about a culture that talks incessantly about our fears but rarely if ever about our hopes and dreams.

Bill Walker of the Friends of an Article Five Convention ( is one of the people who has been working on this Constitutional issue for a long time.  He says there have already been enough calls from individual states for a Constitutional Convention that Congress now has a clear obligation to call one.  In fact, a legal case is currently in process to try and force this issue.  He believes a decision, one way or the other, will be forthcoming very soon now.  The only question, he thinks, is whether we will have the guts to make it happen.  Other groups, like the Goldwater Institute ( which has done extensive research, all available online, on an Article V Convention, the Madison Amendment ( which proposes that states should have the same power to propose Constitutional amendments as does Congress, the Public Check on Congress ( which wants a nationwide referendum on Congress every ten years requiring at least 25% support, and Rebuild Democracy ( which is an effort across the political spectrum to enact clean elections, Congressional term limits, and end gerrymandering were on hand.  (Personally, I think term limits are a deal-breakingly bad idea.  They ensure that institutional memory and long-term experience will be vested outside elected office, in the bureaucracy or, more and more likely these days, the lobbyists.)

Glenn Reynolds gave the keynote on the Right only part of which I saw as I had a previous commitment to take part in the Moving Earth event in Boston.  He pointed out that people think things are broken in Europe too so maybe a Constitutional Convention isn't the answer.  He didn't mention corporate globalization which immediately sprung to my mind nor did anyone mention the Spanish demonstrations this Spring which protested their form of parliamentary democracy as well as economic conditions.  Reynolds said that today we have the worst political class in history.  What I heard of his speech had about equal representation between legal scholars and science fiction writers which I thought was a little strange.

Larry Lessig gave the keynote from the Left that evening.  It was a magnificent presentation with animations and visuals illustrating his points.  He really knows how to speak and delivered a detailed, logical thesis on the idea that money in politics is the root of the problem.  We have developed a system where politicians raise campaign money through the threat (or benefit) of regulation and legislation and ask how any move - regulation, deregulation, oversight, or look the other way - will affect their campaign coffers' bottom lines.  This results in a corruption of dependency between Congress and their funders, who are not the "people" by any sense or reason. In this election cycle, only Buddy Roemer is addressing this issue. He has 4 principles for funding with only small donations:

First principle: the system should not silence anyone or any view. This was the kernel of truth in the Citizens United court decision. The fact that it’s a corporation speaking does not, by its nature, make the speech any less valuable or important to our system of democratic deliberation. We need to hear all sides, particularly the opposition, in a healthy debate. Second: no system should force any citizen to support political speech that he or she doesn’t believe in. Third: it is the people, not the bureaucrats, who should determine the resources available to run a campaign. Fourth: any system must encourage individuals to give at least small amounts of their own money to campaigns in which they believe. Politics is not passive anymore. The Internet allows everyone to have skin in the game. And what makes it possible for me to run is why I haven’t done this before. I’ve dreamed about it for twenty years, since I left Congress. For twenty years I knew it was coming. The Internet makes it possible.

Lessig also quoted Rep Jim Cooper of TN who says congress has become a farm team for K street:

Congress used to be an honored destination, but now it is a steppingstone to special-interest wealth. Because of this revolving door, Congress has long been a farm team for K Street; after Citizens United, it could become a wholly owned subsidiary.

Lessig's strategies are to convene an Article V Convention although Congress already has the power to propose amendments to the states; to show how to do it don't just tell it;  to unleash the power of amateur politics which may now be better than professional politics;  and to begin a series of "mock" Constitutional Conventions using James Fishkin's deliberative polling ( ideas across the country as rehearsals for a possible legally empowered Convention.

In this manner, we be able to break "the business model of polarization," as Mark  Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots calls it.

This series of trial Conventions may actually happen.  At the conference were at least three separate groups who are already working on different versions of this idea:
Blair Henry of is planning to do a mock Constitutional Conventions as a TV series
Thomas Brennan, former Michigan Chief Justice of is organizing an online convention to propose Constitutional amendments
John de Herrera, a dkos member and of , is seeking funding for a documentary on a student mock Constitutional Convention

During the Q and A, I suggested that one possible funder for this series of mock Conventions might be the Colbert SuperPAC and was able to hand that idea over to Buddy Roemer, who has appeared on the Colbert Report and showed up at the end of the last formal session on Sunday.  

This reads to me as an attempt to reintroduce a generation or two to the principles of civics which have been driven out of the public discourse as well as our educational system and has, really, very little to do with Constitutional Amendments and a Constitutional Convention.  We have forgotten how to talk to each other as citizens, to argue the issues rather than just argue.  Perhaps a series of mock Constitutional Conventions can remind us how to do so.  

Mark Meckler in his wrap-up on Sunday disagreed with Lessig. Meckler believes that money is the surface root but the tap root is the size and power of government, and this disagreement may be one of the fundamental differences between left and right. (Another possible fundamental difference was identified by Ben Manski at one of the break-out sessions as human rights versus property rights.)

Lessig replied that the money root precludes any move toward a smaller or less powerful government, that we can't do anything without cutting through that knot first.  
He thinks we need complementary movements from both the left and the right to move forward and has been established to link into this effort.

I went to this conference out of curiosity, to see what Lessig was up to, what were the issues around a Constitutional Convention, and, primarily, to see what a conversation between the polarized Left and Right would look like.  I don't believe that I saw that dialogue.  It was an attempt, perhaps a noble attempt, but the diversity necessary and the open structure required for a full debate was not present at Austin Hall in Harvard Law School.  For an initial attempt, it was a good try.

I also found it amusing and interesting that in the men's room downstairs there were
postcards advertising the Revolutionary Communists' Constitution For The New Socialist Republic In North America on top of the urinals and a Federalist Society, an organization of Conservative and Libertarian jurists, flyer posted on the back of the door to one of the toilets.  I didn't see any notices for the American Constitution Society, an organization for Liberal jurists.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (10+ / 0-)

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:07:29 PM PDT

  •  Game Over in One Clause. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, Cartoon Peril, Bob Love, IndieGuy
    The fact that it’s a corporation speaking does not, by its nature, make the speech any less valuable or important to our system of democratic deliberation.

    Yes it does, for about a trillion reasons.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:19:29 PM PDT

    •  ACLU Is a Corporation (6+ / 0-)

      Non-profit though it may be.

      A legitimate business corporation has legitimate reasons to participate in the public discourse.

      At least that's my opinion.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

      by gmoke on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:24:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'm pretty happy with the one we've got (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      could use some fixes, but nothing that winning a few elections won't cure.

      You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

      by Cartoon Peril on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:30:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  My personal opinion? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Neuroptimalian, gmoke

      A corporation or other organization should only have a right to speak only as a representative of the people who control it.  And to be more general, I think a good place to start on a Constitutional Amendment to fix the current situation is a declaration that organizations obtain their rights through the people that control them and the rights necessary to do business as granted them by government.

      That would allow Congress to control their spending in political campaigns as though they were essentially PACs with funds donated by their members (or shareholders, or...).

      I'd also like to see a campaign reform amendment - and I do see true campaign reform as requiring an amendment.  The main points of a campaign reform amendment would be:

      • Congress and the States may designate time frames for campaigning for office (within certain sane minimums, including the formation of campaigns, ability to openly campaign for office, ability to fundraise for office...).
      • Congress and the States may pass laws that limit campaign spending, both in timeframe and in amount, provided such laws are uniform.  (Again within a TBD reasonably minimum.  I'd like to see an individual limit per campaign along with a combined limit for an individual's contributions to all organizations.)
      • During a campaign season, the libel and slander standards against candidates and their affiliated political organizations are set to the more restrictive standards used for private individuals.
      • (Ideally, such an amendment, if passed by Congress, would come with some effective implementing legislation attached.  In a Convention, I don't know what I'd do...)

      Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves. - William Pitt

      by Phoenix Rising on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 09:21:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Since 1789, only major change was post-civil war (4+ / 0-)

    with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  I don't see those circumstances in the present time to be one where major constitutional change can happen.

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:23:28 PM PDT

    •  Rough Cycles (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cartoon Peril

      There does some to be a very, very rough 50 year cycle with income tax, Prohibition, and women's suffrage happening in a ten year period early in the 20th century and removal of poll taxes, Presidential succession, and 18 year old vote in a decade during the middle of the century.

      Whether these are major or fundamental changes is debatable.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

      by gmoke on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:41:31 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I read study somewhere which said constitutional (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        gmoke, furi kuri

        amendments tended to reflect rather than spur change, for example, many states permitted women suffrage in advance of the 20th amendment, most states had abandoned purely legislative selection of senators before 17th amendment, etc.  

        My own view has been that the post civil war amendments were basically revolutionary in nature, and really quite different from the other amendments.

        You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

        by Cartoon Peril on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 06:02:05 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  There's nothing wrong with the Constitution. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, johnny wurster, furi kuri

    I don't understand what the whole conference was about, except that Harvard has a lot of money and they can't literally burn it in the main square or else they'd lose their tax exemption.

    The Rent Is Too Damn High Party feels that if you want to marry a shoe, I'll marry you. --Jimmy McMillan

    by Rich in PA on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 05:54:49 PM PDT

    •  Little or No Harvard Funding AFAIK (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rich in PA, Cartoon Peril, mint julep

      I would venture to say that there was little or no Harvard funding in this event.  Lessig teaches at the Law School and Harvard was probably paid for the space and use of equipment but the funding came from other sources.

      "Harvard" at this time is a damaged brand name in some ways.  This was a "Harvard" event but it wasn't a Harvard event, if you know what I mean.  The Right uses it as an epithet, as Mark Meckler did, but the reality is not at all what they expect.  Harvard loves its conservatives and is a conservative institution in many ways, most especially in terms of real estate and employee relations but also in terms of the endowment and how it is used or not used.  The Harvard endowment seems to have bought George W Bush's shares of Arbusto, for instance, and you should see the way Bill Kristol and Alex Castellanos are treated when they alight for a fellowship.

      Of course, Harvard is also a Liberal institution; but that is always a dicey proposition in the best of times.  Liberals can change their minds.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

      by gmoke on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 06:10:57 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  There's nothing wrong with the Constitution (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cartoon Peril, gmoke

      that a little peoples' participation wouldn't hurt, one way or another.

      Locale has nothing to do with it. It was a bunch of Americans trying to come together and figure out some matters of civic importance. Seems to me they're off to a decent start, given the apparent diversity of some of the players.

      REPEAL the Telecomm Act & REVIEW this decision. NO journalist should be fired because their boss can't have the truth told.

      by lunachickie on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 06:12:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the report (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gmoke, OLinda, mint julep

    I was curious about this after hearing the organizers speak on TV, so I appreciate hearing what actually happened.

    Every flower that you shatter; we will plant again!

    by merrily1000 on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 06:51:18 PM PDT

    •  What Actually Happened (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mint julep, merrily1000

      Well, I have a somewhat jaundiced eye and a lot of blind spots so I wouldn't say what I reported is what actually happened.  It's my reaction to what I saw, heard, and felt and I most definitely could be wrong.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

      by gmoke on Tue Sep 27, 2011 at 07:13:49 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Annabel Park's ConCon Speech (0+ / 0-)

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Wed Sep 28, 2011 at 07:13:27 PM PDT

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