Nobody likes the federal government.
Okay, statistically some people do and – wherever you are – I envy your optimism and the blissfully ignorant land of jubilant wonder in which you reside. Yet, nationwide, just 20 percent of all Americans have trust in their government and rapidly, we are seeing a denial not just of opposing ideologies but of facts themselves; inconvenient truths turned to partisan divining lines.
The federal government is a mess. People are mad. We see it all the time here in Ithaca, where we protest on sidewalks, on the Commons, in every placard we place in our windows for passersby to see. We’re a revolutionary folk, winning the war of hearts and minds here in the information war’s bloodiest battleground: the most educated city in America. And yet, for all this effort, we’re frustrated we can’t make a difference. We scream in our congressman’s face, he returning the rage with a calmly worded plea to find “common ground.” We write to our president, only to quit when we realize he probably can’t read. We march in the thousands, forming solidarity with tens of thousands of other people who will share this powerful moment on Facebook with their friends who, in all likelihood, were at the same protest, several blocks away.
It’s a frustrating battle and, for all our effort, can be easily disheartened by the lack of gratification; the elusive nature of victory.
But what if I told you, this November, you have a chance to have a more profound impact on your daily life that no president – not even an orange schizoid with bad hair plugs – could take away?
Let me tell you a little something about the constitutional convention.
Under Article 19 of the New York State Constitution, every 20 years the most-highly-taxed citizens of the United States residing in one of the most corrupt and divided states in the union are asked one seemingly simple question on their ballot: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend same?” Essentially, every two decades, New Yorkers have the option to make a profound change to their way of life.
On the steps of the State Capitol on Tuesday, a group of activists announced on the Million Dollar Staircase the launch of a campaign in support of a NYS constitutional convention, a statewide campaign to urge New Yorkers to vote “Yes” this November in support of a state constitutional convention and allowing voters to go beyond the regular legislative process by either creating a new or amending the current state constitution so that it better serves the public interest of 21st century New Yorkers.
This is an idea – a vote for an uncertain outcome where all of our laws and basic protections are exposed – that terrifies just about everybody in state government. It has been critically panned by every union in the state, largely from the fear of its hijacking by special interest groups to form a government more sympathetic to the plight of corporate interests. Governor Cuomo, in acknowledgement of this risk, said he supported the concept of a constitutional convention but the reopening of such a staunch, well-crafted document would only lead to a disaster of a legislative session in the Capitol: the same disfunction of today, with everything to lose as much as there is everything to gain.
“The theory of the constitutional convention is just good people come in and they’re the delegates,” Cuomo told the New York Daily News earlier this year. “The way it will work is you’ll probably elect assemblymen and senators as delegates. And the unions will probably fund the campaigns. And you may make the situation worse, not better.”
After all, a constitutional convention isn’t the only way to update or fix the basic outline of our state government: this is why we have elected representatives, after all, here to listen to our concerns and draft legislation to fulfill our needs. This is perhaps why 67 percent of the state – according to a Siena College poll – have never even heard of the convention: they simply haven’t had to worry about it.
To which we ask, how is that going for us?
We do, after all, live in a state with an incredibly flawed pension system, which milk public coffers in perpetuity and will only leave a bleaker future for the next generation. We lack single-payer health care which, despite passing the State Assembly and having the approval of a majority of Americans – not just New Yorkers – will likely die in a state where, thanks to the Empire Plan, insurers have been largely immune to the worst of the fallout from the ACA. We have an inefficient, 11-tier court system badly in need of reform, which nobody can justify and costs our communities countless dollars that could be spent elsewhere. We have a failed anti-corruption commission in a state where 80 percent say our state government is corrupt (according to Gallup), a lack of ability to hold poorly-performing public servants accountable, a disparity between funding of city and state and historically, a governor with the power to profoundly impact counties and communities he’s likely never seen in a politically-charged game of “got yer nose.”
Many of the state’s biggest voices have their doubts. De Blasio and Cuomo both don’t support it. Former Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Arthur “Jerry” Kremer, who’s written a historical analysis of the four the state has held since 1887, said they have “little value,” that conventions have been nothing more than “a carbon copy of a typical legislative session:” heavy on the Albany insiders with a dash of special interest lobbying thrown in.
And so, maybe we don’t deserve a working democracy, that we allow ourselves to continue our fiefdom under special interests and the dead. Maybe the cynicism is deserved.
If you’re mad, you should be. But if you’re mad and want to do something real, start learning up on the constitutional convention. Organize a discussion group. Educate yourself on whether or not it will work for your community, whether you have something to gain from it all. The fear may be overblown: after all, throughout the more than two centuries of constitutional conventions, just six amendments have made it in. It may be worth the paranoia: after all, with the nation’s 41st worst voter turnout last year, it’s easy to underestimate the power of the yearning masses. The best one can say is maybe this is what will bring them around.
It is a risk, I’ll give you that.
But Democracy, historically, has never smiled on complacency.