Be Careful What You Wish For

Yesterday’s Star had a front page story about state lawmakers who want to call a new Constitutional Convention. Last Sunday, the following Op Ed ran in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. I wrote it in response to a request from that paper’s editorial board, and I suggest several reasons why convening such a Convention would be a mistake.


Periodically, lawmakers who are frustrated by their inability to change government policies of which they disapprove will propose a shortcut: they’ll reform the system itself, by convening a Constitutional Convention.

Fortunately, these efforts rarely succeed.

Why do I say “fortunately”? Because—like poison gas—system change is only a great weapon until the wind shifts.

When activists clamor for wholesale changes or major revolutions in the status quo, they always assume that the changes that ultimately emerge will reflect their own preferences and worldviews.

History suggests that’s a dangerous assumption.

Indiana Senator David Long wants the states to convene a Constitutional Convention under provisions of Article V that authorize such actions. In response to people who warn that delegates could seize the opportunity to open the proverbial “can of worms” and drastically rewrite the national charter, he insists that the convention could be limited in scope. Even if he is correct in that assertion (and many constitutional scholars think otherwise) the “limited goal” he describes is anything but.

Long wants the convention to devise “a framework for reigning in overspending, overtaxing and over-regulating by the federal government and moving toward a less centralized federal government.” These are very general goals, susceptible to multiple interpretations and almost infinitely malleable.

Right now, for example, Wall Street bankers are protesting post-recession financial “overregulation” that seems eminently reasonable to most taxpayers, if polls are to be believed. Whose definition would prevail?

My definition of “overspending” might be the massive subsidies enjoyed by (very profitable) U.S. oil companies, while yours might be Medicare or Medicaid or farm subsidies. Many Americans think we spend too much on the military; others would target Pell grants or foreign aid.

“Less centralization” could justify virtually any limitation of federal government authority, from FDA regulation of food and drug quality to laws against discrimination.

In addition to genuine disagreements about such issues, well-financed special interests would undoubtedly see a Constitutional convention as a golden opportunity to influence the process.

But the risk isn’t simply that a Convention could rather easily be hijacked by people who disagree with the conveners about the nature and extent of needed changes. There is also a real danger in calling together a group of people and asking them to amend a document that few of them understand.

At the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, we focus on the causes and consequences of what we’ve come to call America’s civic deficit. The data is depressing. Only 36 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of government. Only 21% of high school seniors can list two privileges that United States citizens have that noncitizens don’t. Fewer than a quarter of the nation’s 12th graders are proficient in civics. I could go on—and on.

I see evidence of our civic deficit in my Law and Policy classrooms. Even bright graduate students come with little or no knowledge of American history, episodic or intellectual. Most have never heard of the Enlightenment or John Locke. They certainly haven’t read Adam Smith.

A truly depressing percentage of undergraduates can’t explain what a government is, and they have no idea how ours operates. Separation of powers? Checks and balances? The counter-majoritarian purpose of the Bill of Rights? Blank stares.

To his credit, Senator Long is one of the few Indiana legislators who recognize the importance of civics education and who support efforts to remedy the deficit. His efforts in this area are truly praiseworthy, which is why I find his willingness to turn over the task of rewriting our Constitution to people who don’t understand the one we have so puzzling.

Actually, the existing Constitution provides We the People with a remedy for unsatisfactory governance: it’s called elections. If we aren’t angry enough to use the electoral process to throw the bums out, there’s little reason to believe we are ready or able to improve upon the Constitution—and many good reasons to refrain from trying.


  1. Agree with your assessment. Given the proclivities of the bunch that is pushing the convention, we can expect a “no gays” , “no abortion” and “no Muslims” amendments. Oh and no immigrants.

  2. I have told my people that my 30 year plan is to teach high school civics when I retire. Some say I’m crazy, others that I am incredibly ambitious- and crazy. Maybe if we had people more invested in The responsibility of teaching civics we wouldn’t have such a vast knowledge and understanding deficit!

  3. Interesting point. When you don’t know what is in the Constitution you are vulnerable to the nonsense that people tell you is or is not in it. If you don’t vote or are engaged in the process, you are probably not part of the solution, and are more likely to naively accept the ideologies of persons offering simple solutions that are wrong. This is a dangerous time.

  4. Our founders were successful replacing the Colony’s British plutarchy with a home spun American version of the same. Progress, but still defined by the fashions of their day. Of course some believe that at least one motivation was to maintain slavery, which was being questioned then in England.

    It took from then until 1920, with the Universal Suffrage Amendment, for we, the people, to finally achieve our democratic republic. It was a hard fought rebirth. The people vs the privileged.

    The privileged, of course, never willingly surrender what they feel they are entitled to, so have and will never accept freedom for all. It’s so egalitarian. That just can’t be right.

    So the fight goes on. The rights of all vs the entitlements of priveledge. Perhaps a constitutional convention preceded by millions spent on advertising would create enough momentum to undo all of our progress.

    Much blood has been invested in that progress. Surely our call to merely maintain it is not asking too much.

    We, the people. All of us.

  5. At various times in my life, results of opinion polls have been published showing that a majority support freedom of speech EXCEPT for those with whom they disagree. Obviously these folks didn’t appreciate the irony.

    Another irony – our state government, all 3 branches of which are now controlled by self-described “conservatives”, copies the federal excesses they claim to despise by replacing local with more and more state control of municipal, county, and school government. And it’ll worsen. Now that local property taxes are capped, the state can and does strangle local government financially by withholding state funds and even denying use of local funds at the same time the state mandates more and more unfunded expectations of local governments.

    State policymakers are ill-prepared to remove the log in the federal government’s eye if state policymakers cannot see the forest in their own.

  6. You must have struck a nerve: this morning, there was a piece in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette from someone (and I’m sticking on who but they were from one of the big conservative think tanks in Indy) casting you as Brutus to Long’s Caesar.

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