The Conventional Wisdom

Watching the current debate over the attempt to place a constitutional convention on California’s ballot, one cannot help but notice the persistent invocation of a very dangerous political fallacy – the fallacy of universal “independence.” That is to say, looking at the state of California’s economy and government, practically everybody thinks to themselves, “Good God! It’s both of those squabbling, silly parties that got us into this mess in the first place! I give up on both of them!” Then, they find other people who agree, and automatically assume that, taken together, everyone who’s given up on both parties could craft a better system. What they ignore, naturally enough, is the problem that, though every one of these hypothetical “independent” voters has given up on the two-party system, they have hardly done it for the same reasons.

Witness Jim Wunderman, the man responsible for the idea. According to the New York Times, Mr. Wunderman “studied political science at San Francisco State University, sought training in political organizing from the United Farm Workers union and, at 27, went to work in the San Francisco mayor’s office after helping Dianne Feinstein’s mayoral re-election campaign,” later going on to plan the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Mr. Wunderman’s accomplishments are by no means unimpressive, but they also are by no means nonpartisan, which raises the question of whether he, or any other set of delegates, can avoid transforming the Constitutional convention into a hostile takeover by whichever ideological voice can make itself heard the loudest.

Moreover, this conflict of visions seems to have gotten underway before the convention has even started. According to Fox and Hounds Daily blogger Adrian Covert, one particularly contentious shadow hanging over the convention is the highly polarizing Proposition 13, an amendment which categorically limits taxation in the most draconian terms. Fortunately, Covert argues, the issue appears to have been successfully defused, as “the constitutional convention proposal currently under circulation would be legally prohibited from proposing any tax increase whatsoever, including those taxes related to Proposition 13.

Obviously, to those observers sympathetic to Proposition 13, this is welcome news. However, it seems to miss a larger problem with the convention process – presumably, if Proposition 13 were a universally respected and appreciated element of California political history, there would be no need to preemptively ban its inclusion on the agenda for the convention, given that every delegate (or close to) would vote to keep it in place. The existence of said preemptive ban, therefore, suggests that, rather than keeping an obviously untouchable element of California’s legal system in place, the convention process is really focused on selectively ignoring certain elephants in the room – a dangerous implication when you consider the fact that Constitutional conventions are supposed to be the legal equivalent of a nuclear option.

And indeed, if certain editorial boards are any guide, the decision to keep Proposition 13 off the bargaining table is by no means a bipartisan effort, but rather a politically calculated move designed to ensure that the new Constitution (which is already slated to address such controversial issues as marijuana legalization) does not end up leading to a miniature Shays’ rebellion on the part of California’s antitax lobby. Such moves are by no means strangers to Constitutions – the 3/5 compromise springs to mind – but at least those compromises happened after actual debate. By preemptively surrendering the field on certain issues, the supposed enlightened independents behind the convention process appear to be drifting dangerously close to a conclusion whose implications are deadly for those adherents to the fallacy of universal independence. 

That is, it may simply be that drafting a Constitution for a state whose independent population contains both Ron Paul supporters and old Ralph Nader supporters is simply an invitation to failure, as such a population is, from any constitutional perspective, literally ungovernable.