The March 29 conference on the convention was perhaps the whitest crowd I’ve ever been in in my life. And I’m not exaggerating there. That to me is demonstrative of what’s going on in the debate about the convention.
Let’s stop and remind ourselves that constitutions do not change how power is distributed in a state. They merely change the rules by which that power is fought for. Since the Bloodless Revolution, the state’s power has been mostly distributed to an alliance of white middle-class men (both blue and white collar) in the Democratic Party.
But one of things that makes the Bloodless Revolution important is that it removed the last power structures supporting the old elite; the middle- and upper-class WASP males of the Republican Party that had previously dominated Rhode Island politics since its founding. In its heyday, that alliance was vicious in its hold on power, and seriously corrupt, winning us the “for sale, and cheap” moniker its successors are fond of repeating. Today, it often sounds anti-democratic in its approach to the regular Rhode Island voter.
Both alliances have been extremely privileged by their long grasps on power in the state. And much of the Pro-convention rhetoric isn’t about empowering the traditionally marginalized. Thus, one of the conference panel’s seven white men can ignore the very real evidence to the contrary and claim that there isn’t much appetite to restrict civil liberties in Rhode Island.
No, much of the Pro-convention rhetoric seems to be about increasing the power of the old elite, even if it’s not explicitly advocated (and you’d be foolish too explicitly advocate for that). Ethics control has the potential to root out ethical misconduct that will reflect poorly on established political power. A line-item veto will increase the power of the Governor’s office, one of the few veto points in RI that the Republicans have had any chance at controlling.
This is what I suspect will ultimately doom the chances of the convention. In a battle for political power between two over-privileged groups, the average Rhode Islander is the loser. By outright dismissing the needs and fears of the sub-dominant groups in Rhode Island (women, immigrants, non-whites, the poor) the Pro-convention side appears tone-deaf and out-of-touch.
I worry that even those who believe in good faith in a convention are ignoring the power dynamics that are inherent in any political system. We put great stock in the Constitutional Convention that brought forth the US Constitution, but we forget that its drafters would be abhorred at the extension of the vote we see today. Elbridge Gerry (whom the “gerrymander” is named after) warned that “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” Edmund Randolph supported him by saying “…that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
In our dealing with own constitutional convention we need to shun such thoughts. If the same people who wonder aloud whether Rhode Islanders who don’t reach some arbitrary level of “intelligence” ought to be able to vote then turn around and call for a convention it is clearly not because they have found some faith in the voters of this state. If the same people who call voters idiots for electing incumbents over and over again are supportive of a constitutional convention it is not because they suddenly believe in the ability of the people to select their own representatives. It is because they sense an opportunity. And their opportunity will come at the expense of the people.