Trust Democracy to Restore Democracy

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

There will be a statewide referendum question on the ballot this fall – required every 20 years – asking New Yorkers whether we should call a state constitutional convention. Our Jacksonian forbearers, the 19th century leaders who provided us with this regular opportunity to review the fundamentals of our governance, proceeded with a profound faith in democracy. Theirs was a very American – a very New York – belief in the possibility for progress and improvement.

The decision to provide this opportunity was realized in practice. During the 19th century conventions were routinely called once in a generation – in 1801, 1821, 1846, 1867, and 1894 – to revise, renew, and reform the way New York State was governed. From any single value perspective, the results were not pristine, but each time a convention convened our forbearers were, in some measure, affirmed in their faith in democracy.

In the 20th century we had 3 conventions: in 1915 and 1938 called by the people, and 1967, called by the legislature. All did, or proposed, some good things. But then we stopped. The half century since our last convention is the longest without such a gathering in New York State history.

Politics in the 19th century was rough and tumble. Partisan behavior was rarely grounded in reasoned debate. Voter participation was higher than it is now, but not in referenda, especially New York referenda on constitutional change.  Yet New York’s 19th century constitution-writers surely could not have imagined a world like ours, in which democracy is feared as much or more than it is embraced. A world in which voters at the polls are likely to express their rage as much as their reason, and are encouraged in this predisposition by billion dollar campaigns and skilled image manipulators. A world in which most know little of the design of intricately balanced polities. A world of political saviors, not political systems.

In a recent survey, only about a third of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” In the same survey 40 percent said that they had lost faith in democracy. Another six percent said that they had never had such faith.

Loss in faith in democracy: at bottom, that is the key reason that calling a constitutional convention is opposed. Simply put, thoughtful people strongly committed to improving our institutions are immobilized by the risks they perceive embedded in a change process based upon popular action.

Thus fear displaces hope. Yet, trusting democracy is precisely what restoring faith in democracy requires.

The circumstances that faced New York in 1846, when the mandatory convention question was added to the state constitution, are eerily familiar: corruption in the legislature and the executive, economic development challenges, stark social and economic inequality, and burdensome debt. But that is just where we must start in contemporary New York. Additionally, we are heavily and inequitably taxed, suffer a dangerous and growing imbalance between executive and legislative power, have a judiciary and local government arrangements that cry out for reform, endure non-competitive gerrymandered legislative districts, finance public education in a problematic way, and are burdened with an abysmal processes for election administration.

The agenda to set governance right in New York is immense. State government in Albany routinely dodges these big questions. If we truly want to restructure and reform New York government, a convention is our only path.

The mandatory convention question that we will answer this year was added to our state constitution in 1846 to bypass entrenched state leaders, to return to the people the opportunity to implement needed reforms that the governor and legislature would not or could not make. In other words, it anticipated our current circumstance.

We must seize the opportunity this fall to commence New York’s neglected, centuries-long governance conversation, and reshape our state/local systems for our time.

We were bequeathed the opportunity to achieve excellence and renewal. Now we must demonstrate the will.

 


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