Is America, both as a nation and a concept, coming to the end of the road?
As a firm believer in the country’s foundations of individual liberty and natural rights, I certainly think not. But I recently ran into three ideas – all in one morning’s perusal of the news, each more radical than the last – that make me wonder if that is still the majority opinion.
1. Andrew Yang, convinced that Americans are dissatisfied with the extremism of both major parties, has gathered together a bunch of semi-prominent former Republican and Democratic office-holders to form a third party called Forward.
I suppose that’s better than a party called Backward or Let’s Stay in Place, but it’s rather vague and noncommittal, isn’t it? No specific platform or policy proposals have been announced, but the group’s manifesto claims a commitment to “moderation” and “centrism.”
How would this work, exactly? Even if Americans hate both left and right radicalism on abortion, gun control and climate change, just what are the moderate, centrist positions on such issues, and how will Forward determine them? Just wait for the latest Gallup poll and adopt the majority public opinion? A high school sophomore with a cheap laptop could handle that.
Third parties have never done well in America. Ross Perot’s Reform Party did the best when his presidential bid garnered 19 percent of the popular vote. But he didn’t win a single elector, and there’s no evidence his bid affected the race’s outcome.
For better or worse, we’re stuck with two major parties with strong, divergent views of what this country stands for. Any attempt to split the difference seems doomed to failure.
2. The calls for a constitutional convention of the states seem to be gaining momentum, according to a panicked article from Business Insider, which warns that “conservatives are now pushing an unprecedented convention to rewrite the U.S. bedrock text since 1788.”
The usual way to amend the Constitution (used for all 27 current amendments) is for a two-thirds majority of Congress to propose one and three-quarters of the states to ratify it. But under Article 5 of the Constitution, two-thirds of state legislatures could call a convention to propose amendments, which would then need to be ratified by there-quarters of the states. So far, 19 of the required 34 states have signed on (Indiana being one of them, in an effort led by former State Sen. David Long).
Business Insider may be right about the momentum – according to a new poll from Convention of States and the Trafalgar Group, only 6.7 percent of Republican voters oppose the idea of an Article 5 convention. And almost 67 percent of Americans support such a convention addressing four specific issues: term limits for Congress, term limits for unelected federal officials, federal spending restraints and constraining the federal government to its constitutionally mandated authority.
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, Washington is clearly out of control but will not voluntarily relinquish power, so it’s a logical option for states to simply take it back. On the other hand, a convention would not necessarily be bound by the issues it was called for (witness the original constitutional convention), so who knows what havoc might be wreaked?
3. There is growing support for outright secession. According to a poll from Bright Line Watch a year ago, 37 percent of respondents indicted a willingness for their state to leave the union. “Republicans are the most secessionist in the South and Mountain regions, whereas it is Democrats on the West Coast and Northeast,” the group wrote. “In the narrowly divided Heartland region, it is partisan independents who find the idea most attractive.”
While there is a certain attraction to letting Californians and Texans lead the way to two separate countries, the United States would not be so easily divided. There isn’t such a clear demarcation line as there was between the North and South preceding the Civil War. There are liberal and conservative conclaves everywhere, so we’d more likely end up with a patchwork of smaller nations as in Europe.
And the consequences for the rest of the world are unimaginable. American exceptionalism propelled us to superpower status, a force for good that would sorely be missed. The Constitution doesn’t address secession and most scholars argue that, short of an actual bloody conflict, it could never happen. But the mere fact that so many discuss the idea seriously is a troubling sign.
A third party. A constitutional convention. Secession. Are we really so divided in this nation that one of those options is our only way out?
Charles Krauthammer once wrote that he gave up medicine to start writing about politics because the world was on the brink of either a wondrous new era or a horrendous calamity, and getting our politics right would make all the difference.
I agree, and would add that it will make all the difference in what happens to our country, too.
But politics is – or should be – a participatory exercise. We have the best system ever devised for keeping power out of the hands of the few and giving voice to the governed, if only we’d consider using it at least as much as we complain about it.
And for what it’s worth, I think we should start talking more to each other about our commonality and listening less to those so invested in our differences.