In the debate over whether to hold a constitutional convention in New York, we are witnessing what we will call the Politics of Fear.
Upstate fears downstate; Republicans and Conservatives fear dominance by Progressives and Democrats. Democrats fear dominance by big moneyed interests. Environmentalists fear that New Yorkers will take that right away. Abortion foes fear that their fellow New Yorkers will strengthen abortion rights; supporters of abortion rights fear they will weaken those rights. Public unions fear that their fellow New Yorkers will take their pension protections away. Advocates of gun control fear their fellow New Yorker will repeal the SAFE Act; supporters of gun rights fear the opposite.
And so it goes….
How did we reach a point where New Yorkers no longer trust New Yorkers? Walt Kelly’s insightful remark suggests an answer: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The enemy is not sinister special interests, or dark money. The enemy is us — fellow New Yorkers. That fear brings paralysis and suspicion — inaction in the face of significant problems and government breakdowns.
Many of the arguments against the convention — not all — have had the effect, if not the intent, of cultivating and disseminating fear. What are the consequences of such a campaign and is the fear justified?
The New Yorkers we recognize were aptly described by Professor Sarah Liebschutz when she wrote: “Our political culture is one of individual enterprise and collective benevolence with a spirit of tolerance.” Polls over the past fifty years, right up to October, 2017 demonstrate strong — in some cases overwhelming — support by New Yorkers for the government’s role in providing for the needy and preserving and expanding protections for the environment and labor rights and even adding rights that public sector labor does not currently enjoy, such as the right to strike.
These fear-based arguments of what our fellow New Yorkers will do when they select delegates and when they go to the polls to decide whether they approve or disapprove the work of the convention were used in 1997. Will they be trotted out again in 2037? Will they be the death knell of the constitutional convention — an institution that has been the source of nearly every state constitutional right we cherish? Have we lost faith in our ability as New Yorkers to deliberate on the state’s future? Have we become contingent supporters of democracy?
The argument made by convention opponents seems to be as follows: “Democracy is the best form of government but should be used only when the conditions are right. The conditions were not right in 1997. The conditions (despite being markedly different than twenty years ago) are not right in 2017.”
The same logic will apply in 2037 when the question will again appear on the ballot, and could be made at any time. What is left of our commitment to popular government?
If the call for a constitutional convention on November 7th fails, it will not be the only defeat New York will suffer.
Peter J. Galie
Grand Island, New York
Lancaster, New York
Peter Galie and Christopher Bopst are authors of The New York Constitution A Commentary (Oxford University. Press, 2012) and New York’s Broken Constitution (SUNY Press, 2016).
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