Re-empowering the People:
A Plan for a Resurgent Democracy
Richard Labunski becomes very impassioned when he talks about apathy. An associate professor in the UK School of Journalism and Telecommunications, Labunski has plenty to say about the indifference Americans show toward their government.
"In the 1996 presidential election only 49.5 percent of citizens who could have voted did so," he says. "That translates into 100 million people in this country in 1996 who were eligible to vote for president of the United States, but didn't vote. This was the first time since 1924 that voter turnout had been so low. And in 2000, with a very tough race and two candidates who stood for very different things, only about 51.5 percent voted."
In his book The Second Constitutional Convention: How the American People Can Take Back Their Government, Richard Labunski tackles the issues of campaign finance reform, an equal rights amendment, a crime victims' bill of rights amendment, and abolition of the Electoral College.
Low voter turnout is only one symptom, Labunski says, that indicates the United States is in a significant political crisis. His years of research into the deepening schism between citizens and their elected officials in our country is the focus of his new book, titled The Second Constitutional Convention: How The American People Can Take Back Their Government, which was published last year.
"Disappointment, disillusionment, and distrust are words that many Americans would use today to describe their feelings about politics and government," Labunski says. "Probably at no time in our history have national and local political leaders and institutions been held in such low regard. Even with the strong economy of the last decade, when most people have never been better off, there is a deepening cynicism about politics."
One of Labunski's major contentions in this book is that campaign spending is at the root of this disillusionment. "The way campaigns are financed is enough to demoralize anyone," he says. "As increasing amounts of money pour into campaigns, it becomes more difficult to run competitive races and almost impossible to defeat incumbents." During the last few decades, he says, U.S. House reelection rates have been 95 percent or higher, while the rates for senators are often 90 percent or more.
Incumbents, he says, start raising money for the next election the moment the previous election ends, even though there is no challenger in sight. "Unless you're a challenger with extraordinary financial means yourself, it's hard to get known, because voters don't hear all that much about a challenger who can't afford nearly as much TV time."
He believes that the growing influence of television and the cost of running campaigns have fundamentally changed the nature of politics. "Candidates used to give more speeches, hold more forums, and make themselves more available to voters," says Labunski. "Now, they spend so much time raising money to buy expensive television time, there is much less time for interacting with people." He adds that when Scotty Baesler and Ernie Fletcher ran for the U.S. House in Kentucky's Sixth Congressional District last November, the two candidates spent a combined $4.3 million on TV advertising alone.
The most formidable problem with campaign spending, Labunski says, is the "soft money" issue. "Because of a pernicious Supreme Court decision in 1976, Buckley vs. Valeo, and because of loopholes in the campaign finance laws, corporations, unions, political action committees, and wealthy individuals can make unlimited soft money contributions to political parties and so-called independent groups. Groups can spend as much money as they want as long as they don't directly coordinate their efforts with the candidates," he says, adding, "That is where much of the abuse of the system takes place."
Last June in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld strict limits on how much political parties can spend in coordination with congressional candidates. Although the split ruling didn't involve soft money, the majority seemed sympathetic to arguments that large contributions to parties can influence candidates. According to a story that appeared in The Washington Post, advocates of stricter campaign finance laws said they think the Court's approach would help them when judges review the soft- money ban pending in Congress.
Campaign finance reform is only one issue he tackles in The Second Constitutional Convention. In the 579-page book Labunski, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California-Santa Barbara and a law degree from Seattle University, also presents a case for passage of an equal rights amendment, a crime victims' bill of rights amendment, and abolition of the Electoral College.
Lofty goals. But, realistically, how can such sweeping changes be made?
"The point of the book is that we can use Internet technology to do something unprecedented in the history of our countryhold a second constitutional convention," says Labunski, who explains that Article V of the Constitution provides this second method by which amendments can be proposed.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times in its 212-year history. Congress proposed all of the amendments as provided under Article V, the section establishing procedures for the proposal and ratification of amendments. "There is, however, another section of Article Vunknown to the average citizenthat requires Congress to call a constitutional convention if a sufficient number of state legislatures petition for it," Labunski explains. "The American people must dedicate themselves to forcing their elected officials to schedule such a convention if the people are to reclaim their government from those who are no longer answerable through the ordinary process of a representative democracy."
So, how would this work?
"This book proposes that through new communication technology such as the Internet, the American people can organize a series of meetingsbeginning at the congressional district or county level, then moving on to a state convention, and finally culminating in a national 'preconvention' in Washington, D.C.where petitions can be written to give to state legislators," Labunski says.
The petitions would propose a subject area for a constitutional amendment and ask legislators to forward them to Congress. "There is no precedent in American history for citizens on their own to try to organize a constitutional convention," he says. "Prior to the Internet, such an undertaking would have been almost impossible."
Labunski foresees the second convention Web site (www.secondconvention.org) as the national meeting spot, a sort of cyber-space town meeting where people can get information about activities in each state as well as links to important documents related to the Con- stitution and the founding of the nation. The Web site would be, then, not only a political rallying point but a source of information.
Despite the glowing dust-jacket blurbs from other professors, presidents of national organizations, and hearty applause in the book's foreword by 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson, Labunski knows that, for many, this concept is a hard sell. In talking with people and promoting his book around the country (he recently appeared on "Book TV" on C-SPAN, for example), he says there is one dominant and recurring question: "This is all very interesting, Dr. Labunski, but what are the odds of this actually happening?"
"Lots of people I've talked with think the likelihood of this happening is very small," he admits. "But if nothing else, the exercise of democratic principles and democratic energy would be worth it. I'd be pleased if there were at least a series of town meetings around the country where citizens gathered to discuss the Constitution," says Labunski.