Alaska voters are being asked in the general election Tuesday whether to authorize a new state constitutional convention, a decennial vote provided for in the constitution itself. A few other states have a 20-year query. Former Alaska attorney general John Havelock has written a book on the matter, "Let's Do It Right." He argues that a convention is the right way to address a number of areas in which the present document is flawed and fails citizens' needs and rights.
Much of the reaction to Havelock's argument, though not his book, has been negative. The Anchorage Daily News editorialized that whatever might be wrong with the constitution can be fixed by amendment. Alaska voters have approved 28 amendments, the Daily News notes, and Havelock's major suggestions -- a unicameral legislature, greater control of corporate money in politics, nonpartisan reapportionment -- don't justify a new convention. At the same time, highly respected former state senator Victor Fischer, himself a member of the original convention, whose memoir, "To Russia with Love," has just been published, argues that the divisive nature of our current politics, the contempt for compromise and the power of corporate and other special interests make a convention too risky, that extremists might well undo much that is effective and praiseworthy in the instrument he helped to craft.
There's a disturbing anti-democratic assumption in the argument that citizens cannot safely be asked to examine and redraft their fundamental orders for government in Alaska. It's an argument based in fear, and in distrust of the people, fear of bullying by ruthless lobbyists, and distrust of citizens' capability to recognize and transcend manipulation.
Democracy rests on the conviction of the basic equality of all people and on confidence in their capacity to govern themselves. It has always been disparaged by the powerful and other elites. The founders of the U.S. Constitution were so fearful that they put buffers between the direct action of the people and the operation of their government, as in the Electoral College, and the election of senators by state legislatures, as called for in the original document. There is wisdom in that approach, to be sure; the states that attempted direct democracy immediately after the American Revolution soon replaced it with representative forms of government. But no less a genius than Alexander Hamilton argued at the 1787 convention that the will of the people needed direct application somewhere in the new constitution, for that will, he insisted, was the best protection of the people's liberty. Thus, members of the House always have been elected by direct vote of the people, as has the Senate only since 1914.
While Fischer is right that we live in a divisive time, it's hard to argue that it's more divisive than others. George Washington himself deplored the partisanship between Hamilton and Jefferson and their parties that quickly subverted cooperation in our early government. When James Madison took the country to war against Great Britain in 1812, New England Federalists met to vote on secession. John Quincy Adams' campaign against Andrew Jackson was one of the most vicious in our electoral history. The bitter partisanship of the decade of the 1850s was not ended by the assassination of Lincoln and the end of the Civil War. In 1912, when he didn't get the nomination of his party, former president Theodore Roosevelt formed a third party, the Progressive Party. In 1948, Strom Thurmond bolted the Democratic National Convention after Hubert Humphrey called for an end of segregation protected by states' rights. American democracy survived these and other challenges to voter capacity, often emerging healthier for the debate. Big money and gangster politics haunted them all.
It's a bit ironic that Fischer and the Alaska founders should be applauded for the other provisions of our constitution but not for the decennial query. Those who voted in 1956 to include it surely did not do so thinking it should never succeed, or wouldn't.
Democracy is a high-risk enterprise. The voters may do the unexpected at any time and they certainly may move to diminish the powerful. That should be no reason to cower before the concept that government should be based on the power and consent of the people.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.