James Madison and the founding generation of Americans viewed the concentration of wealth and power as the greatest threat to constitutional self-government. Today, their fear is our reality. As a result, we see a broken government responsive only to the largest corporations and privileged few. We see ordinary Americans sidelined as spectators to a big money political game. We see formidable national and global challenges exacerbated by politicians operating in a systemically corrupted system.
The Supreme Court’s series of misguided 5-4 rulings such as Citizens United v. FEC has created special rights for “things,”such as money and corporations, while constricting the right of all people to be heard, to an equal vote, to representation and participation in self-government. And while billions of dollars of special interest money, often secret, flood our political process and corrupt our government, corporations from Hobby Lobby to Monsanto to Peabody Energy increasingly deploy the new “corporate veto” in the courts to skirt even the most basic public laws.
We can despair and give up on a government of, for and by the people. Or we can do what virtually every generation of Americans before us has done when we fall short of our promise of self-government – we can renew democracy with our power to amend the Constitution.
Constitutional amendments have always come in waves, beginning immediately after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The convention was only able to win approval of the Constitution by the exercise of the amendment power of the people and the states. In the first four years of our new republic, Americans deployed the process required by Article V – approval by two-thirds of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states – to add the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, to the Constitution. For good measure, Americans added the 11th Amendment in 1795, overturning a Supreme Court decision empowering private bondholders to haul states into federal court.
The next wave of Article V amendments came amid the tumult of the Civil War, with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to end slavery, and to ensure equal protection, due process and voting rights for all, regardless of race. Three amendments in five years, and the broken promise of the American republic renewed.
At the turn of the 20th century, when concentrations of wealth and corporate power threatened liberty and self-government, Americans turned again to Article V. Three amendments between 1913 and 1920 (the 16th, 17th and 19th) reversed the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the federal income tax, ended the appointment of senators in favor of election by the people in the states, and secured the right to vote and participate in government, regardless of gender.