smallAt the forefront of the Republican push into far-right populism, former Trump White House chief strategist teve Bannon is backing a campaign to completely rewrite the U.S. Constitution.
Bannon recently dedicated episodes of his online show “The War Room” to a well-funded operation that has quietly gained ground over the past two years. Backed by billionaire donors and corporate interests, it aims to persuade state legislatures to convene a constitutional convention with a view to enshrining far-right conservative values into the nation’s top law.
The goal is essentially to turn the country into a permanent conservative state against the will of the American people. The pact would push policies that limit the size and scope of the federal government, set tax caps or even eliminate them, shield companies from regulation and impose restrictions on government action in areas such as abortion, guns and immigration.
“It’s another line of attack strategically,” Bannon told his audience last month. “You now have a political movement that understands that we need to pursue an administrative state.”
By Bannon’s “administrative state,” he refers to central aspects of federal and congressional involvement in modern American life. This includes tackling the climate crisis, setting education standards and combating health inequalities.
Mark Meckler, the founder of the Tea Party who now leads one of the largest groups advocating the strategy, the National Covenant for Action (Cosa), articulated some of the main goals on Bannon’s show. “We need to constitutionally say, ‘No, the federal government cannot be involved in education, health care, energy or the environment,'” he said.
Meckler went on to reveal the anti-democratic nature of the state legislature movement, which he said was primarily aimed at preventing the advancement of progressive policies through presidential elections. “The problem is that as soon as the government turns to Democrats — or radical progressivism, or Marxism — we’re going to lose gains. So you do structural repair.”
The “structural fix” involves Republican state legislatures pushing for conservative revisions to the U.S. foundation documents. By incorporating these policies into the U.S. Constitution, they will be largely immune to electoral challenges.
If the meeting is reached, it would mark the pinnacle of conservative state power in American politics. In the past 12 years, since the Tea Party erupted, Republicans have extended control to more than half of the country’s states, imposing an increasingly right-leaning agenda onto the heartland.
The plan now is for national dominance.
Article V of the Constitution provides for two different ways to amend the core document ratified by the United States in 1788. In practice, all 27 amendments added in the past 244 years passed the first route—a Congress-led process in which two-thirds of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives must approve the amendments, and then four three-thirds approval. U.S.
Working with other powerful interests and wealthy right-wing mega-donors, Meckler is fighting for a second route to the Fifth — one that has never been tried before. It gives state legislatures the power to convene their own constitutional conventions if two-thirds of all 50 states agree.
A state-based model for rewriting the U.S. Constitution may be far-right Republicans’ boldest attempt yet to secure the equivalent of conservative minority rule, in which a minority in rural states with smaller populations is represented Lawmakers call the shots to most Americans. Russ Feingold, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin, told the Guardian, “They want to rewrite the constitution in a way that is not just conservative, but fundamental to the minority. This will prevent the will of ‘our people’ from being heard. .”
Feingold co-authored “Constitution in Danger,” with Peter Prindiville of the Stanford Center for Constitutional Law, a new book that serves as a wake-up call for state-based convention movements. “Our goal is not to scare people, but to remind them that a movement on the far right is quietly growing to the point where it’s almost impossible to stop a convention,” he said.
The dynamism of the movement underscores his urgency. A convention resolution developed by Cosa has passed in four states so far this year — Wisconsin, Nebraska, West Virginia and South Carolina.
The group is also busy with November’s midterm elections, using its strength and reserves of around $600,000 (£528,252) to back candidates who embrace the idea. “We’ve built the largest army of grassroots militants in American history,” Meckler told Bannon, perhaps exaggerating.
Another of Bannon’s guests in the war room, Rick Santorum, a former Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who advised Xhosa, told Bannon: “It could happen sooner. We’re faster than people think. to go further.”
Their funding is also much better than one might think. The Centre for Media and Democracy (CMD), which oversees the Constituent Assembly campaign, estimates it earned $25m (£22m) in 2020, the last year for which data is available.
Funds were allocated to Xhosa and other influential right-wing groups. That includes the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), a network of state politicians and corporate lobbyists, which has called for constitutional changes to enforce balanced budget constraints on Washington.
Most of the income is dark money with hidden sources. CMD has managed to identify some key donors — including the Mercer Family Foundation, set up by reclusive hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, and the mastermind behind the right-wing land grab in federal court, Leonard M. Several groups run by Leonard Leo.
Over $1 million (£880,265) was also donated in bitcoin.
The appeal of these groups and donors seeking to rewrite the U.S. Constitution through state lines is easy to explain. Over the past 12 years, since the Tea Party erupted in 2010, Republican activists have deployed extreme partisanship to achieve extraordinary takeovers of state legislatures.
In 2010, Republicans controlled only two chambers of 14 state legislatures. Today, that number is 31.
Arn Pearson, executive director of CMD, said: “Republicans have near high water levels of political control in the states, which is why the pro-Trump right wing is increasingly embracing the Constituent Convention strategy. “
If a convention is reached, the plan would be to give states one vote. There is no legal or historical basis for this arrangement, but its appeal is self-evident.
One vote per state would give small, rural conservative states like Wyoming (population 580,000) as much leverage as large urbanized progressive states like California (population 39.5 million). In general, small states will have a majority and control will go to Republicans.
In December, Santorum articulated the minority’s vision at a private ALEC meeting. In a recording obtained by CMD, Santorum said: “So we have a chance of getting a supermajority, even though we may not even be a supermajority among those who agree with us.”
Pearson denounced the idea as “an extremely anti-majority and anti-democratic strategy that gives the small rural state maximum control”.
The list of possible revisions is troubling as the vote-counting system tilts toward a conservative heartland. While Meckler and his allies have largely avoided talking about culture wars, it is conceivable that a nationwide ban on abortion and the abolition of same-sex marriage will be on the table.
More publicly, advocates have spoken of imposing a balanced budget requirement on the U.S. government that would significantly shrink federal resources. Some have even proposed making the income tax unconstitutional.
A more popular idea circulating in right-wing Constituent Convention circles, originally coined by talk show host Mark Levin, is that states should give themselves the ability to overturn federal statutes and Supreme Court rulings. It is difficult to see how the federal rule of law can be maintained under such an arrangement, which has an overtly civil war tinge.
Under Title V, 34 states must require a constitutional convention to meet the two-thirds requirement. To date, Cosa has successfully signed 19 states, with another 6 states under active consideration.
ALEC set a narrower remit for the convention focused on its balanced budget amendment and went further with the participation of 28 states.
Either way, there are downsides. To solve this problem, the leaders of the Constituent Assembly invented increasingly exotic mathematical formulas to obtain the magic number 34. “We used to call it fuzzy math, now we call it wacky math,” Pearson said.
Advocates filed a lawsuit in Texas in February to try to get a court to mandate a constitutional convention, arguing that they had reached 34 states — and they cobbled together unrelated calls for state conventions, some of which date back to the 1800s . In July, two bills were also introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives calling for an immediate session of Congress.
David Super, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the willingness to employ outlandish logic should sound further alarm bells. It poses higher stakes for the November election.
“Midterms are crucial,” Super said. “Changes at the state level are important, but they won’t bring them to 34 states. If they can control Congress, they can close the gap.”
Paradoxically, what happens in Congress in the midterms may have the biggest impact on the future prospects of the state-based convention. If Republicans take back control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, they will be able to advance the demands of radical Republicans.
“We’ve seen a fast-and-easy approach to the math of all kinds of things in Congress,” Super said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they took control of both houses in November, if they seriously tried to adopt one of these bizarre accounting theories.”
That could mean a quick meeting before most Americans realize the danger.
“If the Republicans win in Congress, they can try to call a convention right away,” Fingold said. “People should know that when they go to the polls in November – it could fundamentally damage their rights in a way that is both disturbing and permanent.”