Unconventional Meeting of the Minds

September 23, 2011 | | Chronicle of Philanthropy |

Some on the left have similar feelings. Brenda Wright, director of the democracy program at the nonprofit group Demos (and a scheduled attendee at the conference), describes her view as one of "sympathetic skepticism."

On the one hand, Mr. Lessig accurately describes problems with current political arrangements, Ms. Wright says. "But if you look at the history of state efforts to call on Congress for a constitutional convention, you can immediately see that the topics have tended to be exactly those that, in my view, are going to take us backwards"—such as attempting to define marriage as a heterosexual institution.

"I think the hesitation of progressives on this issue is grounded in a history of understanding the Constitution itself as a check on the majoritarian tyranny over minorities," she says.

Mr. Lessig and others counter that there are checks on whatever a convention produces: Amendments, as Article V says, must be approved by three-quarters of the states. But Ms. Wright points to an element of paradox in that defense: On the one hand, a convention is supposed to solve many of our civic woes—implying sweeping reform. On the other, we needn't worry that it will be too sweeping, because of checks and balances. Don't those arguments cancel each other out?