We weren’t sure what to expect when my wife Hope and I recently caught a performance at the Mark Taper Forum of the national roadshow production of What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s long-running New York hit about her evolving lifelong relationship with one of our founding documents.
No spoilers here, but the conceit of the play—essentially three acts compressed into one, with no intermission—is that it begins as a kind of rollicking memoir by the adult Schreck, evoking her experience as an adroit high-school sophomore who earned college tuition money by traveling around giving speeches to her Washington state American Legion posts on the wonderfulness of the Constitution. Over the intervening decades, her maturation from innocent girlhood to worldly womanhood, and her increasingly jaded take on the privileged white slaveholding patriarchy who framed the Constitution, prompt her reappraisal. It’s a work in progress where she takes the audience, more or less strapped into the back seat, along on her sometimes bumpy ride.
The play concludes with a lively debate between Maria Dizzia, the actor taking over from Schreck herself for this touring version, and a young female high-school debater and person of color, with the question on the table being whether or not to abolish the Constitution and start over from scratch.
Theatre staff passed out pocket copies of the Constitution, provided by the ACLU, “so that we could follow along.” We were lucky enough to see Rosdely Ciprian, the high schooler who has appeared in the part for the past several years on Broadway. The performers switch off between arguing for “leave” and “remain,” so to speak, and this night Ciprian pressed the case to abolish. An audience member—in this case, a middle-aged white man—was drafted for the judge.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been, but we were shocked that this “judge” ruled—in less time than it took those nullifying jurors to acquit O.J. Simpson—that the Constitution should be abolished, to the lusty cheers of our overwhelmingly affluent white, presumably liberal Westside theatre-going audience.
Surely, we thought, this cannot be what Heidi Schreck intended for her lesson on the U.S. Constitution to teach us. Schreck herself told The Atlantic in an interview last spring, “I think any time the people coming to this show feel like…these structures really are not serving us, that’s when [they] seem ready to, in the context of theatrical pretend, burn it all down.” Even so, she noted in the same interview that audiences voted about 85 percent of the time to “keep” the Constitution.
Moreover, it’s not confined to “the context of theatrical pretend.” There has been a concerted effort since at least 2010 to call a constitutional convention—coinciding with the rise of the Tea Party and aggressive opposition to President Obama’s domestic policy agenda—ostensibly focusing on a balanced-budget amendment and congressional term limits.
Those almost sound like the kind of quasi-populist, post-partisan “reforms” both Left and Right could get behind—but it’s no coincidence that nearly all the pressure is coming from the Right, in a campaign driven by the Mercer family (patrons of Donald Trump, Steven Bannon, and Breitbart), the Charles Koch Foundation (‘nuff said), and the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, whose roots reach all the way back to 1945. Endorsers of this anti-Constitution campaign include Fox News personality Sean Hannity, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Senators Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee…you get the idea.
All it takes is 34, or two-thirds of the states (the current tally stands around 28) to call a convention, and scholars agree that it won’t be circumscribed; everything would be on the table.
Imagine how First Amendment free speech and press protections could be gutted, or the Second Amendment “right to bear arms” expanded, or the Reconstruction-era civil rights amendments stripped away. And does anyone really think voting rights, reproductive freedom, and privacy protections would fare well in the era of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, in a constitutional convention underwritten by some of the most reactionary elements in American politics today?
Imagine almost 230 years of constitutional case law simply gone with the wind. Had the play’s producers bothered to ask the ACLU what they thought of the idea of scrapping the Constitution, copies of which the ACLU kindly provided them with, they would have learned that the ACLU has a formal policy opposing a constitutional convention.
As a senior ACLU policy analyst put it, “There are no standards to govern how a constitutional convention would be convened and conducted, so there is no way to ensure that the delegates to the convention are representative, and that the rules governing the convention’s conduct are fair.” Worse, he adds, “there is no way to ensure that the convention would confine itself to whatever subject inspired its creation, without veering off into dangerously impetuous rewriting of our nation’s foundational legal document.”
Common Cause also strongly opposes the idea, asserting in a 2019 article that, “These calls for a constitutional convention represent the most serious threat to our democracy flying almost completely under the radar.” In a 2017 issues brief, the League of Women Voters warned, “Basic separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers would be subject to revision as well. A convention might not preserve the role of the courts in protecting our constitutional rights. Even the supremacy of federal law and the Constitution over state laws could be called into doubt.”
None of this process was explained, and none of these concerns troubled our happy audience as they played “let’s pretend” and made ready to put a torch to the Framers’ handiwork.
As we left the theater and felt the first rush of cold night air, it was not the words of Heidi Schreck, but of one Framer in particular that rang in my ears: “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “it expects what never was and never will be.”