Although we face a time of seemingly intractable divides and polarization, it is precisely during turbulent times such as these that the United States has come together in periods of social reform. History proves the idea that timing is an essential element in the work for structural social change.
The idea that the time needs to be right for major changes was recently crystalized for me when talking to Jeff Clements, a lawyer and social entrepreneur who founded an organization in 2016 called American Promise. Jeff and American Promise have the mission of passing a constitutional amendment that would overturn the campaign finance model put in place by Citizens United and establish reasonable limits on political spending so politicians could act according to their constituents’ beliefs rather than those of wealthy donors.
At first glance it may seem that Jeff has dedicated his work to a difficult and even quixotic goal. Only one constitutional amendment has been passed in the U.S. in the last 50 years.
But our discussion gave me hope that the time is right for an amendment to address Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United and others, including the recent Dobbs v. Jackson decision, where the Court has arguably infringed on our rights. Jeff pointed out that this would be the ninth supreme court case overturned by an amendment. Prior examples include the Thirteenth and Fourteens Amendments on slavery, citizenship and equal protection, which overturned the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, and the Nineteenth Amendment, which overturned the Minor v. Happersett decision that denied women the right to vote.What I did not realize before talking to Jeff is that constitutional amendments have typically come in waves, as reactions to turbulent times in U.S. history. For instance, in the wake of the Civil War, three amendments were ratified from 1865 to 1870. Four more became law from 1913 to 1920 at the tail end of the Progressive Era, in reaction to the abuses of the so-called “Gilded Age.” And two passed in 1933 during the New Deal Era. Most recently, four amendments were added from 1961 to 1971 during the civil rights movement. Reform eras account for 13 of the 17 amendments ratified since the Bill of Rights established the first 10 amendments.
In thinking about if the United States is poised to start another period of major societal and constitutional reform, I think back to the progressive era reaction to the Gilded Age, when leaps in physical transportation technology transformed how people lived but also led to extreme income inequalities and the well-known excesses of the ultra-rich like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and others. At the time there was also a backlash against immigration and political gridlock — in two presidential elections (1876 and 1888) the Electoral College delivered a president to someone who did not win the popular vote.
This all sounds eerily familiar. In our modern gilded age in which Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg and others are leading advances in information technology that form the basis of extreme income inequality, most people in the United States are frustrated by the hyper-partisan nature of politics and the failure of elected officials to act on healthcare, gun laws, the climate crisis, and other challenges of our time. Jeff is confident that from these difficult times some real change is possible. And we may all have reason to believe: The amendment has support from a majority of Americans — including business leaders and legislatures in 22 states — across the political spectrum.