Impulse to conserve the Constitution could block Texas' call for a convention

Gov. Greg Abbott's call for Texas to take the lead in calling for a convention of states to consider amendments to the U.S. Constitution comes amidst daily signs of discontent with politics writ large and widespread negativity about the performance of government institutions. This discontent shows up in Texans' job approval of Congress and their low levels of trust in all branches of the federal government and even of different levels of government within the American federal system.

Add to these attitudes a presidential campaign marked by loud complaints about our broken politics, failing institutions and the decline of the United States both at home and abroad, and one might assume that there is an eager audience for major modifications to the document that defines those much-maligned institutions: the U.S. Constitution.

But that assumption would be wrong. Some Texans support changing the Constitution. However, this support is strongest in corners that might confirm the suspicions of some conservatives that the ideas currently driving calls for a constitutional convention are unlikely to be the only ones on the table should such a convention come to pass. Perhaps more importantly, only a minority of Texans think the Constitution needs changing by a convention.

In the June 2016 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll, we asked Texas voters to react to the following question: "Would you say the United States Constitution has held up well as the basis for our government and laws and is in little need of change, or would you say that we should hold a new constitutional convention to update the Constitution?" Overall, 55 percent of Texans said the Constitution has held up well, compared to only 26 percent who said we should hold a new constitutional convention. More interesting still, 68 percent of self-identified conservatives said the constitution has held up well, compared to only 49 percent of self-identified liberals. And on the other side, only 20 percent of conservatives said we should hold a new constitutional convention, compared to 37 percent of liberals.

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Held up well49%42%68%
Hold a new constitutional convention37%27%20%
Don't know/No opinion14%31%11%

These results reveal a more literally conservative impulse — that is, the impulse to respect established institutions and protect them from rapid change — that, at least at this moment, exists in some tension with the proposals for change contained in Abbott's "Texas Plan." Some of the proposed amendments in that plan — a balanced-budget amendment, requiring seven-justice supermajorities for some Supreme Court decisions and allowing the states to override Supreme Court decisions, for example — resonate with the political impulses of Republicans in the current climate. But the comparatively higher levels of support among liberals for a convention might well reinforce conservative impulses to defend the status quo — the threat of liberal change could outweigh the promise of changes justified in the name of conservatism.

The patterns in public opinion as registered in this question don't necessarily mean that the idea is dead on arrival. The question was purposefully posed in a way that signaled neither the partisan origins of the proposal nor the fact that at least one plan for amending the Constitution was being suggested and promoted by Abbott. Among those same conservatives described above, the governor has 71 percent job approval rating, and he was viewed favorably by 74 percent of these same conservatives in November. His stated support would likely move at least some Republicans to reconsider — and might even move some Democrats and liberals in the opposite direction, effectively moving toward a reversal of the current partisan and ideological pattern.

However, the lopsidedness of the poll results suggest that bringing the public along as he works to persuade the Legislature to pass a measure adding Texas to the list of states calling for a convention will take some retail sales — and spending some of his political capital during the legislative session.