Tipping Points, as originally published online in The Fulcrum 3/20/2023
“Tipping point.” We’re hearing that phrase a lot these days.
In 2015, I spent months holed up in conference rooms with my friend John Wass. We were whiteboarding out what would become American Promise and our 10-year strategy to unite Americans behind fundamental reform of our political system. John has one of those Princeton/MIT brains, and the whiteboard quickly filled with the strange phrases of complex systems theory: “Non-linearity.” “Perturbations.” “Emergent properties.” And, of course, “tipping point.”
American society and politics are complex systems. So are pandemics, global banking, beehives, and lots of other things, big and small. Systems are everywhere, and systems thinking helps our understanding of how systems work and change.
Systems theory is at the core of American Promise’s strategy to win the For Our Freedom constitutional amendment to fix the number 1 reason why American democracy is threatened now: the systemic corruption of unaccountable money that drives our elections and government.
In the past few years, millions of Americans have voted in American Promise ballot initiatives, gathered signatures at state fairs and farmers markets, met with their lawmakers at citizen lobby days, posted on social media, or traveled to our annual National Citizens Leadership Conferences or local events. None of them needed to know anything about systems theory to help make a better America out of the mess of today. But whether we know nothing else about systems, we probably have heard the phrase “tipping point.”
John and I knew our constitutional amendment strategy would be met with skepticism from some who think constitutional amendments are impossible. But we also knew that constitutional amendments have always followed classic tipping point models. Or as Congressman Jamie Raskin said at one of our Conferences, we knew that American Promise could help shift the For Our Freedom Amendment “from impossible to inevitable.”
Seven years later, signs of tipping point are unmistakable. Seven out of ten Americans now believe that American democracy is under grave threat, and 86% identify money in politics as the top reason for that. For the first time ever, Pew Research reports that “reducing money in politics” is at the top of priorities that Americans want the President and Congress to act on now; it’s a higher priority than nearly everything else, including crime, immigration, budget deficits, and the climate crisis.
In Congress, a large group has reintroduced a constitutional amendment to enable regulation of money used to influence elections. It has close to 200 supporters in the House and fifty in the Senate. Yes, these are mostly Democrats but now Republicans are leading the amendment effort in the states. Seriously, even the New York Times has noticed.
Or just ask Rick Bennett, Republican State Senator in Maine, who is leading the Protect Maine Elections ballot campaign, a top American Promise initiative this year. Or listen to another Republican, Jim Rubens, a former New Hampshire State Senator, and current American Promise board member. You can see him live from CPAC on Newsmax last month.
Better yet, talk with American Promise volunteers in Brown County, Wisconsin, which just became the latest of nearly 1000 cities, towns and counties to enact formal resolutions calling for Congress to pass the anti-corruption constitutional amendment. Brown County voted for Mitt Romney for President in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016, and Donald Trump in 2020. The American Promise resolution won with 92% support.
Or just ask any American who has paid the high cost of systemic corruption infesting the crypto/investment world, our banking, healthcare, energy, food, and environmental systems.
In another sign of a tipping point, the Brennan Center for Justice, longtime amendment skeptics, held a symposium, Constitutional Amendments: Time to Rethink, last month in New York. I participated, along with some leading law scholars and New York Times editorial board member Jesse Wegman, who noted the sharp shift in prospects for constitutional reform.
Pessimists are still in the media to say nothing will change but now the media, like Newsmax, the New York Times, and NBC News, are calling American Promise to see what we think. Unlike the pessimists, we have receipts. American Promise has the evidence from Americans across the country who have helped drive 22 states to take action to formally demand that Congress pass the amendment and return it to the states for ratification.
Our Constitution largely derives from four brief “amendment eras”that have recurred roughly every 50 years. These were tipping point moments.
More than 40% of today’s Constitution was not part of the original document. Literally, not symbolically, the Constitution that opens with “We the People” comes from the people. It comes from the people who push amendments through the arduous Article V process of a ⅔ vote in Congress and ratification in ¾ of the states to adapt the Constitution to better serve freedom and justice. Fifty years after Americans ratified four constitutional amendments in less than ten years, a new amendment era may be upon us.
Tipping points rapidly transform complex systems under sustained, multi-factor stresses. From a non-human perspective, tipping points and transformation are neutral. A hurricane, volcano, war, or Great Depression are simply new conditions of complex systems. But from a human perspective, they are catastrophic. Tipping points also can transform conditions rapidly to be much better. Think of life expectancy, public health, and the rise of the middle class in the last century.
With American democracy and society under severe stress, tipping points will cause rapid transformation whether we like it or not. American Promise seeks to be an engine of service, hope, and action for every American to help make sure we can shape tipping point opportunities to transform to a much better state, rather than to something catastrophically worse.