Tucker Carlson embraces fringe Convention of States movement
The idea could radically reshape the country by weakening the federal government’s regulatory authority and ability to protect civil rights
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson embraced a fringe idea for amending the Constitution known as the Convention of States, joining a growing list of right-wing media personalities who have been supportive of the movement.
Carlson’s comments came during an hour-long interview with former Tea Party activist and Convention of States Action president Mark Meckler, on Fox Nation’s streaming subscriber-only show Tucker Carlson Today. Meckler and his organization are the driving force behind the movement, which seeks to advance a far-right agenda by bypassing the traditional processes for amending the Constitution.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times, always by securing two-thirds support in both chambers of Congress as a first step. Article V of the Constitution provides for another option, though, in which two-thirds of state legislatures call for a convention to consider and put forward amendments. In both cases, any proposed amendment would then need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Meckler and his organization want to use the second, never-before-used method as a way of fundamentally transforming the federal government.
In theory, any kind of amendment could come out of a convention like the one envisioned by Meckler. In practice, virtually everybody pushing for this unlikely process are right-wing activists with a conservative agenda aimed at limiting progressive elements of the federal government. In that way, the push for a convention of states resembles rhetoric around states’ rights – nominally colorblind rhetoric that is in fact deeply hostile to civil rights and other progressive issues. The Convention of States Project’s parent organization, Citizens for Self-Governance, for example, donated $10,000 to America First Legal, an anti-civil rights legal group headed by former Trump adviser and white nationalist Stephen Miller.
What Meckler was proposing would elevate “the voice of ordinary people,” Carlson said. “It's a much more small d-democratic way of governance.” Over the course of the interview, he treated opposition to the idea – whether from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) or the Sierra Club – as absurd on its face, and an example of bad faith or faulty reasoning.
“I think anybody who's watched the last hour is certainly impressed by the way you've thought about this,” Carlson said near the end of the interview. “I personally am for it, thanks to you.”
Most of Meckler’s policy proposals are boilerplate conservatism collected under the umbrella of so-called smaller government. But in the conversation with Carlson, he also espoused the much stranger view that direct election of U.S. senators – the law of the land thanks to the 17th amendment – was a mistake.
Meckler explained that “the 17th Amendment whereby we decided to directly elect senators instead of having them appointed by the states” was partly responsible for breaking the “structure” that the Constitution’s framers had envisioned.
“When we started electing senators, senators get their power from D.C.,” Meckler said later in the interview. “Prior to the 17th Amendment, senators are appointed by state legislatures, and that means the power of the Senate is in the states. And once they're elected, now their power base is in D.C., they serve their D.C. masters.”
Meckler isn’t the only conservative attempting to radically shift power towards state legislatures. A group of MAGA and Trump-aligned lawyers, including top coup architect John Eastman, have advanced an intellectually dubious doctrine called the independent state legislature theory, which would “give state legislatures wide authority to gerrymander electoral maps and pass voter suppression laws” according to the Brennan Center, a think tank that advocates for expanding voting rights.
Carlson joins right-wing media figures like former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Fox News’ Mark Levin, who have also promoted Meckler’s movement. After speaking with Meckler in September, Bannon closed the interview by saying, “Taking down the administrative state; got to hit it from every angle.” Bannon has been pushing that line since at least 2017, when he told the audience at CPAC that his goal was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Levin has been a supporter of the idea since at least 2013, when he published a book called The Liberty Amendments, which proposed a lot of the same ideas Meckler has put forward and coincided with the launch of his group. Several conservative pundits and politicians subsequently signed on to the idea as well, including Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Hugh Hewitt, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Meckler is deeply embedded in the conservative movement. He spoke at a transphobic rally last October that was attended by white supremacists and Proud Boys, as reported by LGBTQ Nation. Just months earlier, he was at CPAC – of which Convention of States Actions was a sponsor – fantasizing about which federal agencies to abolish. “How about we get rid of the Department of Education?” Meckler asked the audience, as reported in The New Republic. “How about we get rid of the EPA?”
Balanced budget, term limits, and the return of states' rights
Meckler’s goals extend beyond destroying federal agencies, though that is a central tenet of his philosophy. In his conversation with Carlson, Meckler expounded what he believed the top priorities of a convention of states should be.
“The first subject is anything that would impose fiscal restraints on the federal government,” Meckler said. “So I mentioned a balanced budget amendment, things like tax caps, spending caps maybe tied to population plus inflation.”
Conservatives frequently talk about the need for a balanced budget amendment, usually based on the faulty analogy that the federal government operates like a family budget. Indeed, research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, shows that a balanced budget amendment could be disastrous for the country, threatening Social Security and other welfare programs. But for conservative activists like Meckler, weakening the social safety net through austerity politics is likely a feature, not a bug, of the proposal.
“Second is anything that would impose term limits,” Meckler continued. Crucially, he doesn’t only want to impose term limits on elected officials and Supreme Court justices, but also on career civil servants. “How about on the bureaucracy, on the deep state, on staffers?” he asked. “These are the people really running Washington, D.C., and they shouldn't be there for 30 years. It was never intended to be a permanent career for people.”
“And that would prevent a Fauci from happening?” Carlson asked later, referencing Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Absolutely,” Meckler responded.
Term limits for Congress is an increasingly popular idea on the right that some liberals, like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), have also embraced. The case for term-limiting Supreme Court justices is far stronger than for imposing them on Congress, which risks further empowering lobbyists and accelerating the revolving door between public and private sector influence. There is considerable political science research that shows terms limits for Congress would likely exacerbate many of the problems the policy seeks to solve.
Meckler’s suggestion that career staffers should be barred from public service after a set amount of years is far more radical, but fits entirely inside the broader conservative goal of weakening progressive elements of the federal government. What Meckler is pushing here is just an updated version of Grover Norquists’s goal of making government small enough to “drown it in a bathtub,” or Bannon’s obsession with destroying the administrative state.
The effect of forcing out long-serving public employees would almost certainly shift even more power to the private sector, as elected officials and their staffs would be forced to outsource institutional knowledge to outside lobbying firms and think tanks. Like many conservative activists, Meckler offers lip service to decry the influence of lobbyists, but has deep ties to the Koch brothers, the Mercer family, and other major financiers on the right.
Carlson and Meckler’s singling out of Fauci, who right-wing media have chosen as the avatar of pandemic policies they oppose, echoes a recent moment from an episode of Bannon’s War Room podcast, guest hosted by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Gaetz and 19 other hardliners blocked Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) bid for Speaker of the House until he offered concessions to the far-right faction, including reinstating something called the Holman Rule. That provision would allow any member to target the funding of any individual civil servant.
“If we'd have had this tool, we would have obviously directed it at Anthony Fauci,” Gaetz told Russ Vought, of the Center for Renewing America, a conservative think tank closely aligned with former President Donald Trump.
Meckler’s third and final stated goal for a potential convention is to pass “anything that would impose scope and jurisdiction restraints on the federal government,” he said. “And what that means fundamentally is going back to something like the enumerated powers.” He added later that the federal government was “never supposed to be involved in education or energy or health care or food production, agriculture, all of this stuff.”
There are two complementary ways to understand this proposal. At its most basic level, Meckler is channeling some sort of libertarian instinct here, with all of the obvious flaws that come with that political philosophy. Underneath that surface-level rhetoric is a more pernicious return to the rhetoric of states rights, a racist dog whistle that for decades allowed conservatives to mask their opposition to civil rights and progressive government policies as a principled small government philosophy.
There are very real criticisms to be made of the U.S. Constitution, which has many counter-majoritarian aspects built into it. There’s a strong case to be made that the Constitution is actually an impediment to building a more progressive, just, and small-d democratic society. That’s not what Meckler and his movement are about. The vision of the country they’re putting forward is a regressive one, oriented around states’ rights and all the racist implications that come with it.