Hypothetically, let's say the conservatives in America were to run on a religious platform and win with an overwhelming majority. What stops them from voting out the current constitution and re-writing it to a theocracy?
The system of government in the United States, however, is explicitly designed to make such an overwhelming majority very difficult to achieve.
According to the law, there are 2 ways that a constitutional amendment can be proposed:
- Constitutional convention approved by two thirds of the states legislatures
- Proposal by both two thirds of the house and two thirds of the senate
In order for an amendment to be ratified, you need approval of three quarters of states.
So if you have enough support, you can legally change the constitution to whatever you want. The difficulty is actually getting that much support. The amount of support you'll need in order to overturn democracy would have be truly overwhelming, and that is not feasible to achieve in a culture that all but worships the concept of Democracy.
Of course there's always the extra-legal option. If the country is unanimous about something, there's little that can stop them. In fact, they can just up and ignore the constitution and draft a new one. The constitution isn't magic; it's power is derived from people's willingness to abide by it.
This doesn't necessarily have to be a majority of the people either. If you can get control of enough of the military, then a coup can happen.
The primary road block in the path of any monolithic group of angry [group] enacting [oppressive] goals: these United States are a Republic, not a Democracy. Inasmuch a democracy is the tyranny of the majority, a republic restrains the will of the majority through a set of restrictive laws intended to limit government power.
Despite all indications to the contrary, to include the corruptibility of man, obnoxious weight of special interests, and more, these United States were built as a Republic, with a limited government that gains power from the populace.
Disclaimer: Yes, there were compromises and villainous actions at the founding of the country as well, but that doesn't negate the desired result.
Any effort to greatly undo the protection of individual rights codified by the Constitution would require actions in accordance with Article V of the same, violent over throw of the government, or the willful surrender and abdication of individual freedoms by the populace.
Putting aside a violent overthrow of the government, since the impacts of such an event would go well beyond installing a simple theocracy, focus on the other two. They are inextricably linked, given the full weight of the requirements to amend the Constitution in accordance with Article V. 3/4 of the States would have to ratify any amendment. That means 3/4ths of the state legislatures would also need to be in [group] control. How large do you think [group] is, as a proportion of the populace?
The last condition, where the populace surrenders and abdicates their individuals freedoms, is the most threatening because we can see indications that it is already happening. Look at the expanse of the Federal government beyond the confines of the Constitution, how it inserts itself into matters beyond its powers, and people accept it because "general welfare," an illusion of security, or personal gain.
This could just as easily apply to a left wing group, wanting to legalize discrimination against anyone who doesn't agree with them.
One political group would have to take over congress, the presidency, and most state governments.
They could amend the constitution, which requires the president, congress, and the majority of states to agree on, and also requires a lot of time - constitutional amendments can drag on for decades, as each state sets its own timetable on ratification. So the political group that seized control, would have to maintain that control for at least a couple of decades, probably longer.
In the interim, such a group would probably fracture from internal disagreements, fall into disfavor, and the amendments would either not make it out of congress, or would not be ratified by the requisite number of states.
This is one time that the wheels of government turning as slowly as they do, works to the advantage of all of us. It slows radical change to give the electorate plenty of time to consider the ramifications, and consequences, of that change.
Mostly the people of the United States. Even most of the highly devout christian conservatives understands why putting the church in charge of the government is a bad idea. But even if you could get every christian in the United States to agree that a Theocracy is a good thing, the decision on which religion gets to dominate would divide them as bitterly, and perhaps even more bitterly, than any policy issue to date including going back to the civil war. And diving further down the hypothetical rabbit hole, even if all those groups could come behind a single denomination, which specific branch of that domination would become another huge battle. And the reality is you are never going to get the Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Mormons to ever agree to allow any other denomination besides their own to dominate. The tenets of each religion make their beliefs in how things should be in a theocracy would not permit it.
But most people in the US, even those with strong religious convictions, would never want their church running the government. Taking away the choice to follow the tenets of your religion stops being about having faith in a higher power and wanting a place in heaven and become just a matter of following the law. That is not a holy and blessed devotion and demonstration of self discipline, and becomes an oppressive and eventually corrupted institution for self gain rather than the glory of god.
In the United States specifically, it would ultimately be up to the voters to stop them but, seeing as how the voters were the ones that put those representatives there in the first place, there wouldn't be much to do to stop them should they have enough support.
But that's how democracy works. If you support the notion that governments derive their power from the people that they represent, when the people indicate they want something (like electing super-majorities of people who run for office on theocratic platforms), then government is supposed to oblige.
In the U.S., thankfully, that would take a lot of support. The opportunistic theocrats would have to, at the very least, modify the first amendment which would be hard. If the theocrats decide not to modify the election process itself, then voters would have chances in future elections to vote people in to undo whatever they decided to do, so democracy itself would survive. The unelected federal judiciary could serve as a potential stop-gap in the form of striking down new laws that conflict with the constitution, but since I believe we're assuming the constitution will change in all of this through the legislature that may not be viable for too long.
If they did decide to do away with elections by amending the Constitution, then there wouldn't be much that anyone would be able to do short of popular revolt. But, assuming that the politicians who made it in to office were voted in with an overwhelming amount of public support, I wouldn't expect to see that happen.
I would like to stress that doing away with those protections in the U.S. would require so much support that, even if it's not impossible it is exceedingly unlikely in a climate where we sometimes have difficulty even agreeing on definitions of common words. The terror and beauty of democratic freedom is that if we want to give it away or simply choose not to decide, we can, but you can't do that if you don't have any freedom to begin with.
Absolutely nothing. It can certainly happen, if the popular mood turns especially extreme, or even apathetic, though that's not the same as saying it would be likely or easy.
In fact, there is a current movement being pushed by conservatives where they want to hold a Constitutional Convention. The claim is that they want to pass a balanced budget amendment. Opponents claim this is just the more popular window dressing to open the door to a Convention, and that they have a broader agenda.
One of the main objections to altering the Constitution in that way is that, once convened, there would be no restrictions on what can be changed or added if a voting bloc with enough votes was formed to push a particular agenda. Taking an extreme and unlikely hypothetical situation, one could come out of such a Convention with slavery legal and women not being allowed to vote.
34 states (2/3) are necessary to convene such a convention. Currently 28 states have passed measures (number changes as some states add, other rescind) calling for/approving of a Constitutional Convention (aka "Article V Convention", after the portion of the Constitution that covers that).
NOTE: I will come back and edit after further researching whether changes made in a Article V Convention would need further ratification by the states, as amendments that are passed by the House and Senate need to be.