As Mardi Gras parades took over the streets in New Orleans last February, more than 1,000 people, mostly Millennials, gathered at Tulane University to share ideas about ending corruption in America’s political system.
They weren’t talking about isolated cases of shady shenanigans by elected officials. They were talking about systemic subversions of democracy that deny some Americans of the right to vote or that rig the electoral system in favor of one party or another. They discussed how the fabric of democracy is being torn by powerful elites who want to keep the power they have and to gain more.
In more formal terms, these perversions of democracy are known as voter suppression, voter erasure, disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, uncontrolled campaign finance, the Electoral College, and “Trojan media” where foreign governments, hackers and other saboteurs disguise themselves to influence the outcome of our elections.
By one estimate, there are more than 80 organizations in the United States working to “unrig the system”. Many of them attended the Tulane conference to show solidarity and fire each other up about creating a bipartisan, inclusive movement to return American politics to some foundational ideas: Everyone should have the opportunity to vote; every vote should count; no segment of society should be able to buy elections; and we should not have to pay taxes to finance a government that works against the interests of its citizens.
Some of their ideas belong on buttons and bumper stickers: “Titles are good, but purpose is better”; “Politics is not broken, it’s fixed”; “We want our government to make original mistakes, not the same ones over and over”; “Voters should vote for character, not party”; and “No one should be able to buy campaign ads with rubles”.
If it sounds like an exaggeration to say that America’s democracy is rigged, ask yourself a few questions. Has electoral politics been subverted by gerrymandering and voter suppression? Why else do Republicans, who play the power game exceptionally well, overwhelmingly dominate governorships, state legislatures and Congress even though 66% of Americans do not identify as Republicans? In a healthy electoral system, we should expect greater balance.
Do unlimited and anonymous campaign donations mean that the rich determine who wins elections and makes public policy? Maybe the political influence of moneyed individuals and organizations is why we have a persistent and growing wealth gap in the United States.
Do elected officials pay more attention to lobbyists than to their own constituents? That could be one of the reasons that only 13% of likely U.S. voters think Congress is doing a good job. It might be why Congress fails to do something about climate change even though 60% of Americans want action.
Does the majority still rule? If so, why have five of our presidents, including two of the most recent, won election without winning the popular vote?
I mentioned some of these issues in the first post of this series. I’m bringing them up again because reforming our democracy is the first step to addressing so many other important problems. In a truly representative government, it would be less likely that women and ethnic minorities could be held down. Without the strangle-hold of special interests, we might stop taxpayer subsidies of fossil fuels, or put reasonable constraints on gun ownership, or clean up Wall Street.
If we want to prove to ourselves and the rest of the world that democracy works, then we have to disrupt the downward spiral in which special interests, the political elite and people on political extremes determine election outcomes, which discourages other citizens from participating, which allows the special interests, elites and extremists to continue controlling elections. Democracy grows weak while oligarchs and plutocrats flourish.
This cycle can be broken if the American people use their votes to break it. Last December, we saw a Democrat win a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, the deepest red of red states, where voter suppression and gerrymandering have been put in place to rig the system in favor of white conservatives. Remarkably, Doug Jones won the seat despite losing the popular vote in six of the state’s seven congressional districts. According to one post-election analysis, the key to Jones’ victory was the last district, where the borders had been drawn to isolate most of the state’s African American voters. But Blacks in that district turned out in such force that the rigging didn’t work. Jones won.
So, the most critical political question of 2018 is not whether Democrats will sweep the mid-term elections. It’s whether we will begin sweeping corruption out of our democracy.
It is not about Republicans and Democrats, Red or Blue, Left or Right. It’s about country. It’s not about whether everyone agrees with the positions I’ve taken here; it’s about giving everyone a reasonably equal opportunity to affect the outcomes.
A final thought. We praise the men and women in uniform who have risked and sacrificed their lives generation after generation to defend our form of government. But it isn’t enough to thank them, or to stand for the national anthem, or to salute the flag. Real gratitude is not that cheap. We citizens have important battles to fight at home. The most important of them now is to rebuild the kind of nation we ask our soldiers to protect.
One speaker, a former Marine, told the conferees in New Orleans about a saying in the Corps: You rise to the sound of the guns. There are protests in the streets these days by Americans with legitimate grievances, including a president who has unleashed the kraken of racism at home and made America a pariah abroad. In this midterm election and beyond, the rest of us are duty-bound to join them, each of us to the best of our abilities, and certainly with our votes.