How to Fix American Government and Revive Democracy

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Getting from Here to There

Obviously, using these kinds of reforms to fix the problems of unequal political power will not be easy. But there are reasons to be hopeful – reasons to believe that reinvigorating our democracy is well within our reach. For one thing, history is on our side. During the last century, modern societies have been evolving in the direction of becoming more democratic and have promoted more egalitarian participation in the governing process. All the political reforms that have just been described are not pie-in-the-sky schemes, but real policies that are already in effect to some extent in many other Western democracies. Most other democracies, for instance, have a substantial amount of public financing of elections. Candidates and parties get public subsidies and governments grant large amounts of free television time. Also, most advanced democracies have now abandoned winner-take-all voting systems and have embraced more proportional systems. And the few remaining winner-take-all countries, such as Canada and Great Britain, now have wide-scale political movements promoting proportional representation. Finally, virtually all Western European democracies have economic policies in place that create a more egalitarian distribution of the wealth and income. So in a very real way, those Americans who are working for these kinds of political and policy reforms are swimming with the historical tide, not against it.

But we must not be naïve about the ease of change or the obstacles getting in the way. Those who want to reinvigorate democracy in the United States will certainly get no help from anti-government conservatives. These conservatives not only ignore the threat to democracy posed by vastly unequal amounts of economic and political power, they are actually making the problem worse. Under President Bush, the Republican agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy interests and program cuts for low-income Americans only deepened the economic divide between Americans – and thus further undermined political equality as well.

But it would be a mistake to simply blame conservative politicians for ignoring the sorry state of democracy in the U.S. To a certain extent, politicians of both parties have little incentive to make democratic reforms a priority. All politicians have gained their positions of power by taking advantage of our current political and economic arrangements, and so they are unlikely to challenge them. Though there are some principled politicians who support a more equitable division of economic and political power, many elected officials simply do not want to change a system that put them into power. Few, for example, support a public financing system that would give their opponents the same amount of campaign funds that they have. This means that we cannot count on democratic reforms coming from the top-down – from our political leaders. These changes will have to come from the bottom up, from demands made by the public. Policymakers will make these changes only when they are pressured to do so by us, or when the public bypasses established politicians by using the initiative and referendum process to pass reform laws.

This is nothing new. Virtually all efforts to transform and increase democracy in the United States have come as a result of grassroots political movements. As the American historian Alexander Keyssar has explained, democracy has always been an ongoing project in this country, and our political history has been very much a struggle between grassroots groups who have sought to expand democracy and those who have tried to limit it.8 Even something as rudimentary as expanding the right to vote to include all citizens is something that took decades of continual political struggle. It took two of the largest movements in American history -- the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement – to finally ensure that this key form of political power was dispersed equally in society. Today, this same ground-up political approach must be pursued in order to take the next steps down the path of democracy – steps to reclaim our government from the moneyed interests that dominate our political system today.

Fortunately, there are already many people and groups working on these issues. Labor unions and groups like Jobs with Justice and United for a Fair Economy are struggling to increase the economic and political clout of workers and create a more fair distribution of the fruits of economic growth. Other political organizations, including the Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, and Public Campaign, are working on campaign finance reform. Leading the fight for election system reform and the adoption of proportional representation is FairVote – The Center for Voting and Democracy. There are several state groups as well, such as Californians for Electoral Reform,that are educating Americans about how elections can be made fairer and more democratic. The existence of such groups is another reason to be politically hopeful; but they need much more of our active support if they are to make more headway in fixing our deficit of democracy in the United States.

More Democracy, More Trust, and More Government

Certainly many Americans have a legitimate reason to feel disappointed and frustrated with government – it often isn’t being responsive to their needs. Unfortunately, conservatives have been quick to exploit those feelings of alienation to further their own ideological agenda of cutting back on government programs. They argue that if government doesn’t listen to us, then we should reduce it. But the real solution is to make sure that government does listen to us – that all of us do have an equal voice in government. As the American philosopher John Dewey explained: “The cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy.” And what really needs to be reduced is not government, but the unfair power of affluent special interests. The more we do this, the more we can begin to build back up public trust in government. As our government becomes more representative and more responsive to all Americans, we will all begin to trust it more.

Here is another key point: the more democratic government becomes, the less afraid people will be of a large and active government. The stronger our democracy becomes, the more people will see the expansion of government powers as the expansion of their powers. The successful adoption of a universal health care plan, for instance, will now expand the power of many citizens to protect their families against serious illness and financial disaster. Similarly, the expansion of environmental, workplace, and consumer product regulations gives us a greater ability to protect ourselves from other grave threats to our well-being. “Big government” is much more appealing when it is seen as “big democracy” – a growth in our collectively ability to better our lives. If our government is to live up to its full potential as a way for us to promote the good life in the United States, then clearly what we need is not simply more government, but more democratic government as well.

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For a discussion of how to promote a more positive vision of government, see "A Pro-Government Campaign"

 

 


1. Most of the policies for reducing inequalities in wages and wealth have been adapted from Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel, Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Economic Inequality and Insecurity (New York: The New Press, 2000).

2. For details on such a plan, see “Free Higher Education: A Campaign for Free Tuition at Public Colleges and Universities,” http://www.freehighered.org/index.html.

3. For one of the best discussions of worker ownership and other ways of spreading the wealth, see Gar Alperovitz, American Beyond Capitalism (New York: Wiley and Sons, 2005) Chapter 1.

4. For more on the case for campaign finance reform and public funding of campaigns, see Public Campaign’s web site, particularly, “Clean Money Campaign Reform,” November 22, 2005 http://www.publicampaign.org/publications/factsheets/CleanMoneyCampaignReform.pdf

5. For a more detailed description of the case for proportional representation in the U.S., see Douglas J. Amy, Real Choices, New Voices: How Proportional Representation Elections Could Revitalize American Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

6. For more detail on how PR elections actually work, see Amy, Real Choices.

7. PR would also eliminate the “spoiler effect” that discourages people from turning out and voting for third party candidates. Under winner-take-all rules, Americans who want to support minor party candidates inevitably feel they are wasting their votes and will receive no representation. Even worse, voting for a third party candidate may create a “spoiler” – a candidate that takes enough votes away from one major party candidate to ensure the election of another. This is what Ralph Nader did in Florida in the 2000 election. He took enough votes away from Al Gore to ensure the election of George W. Bush as president. “Spoilers” are impossible under PR rules, and this gives more people an incentive to vote.

8. Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000).


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