How to Fix American Government and Revive Democracy

There are several ways that we can reduce the power of special interests and make our government more democratic. The most promising reforms include creating more economic equality among citizens, adopting public financing of elections, and using more representative voting systems.

As I argued elsewhere on this site, the main problem right now with American government is a deficit of democracy. (See “What’s Really Wrong with Government.”)  Moneyed interests have too much power in our political system and the public has too little. But what can be done about this – how can we fix our government and revitalize democracy in the United States?

It is not as if this threat to democracy has gone unnoticed. Many citizens and organizations have been outraged about the rising power of affluent special interests. They have been working to address this issue of unequal power and have been pursuing several different approaches. These reform efforts fall into three broad categories. The first is to lessen the economic inequality in the private sphere that is being translated to political inequality in the public sphere. The second is to attempt to erect institutional barriers that prevent private power from being easily converted to political advantage. A third approach is to reform the voting process itself so that it becomes more democratic and more empowering to average voters. Let’s look briefly at each of these alternatives.

Toward Greater Economic Equality

The first line of attack is to go straight to the heart of the problem: our large inequalities in wealth and income. If these disparities are the basic cause of political inequalities, then these private inequalities need to be lessened if we want to move toward political system where power is more widely dispersed among all citizens. So we need to produce a fairer division of the economic pie that is created by the work of all Americans. However, such changes in the distribution of wealth and income will not come about naturally through the market, but can only be enacted through various kinds of public policies on the state and federal levels. Here are some policies that would help to reduce wage and wealth inequalities.1

  • Raise State and Federal Minimum Wages. This policy would immediately benefit those at the bottom of the economic ladder. During the last several decades, minimum wage has been increasingly falling behind the average wage and it needs to be increased.
  • Living Wage Policies. Another approach to raising the incomes of the poor and working class is to pass local ordinances requiring that a “living wage” be paid by companies with government contracts or subsidies. The wage has usually been pegged to the amount that would lift a family of three or four above the poverty level. Cities like Baltimore and Los Angeles have passed living wage laws that have increased the wages of thousands of workers in those urban areas.
  • Earned Income Tax Credits. Many liberals and conservatives agree that the EITC has been very successful in subsidizing the wages of low-income working families so that they may stay out of poverty. This program must be maintained and hopefully expanded to cover even more low income workers.
  • Full-Employment Policies. If government policymakers were more serious about reducing unemployment to a minimum, this would reduce both poverty and wage inequality. Many people are poor for lack of a full-time job. And when the employment market is tight, this forces companies to raise wages in order to attract workers.
  • Reducing High Corporate Salaries. Decreasing economic inequality may involve not only increasing the incomes of those on the bottom, but also putting reasonable limits on the income of those on the top. The salaries of top corporate executives have been ballooning while average wages have stagnated. U.S. CEOs currently make salaries that are over 200 times that of the average worker – a much higher disparity than we see in most other Western countries.
  • Bolstering Union Power. Government policies to strengthen the power of unions would probably have the highest payoffs in the effort to reduce wage inequality. Many other Western countries have lower levels of economic inequality precisely because unions are more common and have more clout. Union bargaining clearly helps to increase the wages and benefits of low and moderate income workers. We could do much more to facilitate the establishment of unions and to increase their bargaining power. For example, instead of the current lengthy process needed to establish unions, we could require instant recognition of any union that signs up a majority of workers in a workplace. We could also institute a ban on the use of permanent replacement workers – a major tool used by management to break strikes. Canada has this ban and also requires instant recognition of unions – one reason their rate of unionization is three times that of the U.S. Another change that would help unions would be to remove the ban on secondary boycotts, where workers from one company are prohibited from supporting strikers in another company – say by refusing to cross a picket line. Finally, the Taft-Hartely Act should be repealed.  This act impedes workers abilities to unionize and has legitimized a wide array of anti-union activities by employers.
  • Free or Low-Cost Higher Education. We should be increasing the number of government grants (not loans) for college students – or better yet, we should make higher education free for all Americans.2 After World War II, the G.I Bill enabled millions of people to get a debt-free college education, which gave a significant boost to their asset-building efforts. A similar effort now would help millions attend college and ensure that they graduate without a crushing load of debt.
  • Kidsave Accounts have been proposed that would guarantee every child $1,000 at birth and $500 per year to every child from ages one to five – all to be invested until retirement. This would significantly bolster Social Security and other retirement accounts for all Americans.
  • Progressive Taxation. More progressive tax rates would help to even the playing field. The rich should be paying more in income taxes. Estate taxes, which currently impact only the very richest families, should be maintained. Capital gains – which disproportionately go to the wealthy – should be taxed at the same rate as wages. Finally, a direct tax on wealth, from which most Americans would be exempt, would help to undermine huge concentrations of wealth. Many European countries already have such wealth taxes.
  • Employee Ownership Plans. Government policies should help to broaden employee ownership of businesses – the main generators of wealth in our country.3 Policies should encourage employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), profit-sharing plans, and widely granted stock options that would significantly increase the stake that workers have in private enterprises.

A more equitable distribution of income and wealth would certainly be a step in the right direction in the effort to remedy the unfair distribution of political power that we have in the U.S. The goal of these policies is not to eliminate economic inequality in America; no one is arguing that everyone should make the same amount of money. The point is to begin to reduce economic inequality to a more reasonable and just level – a level at which it will no longer undermine the promise of political equality.

Public Financing of Elections4

Even if wealth and income remains very unequal in the United States, there are several other reforms that would help to ensure that wealthy interests do not dominate in the political system. One is to erect barriers between private power and public power – barriers that make it difficult for financial advantages to be translated into political advantages. One area where this is absolutely essential is in elections. As documented in another article, well-off individuals and organizations are now able to use their financial clout to determine who runs for office and who has the best chance to win.

In the last 30 years, many campaign finance reform measures have been adopted. We now limit the size of individual donations and PAC donations, for instance. And more recently, unlimited “soft money” donations were banned. But none of these reforms have done much to stem the tide of private special interest money into campaigns. Private money behaves like water – if you damn it up in one place, it eventually just finds its way around the barrier and into the election process. Soft money, for example, has merely been reincarnated in the form of so-called “527” groups, which pour millions into campaign ads. And in 2010 the Supreme Court struck down the longstanding ban on corporations spending directly on political campaigns, which will leave them free to spend unlimited sums defeating candidates they oppose.

This situation has led many campaign finance reform advocates to argue that the only real solution to this problem is to get private money entirely out of campaigns. They are advocating public financing of elections, so that candidates will not be dependent at all on special interest money. Sometimes called “Clean Elections,” this system works in the following way. To qualify for public money, candidates must collect a number of small ($5-$10) donations from citizens – say 100 of these donations for a run at a state legislative seat. Candidates then agree to not raise or spend any private money in their campaigns. All qualified candidates then receive the same amount of public funds to run their campaign. A key provision is that if a rival candidate then spends large amounts of private money to defeat a publicly financed candidate, the latter would receive more public funds to keep them competitive.

Publicly financed campaigns are the best way to short-circuit the influence of private money in elections. They ensure that candidates are being responsive to their constituents, not to the special interest money they need to win office. And this system is not that expensive. It is estimated that all political campaigns in the United States could be publicly financed for about $10 from every citizen – a small price to pay to reclaim the democratic nature of elections.

Maine citizens used an initiative to pass a “Clean Elections Law” in 1996 and it has been a resounding success. By 2005, 83% of the State Senate and 77% of the State House were made up of legislators who ran “clean” campaigns. And this system now has broad support from candidates of all parties. Here are just a few of the endorsements by current legislators:

“I decided to use Clean Elections because I philosophically believe in not having private funding as a big part of our election process. I want to be beholden to the people who elected me, not special interests.”

Sen. Beth Edmonds, (D) Freeport

“Clean Elections has been great for democracy in Maine. It allows any individual with community support to run for office, it has increased voter choice, and increased competition while at the same time leveling the playing field for all candidates.”

Rep. Chris Rector, (R) Thomaston

Public financing not only has the advantage of lessening the political advantages that affluent interests have in elections, it also reduces their leverage in the lobbying process. Politicians who are less dependent on special interest money are also less likely to feel that they have to pay more attention to special interest lobbies. As one Maine lawmaker put it: “As a Clean Elections legislator, I find myself being lobbied a lot less than traditional candidates. It is a lot easier if someone’s trying to pressure you to say, ‘I owe my allegiance to the taxpayers of the State of Maine, and not to any special interest group.’”

Proportional Representation Elections: Empowering More Voters

A final approach to revitalizing democracy in the United States is to change the voting system itself – the method that determines how we cast our votes for candidates and how the winners are decided. Our current winner-take-all voting system is one of the least representative and least democratic of all forms of elections. Adopting a better voting system could go along ways toward enhancing the political power of average citizens, and this would help to blunt the influence of private economic power.

We are so used to our current “winner-take-all” voting system that we fail to see its many problems. But most of the rest of the world consider our system to be outmoded and undemocratic, and have rejected it in favor of what are called “proportional representation” voting systems – or PR.5 In a winner-take-all system, legislators are elected one at a time in single-member districts. We cast our vote for our one favorite candidate, and the winner is the one who receives the most votes. Only those people who vote for the winning candidate receive representation. Proportional representation elections differ from this system in two-ways. First, instead of electing legislators in single-member districts, they are elected in larger, multi-member districts where several legislators are elected at once. So under PR rules, a state legislature of 100 members might be elected in 20 five-member districts, or 10 ten-member districts.

The second difference is that who wins the legislative seats in PR elections is determined by the proportion of the votes that a party receives. So if we have a ten-member PR district in which the Democrats won 50% of the vote, five Democratic candidates would win seats. With 30% of the vote, Republicans would get three seats. If minor parties like the Libertarians and the Greens were to receive 10% of the vote each, they each would get one seat.6 Thus, in PR, all voters win some representation – not just the majority – and all voters have someone to speak for their interests in the legislative process.

Adopting proportional representation elections in the United States would go a long ways toward ensuring that all citizens have their fair share of power in our legislatures. PR elections would create diverse legislatures that include both major and minor parties. This would ensure that all political groups – not just the well-off – would have a chance to influence legislation. PR would give more power and representation to groups who traditionally have lacked access to large amounts of private financial power. Currently, for instance, neither of the major parties are strong advocates for the interests of the working class and the poor – because both parties are largely beholden to wealthy contributors and PACs. But under PR rules, it is likely that something like a Labor Party or a Progressive Party would emerge in the U.S. – a party that explicitly champions the cause of the workers and the poor. And such a party would win seats in the legislature where it could work for policies that help that portion of our population. It is the presence of these kinds of parties in most Europeans countries – Labor Parties, Social Democratic Parties, etc. – that are largely the reason that those legislatures have passed more laws that help boost wages and provide more support for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Proportional representation elections would also encourage higher voter turnout and in this way make elections and government more democratic. The more people that participate in elections, the more representative the results will be, and the more likely that public policies will reflect the views of average Americans. One of the reasons why those who are well-off now have more political influence is that they turn out to vote in much higher numbers. Voter participation is much higher for those in the upper and middle classes than for moderate- and low-income voters. But this is understandable – given our current two-party, winner-take-all election arrangements. Those on the upper end of the economic ladder are much more likely to find candidates who support their interests. Struggling farmers and poor inner-city residents are much less likely to find a candidate or party who puts their interests first – and so they have much less reason to turn out to vote.

But as we’ve seen, under PR rules parties are likely to emerge to represent all economic interests – even those who are less well-off. This will encourage these voters to participate in larger numbers and thus give them more representation and influence in our legislatures.7 It is not a coincidence that in countries that use PR, there are not the same stark differences in turnout among the economic classes. Most people vote most of time in these countries. Turnout levels often approach 80% or more, in contrast to the 40%-50% rates typical here.

In short, adopting proportional representation elections in the United States would help to equalize the current imbalances of power in our political system. All groups – regardless of their numbers or financial resources – would have their fair share of seats in our legislatures and a better chance to influence public policy decisions. And the more accurately we represent all citizens in the governmental process, the better the chance for the passage of more broadly egalitarian policies that are in the public interest.

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).