Three Keys to a Peaceful Revolution
The gods must be seriously peeved. This past week alone, they unleashed an unnatural wave of natural disasters up and down the East Coast: a rare earthquake, a hurricane that pummeled its way to Vermont and beyond, lethal floods, falling trees and even a flurry of mini-tornadoes. The underground tremors cracked the tip of the Washington Monument and toppled stone pinnacles from the central tower of the National Cathedral.
If you happen to be a professional soothsayer, you’ve probably concluded by now that we’re as doomed as Julius Caesar: ill omens like these can only portend our imminent destruction. In fact, a lot of us have been thinking about destruction lately: the destruction of our economy, our retirement portfolios and the prosperous middle-class way of life we had grown accustomed to.
We’ve also been lamenting the deterioration of American politics into an ongoing shouting match between terminally irreconcilable extremists on the right and left. The majority of Americans believe their government is broken — not a good thing in a democracy — and the approval ratings for Congress have threatened to dip into the single digits.
In my darker moments I’ve flirted with the desperate remedy of revolution — preferably a peaceful moderate revolution — as the only way to drive the crooks, loonies, big-money interests and hard-shelled partisans out of Congress, K Street and the Supreme Court. We need to send a batallion of fresh-faced Mr. and Ms. Smiths to Washington, pronto, so they can snatch power away from the old guard and return it to electorate. But of course that won’t happen as long as the old guard has anything to say about it, and of course they always do.
The upside of this mess is that honest liberals and conservatives can finally agree on something: our government IS a mess, and it needs to be radically renovated. But how? By tossing brickbats and grenades at the lobbyists who have bought our elected representatives? By marching right up the steps of the Capitol, breaking down the door and occupying the House of Representatives?
If it’s high drama (and a prison sentence) you want, feel free to take me up on my proposals. But I know somebody with an even better idea.
He’s Stephen Erickson, founder and leader of Americans United to Rebuild Democracy. A lanky Yankee from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Erickson is a centrist who’s unafraid to propose radical reforms. (He was also the guiding spirit behind CenterMovement.org, a moderate group that had the good judgment to appoint me as a board member.)
Stephen Erickson is a pragmatic idealist. No brickbats, barricades and rabble-rousing demonstrations for this cool-headed revolutionary; instead, he outlines a three-point plan that would peacefully and legally shift power away from deeply entrenched partisan politicians and their big-money sugar-daddies. On his organization’s newly launched website, RebuildDemocracy.org, Erickson persuasively describes the problem:
We believe there are several root causes of our political system’s dysfunction.
First, Members of Congress are more concerned with their next re-election rather than the next generation. They are too focused on themselves and their political careers rather than the good of the country.
Second, Members of Congress take campaign donations from the same interests they regulate, in a corrupt system closely resembling bribery and extortion. Practically every piece of legislation passed – and not passed – in the US Congress is hopelessly tainted by special interests.
Third, the political establishment has created a an election system that overwhelmingly favors incumbents. Congressional elections are fundamentally unfair. Democrats and Republicans in Washington protect their own interests at the expense of our democracy.
It’s not always Right v. Left. Not on every issue.
Sometimes its Insiders v. Outsiders. Sometimes it’s simply right versus wrong.
There’s no need to kid ourselves. Grassroots activists on the Right and Left will always disagree intensely on most things. But that disagreement should not keep us from acting in our common interests or upon our common beliefs.
Those of us on the outside must work together to fix our broken democracy because Republican and Democrat establishment insiders stand together to protect their own privileges at the expense of the public good.
After his rousing call for a long-overdue housecleaning, Erickson reveals his three-point plan for rebuilding American democracy: 1) Term Limits for Members of the House and Senate, 2) a Clean Elections System, and 3) a Ban on Gerrymandering.
I have to confess that when I first saw the three-point plan, I shrugged and wondered “Is that all there is?” I expected more of a righteous, confrontational cleansing of the temple of government. I wanted to overturn the tables of the corporate money-changers and send them whimpering back to their offices on K Street. I wanted to ship the corrupt representatives back to their home states and let them gnash their teeth in exile from Washington, preferably on the unemployment line.
Instead, we seemed to be looking at solutions that only a dedicated policy wonk could love. Who cares about gerrymandering, right? The convoluted remapping of Congressional districts has been a fact of life since Davy Crockett’s day.
Then I delved into each issue, looked at Erickson’s reasoning and began to see the wisdom. Here, in three clear-cut, eminently reasonable, perfectly legal steps, was a plan for the quiet revolution that I (and plenty of other concerned Americans) had been dreaming about. It was pure genius.
According to Erickson, political careerism is the root of all evil in government. Eliminate the ignoble, self-serving preoccupations and rewards that go hand in hand with endless incumbency, and you’ve effectively cleaned up our democracy.
Let’s start with step one: term limits. Serving in Congress is addictive. Sure, most members could earn more as high-profile lawyers or corporate honchos, but the lifetime fame, power, perks and generous pensions are hard for any ego-driven individual to resist. Most of our elected representatives would take dictation from the devil to keep their comfy perches for life. And many of them end up doing just that.
What would term limits accomplish? Aside from banning the option of lifelong incumbency and the wheeler-dealership that accompanies it, this reform would force some much-needed fresh air into our government. Here’s how Erickson explains it:
Knowing that they won’t have a long careers in Congress, no matter what they do, our elected representatives will focus less on re-election and more on the needs of the nation. They will be less inclined to mortgage our tomorrows for political gain today. Term limits will circulate new and public-spirited citizens from a wide range of backgrounds through Congress. By constantly drawing new members from the public, Congress will more accurately represent the views and interests of the American people as a whole.
Imagine it, if you can: public servants who actually serve the public. That’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the first modern representative republic on these shores. They hadn’t planned on those representatives catering to special-interest lobbies in exchange for generous campaign contributions.
Lawmakers should not be allowed to directly and knowingly take campaign donations from the same interests they regulate.
At worst, campaign donations from special interests are legal bribes in which members of Congress create legislation to benefit their contributors. And it’s a two-way street. Members of Congress can apply pressure – subtle or otherwise – to a given business for protection money against unfriendly legislation. In other words, those elected representatives are essentially practicing legalized extortion.
Erickson’s proposed clean election system would finally break the link between lawmaking and campaign funding. Lobbyists with deep pockets would no longer enjoy the kinds of borderline-illicit rewards they now take for granted. Neither would the politicians. One hand would no longer be washing the other, yet everyone involved would be cleaner than ever. I like it.
What would a clean elections system look like? Erickson mentions two possible approaches: the Fair Elections Now Act, already proposed by the last Democrat-controlled Congress, would limit private campaign contributions to $100, then multiply each contribution fourfold with public money. (My own opinion: probably not the smartest solution during a federal debt crisis.)
The second approach, known as the Patriot System, would establish a blind trust for all campaign contributions. In other words, candidates would have absolutely no idea who’s funding their campaigns. They’d have no incentive for rewarding (or punishing) any group based on its generosity (or lack thereof). In return, no group would expect special favors from a candidate.
I think the Patriot System is brilliantly simple — and simply brilliant. (It was the brainchild of two Yale professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres.) No veiled bribes, no extortion, no sweetheart deals. Just pure representative government. I feel cleaner already, don’t you?
All right, let’s move on to step three: an end to gerrymandering. I know, I know… it’s probably not the most exciting way to spark a quiet revolution. But think about it: we’d be eliminating one of America’s oldest and most deeply rooted forms of political corruption. You can trace its pedigree all the way back to 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry redrew the boundaries of legislative districts in his state to create safe havens for members of his party. (The convoluted shapes of the redrawn districts reminded people of salamanders — Gerry’s salamanders… gerrymandering, get it?) Party operatives have been following Gerry’s lead ever since.
Today the problem is even more pervasive, aided by modern advances in mapping political demographics. Erickson writes:
With the coming of information technology, gerrymandering has moved from art to science. Today neighborhoods are cut into intricate puzzle pieces to effect maximum political advantage for the politically privileged. In gerrymandered districts, voters with minority viewpoints are practically disenfranchised and incumbent legislators are entrenched in office for life.
How do you redraw Congressional districts without re-gerrymandering them? The key, according to Erickson, is to move the process as far away from politicians and political partisans as we possibly can. We could even use (are you ready for this?) the historic boundaries of cities, townships and/or counties to define the districts. But that’s too simple, isn’t it? I’d say it’s admirably simple: instead of jiggling the map to manufacture one-party districts that automatically favor incumbents, we’d be creating districts of citizens who simply live near each other. What a concept!
The three proposed election reforms are great ideas, I can hear you say… but how do we turn them into law? Good question. We’d need a Constitutional amendment. But what if our representatives refuse to pass an amendment that would effectively curtail their longevity and power? Then we blaze a second path, one that has never been tried throughout the two-plus centuries of our republic. But it’s perfectly legal. In fact, it’s spelled out in the Constitution.
Article Five tells us that Congress must call a new Constitutional Convention when two-thirds of the state legislatures request it. If the proposed amendments are then approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures, they become law. So the power to change our nation’s political system for the better actually resides at the state level. The states could effectively tell Congress that the people demand term limits, clean elections and an end to gerrymandering. And Congress would have to listen.
To make these reforms happen, of course, we have to push for them. I think Americans United to Rebuild Democracy is the ideal place to start pushing. You have to agree that it’s a smarter solution to our political woes than tossing brickbats and grenades at scurrying lobbyists and Congressmen. Not as much fun, maybe, but a whole lot more practical and productive in the long run.
Even better, it could help put an end to the ongoing war between the left and right. We might still bicker about taxes and entitlements, but we can all agree that our broken political system needs fixing. And when we fix it together, we’re bound to find some common ground to unite us. I hope you’ll join us and help with the repair work.