Among the many pleasures on election night last month was seeing the fire in Obama’s eye as he went off script — “by the way, we have to fix that” — during a wonderful election night speech. He was referring to the exceedingly long voter lines and shambolic voter administration in many parts of the country, particularly Florida, Arizona and Ohio. These were symptomatic of deeper structural problems, some of which are the product of political design (GOP voter suppression efforts) and some of plain dysfunctionality in election administration. Apparent on election night, and in the election campaign, is a major reform agenda, one that should be focused around the achievement of deeper democracy in the United States in the twenty first century. The problems are clear, and the solutions ones that will have to fought for against forces of reaction, cynicism and indifference. The first roadblock these forces will toss out is myopic national exceptionalism: “we have the best election system in the world.”
The Guardian journalist and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft provides an interesting contrast between the US and the UK in an argument to the contrary. Whereas the US political system was once at the vanguard of modernity, now it is an antiquated relic, its structural features sharing more with the eighteenth century world than that of the twenty first century. His conclusion:
If the American system is antiquated and dysfunctional, that dysfunction is preordained. Institutions designed 230 years ago for a handful of almost entirely agrarian colonies on the Atlantic coast with a population of fewer than four million (including slaves) are supposed to operate in a vast, advanced industrial nation of 314 million. Is it any wonder they don’t work? And mightn’t the Americans have something to learn from us, rather than we from them?
The tip of the spear of reform will be upon us soon in 2013 when the new Senate, on its first day, takes up the issue of filibuster reform. Harry Reid needs to get this done, and do so boldly. Here are a few other reform measures needed.
- A National Voter Administration agency. Congress can legislate the creation of a non-partisan technocratic agency whose job it is to register voters (this should be done by default, and those who don’t vote forced to pay a penalty like in Australia, though that system isn’t a perfect model). Rick Hasen has proposed a federal agency and his blog is a great resource for election law issues. This agency should also be charged with drawing Congressional districts on non-partisan criteria. It can be paid for by taxing corporate campaign donations if there are to be retained as the nostrums of a reactionary Supreme Court (SCOTUS) — ‘corporations are people’ & ‘money is speech’ — are likely to be with us for a while.
- Campaign finance reform which ushers in public financing of election campaigns. Media communication outlets should be mandated, as part of their licenses, to provide free airtime to qualifying candidates. There are lots of great public interest ideas out there.
- A Constitutional Convention to reform Congress (how about a push for one in 2020? My guess is that the need for this will be discussed much more by that date than it is today but it is unlikely for quite a while). Sample reforms could include extending the Presidential term to 6 years; abolition of the unrepresentative US Senate (or its reform so each Senator represents at least 3 million people, or taking a Senate seat from Wyoming and giving it to Washington DC), and the creation of a 4 year House of Representatives. The Electoral College, a legacy of slavery, could be abolished without this, of course.
It can be argued that the GOP majority in the 2010-2012 House was largely a product of gerrymandered districts and relatively low voter turnout. It was more than this: the new post-Citizens United world also helped the GOP, and its message still resonates with a good portion of the country. Now, despite the fact that a million more people voted for Democrats than Republicans last month, the GOP has retained its majority in the House, and we’re faced with more dysfunctionality and gridlock.
The “great experiment in democracy” is coming to terms with America’s changing demographics. The hegemony of “traditional America” is fading. In the twenty first century it needs a democratic system that empowers all its citizens, not one originally designed to protect aristocratic power, racial hegemony and established interests from popular sovereignty.
Time for some ‘democracy promotion’ at home.