Making America a Democracy Again

“Two things are important in politics. One is money. I don’t remember what the other one is.”
– Mark Hanna

America’s dumpster fire of an election, and the grotesque reality of a Trump presidency, have laid bare a harsh truth: the swelling torrent of campaign cash, across forty years of election cycles, has disenfranchised the American people, reserved political influence to a small and wealthy minority, and hollowed out the substance of our democracy. All that remains is democracy’s outward form, an increasingly fragile shell that nearly shattered at the unthinking touch of a narcissistic man-child who lacks qualification for high office. And yet President Trump has become the new normal. Politicians, operatives, and the journalists who write about them, persist in ignoring the main story of the 2016 election: a clear majority of the American people, whether they supported Trump or Sanders, have rebelled against being disenfranchised by money. To be sure, most voters don’t understand exactly how money has robbed them of a say in how they are governed. Nor do they have much idea how to get money out of politics and restore our democracy. My goal is to help my fellow Americans understand how campaign cash has ruined our democracy and how we might fix the problem.

Through my public speaking, blog, opinion pieces in journals and websites, and through my next book, I seek to expose the vast and varied damage wrought upon our democracy by money. Campaign cash has robbed Americans of the franchise by rendering their votes nearly meaningless. It has reduced policy to the lowest common denominator of the wishes of donors. Lobbying, which gains its muscle from political donations, fosters gridlock, creating a political system in which several thousand players each exercise a veto over policies of particular concern to them. Money has leached out much of the Democrats’ progressive substance, driving young talent from the party. In turn, radical mega-donors have driven the G.O.P. into an ideological wilderness, while decades of cynical practice have led Republican politicians and operatives to abandon the democratic form of government, routinely violating constitutional norms and actively working to suppress the vote. Money has produced a relationship of mutual contempt between leaders and led: Americans view politicians with the deepest cynicism, while candidates and their handlers regard the voters as at best a necessary evil, as children, to be placated and manipulated by emotional appeals crafted in focus groups, while the public’s business is transacted behind closed doors.

Worst of all, big money has led the political class to forget that being an American means something special, that the country stands for democracy, the ideal which defines our very nationhood. The American people remain as patriotic as ever, but for many of our leaders patriotism has degenerated into an empty slogan and an excuse for mean-spirited chauvinism and dangerous military adventures. Consequently, the United States has surrendered much of its claim to moral leadership abroad, while the dysfunction of our politics ties our hands, preventing us from giving the human community the leadership which could make all the difference as the peoples of the world seek to navigate the perilous decades which lie ahead. For these reasons, of all the political issues on the world’s agenda today, none is even remotely as important as campaign finance reform in the United States of America.

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