SAVING AMERICAN DEMOCRACY
This blog appears every Thursday and on other days in reaction to events. My premise is that American democracy is in urgent danger of destruction – hollowed out across decades by the flood of campaign cash, and now under sustained assault by Donald Trump and the Republican Party: partisan gerrymandering; voter suppression; habitual lying to the voters about climate change and other crucial issues; and a president with nakedly authoritarian instincts who bridles against all restraints on his power. I analyze these problems and suggest solutions - ways to save the world's great democratic experiment. The blog also provides other political analysis, especially of the 2020 presidential race.
Since the Vietnam War, the Left in American politics has often lost sight of the ways that patriotism can be used to support a progressive agenda, as it was used during the Civil War and again during the Civil Rights movement. Branding opponents of the Vietnam War as unpatriotic, the Republican Party began a decades-long effort – without sufficient pushback from the Left – to appropriate the mantle of patriotism for itself, culminating in Donald Trump’s grotesque claim to “Make America Great Again” by promoting white nationalism. Yet if the United States can make a legitimate claim to greatness, this claim rests on our historic role as the birthplace and champion of democracy. The GOP’s aggressive efforts to wrap itself in the flag have let Americans on the Left forget that they – not the Right – most fully embody the democratic values that are the proper essence of American patriotism. Consequently, they overlook the powerful ways that they might use patriotism to win wider support for progressive policies.
The uniquely American equivalence between democracy and patriotism had its roots in the Declaration of Independence, but fully blossomed only during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln gave this democratic strand of American patriotism its most eloquent expression in the Gettysburg Address. Harkening back to the nation’s founding, Lincoln described the United States as “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The operative word here is dedicated. The United States, unlike every other nation, which was defined merely by geographic location, a shared language, or a ruling dynasty, was to be a political community defined by an ideal: a nation that stands for something, that stands for democracy. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Lincoln continued, “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
For Lincoln, as for all Northerners who understood that the war’s purpose was to preserve the Union, the war was a test of the world’s only democratic experiment. If democracy failed in the United States, than it might not be feasible “in any nation so conceived and so dedicated.” If the South managed to break apart the Union, democracy would have failed, perhaps to be lost for all humanity, for all time. And so 360,000 Union soldiers gave their lives, “so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In this way, the United States became not only the birthplace of democracy, but the world’s foremost champion of democracy, a role reprised (despite some tragic mistakes and frequent hypocrisy) in World War I, World War II, and in the Cold War struggle against communism.
To be sure, a look at our country’s history does not always present an uplifting picture. Sometimes it seems as if our democratic ideals have been honored more in the breach than in the observance. But the ideals have always remained a part of our political culture, a part of the national DNA, and at some crucial points, patriotism has inspired us to make the country live up to its ideals. If we are great because we have been the champions of democracy, then our national pride can goad us to perfect our democracy and live up to the standard that defines our nationhood. We can see this progressive use of patriotism in the history of our Civil Rights Movement, when Martin Luther King and other leaders could affirm, with right on their side, that racial segregation was undemocratic, and therefore unpatriotic and un-American.
In his celebrated “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King affirmed that “[w]e will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.” The young African-Americans who protested segregation by sitting down at lunch counters “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” Dr. King harnessed American patriotism to the cause of racial equality within a single sentence of the speech he gave on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a rapt audience of 250,000: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” In so doing, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, King put his finger on what may be the most distinctive component of American patriotism, the fact that the country has a defining creed, which constitutes a standard against which the nation must measure itself.
President John F. Kennedy sounded a similar note on June 11, 1963, when he spoke on national television to announce the civil rights legislation he was introducing in Congress, the bill that later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Invoking America’s role as the champion of democracy in the Cold War struggle against communism, Kennedy said: “We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is the land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettoes, no master race except with respect to Negroes?” Not at all subtly, Kennedy tarred defenders of segregation with the brush of Nazi racism, accusing them of seeing themselves as part of a “master race,” thereby branding their conduct as un-American and unpatriotic.
Just as democratic patriotism was harnessed to the cause of progress and social justice in the Civil Rights movement, so too can progressives and other Democrats use patriotism today to unite the Democratic Party, win a convincing victory in the 2020 elections, and advance the cause of reform. The time is ripe for such an effort because American democracy stands today in mortal danger, the Democratic Party is well-positioned to serve as democracy’s champion, and the upcoming elections may be our last chance to save government by the people in the land of its birth.
Our democracy has been hollowed out from within across the last four decades by a swelling torrent of campaign cash. High dollar donors now determine which political candidates are viable, and which policies these candidates may implement once they are in office. Americans can still vote, but with the candidates and their policies already chosen for them, they have little to vote for. A political system rigged in favor of the wealthy and of corporations has produced, among many unfortunate outcomes, three waves of tax cuts for the wealthy, dangerous environmental deregulation, cruel cuts in social welfare benefits, and the Republican Party’s denial of climate change.
Increasingly favoring policies (tax cuts for the wealthy, climate change denial) that are unpopular with the voters, Republican politicians have turned against democracy, trying to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them, through partisan gerrymandering and manifold forms of voter suppression. Not content with rigging elections, the GOP tries to make elections less important, by packing the courts with extreme conservatives who can apply the laws as they please, without ever having to face the voters. Republican politicians further undermine democracy by unflinchingly supporting President Trump, an imminent threat to democracy in his own right, who routinely tramples on the Constitution and democratic norms, calls the free press the “enemy of the people,” lies prolifically to the voters, and invites foreign interference in our elections, elections whose results he may not accept if they do not go his way.
Because American patriotism is inextricably bound up with democratic values, these Republican actions and policies are by definition unpatriotic. Without making this point in an inflammatory fashion, Democrats are well-positioned to wrap themselves in the flag in the 2020 elections, because of the steps they have taken – and can take in future – to defend and restore American democracy. Impeaching Donald Trump won’t remove him from office, but is worth doing because it lets Democrats take a stand for democracy and the Constitution, while Republicans defend the indefensible. In their first law of the present Congress, the aptly named For the People Act, House Democrats struck a blow for democracy on several fronts. If implemented, this law would make it much easier for Americans to vote, rather than more difficult, as Republicans are working overtime to achieve. It would end partisan gerrymandering by taking Congressional redistricting out of the hands of state governments and assigning to apolitical commissions. It would impose new restrictions on lobbying, and proposes some modest campaign finance reforms – reforms that are a step in the right direction, though still not nearly enough.
Truly effective campaign finance reform – a reform that breaks the power of wealthy donors over our politics – would make Democrats the unambiguous champions of our democracy, even as Republican politicians have manifestly become its enemies. This reform, usually known as “democracy dollars,” already exists in several versions, including two bills introduced in Congress. Presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang, and Bernie Sanders have all mentioned it, but none have made it a leading issue, and it has received no real attention from the press. I discuss this reform extensively in my blog post of 10/5/19. Very briefly, it works like this: the federal government gives every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw this money for personal use, but instead would go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With over 200 million registered voters as of 2016, this translates to $10 billion in small donations from voters, as compared to the $6.5 billion in private money spent on the 2016 federal elections. Every serious candidate would able to fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely with donations from voters. This would free politicians to serve the voters instead of serving high-dollar donors, the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy. Even better, every candidate would have to make a choice: opt into the democracy dollars system, and give up all future private donations, or else fund his or her campaign entirely with large private donations. Candidates who take the second course of action will be justly and ferociously accused of preferring to serve corporations and the wealthy instead of serving the voters. This intense political pressure would drive a very large part of the private money out of our political system, making the United States a democracy again within a single electoral cycle.
So here’s my advice for progressives and other Democrats as they approach the 2020 elections. Talk an awful lot less about their specific plans for health care, which is the main issue that seriously divides them. Unite the party around the shared mission of saving American democracy from big money, antidemocratic Republican policies, and the would-be dictator in the White House. Impeachment, the For the People Act, and the democracy dollars reform should be Democrats’ leading issues, their plan to restore our democracy. Finally, they should present the salvation of American democracy as the consummate expression of patriotism, an affirmation of our claim to greatness as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, the defining ideal that we must all strive to live up to. That Democrats do this is not only vitally necessary – because our democracy is indeed in terrible danger – but it is also very good politics. It provides a terrain of shared values upon which Democrats can reach out to independents and moderate Republicans. Not every American will support Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, but most Americans still believe in democracy, and every American is a patriot. This just might be the stuff of which a landslide election is made.
As I have commented in some of my recent posts, the last two decades have witnessed a disturbing and recurring pattern, in which Republican politicians have increasingly turned their backs on democratic values, and at times have actively undermined the democratic process. An early sign of this undemocratic tendency was House Republicans’ attempt to overturn the results of the 1996 election by impeaching Bill Clinton over a triviality. The disastrous 2003 war against Iraq marked another milestone in the degradation of our democracy, as the Bush administration outright lied about Saddam Hussein being connected with the 9/11 attacks, and heavily pressured the intelligence community to produce “proof” that Iraq was seeking to produce nuclear weapons. This antidemocratic tendency among Republican politicians blossomed after the 2010 census and their victory in the congressional elections of that year. The census gave Republicans in state governments the opportunity to take partisan gerrymandering to a new level, just as they increasingly sought ways – for example through voter ID laws and purging the voter rolls – to take the vote away from Americans who might not support them.
Not content with rigging elections through gerrymandering and voter suppression, Republican politicians have also striven to make elections less important for making and enforcing the laws. Trump and his congressional allies do this by packing the courts with conservative judges, vetted by the Federalist Society, who can interpret the laws as they please without ever having to face the voters. Stealing Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat was only the most conspicuous result of this court-packing scheme. As Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell slow-walked Barack Obama’s judicial appointments, creating a backlog of empty posts on the federal bench, and now is filling these posts by pushing through Donald Trump’s judicial nominations at a breakneck pace. But why these antidemocratic policies? Why has the G.O.P., in many ways, turned its back on the democratic values that define our nationhood, the values which have made this country great, which once made us an inspiration to freedom-loving people the world over?
A plausible short answer is that since the 1990s, the Republican Party has stood for policies which are unpopular with the American people. If elections were fought fairly, and if the voters fully understood the policies which the G.O.P. supports, Republicans would consistently lose elections. In a thoughtful op-ed piece about Republicans’ stance toward impeachment, Columbia University scholar Nicole Hemmer traces this pattern of Republican politicians supporting unpopular policies. An early example was the impeachment of Bill Clinton, which two thirds of the American people opposed. “It was a pattern,” Hemmer observes, “that would repeat itself over the next two decades [since the 2000 elections]. Republicans didn’t win every election — in fact, they’ve won the popular vote for president only once in the last 30 years. But they’ve commandeered the government repeatedly despite their unpopularity. Republican policy during the Obama administration made this clear: From debt-ceiling crises to Obamacare repeal to Medicare cuts to government shutdowns to tax cuts for the wealthy, the Republican Party chose the unpopular side of most major policy fights.” In a healthy, functioning democracy, you win power by offering policies which are popular among the voters. But if your policies are unpopular and you still want to gain power, the natural next step is to make the political system less democratic. And this is what Republican politicians have been doing, more and more with each passing year.
A final question is why Republicans have been supporting policies which most Americans reject. Any explanation has to be enormously complex, and for the moment I will focus on only one obvious part of the answer: campaign finance. While politicians in both parties desperately need corporations and wealthy individuals to pay for their election campaigns, Democratic donors are less exclusively focused on corporate profits and believe to some degree in social welfare spending which benefits Americans less fortunate than themselves. While Democratic donors have steadily pulled the party to the right (remember Bill Clinton saying “the era of big government is over”?), their views are not radically right-wing, like, say, the politics of hardline libertarians like the Koch brothers.
Being dependent on wealthy donors whose views are often radically conservative, Republicans have embraced policies that are at odds with the opinions and interests of most Americans. To take just one example, as a recent poll demonstrates, about 8 in 10 Americans think that human activity is driving climate change, nearly 4 in 10 call climate change a “crisis,” and two thirds think President Trump is doing too little to address the problem. Meanwhile, the President and most elected members of his party deny, in the face of the consensus of the scientific community, that burning fossil fuels drives global warming. Why? Because these Republicans can claim superior expertise in climate science? A more obvious reason is that since 1990, the oil and gas industry has given more than two-thirds of its political donations to Republicans, with the G.O.P.’s share of the industry’s donations increasing steeply over time. In the 2018 congressional election, for example, of the over $49 million which the industry gave to individual candidates (as opposed to political committees), 87% went to Republicans.
Unpopular policies like denying climate change or giving tax breaks to the wealthy, and the way such unpopular policies encourage the G.O.P. to undermine democracy, demonstrate why the most important item on the American political agenda ought to be campaign finance reform. As I have argued in several recent posts – see especially my post of October 5 – the democracy dollars model of public financing of elections would break the power of wealthy donors and restore this power to the voters, where it belongs in a democracy. This would let politicians in both parties serve the voters instead of the donors, and let Republicans support policies that are genuinely popular, so they can stop undermining the democratic values which define the proper essence of American patriotism. The terrible dysfunction of our political system often seems too complicated to understand, but sometimes it is very simple: it’s all about the Benjamins.
Many of my recent posts have discussed the democracy dollars method of campaign finance reform, in which the government would give all registered voters money that they could donate to political campaigns. This reform would free politicians from their dependence on the millionaires and billionaires who currently finance their campaigns, and allow elected officials to serve the voters, the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy. Today, however, I want to back up and address the question: why is it so bad to have millionaires and billionaires paying for election campaigns? How, exactly, does big money damage our political system? Thanks to reporting this past Tuesday by the Washington Post, we have an unusually vivid example, taken from the shenanigans of the payday lending industry.
Payday lenders may well be the most predatory branch of the sprawling financial services industry. Working online and out of some 16,000 storefronts nationwide, they take advantage of Americans who barely get by paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes come up short when they need to pay their bills. These financially strapped Americans go to payday lenders, who give them short term loans in small amounts – ranging from $300 to $5,000 – which the borrower will supposedly pay back upon getting his or her next paycheck. In practice, however, the borrower is often unable to repay the loan quickly, and has to carry it over to subsequent months as interest on the loan accrues with frightening speed: interest rates on these loans range from 34 to 450 per cent in the case of Enova, one lending company, depending on the amount of the loan, the maturity date, and the borrower’s credit score. About 12 million Americans use such loans every year.
Under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) – an agency founded in 2011, in part thanks to determined campaigning by Elizabeth Warren before she became a senator – moved to reign in some of the payday lending industry’s worst abuses. In particular, the CFPB required that lenders assess a borrower’s ability to pay before making a loan. Under Trump, the CFPB now contemplates rolling back that regulation, and the industry is encouraging this change by forging stronger ties with the Trump administration, using generous campaign donations. We learned this from a September webinar produced by an industry consultant, Borrow Smart Compliance, which posted the video on YouTube, only to take it down after being questioned by a Post reporter.
The video features Michael Hodges, founder of the major payday lender Advance Financial, encouraging members of his industry to donate to Trump. “Every dollar amount, no matter how small or large it is,” is important, he said. “For example, I’ve gone to Ronna McDaniel and said, ‘Ronna, I need help on something,’” referring to the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. “She’s been able to call over to the White House and say, ‘Hey, we have one of our large givers. They need an audience. … They need to be heard and you need to listen to them.’ So that’s why it’s important.” Hodges said that he made more than $1 million in campaign donations since 2016 to help Trump, and that he and his wife had worked to persuade others to contribute as well.
Of course, Hodges did not say “I gave them $100,000 last week in exchange for the CFPB rolling back this regulation.” Such an explicit exchange of money for a political favor is bribery. No one would acknowledge it in public, and few if any campaign contributors would say it in private. It doesn’t need to be said. Both parties in this transaction know what is expected of them. Politicians know that if they take actions which favor this or that industry or individual, they will almost certainly receive campaign contributions from the affected individual or industry. In turn, corporations and wealthy donors know that if they make generous contributions to politicians’ election campaigns, those politicians will take their calls, listen to their needs, and help them to the extent that they can. It’s not a single bribe for a single favor, but rather an ongoing relationship that endures, election after election, played according to rules which both sides understand implicitly.
The only thing unusual about the webinar viewed by the Post’s reporters is that the people who made it were shameless enough to put it up on YouTube, not thinking that it might be embarrassing to share with the public how money buys influence in our political system. The use of campaign cash to purchase influence has become so pervasive that our political class has forgotten that is both undemocratic and morally wrong.
Human civilization has arrived at what may be the greatest fork in the road of our collective history. According to an international panel of scientists reporting for the UN, the world’s nations have only until 2030 to make the deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions that are needed to prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change. For the world’s peoples to rally in such a collective effort would be unprecedented, and such an effort will not happen without American leadership. Probably what will be needed is a climate change Marshall Plan in which the United States and the world’s other richest nations provide clean energy technology, sold at a deep discount and sometimes offered as outright gifts, to developing countries like India which currently fuel their economic growth by burning fossil fuels. But at present the United States is in no position to lead anything, and not only because of Donald Trump’s moral depravity, contempt for our allies, and denial of climate change. We have also lost our ability to lead because our once exemplary democracy has degenerated into a shadow of its former self, and the American people have forgotten the claim we can make to a special destiny, a glorious history, and a unique capacity to lead the human community. In a word, we have forgotten the most essential meanings of American patriotism.
The leadership role which this nation assumed after 1945, founding the United Nations, aiding Europe’s recovery with the Marshall Plan, and then leading the “free world” in the fifty-year struggle against communism, rested in part on the strength of our economy and our military. But it also depended substantially on the moral authority which we enjoyed as the birthplace of modern democracy and as the world’s foremost champion of democracy. Most of us, and especially the political class, have forgotten how truly unique this country has been in the long history of humanity. Consider the North’s decision to fight the Civil War. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to simply let the Southern states go their own way. Instead the North fought for four long years, at the cost of some 360,000 lives. And why? To “preserve the Union.” And why did the Union have to be preserved? Because it represented the world’s great democratic experiment, and if the Southern states succeeded in breaking it apart, democracy would have failed, perhaps to be lost for humanity for all time. Union soldiers at the front, judging from the letters they wrote home, understood this purpose of the war as well as Lincoln did when he spoke at Gettysburg. They were willing to die so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” This altruistic democratic project continued in World War I, a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” even though Imperial Germany and its allies posed no threat whatsoever to the American homeland. In World War II, although Americans probably fought chiefly to defend the country from the threat posed by Hitler (and in the Pacific to avenge Pearl Harbor), an altruistic desire to free occupied Europe also played a role. No other country can make this kind of claim. No other nation can boast such a glorious history. No other people has the potential moral authority to lead the world in the desperate battle against climate change.
I say potential moral authority because across the last four decades, and especially in the last three years, the United States has lost its position as the world’s leading democracy. Campaign finance has been the most important cause of our democracy’s decline. As the cost of election campaigns has risen dramatically in a ceaseless arms race between the parties, candidates have become more and more dependent on wealthy donors to get elected and reelected, and raising money has become a central part of every politician’s job. For many years now, high-dollar donors have determined which candidates are viable and which are not, and have held a veto over the policies these politicians may support once in office. We Americans can still vote, but with the candidates and their programs already chosen for us, we have little to vote for, which is why most Americans are profoundly alienated from the political system, even if they don’t understand the precise mechanisms by which they have been disenfranchised. (For a deeper understanding of these problems, the best single-volume discussion is Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost.)
Making matters worse, radically conservative donors like the Koch brothers have driven the Republican Party into an ideological wilderness, where they deny climate change and consistently favor policies – like tax cuts for the wealthy – that run counter to the interests of most Americans. Supporting inherently unpopular policies, Republican politicians (though not Republican voters) have become hostile to the democratic process. Republican officials seek to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them, through partisan gerrymandering and numerous forms of voter suppression. They rig the political game by choosing biased referees, aggressively packing the courts with conservative ideologues vetted by the Federalist Society. They lie to the voters about climate change and other profoundly consequential matters. And they actively and almost unanimously support Donald Trump – an imminent threat to our democracy in his own right – who bridles at every restraint on his power, labels the free press the “enemy of the people,” ignores the constitutional separation of powers (e.g., in the fight over his border wall), lies prolifically to the voters almost every day, routinely tramples on democratic norms, and encourages foreign powers to meddle in our elections, elections whose results he may not accept if they don’t go his way.
Taking these three threats to our democracy together – campaign cash, the Republican Party, and Donald Trump – we must recognize that our democracy now stands under greater threat than at any time in our history since World War II, perhaps even than during the Civil War. The 2020 elections may well be the last chance to save government of the people, by the people, for the people, in the land of its birth. Fortunately, the Democratic Party has begun to rouse itself in the struggle to save our democratic system. The near-certain impeachment of Donald Trump, though it probably will not lead to his conviction in the Senate and removal from office, lays down a marker, showing that Democrats stand for our democracy and our Constitution. Likewise, in their first legislative act of this Congress, the House passed the aptly named For the People Act, which includes several policies protecting Americans’ right to vote, and eliminates partisan gerrymandering by taking Congressional redistricting out of the hands of state governments. The only piece missing from Democrats’ effort to save our democracy is effective campaign finance reform, and even here we have a fully drafted bill, introduced at the end of the last Congress, namely Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act. (Rep. Pramila Jayapal has introduced her own Democracy Dollars Act in the current Congress, but it is a half-measure. Instead of immediately creating a national democracy dollars system, it just authorizes the Federal Election Commission to choose three states to try out democracy dollars systems as an experiment at the state level. It is too little, too late.
Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government will give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters can’t withdraw this money for personal use, but instead go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With over 200 million registered voters, this translates to $10 billion in public funding, outweighing even the $6.5 billion in private money spent on the 2016 federal elections (congress and presidency). Any serious candidate would be able to fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely from funds given by the voters, which means these candidates, once in office, can serve the voters instead of serving high-dollar donors. Candidates challenging incumbents would probably need some private funds to get their campaigns off the ground, but once they’re known to the public, all candidates face a choice: opt into the Democracy Dollars system, and give up all future private financing, or else rely on private donations for the entire campaign. Candidates who choose the second course will be justly and ferociously criticized for preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of serving the public interest. This intense political pressure would likely drive a lot of the private money out of our political system. Within a single electoral cycle, the Democracy Dollars reform could restore the power to the voters, making our country a healthy democracy once again. So why is no one talking about it?
Any kind of effective campaign finance reform poses a terrible dilemma for the great majority of politicians who would like to support it. They are bound to the current system of campaign finance, with its dependence on wealthy donors, by golden handcuffs. How do you go out one day and campaign against the evils of big money in politics, and the next day go back to your donors and ask for money? It means, in effect, saying: “give me a ton of money so I can push through this campaign finance reform, after which I’ll never have to take your calls again.” This, I submit, is why most Congressional Democrats, though they obviously know about Khanna’s bill, remain silent on the subject, and one can hardly blame them. Luckily, however, there are two presidential candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have financed their campaigns overwhelmingly with small donations. They don’t need the big donors, which has liberated them to advocate for very progressive policies and the tax increases needed to pay for them. Warren and Sanders could easily make Democracy Dollars a central issue in their campaigns. After all, this idea fits perfectly with their larger message: that the political system is rigged in favor of corporations and wealthy individuals. Talking about Democracy Dollars lets them explain to the voters exactly how the system has been rigged, and how they intend to fix it. Just as important, Sanders and Warren need this campaign finance reform if they want to accomplish their progressive agenda. Their policies will require very large tax increases on the wealthy, which can’t happen as long as these same wealthy people pay for almost all our politicians’ campaigns. Why Sanders and Warren have so far overlooked the Democracy Dollars concept is indeed an intriguing mystery.
Let’s now circle back to the topic with which we began this discussion, namely the existential threat which climate change poses to human civilization. While the odds against our avoiding catastrophe are indeed very steep, the task is not impossible. I submit that a very specific series of steps, taken in the United States and abroad, can lead, from one to the next, and ultimately to the salvation of the human community. The first step is for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to make Democracy Dollars central to their messages. This step can in turn pave the way for the Democratic Party as a whole, including its eventual presidential nominee, to make saving American democracy the most important issue of the 2020 elections. This is a good idea in part because American democracy does in fact need to be saved – from big money, antidemocratic Republican policies, and a would-be dictator in the White House. But making saving democracy the central theme is also shrewd politics, because it invokes shared values with which Democrats can reach out to independents, moderate Republicans, and maybe even a few enthusiastic Trump supporters. After all, many Americans will not like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, but every American, or so I hope, still believes in democracy.
Making saving democracy the central campaign theme in turn provides the opportunity to reeducate the American people about the historically enduring meaning of patriotism in the United States, in our uniquely American equivalence between patriotism and democracy. It is a teachable moment: while showing Americans how much of our democracy we have lost, we can remind them of our glorious history, of our unique role as the inventors and champions of democracy, of democracy as our priceless gift to humankind, paid for with the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The unavoidable subtext of this use of patriotism is that any act or policy which undermines democracy is by definition un-American and unpatriotic. And although it probably shouldn’t be said in public, at some point it needs to be said: in recent years Republican politicians have often behaved in ways that are disgustingly unpatriotic. Through partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, packing the courts, lying to the voters, and supporting Donald Trump, these Republicans have betrayed the ideals which made this country great. (The only commentator besides myself who has said this directly seems to be Paul Krugman.) This is not to say that Republican politicians lack patriotism, that they love our country any less than Democrats do. But they have lost their way, they have forgotten one of the most important reasons for loving the United States, they have forgotten the democratic essence of our claim to greatness.
To accuse a political opponent of behaving unpatriotically is playing with fire. Democrats would be well advised to tread carefully here. But surely we can use appeals to patriotism in a positive manner, showing how the Democracy Dollars Act, the For the People Act, and the impeachment of Donald Trump are consummately patriotic actions and policies. We can leave it to the voters to draw any negative inferences about our Republican opponents. By fighting for these policies which will save American democracy, Democrats can wrap themselves in the flag, in way that their opponents clearly cannot. This is good politics, not least because it creates common ground upon which Democrats can reach out, past the polarization of the electorate, to independents, moderate Republicans, and even many ardent supporters of Donald Trump. Not every American will support a wealth tax or debt-free college, but every American is a patriot. This might be the stuff of which a landslide is made.
Not only is a 2020 campaign built on democratic patriotism a shrewd political move. It is also the necessary final step that has to be taken if the United States is to play its indispensable role in leading the world against climate change. At present the American people are badly divided, and they are looking only inward, at the many problems our country has here at home. But if Democrats campaign on restoring our democracy and reinvigorating our democratic patriotism, we can overcome some of our partisan divisions, by embracing our most strongly felt shared values. We can recapture Americans’ faith in our exceptionalism, in our national purpose, in our ability and our duty to lead, in our destiny. Only then will Americans be able to rise to the greatest of challenges – as we did in the Civil War and in World War II – and give humankind a fighting chance to save our civilization.
Yet another Democratic primary debate, yet another empty exercise, because no candidate even mentioned the issue that holds the key to every other policy question they discussed: robust campaign finance reform. None of the bold policies that some candidates proposed – Medicare-for-All, a wealth tax, Biden’s plan to close $600 billion of unneeded tax loopholes and end the preferential tax treatment of capital gains in the stock market, the Green New Deal – has the slightest chance of being enacted as long as wealthy donors, who would have to pay the taxes needed to fund these policies, pay for nearly every politician’s election campaign. Yes, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have funded their campaigns almost entirely from small donations, so they are at least free to advocate such bold policies. But if elected they will still have to deal with a Congress whose members were almost all elected thanks to massive support from high-dollar donors, the same donors they will need to go back to during their reelection campaigns in the 2020 midterms.
Tom Steyer spoke eloquently and repeatedly about how corporations have bought our government, as did Elizabeth Warren, but neither candidate offered a solution. On this subject Warren said only that she herself takes no corporate PAC donations and doesn’t pursue high-dollar donors, and challenged other politicians to do the same. But realistically only a handful of candidates, usually at the presidential level, have high enough of a profile to draw a sufficient number of small donations. If you go to Warren’s website, the main policy reform she proposes is a constitutional amendment to overturn Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United, and other Supreme Court cases that have eviscerated our campaign finance regulations. But given Republicans’ unanimous and adamant opposition to all campaign finance regulation, such a constitutional amendment is a sheer impossibility. Luckily, all is not lost. A highly effective campaign finance reform, one which the Supreme Court probably cannot strike down, already exists as a fully written bill, submitted near the end of the last Congress.
I refer to Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act, inspired in part by a 2002 book written by two Yale Law School professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, titled Voting with Dollars. Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government would give each registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw the cash for personal use, but would instead go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters, this translates to $10 billion in public funds for election campaigns, outweighing even the massive $6.5 billion in private money spent during the 2016 federal elections (Congress and Presidency). Every serious candidate would be able to fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely from funds given by the voters. Currently, wealthy donors pay the piper and so they call the tune. Khanna’s bill makes the voters into the donors, collectively even bigger donors than the notorious Koch brothers.
While candidates challenging incumbents would need private donations to get their campaigns off the ground, at some point every candidate would face a choice: opt into the Democracy Dollars system, and forswear all future private donations, or else fund his or her entire campaign with private money. Candidates who chose the second course would be justly and ferociously accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of serving the American people. This immense political pressure would drive a lot of the private money out of our politics, and go a long way toward making the United States a democracy again, instead of the plutocracy it is today. So why is no one talking about this common-sense, game-changing reform?
As a practical matter, many candidates can’t make democracy dollars a leading issue, because they already depend so heavily on high-dollar donors. It would be awkward to go to their donors and say: “give me tons of money so I can push through this reform, which will let me never have to take your calls again.” But Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have no such problem. They rely chiefly on small donors. And the democracy dollars reform fits seamlessly into their larger messages. Both correctly and often eloquently say the political system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and corporations. Talking about democracy dollars lets them educate the public about exactly how the system has been rigged, and how they will go about fixing it. And without the democracy dollars reform, few of their progressive policies has a chance of getting through Congress. So what are they waiting for?
One of the most dispiriting features of American political discourse is the lack of urgency felt by all participants, the baffling assumption that we live in normal times except for having Donald Trump as President, the failure to see the gravity of the threats facing the human community and the American people as its leading members.
We don’t live in October 10, 2019. The date is December 8, 1941. The Japanese have just attacked Pearl Harbor, and our nation faces total war on two fronts against fearsome enemies. The date is April 13, 1861. The Southern states have seceded from the Union and Fort Sumter has surrendered. The country faces the four bloodiest years of war in its entire history. And yet half the Democratic Party seems to think that all we need accomplish in 2020 is to drive Donald Trump from the White House. No, we live in much more serious, truly historic times.
Climate change alone presents a graver threat to human civilization than even that posed by Adolf Hitler and his war machine. In addition to the damage wrought by increasingly violent weather, one quarter of humanity lives in countries faced with the imminent prospect of running out of fresh drinking water. Also in part because of climate change, the world’s supply of arable land is shrinking and declining in productivity. Paired with excessive population growth, major food shortages threaten human beings across the globe. One consequence of such shortages will be massive increases in migration, which already poses serious political problems within the developed world. As one expert put the matter: “People don’t stay and die where they are. People migrate.”
In the face of climate change, the world desperately needs American leadership. We need a new Paris accord, but one with meaningful enforcement provisions and much more ambitious goals. Probably the world needs nothing less than a climate change Marshall Plan, in which the world’s richest countries – we and our allies in Western Europe and North Asia – provide financial aid and renewable energy technology to developing countries like India, that otherwise will drive their economic growth by burning fossil fuels. This worldwide effort will mean financial sacrifices in the richest countries, but also millions of new, high paying jobs producing wind turbines, solar panels, and nuclear reactors. Only American leadership can make this collective effort by the world’s nations possible. We are the indispensable nation, not only by virtue of the size of our economy, but also because of the position of moral leadership that we have enjoyed, going all the way back to our Civil War, as the birthplace of modern democracy and as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, a nation that has given the lives of over a million young men in wars fought for freedom.
Today the notion of American moral leadership seems at times almost quaint, more a fading memory than a living reality. This is not only because of Donald Trump’s moral depravity and his habit of denigrating our allies and cozying up to dictators. The problem runs much deeper: here in the land of its birth, the democratic form of government is on the ropes. Our political life has become a circus, and our moral authority in the world is rapidly evaporating.
Across the last four decades, a steadily swelling torrent of campaign cash has hollowed out the substance of our democracy from within. The indispensable high-dollar donors determine which candidates for public office can run viable campaigns, and they hold a veto over the policies these candidates may enact once in office, since politicians must return to these donors again and again to get reelected. The American people can still vote, but they don’t have much to vote for, since a tiny minority has already chosen the candidates and their policy programs. Not being stupid, the voters recognize that they have been disenfranchised, even if they don’t understand precisely how this was done to them. This is a large part of how we ended up with a morally depraved buffoon in the White House: in 2016, Trump was the candidate of change, and many Americans took the desperate gamble of change at any price. And the tyranny of big money is only one part of the terrible damage that has been done to our democracy.
Across the last three decades, as they championed policies that don’t benefit most Americans (e.g. tax cuts for the wealthy), the Republican party has turned its back on the democratic values that made this country great, instead seeking victory at any price. Republicans strive to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them, by partisan gerrymandering and various forms of vote suppression. They rig the political game by choosing biased referees, aggressively packing the courts with conservative ideologues vetted by the Federalist Society. Republican politicians undermine democracy by lying to the voters, most consequentially about climate change, and by repeatedly claiming – against all the evidence – that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves with increased revenue. And now, as the decline and fall of American democracy moves toward its possible endgame, Republican officials slavishly support a president of nakedly authoritarian leanings, who bridles at all restraints on his authority, dangerously politicizes the civil service, flouts the constitutional separation of powers, lies prolifically to the voters almost every day, calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” and invites the interference of foreign powers in our elections, elections that he has openly proposed to disregard if he doesn’t win.
From being the world’s foremost champion of democracy and an inspiration to humanity, we have become a poster child for the ostensible dysfunction of democracy, a warning that autocrats can hold out to their subjects. Not only does our crumbling democracy undermine our claim to lead the human community, but our dysfunctional political system has left us with a backlog of unaddressed problems here at home: decrepit infrastructure; an overly expensive health care system that doesn’t serve all our people; growing economic inequality and declining chances of upward social mobility; and the eruption of white nationalism into the political mainstream. These daunting problems – especially in the face of Republican obstruction and ideological hostility to government social programs – have led Democrats in this election season to focus entirely on second-order issues. Yes, health care and debt free college are indisputably important and deserve extensive discussion, but something far more important is at stake in November 2020: American democracy is now under greater threat than it has been at any time in our history since the Civil War, and only the Democratic Party can save it from big money, Republican sabotage, and a would-be dictator in the White House.
So we live in December 8, 1941, and in April 13, 1861. Why does no one in the political system see the urgency that our past leaders did on those dates? Part of the difference lies of course in the dramatic nature of a war’s outbreak, which focuses everyone’s attention. But I submit that the crux of the problem lies in campaign finance. As a practical matter, to address our domestic problems and to lead the world against climate change, our government will need trillions upon trillions of dollars of new revenue. This money can only come from the people who have it: massive tax increases on the wealthy, levels of taxation that they have not paid since the Eisenhower administration. But as long as these same people finance all our political campaigns, tax increases will remain taboo. Big money in politics has also disenfranchised the voters, and ultraconservative donors have driven Republican politicians into an ideological wilderness and a rejection of democracy. After all, if Republicans want to implement policies which please the Koch brothers, they have to pack the courts, rig elections, and maybe someday get rid of elections altogether.
In several recent posts on this blog I have championed Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act, introduced at the end of the last Congress, in December 2018. This is the boldest campaign finance reform measure since McCain-Feingold (a 2002 law that has since been eviscerated in several Supreme Court decisions, of which Citizens United (2010) is the best known). Khanna’s bill is a reform of breathtaking scope that, if implemented, would break the stranglehold that wealthy campaign donors hold over our politics, and make the United States a thriving democracy again. Equally important, the Supreme Court will probably not be able to invalidate this reform on constitutional grounds, the way they did to McCain-Feingold. In this post I will briefly explain the Democracy Dollars reform, review its benefits for our political system, answer some possible objections to it, explain why it should survive constitutional review by the Roberts Court, and argue that it should be central to Democrats’ strategy in the 2020 elections.
The Democracy Dollars reform concept originated in the book Voting With Dollars, by two Yale Law School Professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres (Yale, 2002). During the current Democratic presidential primary, candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang proposed versions of this reform, though they said little about it and it has not drawn much media attention. Khanna’s bill, however, is a fully-developed law for implementing this reform. Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government would give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw this money for personal use, but would instead go online and assign it to the candidates or political action committees of their choice. With over 200 million registered voters as of 2016, this translates to $10 billion of public financing for candidates, dwarfing even the massive $6.5 billion in private money spent on the 2016 federal elections (presidency and Congress).
No candidate would be compelled to use the Democracy Dollars system – and many would need private donations to get their campaigns off the ground – but once a candidate opts into the Democracy Dollars system to get public funding, he or she has to give up all future private donations. Any candidate who fails to do so will be fiercely and justly accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of serving the voters. This political pressure will drive a lot of the private money out of our political system, while the massive amount of public financing will let any serious candidate fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely from cash received from the voters. Currently, wealthy donors pay the piper and so they call the tune. They determine which candidates are viable, so they decide which candidates are available for the voters to vote for. These big dollar donors also decide what range of policies the candidates can embrace once they get into office, because elected officials have to come back to these donors again and again for the money they need to get reelected. In sum, Americans still get to vote, but they don’t have much to vote for, because big donors have already chosen the candidates and determined the candidates’ policies once in office.
Under the Democracy Dollars Act, the voters would become the donors who really matter, with enough campaign cash, collectively, to outweigh even the fearsome Koch brothers. Politicians would now respond to the voters’ needs and wishes, which is how a democracy is supposed to work. Politicians, in turn, won’t have to spend 20-30 hours a week on the phone with wealthy donors, “dialing for dollars.” A fundraiser will be a meeting with constituents, a rally in your Congressional district, or a mass mailing to your constituents – not a $5,000 a plate dinner with Wall Street executives. The United States would be truly a democracy again. And this reform has other benefits as well.
At present over 20% of the Americans who are eligible to vote are not actually registered, so they can’t vote on Election Day. The Democracy Dollars Act would greatly increase the numbers of registered voters for two reasons. First, Americans have a new reason to register – only if they do so can they get their $50 to influence the political process. And parties and candidates will try a lot harder to register voters, because every new registered voter is a potential source of campaign cash. This means higher voter participation in our elections and greater public faith in government and the political process. Voters are also likely to be more actively engaged in thinking about and discussing politics, because now they will have real power in the system, and need help from their friends and from news sources to decide how to spend their Democracy Dollars.
Critics will complain that this reform costs too much. At $10 billion for every two-year electoral cycle, this amounts to $5 billion a year, which is serious money. And yet it is a pittance compared to what Americans have sacrificed in the past in order to preserve our freedom, our democracy. Just think of the more than 4 trillion dollars (in today’s dollars) and the more than 400,000 lives that the United States sacrificed in World War II to protect our democracy from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Five billion dollars a year is a small price indeed for restoring our democracy, for giving power back to the people. In addition, the Democracy Dollars reform will pay for itself many times over every year, by ending enormous amounts of wasteful government spending. At present, lobbyists swarm over Congress, securing for their clients all kinds of corporate welfare in the forms of tax loopholes and government subsidies. There are also in the Pentagon’s budget expensive weapons systems that we really don’t need. These lobbyists have a lot of muscle when they talk to members of Congress, because lobbyists actually hold fundraisers for members of Congress, while the lobbyists’ clients contribute mightily to politicians’ campaigns. By replacing so much of this private money with campaign cash that comes from the voters, the Democracy Dollars Act will defang the lobbyists, and end much of the wasteful spending they produce.
Critics may also predict that most voters won’t actually spend their Democracy Dollars, given how alienated the voters are from the political system, and how apathetic they seem to feel about political issues. Yet this problem strikes me as more apparent than real. In the first place, assigning your Democracy Dollars to the candidates of your choice will be so much easier than the actual act of voting: you can do it from your own home, online, at the time and day of your choosing – no need to take time off from work, go to a polling place, and stand on line. Secondly, giving voters their Democracy Dollars will show them that they have real power in the political system, not least because politicians will constantly be coming to them as supplicants, asking them for the money.
But what about the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts? In the last ten years they have struck down just about every conceivable limit on donating or spending money in elections. Here the operative word is limit. Back in 1976, in a case called Buckley v. Valeo, the Court decided that money given or spent to influence elections was a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, and that any limits on it were constitutionally suspect. This decision was a perversion of First Amendment values, one which lacked any precedent in our constitutional law, as Robert Mutch shows in his excellent book on campaign finance reform. But it became the law of the land, and did much to allow the growing damage which big money has inflicted on our political system since the 1980s. Under the leadership of John Roberts in recent years, the Supreme Court has simply taken this bad idea to its most absurd, most extreme conclusions. To read the bizarre logic of their decisions, one would think that the conservative justices actively want corporations and the wealthiest Americans to control our government. So wouldn’t these justices strike down Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act? They might indeed want to, given their apparent hostility to democracy, but their own past decisions would make it difficult for them to strike down Democracy Dollars. This is because the Democracy Dollars Act, far from limiting political speech, actually expands it. It gives the power of political speech to two hundred million Americans who never before could afford to contribute to political campaigns. It massively multiplies the number of political voices and the range of political ideas that can be heard. The Democracy Dollars Act thus powerfully affirms First Amendment values in precisely the way that the Supreme Court has defined them. And given that the Supreme Court has made it impossible to limit money spent on elections, public financing of elections like the Democracy Dollars Act is probably the only way to break the power of wealthy donors in our political life.
In previous posts I have argued that the Democracy Dollars Act should be a central part of the Democratic Party’s strategy in the 2020 elections. Let me briefly review that argument. I contend that American democracy is now under greater threat than it has been at any point since the Civil War, and that the Democratic Party can present itself as the savior of our democracy from big money, anti-democratic Republican policies (partisan gerrymandering, vote suppression, packing the courts, etc.), and President Trump, who has blatantly authoritarian leanings and has routinely trampled on the Constitution and democratic norms. Democrats will try to save our Constitution by impeaching Donald Trump. Their For the People Act fights vote suppression and partisan gerrymandering. If they also champion the Democracy Dollars Act, they will be striking a serious blow at the undemocratic power of wealthy campaign donors. This trifecta of policy and action – impeachment and the two reform bills – can make the 2020 elections about saving American democracy, and can be a winning strategy for Democrats, giving them a unifying issue for reaching out to independents and moderate Republicans. Many Americans will disagree with Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, but all Americans – or so I hope – still believe in democracy.
The scandal unleashed by the whistleblower’s complaint against President Trump has finally moved House Democrats closer to impeachment, yet they still do so with trepidation. They see in impeachment only the political risks – a possible backlash from Republican voters, and a distraction from their policy agenda in the 2020 elections. Astonishingly, they fail to see the tremendous political opportunity that impeachment can afford. This failure is a symptom of Democrats’ larger inability to understand the importance of the coming elections, and their failure to craft a winning strategy.
Democrats can win convincingly in 2020 – including taking back the Senate – if they make saving American democracy the central issue of the election. And American democracy certainly needs saving – it is now under greater threat than at any time since the Civil War. Across four decades, a growing flood of campaign cash has hollowed out the substance of our democracy from within, producing a rigged political system that primarily serves the wealthiest one percent of our population and which has showered the wealthy with three waves of unneeded tax cuts across three Republican administrations since the 1980s. And now the problem has grown more urgent, because the Republican Party has turned its back on democratic values, and has chosen the path of winning at any price.
Republicans strive to disenfranchise Americans through partisan gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and other forms of vote suppression. They try to fix the political game by choosing biased referees, by packing the courts with radically conservative judges vetted by the Federalist Society. They undermine democracy by routinely lying to the voters, for example about climate change, or by saying that tax cuts for the wealthy will pay for themselves with increased revenue. And they slavishly support a president who would become a dictator in a heartbeat if he could get away with it, a man who bridles at all restraints on his power, who calls the free press the “enemy of the people,” who dangerously politicizes the civil service, and who routinely violates the spirit of the Constitution, for example in his obstruction of Congressional oversight and in the running battle over his border wall. (For a more thorough examination of Trump’s authoritarian leanings, see Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die.)
In stark contrast to their Republican opponents, Democrats have become the country’s foremost champions of saving and restoring our democracy. We can see this, for example, in the first law passed by the current House of Representatives, the aptly named For the People Act. This law makes it easier for Americans to vote by providing for automatic registration, 15 days of early voting, and making election day a national holiday so people can get away from their jobs to vote. It ends partisan gerrymandering by taking redistricting out of the hands of state governments. Instead, independent commissions would redraw Congressional districts according to apolitical metrics that don’t advantage one party over another. The bill also provides modest (though inadequate) campaign finance reforms, and new restrictions on lobbyists, among other provisions. This law has laid down a marker, preparing the Democrats to make the 2020 elections about saving our democracy. Impeaching President Trump for his repeated and unconstitutional abuses of power would powerfully reinforce this message. The only piece missing from this puzzle, from this promising Democratic campaign strategy, is meaningful campaign finance reform.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, in particular, constantly bemoan the power of big campaign donors in our politics. Yet all they offer as solutions are futile calls for a constitutional amendment or demands to “overturn Citizens United,” which isn’t going to happen. Making this silly discourse almost surreal is the fact that a highly effective campaign finance reform has already been introduced as a bill in the last Congress: Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act.
Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government gives every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. Voters cannot withdraw this money for personal use, and instead go online and assign it to the candidates or political committees of their choice. With about 200 million registered voters as of 2016, that translates to $10 billion of public financing, dwarfing even the massive $6.5 billion in private funds spent on the 2016 federal elections. No candidate would be compelled to use the Democracy Dollars system (and many will need private donations to get a campaign off the ground), but once she opts in, she has to forswear all future private donations. Candidates who fail to do so will be justly and fiercely accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors over the public interest, thereby driving much of the private money out of our political system. This innovative reform makes the voters into the donors who really count, outweighing even the fearsome Koch brothers. This will restore power to the voters and go a long way to making America a democracy again.
Impeachment, the For the People Act, and the Democracy Dollars Act – this trifecta of policy and action will make the contrast between the two major parties as clear as day: Republicans as the enemies of democracy, Democrats as its champions. Democrats must follow this strategy in the campaign in part because American democracy is under urgent threat. But this strategy is also shrewd politics. Restoring our democracy is the only truly unifying issue with which Democrats can appeal across party lines to independents and Republicans, not least because in the United States, democratic values are the essence of our patriotism and our claim to national greatness rests upon our historic role as the world’s foremost champion of democracy. Not every American will agree with Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, but every American – or so I hope – still believes in democracy, and every American is a patriot. This is the stuff of which landslide elections are made.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, bemoan the power of big money in American politics. Yet all they offer in the way of a solution is futile calls for a constitutional amendment, or to “overturn Citizens United,” which is an impossibility now that Kavanaugh has replaced Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Making this silly discourse almost surreal is the fact that a workable path to campaign finance reform does exist and has even been introduced as a bill into the House of Representatives.
I refer to Rep. Ro Khanna’s “Democracy Dollars Act,” H.R. 7306, introduced in December 2018. Khanna’s bill was in part inspired by the book Voting With Dollars, by two Yale Law School professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres (Yale, 2002). Khanna’s bill creates a novel public financing mechanism for federal elections, one which probably cannot be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, because it does not limit political giving or spending, which the Court deems a form of free speech. Presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Yang have proposed similar reforms. Under this new mechanism, the federal government gives every registered voter a virtual account of “Democracy Dollars,” say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters cannot withdraw this money for personal use. Instead, they assign this campaign cash to the candidates or political committees of their choice. As of 2016 there were about 200 million registered voters in the United States. At $50 per voter, that translates to ten billion dollars in public campaign financing. By way of perspective, the 2016 federal elections, Congressional and presidential together, cost about $6.5 billion in private donations and spending. Democracy Dollars thus offer a meaningful counterweight to the power of millionaires and billionaires in our politics, making our political system more truly democratic. Indeed, this reform would drive a lot of the private money out of our politics.
No candidate would be compelled to use the Democracy Dollars system of public financing, and very many would need private donations to get their campaigns off the ground. But then they could opt into the Democracy Dollars system, receiving public financing in return for forswearing all future private donations. Any candidate who did not do so, and chose to rely exclusively on private money, would be fiercely and justly accused of preferring to serve wealthy donors instead of the public interest. In this way the power of millionaires and billionaires in our politics would be dramatically reduced. At present, wealthy donors pay the piper and call the tune. They determine which candidates are viable and available for the public to vote for, and they narrow the range of policies which these candidates can embrace once they take office. But the Democracy Dollars Act would turn the voters into the donors – collectively even bigger donors than the fearsome Koch brothers. It would strike a powerful blow for the restoration of American democracy.
Democrats should make the Democracy Dollars Act the single most important issue of the 2020 elections, not least because without deep reform of campaign finance, every other item on the Democratic agenda will be thwarted. We can’t address climate change as long as the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries. We can’t fix health care as long as insurance companies and big pharma have so much of Congress in their pockets. We can’t repair our infrastructure, fund universal health care, relieve the burden of college debt, address economic inequality, or tackle climate change without trillions upon trillions of dollars in new revenue. This revenue can only come from sharply higher taxes on the wealthy – levels of taxation that they haven’t paid since the years of World War II and the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. As long as politicians rely on millionaires and billionaires to fund their campaigns, they can’t touch tax increases with a ten-foot pole. And there is a second reason why Democrats need to move the Democracy Dollars Act to the top of their 2020 agenda.
The Democracy Dollars Act is part of an important, larger pattern that has escaped the media’s notice: Democrats consistently champion reforms aiming to strengthen American democracy, while Republican politicians increasingly turn their back on democratic values. Through partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression, Republicans strive to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them. They undermine democracy by lying to the voters, for example about climate change, or by saying that tax cuts for the wealthy will pay for themselves with increased revenue. Worst of all, Republican politicians unfailingly support a president who displays blatantly authoritarian inclinations, who bridles at all restraints on his authority, who calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” who dangerously politicizes the civil service, and who routinely violates the spirit of the Constitution.
A look at the Democrats presents a very different picture, especially as revealed in the first bill introduced in the House this year, the For the People Act. Democrats champion campaign finance reform. They strive to make it easier for Americans to vote, not more difficult, and they propose to end partisan gerrymandering by establishing apolitical commissions to redraw electoral districts. The Democracy Dollars Act should be the centerpiece of Democratic strategy in 2020: to present this election as a battle to save American democracy, which at present is under greater threat than it has been at any time since the Civil War. Such a strategy would not only do justice to the urgency of the present moment. It would also be shrewd politics, because it offers the only message that might unify voters across party lines. Many Americans will reject Medicare for all or the Green New Deal, but every American – or so I hope – still believes in democracy.
The third Democratic presidential debate, held last Thursday, is not notable for what the candidates said, but rather for what they did not say, for the problems and solutions that remained unmentioned.
In the first place, no one on the stage did justice to the urgency of the present moment. Climate change alone represents a greater threat to human civilization than that presented by Adolf Hitler and his war machine in World War II. And on top of that threat comes the backlog of serious problems that plague the United States here at home: our crumbling infrastructure; the growing economic inequality that strains our social fabric; the loss of upward social mobility, which threatens to divide our society into hereditary socioeconomic castes; the absurd cost of our health care system, which eats up twice as much of our GDP as it does in other advanced societies, and doesn’t even give all our citizens health insurance. And standing above all these problems, and blocking their solution, the dysfunction of our political system, which has largely ceased to be a democracy, hollowed out from within by campaign cash and now under sustained assault by the Republican Party (partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, etc.) and a president with blatantly authoritarian leanings who routinely violates the spirit of our Constitution. The challenges we face, collectively, are the moral, political and economic equivalent of total war, and no one in our political class even acknowledges this obvious truth.
Secondly, although Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders alluded to the corruption of our political system by big money, no one talked about a possible solution, except for, of all people, Andrew Yang. Yang mentioned the idea of “Democracy Dollars,” which has even been introduced into our Congress as a bill in December 2018 by Rep. Ro Khanna. Under this novel public financing mechanism, the government would give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could then assign this campaign cash to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters as of 2016, this translates to $10 billion of public financing, dwarfing even the $6.5 billion spent on the federal elections of 2016. Democracy Dollars could break the stranglehold of big donors on our political life and make this country a democracy again. Why is no one besides Yang talking about this? To be sure, we can understand why, say, Nancy Pelosi can’t make this a leading issue. She’s the party’s top fundraiser and gets all this money from millionaires and billionaires. Talking about Democracy Dollars would, to say the least, complicate her conversation with her donors. But Warren and Sanders don’t have that problem. They rely primarily on small donations. Why aren’t they making this reform their central issue?
The third unmentioned elephant in the room was taxes. To her credit, Elizabeth Warren has grasped the nettle of taxes, with her excellent proposal of a wealth tax. But even this idea doesn’t go nearly far enough. To address the challenges that we face, and that we must lead the rest of the world in addressing (e.g. climate change), we need trillions upon trillions of dollars of new revenue. This money must come from the people who have it, in the form of massively higher taxes on the wealthy, a level of taxation that we last saw in this country during World War II and the administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. (Under Eisenhower, the top marginal income tax rate was 91 per cent.) We need top marginal income tax rates of 70% or even 80%, the rates many economists consider ideal. We need estate taxes that are positively confiscatory above the level of the current $10 million exemption. We need Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax. And we need to seriously consider ending the preferential treatment of capital gains on stocks and bonds, which benefits only a small sliver of the American population. Needless to say, however, as long as millionaires and billionaires fund the election campaigns of most of our politicians, no serious discussion of taxes will be possible in this country.
In telling you all of this, I am reminded of the fable of the emperor’s new clothes. Our entire political class is marveling at the wonderful, double-breasted Armani suit that the emperor is wearing, and I’m the eight-year-old kid who speaks up and says the emperor is naked. Is anybody listening?