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.
Like all the other Democratic primary debates, last Tuesday’s debate in Des Moines showed that neither the candidates nor the journalists who talk about them are prepared to confront today’s most pressing political realities. These are, first, that Donald Trump won in 2016 because the American people are fed up with an undemocratic political system in which our government is for sale to campaign donors, and Trump appeared to promise fundamental change. Second, that since Trump’s promise of change has proved hollow, the voters are still angry and alienated from a political system they know is broken, and would gladly support a candidate who can credibly offer real reform. Third, without effective campaign finance reform that can break the power of wealthy donors in our politics, none of these candidates will accomplish much of consequence, even if they do make it to the White House.
To be sure, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Tom Steyer all alluded to the fact that campaign cash has eviscerated our democracy and rigged the political system in favor of large corporations and wealthy individuals. Warren pointed out that corporate lobbyists effectively intervened in the negotiation of NAFTA and other trade deals, ensuring that these trade agreements included only weak protections for labor and the environment, making it profitable for American corporations to move jobs out of the country. Speaking of climate change, Sanders stated his desire to take on the political power of the fossil fuels industry. Steyer declared that the absurdly high cost of health care in our country comes from having a broken government that is for sale. We need, he said, to break the “corporate stranglehold” over our political system. All three candidates spoke the God’s honest truth. But missing from the debate was the most important question of all: how exactly can we break this corporate stranglehold over our politics? How can we stop campaign cash from making a sick joke out of American democracy? All we hear from the candidates as a “solution” to this problem is a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Yet an amendment is no solution because it is wholly unrealistic. The Republican Party stands united against all forms of campaign finance regulation. Since you need two thirds of the House and two thirds of the Senate just to put an amendment in play, and then three quarters of the states to ratify it, the GOP can block an amendment with little effort. Yet a much simpler and easier solution to the problem of money in politics is readily available.
I refer here to Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act, introduced into Congress in December 2018. (To avoid confusion, I should mention that Rep. Pramila Jayapal has introduced her own Democracy Dollars Act in the present Congress, but it is a half-measure that does not go nearly as far as Khanna’s bill in combating the power of wealthy donors. My discussion here refers only to Khanna’s bill.) Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government gives every registered voter an online account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters can’t withdraw this cash for personal use, and instead go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters in the U.S., this means $10 billion in each election for politicians’ campaigns, coming directly from the voters. Every serious candidate can therefore fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely with money from the voters, and can serve the voters instead of serving the wealthy donors who currently dominate our politics.
To be sure, we cannot ban all private money from our political system – the Supreme Court won’t let us. (Why they won’t is a separate question. We don’t need to get into it today.) And even if we could get rid of all private money, we wouldn’t want to. This is because if the Democracy Dollars system were the only source of campaign funds, it would be extremely difficult to challenge incumbents, who would have so many advantages in getting Democracy Dollars from the voters: name recognition, the credibility that comes from already holding office, free media coverage, and so on. Candidates challenging incumbents will need some private money to get their campaigns off the ground. But at some point every candidate will have to choose: opt into the Democracy Dollars system, and give up all future private donations, or else pay for the entire campaign with private funds. Any candidate who takes the second course will be in a bad place politically. His or her opponent can loudly and repeatedly proclaim: “my opponent would rather serve wealthy interests than serve the American people.” This political pressure should drive much of the private money out of our politics. Within only two years, between one election and the next, Democracy Dollars could make this country a democracy again.
An intriguing mystery of this political season is why none of the aforementioned candidates has made an issue of Democracy Dollars. After all, it perfectly fits their overall political message. Warren, Sanders and Steyer all say – correctly – that the political system is rigged in favor of corporations and rich people. Yet none of these candidates explains to the voters how the system got rigged, how money in politics works behind closed doors. Talking about Democracy Dollars can help these candidates educate the voters about money in politics, and inspire the voters by showing them that we can in fact solve this terrible problem. What is more, championing Democracy Dollars can help the Democratic Party make the 2020 election about saving American democracy from big money, antidemocratic Republican policies (e.g. partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, court packing, etc.), and a president with nakedly authoritarian instincts who has ridden roughshod over our Constitution. Making the election about saving our democracy would help unite the Democratic Party, and would both turn out the liberal base and also help win over independents and moderate Republicans in the swing states. After all, although not all Americans may favor Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, every American, or so I hope, still believes in democracy.
With the Iowa caucuses less than four weeks away, the Democratic primary field remains sharply divided between progressives (Sanders and Warren) and moderates (Biden and Buttigieg). The two camps differ significantly on some policy issues, most vehemently over health care and over the taxes on the wealthy that would be needed to pay for the progressives’ various policy ideas. Each camp argues that the other offers candidates who would lose to Donald Trump in November. The moderates, aided by a biased media that insistently presents Joe Biden as more “electable” than his rivals, claim that Warren and Sanders promote policies that are too far to the left to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans in the swing states. The progressives, in their turn, argue that the American people want and need fundamental change in the political system so as to overcome economic inequality. They contend that only their bold policies, and not the small-bore fixes that come from Biden and Buttigieg, can inspire liberal activists and turn out the party’s base.
While the moderates and the progressives each make some valid points, both camps overlook an emotionally resonant and vitally important campaign issue which all Democrats could rally behind, and which would command support among both the party’s liberal base and among independents and moderate Republicans. This is the vitally necessary task of rescuing American democracy from big money, antidemocratic Republican policies, and a president with nakedly authoritarian leanings. Democrats have already taken important steps which position them as the champions of our democracy against the forces which threaten it. By impeaching Donald Trump, House Democrats took a principled stand – for many of them at their own political risk – in defense of our Constitution and democratic norms. With the aptly named For the People Act, passed in January of last year, House Democrats tried to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and make it much easier for Americans to vote. In so doing they strove to combat Republicans’ disgusting efforts to rig elections by taking the vote away from Americans who might not support them.
To restore our badly damaged democracy, and to highlight Democrats’ staunch opposition to the GOP’s efforts to further undermine democracy, Democrats need to take one further step, the most difficult and consequential of all: they need to champion truly effective campaign finance reform. This reform already exists in a fully drafted bill, Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act, which was introduced in the House in December of 2018, but not reintroduced during the present Congress. (Unfortunately Rep. Pramila Jayapal has confused matters by introducing her own Democracy Dollars Act in the present Congress. Her bill is a half-measure that does not go nearly as far as Khanna’s in combating the power of wealthy campaign donors.) Under Khanna’s bill, the federal government would give each registered voter an online account of campaign cash, say $50 for each two-year electoral cycle. The voters could not withdraw this cash for personal use, and would instead go online and assign these “Democracy Dollars” to the candidates of their choice. With about 200 million registered voters, this means $10 billion in public funds for politicians’ election campaigns, as compared to the $6.5 billion of private money spent in the 2016 federal elections. Every serious candidate could fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely with these donations from the voters. This would free our politicians to serve the American people, instead of taking orders from the small minority of corporate executives and wealthy individuals who provide most of the campaign cash today. For a more thorough discussion of the Democracy Dollars reform, please see my blog post of October 5, 2019.
If the Democratic Party embraces Democracy Dollars, Democrats can show the voters that they finally intend to fix a political system which every American knows is broken, a political system in which our government is for sale. Democrats can offer the fundamental change which Donald Trump promised (in the vaguest of terms) in 2016, and which he has clearly failed to deliver. With impeachment, the For the People Act, and Democracy Dollars, Democrats can make clear to the voters the stark difference between Democrats and the GOP. Republican politicians have undermined our democracy by opposing all campaign finance reform, by disenfranchising Americans through gerrymandering and voter suppression, by packing the courts with extreme conservatives who never have to face the voters, and by unflinchingly supporting a president who calls the free press the “enemy of the people,” has trampled on the constitutional separation of powers, and has invited foreign interference in our elections – elections whose results he may not accept if they don’t go his way. With Democracy Dollars, Democrats can cement their status as the champions of American democracy, while exposing their Republican opponents as democracy’s enemies.
Making the elections of 2020 about saving our democracy is not only vitally necessary – because our democracy is in fact in terrible danger – but it is also very good politics for Democrats. This is true not least because campaigning on the promise to save our democracy allows Democrats to wrap themselves in the flag. Democracy is the ideal that has defined the nation, at least since the Civil War, if not before. Our claim to national greatness rests on America’s role as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, in wars fought for freedom and in the Cold War struggle against communism. Historically, American patriotism is almost inextricable from the democratic ideal. Anything that strengthens our democracy is a patriotic act, while anything which undermines democracy is by definition unpatriotic and un-American. Any comparison between the parties on this issue is extremely unflattering to Republican politicians (though not to Republican voters). And by campaigning on a platform of restoring American democracy, Democrats can reach out to independents and Republicans on a terrain of shared values. Although most Americans reject Medicare for All, most Americans still believe in democracy, and every American is a patriot. In turn, Democracy Dollars is the perfect issue for turning out the Democratic Party’s liberal base, because without effective campaign finance reform, progressive policies like the wealth tax and debt-free college will be politically dead on arrival.
While both moderate and progressive Democratic voters (as well as independents and many Republicans) can readily support the cause of saving American democracy, the progressive candidates in the race are much better positioned than their moderate counterparts to lead the party in such a campaign. This is because Biden and Buttigieg both depend heavily on wealthy, high-dollar donors. They can’t campaign robustly against the evils of big money in politics without the risk of alienating these donors. Sanders and Warren, in contrast, fund their campaigns largely with small donations from ordinary citizens. While they have received significant amounts of money from high-dollar donors, they don’t hold the usual fundraising events to court them, and these donors have already chosen to accept these candidates’ progressive policies. Sanders and Warren can make Democracy Dollars their central issue without fearing that they will alienate their donors. Democracy Dollars also fits perfectly with both candidates’ chief argument: that the political system is “rigged” in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Talking about Democracy Dollars lets them educate the voters about exactly how the system got rigged, and also lets them show the voters a solution to the problem, which so far they have not done. Finally, unless Sanders or Warren can enact Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act into law, their progressive policies will not make it through Congress, because almost all members of Congress will still depend on high-dollar donors for their reelection campaigns in the 2022 midterms.
Of the two progressive candidates, Warren is bar far the better choice as the party’s nominee. Sanders is too old and recently had a heart attack, and it would be crazy for the party to give up the advantage of running an incumbent for reelection in 2024. Equally important, Sanders persists in describing himself as a “socialist,” even though he is no more a socialist than Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. The socialist label is political poison, and would ensure not only Trump’s reelection, but probably also the loss of the Democrats’ House majority. Warren has her own baggage as well, but hers can be readily jettisoned. Warren has only two policy positions which are out of step with the majority of the voters: decriminalizing border crossings, and abolishing private health insurance so as to make an immediate transition to single-payer health care. Decriminalizing border crossings is wrongheaded as a policy – every country on earth makes it illegal to enter their territory without permission – and positively fatal in political terms: 66% of Americans oppose it and it plays directly into Trump’s hands, giving him the ideal opportunity to further whip up anti-immigrant hysteria and accuse Democrats of wanting open borders. As for the immediate transition to single payer health care, a majority of Americans are against it, and since health care seems to be the issue highest on the voters’ agenda, it is probably enough by itself to guarantee Warren’s loss to Trump. In the coming months Warren is the candidate to watch: if she changes her tune on health care and border crossings, takes up the cause of democracy dollars, and folds this reform into a broader campaign to save our democracy, she might lead her party into a truly transformational election which reorients the nation’s political discourse, fixes our broken political system, and drives the Republican Party into the wilderness, where they will have ample time to consider the error of their antidemocratic ways.
In the Democratic primary field, Elizabeth Warren is by far the strongest candidate, despite slanted coverage by even the so-called “liberal” media which portrays her as some kind of radical leftist, which she is not. Warren is the best candidate in part because all of her rivals are either weak candidates or downright not viable, a point I will get to below. But Warren is the strongest candidate also because she offers real change in our political system and a serious effort to remedy our country’s dangerous levels of economic inequality. Donald Trump won in 2016 in part because, as an outsider who showed only contempt for political insiders, he appeared to be the candidate of change. The American people were fed up with a corrupt political system in which our government is for sale to donors and lobbyists, and which serves the needs of corporations and the wealthy to the detriment of most Americans. The last three years have done nothing to relieve the voters’ alienation from politics as usual, and Trump’s promise of change has been exposed as empty, even though he continues to delight his followers by humiliating the political establishment.
Like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren consistently calls the central flaw in our political system by name: it is “rigged” in favor of corporations and wealthy individuals. Unfortunately, so far neither she nor Sanders has shown the voters how we could fix the system, but they easily could do so, as I will explain below. In a series of detailed policy proposals, Warren has shown how she would bring structural economic change to our country, and almost all of her plans enjoy majority support among the American people, in many cases even among Republicans: a wealth tax; requiring that 40% of corporate board members be representatives of the companies’ workers; stricter regulation of Wall Street; student loan forgiveness and debt-free college. An additional policy which she hasn’t yet proposed (it comes from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), raising the top marginal income tax rate to 70%, has the support of 59% of registered voters, including 45% of Republicans. None of these policies is at all radical, which is why they enjoy majority support among the American people. In addition to offering meaningful change which enjoys majority support, Warren is the smartest candidate in the race, has the best thought-out policy ideas, has shown a real talent for explaining her policies in accessible terms, and clearly has her heart in the right place. Having worked her way up from humble, financially straightened circumstances to the pinnacle of legal academe, Warren has a compelling life story which matches her message of restoring democracy and social justice. She doesn’t just talk the talk. Warren also walks the walk.
Warren advocates only two policies which are out of the American mainstream, and these two policies are enough to sink her candidacy, even though neither is particularly “leftist” in any meaningful sense of the word. Warren’s first major blunder was to embrace the politically idiotic idea of decriminalizing border crossings. This may have been a spur of the moment decision, prompted when the Univision moderator stampeded the candidates during the first Democratic debate by challenging them to raise their hands in support of this idea. Warren can discard this position at little political cost, and should do so soon, as it plays straight into Trump’s hands. A more serious threat to her candidacy has been her demand that we make an immediate transition to single-payer health care and abolish all private health insurance in the process. Luckily, Warren shows signs of backing away from this position, not least by putting this disruptive step off to the third year of her presidency. If Warren drops this politically ill-advised policy, and embraces the public option – “Medicare for All Who Want It” in Buttigieg’s useful phrasing – I think she would win the nomination and mop up the floor with Trump in November.
As has been shown, none of Warren’s policies are very far to the left, not even Medicare for All. That plan is politically unwise because it is so disruptive of people’s lives, because people are terrified of getting even worse health insurance than they already have. But ultimately it only means expanding a long-established and much beloved program – Medicare – that itself enjoys overwhelming support among Americans. There is nothing at all radical about this idea. So where does this nonsense about Warren being a “leftist,” or even a “socialist” or “socialistic” come from? Part of the problem is the overlap between her program and that of Sanders, who insists on calling himself a socialist even though he isn’t. But the bigger problem, in my view, is that the Democratic Party establishment, and the so-called “liberal” media (especially CNN and MSNBC) who are aligned with the party establishment, are conservative Democrats in the mould of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The media consistently slant their coverage against both Sanders and Warren, not least by constantly pushing the idea – often in rhetorical questions – that Joe Biden is inherently more “electable” than his progressive rivals.
What of Warren’s rivals for the Democratic nomination? Gabbard, Steyer, Booker, Bennet, Delaney, Yang, Williamson, Klobuchar, and Patrick: these people have gotten no traction, nor are they going to get any. They need to take a hint, get over themselves, and drop out so that the voters can focus on the real alternatives that are available. Buttigieg has enough of a war chest to remain a contender, but he is too young, his sexual orientation makes him too much of a gamble when defeating Trump is at stake, and like Biden, he is too much the creature of high-dollar campaign donors to offer the American people real change, at a time when meaningful change is desperately needed.
Biden is too old, and he is showing his age badly. Watching the poor man on stage, one fears that he will start wetting his pants. There is also a real risk that he might secure the nomination and then suffer some serious setback to his health between the nomination and the general election. Biden also has no program, nothing to offer the American people beyond nostalgia for the Obama years. Even worse, he continues to peddle the fantasy of bipartisanship, of “working across the aisle” to “get things done.” Buttigieg and Klobuchar have been selling the voters the same nonsense, but Biden above all people should know better. He was Obama’s VP. Obama bent over backwards for eight years in the quest for bipartisanship, and all it got him was obstruction, abuse, and racist challenges to the legitimacy of his presidency. Like Buttigieg, Biden is also a creature of wealthy high-dollar donors, and so cannot offer the American people meaningful change to a broken political system. So why has Biden stayed on top of the Democratic field in the national polls? This question can’t be answered with certainty, but some possible reasons are name recognition, Biden’s association with the popular Obama, Biden’s likable personality and evident sincerity, the division of the progressive electorate between Sanders and Warren – which prevents either from seeming a viable alternative to Biden – and the media’s clear preference for Biden over his rivals, which inevitably shapes public opinion and the polling data, in a feedback loop which reinforces the narrative that Biden is more “electable” than Warren.
As for Bernie, I love him, and gave him money and canvassed for him in 2016. But not only is he too old, but, for reasons that even he may not understand, he persists in describing himself as a “socialist.” Sanders obviously has no clue as to what socialism, historically, has been. Socialism is government ownership and direction of the economy. It is the same thing as communism. Speaking as an academically trained historian (Columbia Ph.D.!) with considerable expertise in American and European history, I can say that the only difference between socialist and communist parties in the first half of the 20th century was the communists’ willingness to use massive violence to achieve the socialist goals which they shared with the socialist parties. Sanders is no more a socialist than Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were socialists. But by calling himself a “socialist,” Sanders has disqualified himself for the presidency by swallowing political poison. If he were to become the nominee, Trump would win in a landslide, and the GOP would sweep the Congressional elections, because they could tar the entire Democratic Party with the socialist label. Sanders needs to drop out of the race and throw his support to Warren. Otherwise he will reprise the tragic spoiler’s role he played in 2016.
As for Warren, here is what she needs to do to fulfill her destiny as our next president, and bring our politics the fundamental change which the American people know is needed. Besides changing her tune on Medicare for All and decriminalizing border crossings, she needs to show the voters how she intends to fix the rigged political system, how she proposes to tame the influence of big money in our politics. So far, all she has said about this is to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. This is silly: given Republicans’ staunch opposition to all campaign finance reform, an amendment is a sheer impossibility. But there is a better, easier way, a simple act of Congress that would drive most of the dirty money out of our politics and make the United States a democracy again. It’s usually known by the name “Democracy Dollars.” Having discussed it in many of my blog posts, especially my post of October 5, 2019, I will refrain from discussing it now. If you’re not yet familiar with it, please do read my earlier posts. My main point: we CAN get money out of politics, we can make our government serve the American people instead of serving corporations and rich people, and we can solve the country’s many serious problems. Warren is the one to do it, and she is only a few steps from the strategy that will let her win. Elizabeth – she’s the man! (So to speak.)
In last Thursday’s Democratic debate, the candidates got into a rare exchange about the single biggest flaw in our political system: the fact that politicians need huge amounts of money to pay for their election campaigns, and that they get this money not from ordinary citizens, who don’t have it, but rather from very wealthy individuals and – usually but not always – from major corporations. This is why we’ve had three waves of tax cuts for the wealthy since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, why economic inequality has soared in this country, why the American worker has largely lost the right to organize in labor unions, why drug prices are so high, and more generally why lobbyists – who give money to politicians, who raise money for politicians, and whose clients give money to politicians – are so effective at getting our government to enact laws which benefit corporate America to the detriment of most Americans. In particular, campaign cash explains why the Republican Party and its leader, Donald Trump, steadfastly deny the reality of climate change and block environmental policies which would reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Such policies would reduce the profits of the coal, oil and gas industries. Consequently, these industries donate very large amounts of money to politicians’ campaigns, and overwhelmingly this money goes to Republicans, which is why Republicans lie to the voters and claim that the planet isn’t getting hotter, or if it is, burning fossil fuels isn’t causing the problem.
In the United States of America, government is for sale, and this problem has been getting worse and worse with every electoral cycle since the end of the 1970s, as the cost of running election campaigns has risen. Instead of government of the people, by the people, for the people, we have government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Only seldom do candidates for public office talk about this glaring problem, and consequently the journalists who write about politics don’t talk about it either. The overwhelming majority of politicians cannot talk about this problem, and cannot advocate effective campaign finance reform, because doing so would alienate the high-dollar donors on which they depend to fund their campaigns. In this presidential election, however, we have two viable candidates – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – who do not depend on high-dollar donors. They have raised the bulk of their campaign funds in small donations. This has liberated them to advocate progressive policies – like a wealth tax, debt-free college, Medicare-for-All, and serious action on climate change – that would alienate the wealthy donors who fund the campaigns of such rivals as Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Their ability to raise money in small donations from ordinary citizens has also liberated Warren and Sanders to make an issue out of money in politics, to point out that the political system is “rigged” (in their apt phrasing) in favor of corporations and the wealthy, and to imply that their rivals are the tools of wealthy interests. Because he is a billionaire and is funding his campaign out of his personal wealth, and thus does not depend on donors, Tom Steyer has also been free to make some of the same arguments.
This criticism of big money in politics has until recently been muted, but burst into the open a few weeks ago, when Warren called on Buttigieg to allow reporters into his fundraising events, and to release the names of his bundlers. In the debate, Warren neatly summarized one aspect of the problem: “[p]eople who can put down $5,000” in a fundraiser “don’t have the same priorities as people who are struggling with student loan debt or who are struggling to pay off medical debt.” In other words, since wealthy people and corporations pay for most politicians’ campaigns, the needs of American working families (not to mention the poor) get neglected, in favor of the desires of the wealthy. Warren made a second important point when she affirmed that “[w]e can’t have people who can put down $5,000 for a check drown out the voices of everyone else.” Here Warren correctly observed that at present, our political system is not really a democracy, because in a democracy all citizens get a voice, and there is rough political equality – one-person-one-vote. Right now we have a political system in which one billionaire has the rough equivalent of, say, a million votes or more. In our politics today, as Warren rightly states, wealthy campaign donors do indeed drown out the voices of ordinary Americans, and even supposedly “liberal” journalists on outlets like MSNBC end up echoing the talking points of wealthy donors and the politicians who take their money.
On the Monday after the debate, December 23, three talking heads gathered with MSNBC host Stefanie Ruhle for her morning show. All four of these journalists and political operatives took the side of Biden and Buttigieg in the debate, echoing their talking points as they fended off criticism by Warren and Bernie Sanders of their high-dollar campaign fundraising. Everyone on Ruhle’s show agreed that Democrats shouldn’t attack each other over an issue as supposedly unimportant as money in politics, when they need to pull together to defeat Donald Trump. Like Biden and Buttigieg, Ruhle and her guests dismissed the idea that campaign donations buy influence over government – when in fact campaign cash clearly buys an enormous amount of influence in Washington. They concluded their discussion of money in politics by calling it “much ado about nothing.” Why are smart people like Stefanie Ruhle and her guests peddling such nonsense to the voters?
Part of the problem may be that television personalities tend to be wealthy themselves, just like the donors whose political influence they seem oblivious to (or which they don’t mind). Ruhle, whose net worth has been estimated at $5 million, recently bought, together with her husband, hedge fund executive Andy Hubbard, a $7.5 million townhouse on Manhattan’s exclusive Upper East Side. Journalists also do not take money in politics seriously because very few politicians – here Sanders and Warren are the exceptions that prove the rule – ever talk about this problem. Again, politicians are silent on this issue because they depend on high-dollar donors to get elected and re-elected. These politicians cannot go out on the stump and rail against the evils of money in politics, and call for campaign finance reform, and the next day call up their donors and ask for more money. They are trapped in the current system of campaign finance, and they have every incentive to play down the idea that campaign donations determine which policies they support. The political operatives on Ruhle’s show respond to these same financial incentives, so they also deny that campaign cash shapes policy, and dismiss Sanders and Warren as being extreme or unrealistic in their views.
How can we break through this wall of misinformation, in which even the supposedly “liberal” media dismiss the importance of big money in American politics? This strikes me as a problem that only Warren and Sanders can solve, and their first step must be to show voters how to get money out of politics. So far, unfortunately, the only “solution” they’ve offered – as Warren did during the debate – is to call for a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United and other wrong-headed court decisions about campaign finance. While an amendment is a pleasing thought, it is wholly unrealistic, because the entire Republican Party stands united against any kind of campaign finance reform. To amend the Constitution, you need a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate just to put an amendment in play, and then three quarters of the states have to ratify the amendment, so the GOP will easily block any such amendment.
Luckily, there is a much easier solution to the problem, by a simple act of Congress, and indeed it exists in a bill that has already been drafted and introduced in the previous Congress, in December 2018. I refer to Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act. For a lengthier discussion of the Democracy Dollars concept, please see my blog post of October 5, 2019. Briefly, under Khanna’s bill the federal government would give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each electoral cycle. The voters cannot withdraw this money for personal use, but instead go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters, this means $10 billion of public funds for politicians’ campaigns for each election, as compared to the $6.5 billion of private money that was spent in the 2016 federal elections (presidency and congress). Every serious candidate could fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely from donations received from voters, which would let politicians serve the voters instead of serving big corporations and wealthy individuals. Even better, although many candidates might need private money to get their campaigns off the ground, so they can reach the voters and ask for their Democracy Dollars, at some point every candidate must make a decision: opt into the Democracy Dollars system, and give up all future private donations, or else fund the entire campaign entirely with private money. Candidates who choose the second course of action will be justly and ferociously criticized for preferring to serve wealthy interests over serving the voters. This immense political pressure would drive a lot of the private money out of our politics, and within a single electoral cycle, make this country a democracy again.
An intriguing mystery of this political season is why Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have not already made Democracy Dollars a leading issue. After all, it fits perfectly with their overall message: they constantly (and correctly) affirm that the political system is “rigged” in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Talking about Democracy Dollars lets Sanders and Warren educate the voters about exactly how the political system got rigged, and lets them show the voters that the system can actually be fixed. This would be empowering for the voters, and add substance to Warren and Sanders’s promise of deep structural change. If Sanders and Warren do not make the issue of money in politics central to their campaigns, they won’t be able to use this issue effectively against their Democratic rivals, nor against Donald Trump if either one of them becomes the nominee. Finally, if they do not push through a Democracy Dollars reform promptly upon assuming the presidency, neither one of these progressives has much chance of enacting their agenda. So long as the next Congress depends on high-dollar donors for their 2022 re-election campaigns, few of them will vote for the tax hikes on the wealthy which Sanders or Warren would need to fund progressive policies.
For decades now, campaign cash has been eating away at the foundations of our democracy, and giving us a government which doesn’t serve the needs of most Americans. Because almost all politicians have been trapped in dependence on high-dollar donors, almost nothing has been done to address this problem, and the voters remain poorly educated about its importance. With the candidacies of Warren and Sanders, we have a rare window of opportunity within which to solve this fatal flaw in our political system. There is still time to save American democracy, but time is running out, and it is running out fast.
Everyone who comments on American politics finds occasion to examine a central, if poorly-explained and vaguely defined phenomenon: the alleged “polarization” of the country into two mutually hostile camps, each characterized by an intense degree of unreasoning “partisanship.” Politicians, pundits and journalists alike see symmetry between the Democratic and Republican camps (or “tribes”), as if they each contributed equally to this divisiveness and fed in equal degree off each other’s anger. (As examples, see recent articles by two of our nation’s most respected journalists, Peter Baker of The New York Times and Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal.) This two-sided image is errant nonsense, born of intellectual laziness, lack of historical perspective, journalists’ hope to appear “even-handed,” and the commonsensical assumption that there are two matching sides to every conflict. In fact, however, the crippling polarization of American politics has been a Republican project that lacks a real counterpart among Democratic politicians and voters, whose role in this tragedy has remained largely reactive. The G.O.P.’s radicalization and abandonment of democratic norms began as early as the late 1970s and has now, during the impeachment of Donald Trump, come to full and grotesque fruition.
In the recently concluded battle over Trump’s impeachment, we see the penultimate act in the Republican Party’s betrayal of democratic values. Belying “even-handed” journalistic images of two comparably partisan “alternative worlds,” in this battle there was no symmetry, indeed almost no resemblance, between the two political parties. Only the Republicans acted from partisan motives, clinging to power at any price. Their “arguments” were entirely without merit. They had no facts on their side. They defended the indefensible. They, and their allies in conservative media, were they only ones occupying an “alternative world.” The Democrats, in stark contrast, occupied the real world of facts, documented by media which still uphold standards of journalistic objectivity. Overwhelming evidence demonstrated that Trump had abused his power in Ukraine (Article I), while his guilt under Article II – obstruction of Congress – was a plain matter of the public record. House Democrats acted not for partisan gain, but rather at their own political risk, in a principled defense of our Constitution. For this they deserve our heartfelt thanks and praise.
What could possibly have moved House Republicans to lie so shamelessly to the American people, to scream so loudly in defense of a moral monster who has betrayed our democracy and our national security, and who would be a dictator in a heartbeat if he could get away with it? The conventional explanation is that these members of Congress fear their base, that they fear being “primaried.” Depending on the poll, 85-90% of Republican voters approve of President Trump’s performance in office. Republican politicians know that if they cross the president, they will likely face a primary challenge from someone who attacks them for disloyalty to Trump. And yes, this simple political calculus certainly helps explain their behavior. But not by a long shot can it serve as a complete answer to our question. Fear of being primaried can explain passivity, it can explain silence, and it can explain voting against the articles of impeachment. It cannot explain going out of one’s way to loudly defend Trump’s indefensible actions. It cannot explain such blatant lying to the voters, the insistent claims that up is down, black is white, and ignorance is strength. It cannot explain cheap publicity stunts, like invading and disrupting the secure hearing room (or “SCIF”) at the Capitol. It cannot explain the disgusting attempts to smear brave, patriotic public servants like Ambassador Marie Yovnovitch and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. So what can explain such sickening behavior?
Long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene, the Republican Party made a pact with the devil. They turned their backs on American democratic values in a quest for power at any price. Already with Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy, Republicans embraced policies which served a wealthy few, at the expense of the American people. More and more, with each increasingly expensive election campaign, they let radically conservative wealthy donors push them toward unpopular policies. The most radical of these donors have been the notorious Koch brothers and their secretive network of allies, and the worst of these policies has been the denial of climate change, a denial which most Americans do not share. Having embraced unpopular policies, Republican politicians needed to make the political system less democratic, to substitute rule by a Republican minority for rule by the majority of the voters. They do this by lying to the voters, e.g. about climate change. Especially after the 2010 census and electoral victories at the state level let them redraw electoral districts, they set out to take the vote away from Americans who might vote against them, through partisan gerrymandering and the rapidly proliferating tactics of voter suppression. Not content with rigging elections, they also try to make elections less relevant, to make the voters’ decision count for less. They do this by packing the courts with extreme conservative ideologues, unelected judges with life tenure who can interpret the laws as arbitrarily as they please, without ever having to face the voters. Throughout this entire antidemocratic Republican campaign, Democrats have done their best to stand up for democracy, to preserve voting rights, and to fight court packing. Never in our nation’s history, not even in the election of 1860, have the differences between the parties been clearer. The Democrats have become the champions of our democracy, while the Republicans have become its implacable enemies.
Only their antidemocratic pact with the devil can explain why Republicans have screamed so loudly in their defense of the indefensible. They desperately need to distract the voters from the ugliest of the many ugly realities of this farce: the GOP has behaved in a manner which is profoundly unpatriotic and un-American, because in the United States of America, the essence of patriotism is support for democracy. Democracy is the ideal which defines the nation, a nation which cannot be defined by anything else – not by a single race, nor a single ethnicity, nor a single religion, nor even by a single language. Democracy is the noble ideal for which many hundreds of thousands of Americans have given their lives, in wars fought for freedom ever since the Northern effort in our Civil War. America has been the world’s foremost champion of democracy, as well as the birthplace of democracy, and it is this glorious history, above all, which allows us to rightfully claim that we are the greatest country on earth. Not surprisingly, during the impeachment battle Republicans have tried to justify their disgusting actions as a defense of the democratic process, accusing Democrats of mounting a “coup,” of trying by underhanded means to overturn the results of the 2016 election. Contemplating this Orwellian use of language, one has to say the irony here is so thick you could cut it with a knife. After all, it was many of these same Republicans who tried to overturn the results of the 1996 election, not because of a threat to our national security, nor because of a clear assault on our constitutional separation of powers, but rather because of…a blowjob!
Only one more act remains to be played in the tragedy of American democracy, on or shortly after November 3 of the coming year. Either Donald Trump wins reelection – as in 2016 with help from Russia and perhaps this time from other foreign powers – or he loses, and declares the result fraudulent, claiming that millions of undocumented migrants have voted illegally. He made the same absurd claim in 2016, when the only thing at stake was bragging rights about who won the popular vote. If he loses next November, when his seat in the White House and immunity from near-certain prosecution are at stake, does anyone doubt that he will claim fraud and refuse to surrender the presidency? Does anyone seriously believe that his Republican enablers, at this late date, will renounce their pact with the devil? Can we plausibly hope that Republicans will lock arms with the Democratic colleagues whom they have so thoroughly demonized, and make a last stand to save the democracy on which they so long ago turned their backs? I, for one, am not holding my breath.
The red thread running through all my blog posts is that big money in politics – the cash politicians get from rich people and corporations to fund their election campaigns – has destroyed our democracy. Campaign cash has damaged our democracy in many different direct and indirect ways, through several different pathways. Today I want to talk about what the journalist Bill Greider, in his prescient 1992 book Who Will Tell the People, called the relationship of mutual contempt between politicians and voters.
That voters don’t respect politicians is no secret. In one recent poll, only 24% of Americans said they approve of how Congress is doing its job. We see politicians as dishonest and immoral, as indifferent to our needs and wishes, and certainly wouldn’t want our daughters to marry one. Donald Trump laid waste to his Republican rivals in 2015 and 2016 by channeling the voters’ contempt, ridiculing his competitors each in turn, abandoning all pretense of civility and respect, giving each opponent his special contemptuous nickname – “low energy Jeb,” “liddle Marco,” “lyin’ Ted.” He then turned this contempt on his Democratic opponent, “crooked Hillary” Clinton, and led his rallies in cheers of “lock her up!”
While our contempt for politicians is everywhere to be seen, their contempt for us remains carefully hidden, expressed only behind closed doors in conversations with political operatives and campaign donors. Every now and then, however, the mask slips and reveals the ugly truth beneath. One such moment came on September 9, 2016, at a Democratic fundraiser in Manhattan, for which we have a transcript of Hillary Clinton’s remarks. As some of the most disgusting words ever uttered in American politics, her statements deserve to be quoted at length.
Clinton tried to explain to the well-heeled donors in the room why some voters might support Donald Trump. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Here the transcript records the response of her elite audience: “[Laughter/applause]”. Clinton went on to define these “deplorables:” “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” Given that nearly half the country supported Trump at that time, Clinton was saying that a full quarter of the electorate was bigoted and morally depraved, and had no legitimate motives for supporting her opponent – but “unfortunately there are people like that.”
Clinton went on to describe “the other basket” of Trump supporters, the other half, and thus another quarter of the voting public: “that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.” While it is charitable of Clinton to want to “empathize” with “those people,” her utter lack of respect for them fairly drips from her words. The people in this “other basket” haven’t actually been let down by the economy and government (although in fact they clearly have been) – they just “feel” that they have been let down. They are not thinking adults looking in an intelligent way for better government – they are “desperate for change,” and so stupid and ignorant that “it doesn’t really even matter where [the promise of change] comes from.” In sum, as Clinton and her wealthy donors see it, one quarter of America’s voters are immoral bigots and a second quarter are desperate, easily misled losers. And if you think she has much more respect for Democratic voters, you are fooling yourself.
Clinton still doesn’t understand why she lost the election. She went so far as to write a book about why she lost. She blames James Comey. She blames the Russians. Probably she still blames the American people for not having enough respect for women. All of these factors may well have played a role, but Clinton overlooks the obvious point that her opponent was a manifestly incompetent, morally depraved buffoon, and the election shouldn’t even have been close. She lost because she forgot about democracy and did not respect the voters, and the voters, not being stupid, saw through her, just as they see through the rottenness of the entire American political system. She lost because she didn’t respect the voters, and she deserved to lose.
How did Clinton develop her contempt for the voters? This does not strike me as much of a mystery. Like almost all politicians, across the past three to four decades, politicians have been spending less and less time listening to voters, and more and more time meeting with wealthy donors, as the cost of election campaigns has steeply risen. And the donors are so much more fun to be around! Unlike the average voter, the typical high-dollar donor is highly educated, impressively accomplished, sharply-dressed, cultured, sophisticated, witty and charming. The donors don’t live in Harlem, NY, or Kenosha, Wisconsin. They live in exciting places like Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and own vacation homes in the Hamptons or on Martha’s Vineyard, where many fundraising events are held.
While politicians still need our votes to get elected, we’re interchangeable with each other and we’re a dime a dozen. It’s the donors who give politicians the money they really need to win, including to pay for focus groups and opinion polls, which produce emotionally resonant slogans and slick advertisements that manipulate us. Politicians see us as children to be placated and controlled, not thinking adults whose consent is required to make their power legitimate. Our job is to shut up and vote, and then our “leaders” will gather behind closed doors with the donors and other smart people, and figure out what’s best for us. Hillary Clinton is only the most egregious and self-involved example of what our political class has become.
I have already written about one example (in my post of 10/31/19) of how campaign cash has destroyed our democracy. In the months to come I will give you many further examples. But what I have written about today is the most sickening form of our democracy’s degeneracy. Democracy is important not only, or even mainly, because it is the most stable and most efficient form of government. Democracy is necessary because it is the only form of government which is consistent with the worth and dignity of human beings. Our relationship of mutual contempt between politicians and voters does more than rob our government of its legitimacy. For the American people, it is degrading.
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.