An Unreal Debate

January 17,  2020

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.