Four Steps to Save the World

October 24,  2019

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.