A Tale of Two Futures (Excerpt from “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy”)
By Steven Hill, Truthout, November 24, 2012
In 2008, an economic crash of historic proportions shook the world. Without a politics that could rein in the economics, Wall Street honchos turned American banks and the financial system into their personal casinos that had to be bailed out by taxpayers. But that economic collapse was preceded by a long-standing political collapse. The U.S. political system had been captured by wealthy elites who gutted crucial regulations and oversight of the out-of-control financial system, and drained the wealth of the nation into fewer and fewer pockets. Today, American democracy finds itself plagued by out-of-control campaign spending, choiceless elections, paralyzed government, superficial debate, backward voter registration laws, a filibuster-gone-wild U.S. Senate, mindless media, untrustworthy voting equipment, even a partisan Supreme Court. In his new book, 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: 2102 Election Edition, political reformer Steven Hill outlines a blueprint for renewing the American republic by enacting fundamental political and media reforms. In this excerpt, Hill concludes his book by presenting two alternative futures: a dystopia of post-democracy, if the U.S. continues along the current futile path; or a brighter future if fundamental reform is enacted, rescuing Americans from our nation’s downward trajectory.
Conclusion: Renewing the American Republic
A Tale of Two Futures
What will be the future of representative democracy in the United States? America is standing at a fork in the road, staring into the distance of an unknown landscape. Allow me to present two possible alternatives, a tale of two potential futures.
Imagine it is Election Day 2016. Imagine yet another presidential election boiling down to the same two battleground states—Ohio and Florida—that have tilted three of the last four elections, a not-unrealistic scenario, given current demographic trends. Candidates will spend most of their time in these two states and perhaps a handful of other swing states, ignoring all the others. Visits to our largest states (e.g., California, Texas, and New York) will include only select zip codes known as fund-raising mother lodes. The Florida and Ohio electorates will be sliced and diced into bite-sized targets of swing voters at which will be aimed carefully crafted campaign missiles. Ohioans and Floridians will be carpet bombed with television ads, most of them negative, while in the rest of the nation it will be all quiet on the electoral front.
In a close race, spoiler candidates still will threaten to wreck the majority mandate of the front-runners, perplexing voters with lesser-of-two-evils dilemmas and acting as a damper on new candidates and their ideas. All campaign spin and hype will be directed toward the narrowest slices of voters, either the partisan base or undecided swing voters, which will determine the winner. Consequently, the nation’s most important election will be dumbed down to a handful of parochial issues, and the voters who care about all the other concerns facing the nation will watch like spectators from the forty-second row.
In the run-up to this 2016 presidential election, unfortunately, we never did fix the problems with election administration and voting equipment, so out of 120 million voters nationwide, a change of only a few hundred votes in either Ohio or Florida— whether due to administrative miscue or fraud—could alter the outcome. Further complicating matters, with the numbers of minorities in the electorate rising every year, some conservative organizations have increased efforts to use various tricks to disenfranchise them. In 2015, a few states, including Florida, even tried passing English-language requirements for voters–and nearly succeeded. The roller coaster of the 2016 electoral season already has resulted in dozens of lawsuits across the nation, ensuring that no matter which side wins, the nation once again will lose. And the lawyers will get rich.
Not only that, even though all fifty states redrew their legislative districts following the 2010 census, congressional districts have continued their plummet into one-party fiefdoms. In the 2016 congressional elections, only 25 out of 435 district races will be even remotely competitive. To its credit, Congress finally passed a national law in 2013 outlawing partisan gerrymandering and mandating independent redistricting commissions in all states—yet it has had very little impact. Republican and Democratic voters have become so bunkered down into
their own red and blue regions that the line-drawing process mostly has become inconsequential. To counteract that, as well as the terrible Supreme Court decision Citizens United, reformers managed to pass Clean Money and full public-financing legislation in a dozen states by 2014, a tremendous accomplishment that has introduced some badly needed political debate into our brain-dead elections. Yet, with so many red and blue winner-take-all districts dominating the political landscape, that also has made little difference in terms of who gets elected or the policies they pass.
In round two of President Obama’s health-care reform, the House finally passed legislation to rein in health-care costs for all Americans via a joint public option-private sector effort, but 41 senators representing a mere 25 percent of the nation’s population were able to kill it by deploying the anti-majoritarian filibuster. The conservative senators from these low-population states were concerned about an expansion of big government, even though their own states are heavily subsidized by the federal government and by the blue states. In fact, they receive significantly more in federal tax dollars than they pay out, and twice the per capita federal dollars received by blue states California, New York, and Illinois.
Yet, despite all the partisan pyrotechnics and passion on both sides, hardly anyone will show up to vote on Election Day 2016. Disgusted by the lack of choices at the ballot box, the partisan sandbox play, the bland, uninformative media, and a government so out of touch with the concerns of average Americans, voters have continued their trend of staying home. The fact is, most voters no longer need to show up since most races are decided well in advance of Election Day, and so it’s not surprising that they don’t bother. Voter turnout for congressional races plunged to barely a quarter of eligible voters in 2014. In recent years, cities such as Dallas, Charlotte, Austin, New York, and Boston, among others, have seen voter turnout for mayoral elections in the single digits. In one recent mayoral race in Los Angeles, only 5 percent of eligible voters could be bothered to interrupt their busy Tuesday—a workday, after all—to cast a vote.
Some pundits have begun to wonder out loud on editorial pages and talking head shows whether elections even matter anymore. Not only has turnout continued to plunge, but certain cities in California canceled their elections because there were no candidates to compete against the safe-seat incumbents. In fact, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has raised a public ruckus over the cost of elections where so few voters show up, has begun collecting signatures on a California initiative to pass a constitutional amendment to hold one election every eight years. In essence, the Howard Jarvisites are asking the few remaining voters to permanently cancel most elections and transmogrify the United States into a “ratification” democracy with occasional elections and referendums, more like the plutocratic Roman Republic than a participatory democratic republic. And polls show the ballot measure has a good chance of passing.
The onset of this post-democratic future has paved the way for the “Berlusconization” of American politics. Silvio Berlusconi is the Italian media magnate and political patriarch who managed to gobble up nearly all private media in Italy, then used that resource as a personal stepping-stone to political domination in Italy during the 1990s and 2000s. By 2016, the trajectory of America’s shattered democracy has moved us a giant step closer to a Berlusconi-type political figure lurking on the horizon: Sarah Palin, who was made the head of Fox Broadcasting Company after Rupert Murdoch got caught red-handed once again tapping into the voice mail boxes and e-mail accounts of prominent people as well as crime victims. After making a media alliance with Clear Channel, Palin has used her media empire to return to the spotlight and launch her late entry into the 2016 presidential campaign.
Palin is strongly playing the national security card, promising her supporters a “war to restore American global power.” Palin’s polling numbers have quickly surged into the high thirties, making her a front-runner, and combined with yet another independent presidential run by eighty-two-year-old Ralph Nader that threatens to split the center-left vote, all calculations about the race have been thrown into a tizzy.
Despite all the electoral fireworks, it is projected that America will be lucky if it can cajole even half of the electorate to turn out to vote for president. The rest of the world is greatly alarmed by this turn of events in the former global paragon of representative democracy and still heavily armed superpower, so France has introduced a United Nations resolution demanding that, if Americans are not going to turn out to vote for president, then the rest of the world should be allowed to because the occupier of the American presidency affects nations all over the world.
On Election Day 2016, America takes a big gulp and prepares for a grim outcome. There will be no winner in a country so bedeviled by bitter partisanship and antiquated political institutions and practices. The rest of the world can only watch and shake their heads in disbelief, a by now familiar posture toward the former leader of the Western world. This is the way American democracy will end, not with a bang but with a whimper.
Instead of a gloomy future of post-democracy, another future is possible— one of renewed democracy. Imagine a different election in 2016, one where all 220 million eligible voters, including the millions of minority, poor, and young voters, have been automatically registered to vote as a result of a federal law passed in 2014 enacting universal voter registration. Imagine that law also brought the United States into the ranks of other advanced democracies that have lifted all barriers to participation, including allowing residents of our nation’s capital, Washington DC, to elect congressional representation; enabling our poorest citizens to vote on equipment as good as that used in the wealthy county next door; and permitting prisoners to learn the good habits of citizenship, such as the basic act of voting, while incarcerated. This federal law enfranchising all these new voters amounted to the greatest civil rights advance since 1965 and dramatically changed the profile of the electorate.
Imagine that in 2014 Congress finally passed a law ensuring that voting equipment and election administration would be overseen by a national elections commission that rigorously tests and produces the best and most innovative voting equipment and election administrative practices, partnering with states, counties, and the private sector to ensure that every corner of America is technologically equipped and trained to count our ballots accurately and securely. Election officials are now trained and certified professionals, with expertise in computer technology, databases, the logistics of running elections, and public relations, instead of a hodgepodge of career bureaucrats with little more than on-the-job training.
By the 2016 presidential election, twenty-one states have signed treaties awarding all their state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, enough that the election has become a de facto national direct election for president. Candidates no longer can confine their campaigns to a handful of battleground states, especially the bigger ones such as Ohio and Florida. Instead, the candidates crisscross the nation, ignoring practically no one, trying to pick up every single vote they can. In 2016 it’s going to be a close race, just as it has been in most presidential elections since 2000, and no one knows whether the decisive votes will come from Wyoming, North Dakota, Georgia, California, New York, or some other state. This in turn leads to a massive mobilization of voters, old and new, who suddenly aren’t being treated like spectators anymore or ignored because they happen to live in the wrong state.
These twenty-one states as well as several others also have decided to use ranked choice voting (RCV) to guarantee majority winners in their presidential, gubernatorial and other statewide races, so the presence of several independent and minor party candidates doesn’t split the vote or spoil the race; in fact, it injects new ideas and fresh faces that excite more voters. Suddenly voters can hear a range of candidates directly addressing their concerns. And by ranking the candidates 1, 2, 3, so that if their first choice can’t win, their vote goes to their second choice, they can vote for these candidates without shooting themselves in the foot and contributing to their least favorite candidate winning. The net effect of a national direct election for president, as well as using RCV in many states for other statewide races, is that voter turnout in the 2016 election is projected to surge across the nation to a phenomenal 77 percent of eligible voters, on a par with many other democracies and the highest turnout in more than 120 years.
But that’s not all. By 2016, imagine that nineteen states have scrapped their antiquated winner-take-all elections and adopted proportional representation for electing their state legislatures and congressional delegations. As a result, multiparty democracies have sprouted in all these states, giving voters a whole new range of independent candidates and political parties to choose from. In addition to Democrats and Republicans, a Libertarian Party, a Green Party, a Working Families Party, and a centrist Ross Perot–type New America Party are all vying for legislative seats. The candidates for the different parties receive public financing and free media time, so even the smaller parties have sufficient resources to reach voters with TV and radio ads about their platforms and policy proposals. The result is real free market competition in our elections, something America has never really seen before, and a political buzz across the landscape that would have made Alexis de Tocqueville gush with enthusiasm. For the first time in their lives, millions of American voters are no longer bunkered down in safe, one-party districts, and are hearing a genuine debate with a full range of policy choices. Voters feel more informed and more satisfied with their political options across the political spectrum. As a result, voter turnout for state and congressional elections has doubled in these nineteen states to an average of 75 percent of eligible voters, nearly as high as in many other nations.
A couple of years earlier, in 2014, the US Senate was finally recognized as an eighteenth-century anachronism, but political resistance from the low-population states benefiting most from this sclerotic, unrepresentative body meant that reform possibilities were limited. Nevertheless, the Twenty-Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 2015, greatly reducing the Senate’s powers, taking away its authority to confirm the Supreme Court and other presidential appointments, and transforming it into an upper chamber like that in other advanced democracies that can delay legislation initiated by the House but that cannot stop it or introduce its own legislation. This amendment also abolished anti-majoritarian practices like the filibuster.
With the Senate scaled back, other reforms are in the air, one of them leading to moves to overhaul the Supreme Court. Another constitutional amendment has been passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification that will impose fifteen-year judicial term limits for Supreme Court justices as well as other federal judgeships, and a mandatory retirement age of seventy-five. If passed by three-fourths of the states, the Twenty-Ninth Amendment will ensure that the Supreme Court becomes, for the first time in decades, a balance of legal-political views that better reflects the views of most Americans.
With broader representation in Congress and many of the state legislatures—including perspectives from the right, left, and center— policy has adjusted to align more closely with the opinions of most Americans. Congress has passed sensible laws to regulate the corporate media, forcing Big Media to sign a legally binding charter with detailed requirements for how it will serve the public interest, including providing adequate election news coverage and free airtime for all candidates (that meet reasonable eligibility requirements). Cable companies have finally been brought to heel and made to serve the public interest, with a regulated pricing structure and cooperative agreements with cities and rural areas to bring high-speed Internet access to all citizens, even the poorest. Social media and networking via the Internet have become smoothly integrated into our politics and public discourse, allowing young people to gain a political foothold. The Fairness Doctrine has been restored, ensuring that all sides and opinions can be heard, reducing the inclination of Americans to bunker down in their own impoverished media ghettos.
Public broadcasting has been granted robust funding to nearly BBC-type levels via a small mandatory monthly fee paid by households instead of by congressional authorization, liberating it to put the “public” back into its broadcasting. Hard-hitting journalism and penetrating interviews of political leaders, like those seen on the BBC, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now!, and other media outlets, is making a tentative appearance in PBS and NPR broadcasts. Daily newspapers in under-served communities are being subsidized, resulting in a flowering of dailies. Newspapers are even incorporated into classrooms, getting high school students into the habit of reading the news. With more robust public and private media, including high-speed Internet and social media, the result has been a surge of interest and knowledge on the part of Americans in news and politics and an improvement in the quality of political discourse and citizenship, leading to new understanding and respect among Americans of differing viewpoints.
The cumulative effect of all these changes by Election Day 2016 is that, in so many ways, the winner-take-all mentality—the adversarial “if I win, you lose” mantra—has begun to transform. Whether it’s in the legislatures, the executive branch, the media, or the courts, a new form of consensual democracy is emerging where various points of view compete against each other in a more respectful manner, sometimes strongly disagreeing but no longer crossing the line between vigorous advocacy and bitter “win-at-all-costs” partisanship. In such a climate of multi-partisan collegiality, where minds can come together and share perspectives in order to craft compromises and solutions for the good of the nation, Congress is able to chart a legislative course for America’s future, including figuring out a plan to ensure that every American has health care, and a decent retirement too, using a mix of public-private partnerships.
With legislative chambers functioning more as pragmatic, deliberative, problem-solving bodies instead of mud-wrestling pits of partisan warfare, Americans no longer are so frustrated by paralyzed politics and stop looking to millionaire politicians or media moguls or poorly crafted voter initiatives to fix the mess. Government acquires a better reputation. Americans see that smart government—not big government or “chopped-to-the-bone” government—can assist them in living prosperous, healthy, and enjoyable lives without overly restricting their liberty or freedoms. Once again, America presents a more cooperative leadership on the global stage, much to the world’s relief. All this ushers in a new era of shared prosperity among all Americans, and the rising tide helps lift boats the world over.
This is one alternative future for the United States. Down this path lies a renewal of American democracy that will allow our nation to live up to the lofty rhetoric of our Founders’ homily: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” A renewed democracy will create a nation that works for all of us instead of some of us.
But down another path—much like the current path, relying on antiquated institutions and practices—lies a downward spiral into post-democracy, a nightmarish future where political and economic cabals wielding ominous technology have hog-tied democracy, rolled back regulation, turned our economy into their own personal casino, and rendered our nation into one that works for only a handful of us instead of all of us. These are two very different alternative futures, founded on two very different philosophies regarding representative democracy: elite rule versus popular sovereignty. We are standing at a fork in the road, and the choice is ours.
Like the rest of the world, the United States must adapt to profound political and economic changes that are sweeping the 21st century. Understandably, many people look at the political landscape today and throw up their hands, concluding things will never change. But how many Germans in 1980 thought the Berlin Wall would fall in less than ten years? I have spoken to many Germans who in 1988 did not imagine the Berlin Wall would fall less than a year later. How many people in the spring of 2008 thought the US and then the global economy would collapse in a matter of months? How many experts in December 2010 predicted that the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official, would precipitate the remarkable chain of events known as the Arab Spring, which has led to the fall of dictators and unleashed a wave of political and economic reform across the Middle East? And how many anticipated the Occupy Wall Street movement that drew inspiration from the Arab Spring and spread throughout the United States in the fall of 2011?
The take-home lesson is that you never know at any given moment where you stand on the fault lines of history. Change proceeds very slowly, via inch-by-inch movements of the tectonic plates, until suddenly it is unleashed in an earthquake of unexpected proportions. A similar process of political evolution is occurring in the United States today.
Despite the seeming odds, we urgently need to press forward with efforts focused on adopting the reforms proposed in this book. Everybody can do a little, volunteering time and resources to the various organizations listed at the end of each chapter. One step at a time, we will transform the American political system, taking it out of the eighteenth-century museum in which it is stuck and transplanting it into the twenty-first century.