By Heather Gates
We need a good revolution. The foundation of our nation—that our government derives its powers “from the consent of the governed” —is eroding. Corporations have gained power and “personhood.” Super-wealthy individuals can fund campaigns from the shadows, and have more “free speech” than the rest of us. Ideologues control legislators and restrict their willingness to compromise. And our own Supreme Court has helped much of this happen.
We need a good revolution. Written before the election, this statement and this column are not in response to what did or did not happen on November 6. They are written in response to the harmful changes to our democratic system that have occurred in the last few decades, and especially in the last few years.
In the 2010 Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not ban independent political spending by corporations, labor unions, and other organizations in elections. The majority held that Congress cannot limit independent expenditures in political campaigns, as such expenditures are not donations so much as expressions of preference, giving corporations much of the same rights to political speech as individuals have.
Most Americans agree that this ruling was the wrong one. As we have seen in the first presidential election since that ruling, independent “Super PACs,” which have no limits on campaign donations, are flooding our airwaves, mailboxes, streets, and phone lines with advertising. The super wealthy, like billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, can donate tens of millions of dollars. You and I, though, as individual donors, are limited to $2,500 for the state-by-state party-nominating contests for presidential candidates and to $2,500 for the general election. Millionaires and billionaires have the power to sway the election and curry favor with those they help elect, whereas, the little folks, like you and me, make a much smaller impact and have no power to curry favor.
Our system also allows a single lobbyist and activist like Grover Norquist—a person who holds no public office—to control members of congress. (If you are not familiar with him, he has persuaded 279 legislators to sign a pledge to never, under any circumstances, vote to raise taxes on anyone. That might sound good on one hand, but it ties up the legislators’ ability to compromise and negotiate.) No public official should be allowed to sign a pledge that supersedes his or her pledge to represent the best interests of the United States citizens in his or her district.
We have to change a system in which the Speaker of the House is so afraid of being seen as compromising with the other side that he cannot even speak of it. “I reject the word,” current Speaker John Boehner has said.
Compromise should be a goal of a good revolution. We must change the structure of our system so that the right and left can compromise and do what is best for the country, not what is best for the parties.
And that leads to another problem. We only have two powerful parties in the United States and much of our system helps keep that two-party structure in place. But how much more representative would our government be if we had more than two parties? How much more diffuse would power be among the citizens if Independents, Greens, Libertarians, Socialists, Progressives, Constitutionalists, and other parties were to share the stage with the Republicans and Democrats?
How about we advocate for an election “season” that is actually a season-long affair instead of one lasting more than a year? I am sure most of us would cheer than kind of change right now. What a waste to have such a long, drawn-out process. Other countries do their choosing much more quickly and seem to do quite well. What can we learn from them about changing what we do?
At their cores, what most of my gripes are about is the diminishment of power of the average citizen. It is an issue of human rights, social justice, and sustainability when people’s ability to participate fully in their own governance is infringed upon or muted. We should have elected officials who are beholden to us, not beholden to Super PAC donors, corporations, or the Grover Norquists of the world.
Will America’s citizens have the willingness to make change? Do we have what it takes for a good revolution?
I turn for inspiration to Robert M. La Follette, who struggled repeatedly against a political machine until finally becoming Wisconsin’s governor. He led an era of progressive reform that helped give Wisconsin its reputation for clean governance. Said La Follette, “We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”
So, if we love democracy, it is time to fix it. If we want our government to remain one that derives its powers “from the consent of the governed,” the governed had better get to work.