by Frank Kirkwood
Congressional Democrats, soon to be in control of the U.S. House, will start the year by introducing a bill, HR 1, that is likely to include many needed reforms such as publicly funded elections, full disclosure of campaign spending, protections for voting rights, and other reforms to make democracy fair and functional. This bill should pass with strong Democratic support. Then it will die a quiet death in the Senate. But the Democrats will have made their point: We are the party of reform! Put us fully in power and we will fix the system. But will they follow through if and when they get the power? No, they won’t. At least not unless we make them do it. And we need to start now.
How can we citizens get our elected officials in every party, at every level of government, to acknowledge that our democracy is weak and getting weaker? How do we get them to make the changes necessary to bring our democracy to full health? How do we force politicians to respect the political equality of every citizen and fix our democracy so that each citizen’s voice is respected?
Here’s the thing about politicians that we have to understand: some of them are just awful: self-serving, ravenous for power and prestige, on the lookout for ways to turn their power into money. The very worst of them are indifferent, and even hostile, to the idea of democracy itself.
The good politicians do believe in democracy and respect every citizen’s power in it. The best politicians are even willing to make their own re-election potentially less certain in order to make our democracy stronger. Its not the patriotic sacrifice that so many have made for our country over the years but with a mortgage to pay and a family who depend on them, it is a brave and honorable position.
Of course, most politicians fall somewhere between the worst and the best. Even the worst will pretend to care about the citizens and our democratic traditions and even the best may really want to make our democracy healthier but may lack genuine enthusiasm for reforms that might make their own jobs less secure. So, it is a big ask when we ask them to do the right thing for the citizens and our democracy. Democrats (like Republicans) will not do this on their own once they have control of the government.
So, how can the citizens force elected officials to fix our democracy? In truth, the only thing we can actually force our elected officials to do is to clean out their desks and go home after they have lost the last election. The key to motivating them to do the right thing is to help them easily imagine that they will lose the next election if they don’t stand up for democracy.
Here’s how we can do that: First, we ask elected officials to be leaders in this reform and to tell us what they see as the problems with our democracy. Second, tell us how they will use their official power to fix those problems. Third, we ask them to put it all up on their website for the citizens to see – to stand up for democracy!
That’s where we start our conversation with our incumbent representatives. “We haven’t seen a ‘Democracy Page’ on your website yet. Don’t you think there are problems with the way our democracy works that need to be addressed? We do and we would like you to be our ally in this effort to fix democracy. Let’s talk about some of the problems and some of the solutions and how you, as our representative, can lead the way to fixing them. Then you can put up your ‘Democracy Page’ and we can move from there to getting these solutions passed into law.”
Politicians address all sorts of issues on their webpages. Democracy is rarely one of them. That’s because politicians say they want reform but many of them want only enough reform to put themselves in power and to disadvantage their rivals. They don’t want to have to run for re-election in a district unless it has been gerrymandered to such a degree that the other party has little chance of beating them. They don’t want to face a challenger in the primary who is able to raise enough money (through publicly funded elections) to run a competitive campaign against them. They don’t want to give up free gifts, vacations, meals, and drinks with the lobbyists. They don’t want registering and voting to be easy and convenient – especially for citizens who might vote against them. They don’t want their campaign contributors to get the idea that their money is not welcome. And they certainly don’t want to acknowledge the truth that the pay-to-play political system that keeps them safely in office is corrupt.
So, it is a tough sell. But if your representative is not willing to speak the truth about our democracy on their Democracy Page now, then we will know the kind of legislator we are dealing with – the worst kind – the kind we need to get started replacing.
Once we are able to get elected officials to publicly post their assessment of the problems we face and the solutions they support, then we can push these legislators to the next steps: sponsor or co-sponsor reform bills, speak out for reform at events and on social media, challenge party leadership to bring reform bills to a vote, and to actually vote for reform bills when the big day to fix democracy finally arrives.
But, reformers can’t wait until the “big day” finally arrives to find out if our representatives are the best kind or the awful kind. We need to know now.
Let’s start by saying: “We haven’t seen a ‘Democracy Page’ on your website yet.”