Our Political Revolution: Moving Power from the Few to the Many Starts with our Safe Democratic Incumbents (Whether They Like It or Not)
by Frank Kirkwood
Money-in-politics reformers will never be able to shift political power from the few to the many until local citizens are organized within legislative districts to make reform an election day issue. Current reform efforts that are organized around getting legislators to promise they will do the right thing in the future but requiring them to do almost nothing now, do not adequately account for the fact that the corrupt political system that reformers want to end is the same corrupt political system that keeps many of these legislators safe in their jobs. A recent study of the websites of the congressional co-sponsors of reform legislation reveals that 4 out of 5 fail to mention the money-in-politics problem or their co-sponsorship of the solutions. This is the least they could do to show leadership in our struggle and the great majority have failed to do it.
A new approach is needed. Safe Democratic incumbents must be challenged to do more than claim to be our allies. We need them to act now to do everything within their power to advance reform, starting by agreeing to no longer use their campaign or leadership accounts to fund the political campaigns of the opponents of reform. We need them to force the Democratic Party to become the party of reform. Then reform will become an election day issue everywhere and the voters will have what they rarely have now: the opportunity to fix our broken democracy.
This is Not Just Another Issue
When we talk about “reforming money-in-politics” or instituting fundamental “campaign finance reform” we are talking about taking political and economic power from one small, self-interested class of people and putting in the hands of all the citizens. This is the sort of thing that revolutions and wars are about. This was the work that was done in the first American Revolution. This is serious business.
The beauty of our Constitution is that it gives us a way to make this political revolution through the ballot box and to do it peacefully. Our Congress and our state legislatures can pass laws and constitutional amendments to cause this transfer of power. But, we, the citizens cannot make our legislators vote for these changes if they don’t want to and very few of them want to. There is only one thing that we, the citizens, can “make” our legislators do: clean out their desks and go home after they have lost the election. That’s it. That’s the only power we have over them.
We are not going to get our legislators to create our political revolution by “writing to our Congressman” or by signing on-line petitions or by endlessly protesting how corrupt our political system has become, although these are useful ways of educating the public. But, our public expressions of frustration and anger are, to the ears of incumbent politicians, no more than background noise, political static. The only protest that matters to an incumbent is a vote by the citizens of the district to remove him or her from office. The shift of power from the few to the many must be organized around using our votes.
The Current Political Playing Field
Let’s recognize that today’s legislators and their two political parties operate in a world where power is in the hands of the few: the campaign funders. They use their money to entice, to reward, to punish, and even to threaten our legislators. Both major parties have been forced to become middlemen between the wealthy interests who want something from government and the members of Congress (or candidates for Congress) who can deliver what they want. Even the relationship between legislators has become an economy where money is traded for power and power is traded for money. A legislator’s power within Congress, as well as their personal wealth when they leave Congress, is dependent on their ability to raise money for themselves and for other candidates within their party. It will surprise citizens to learn that their member of Congress may be the biggest campaign spender in town.
At the same time, members of Congress know that back in their districts, many of their constituents are cynical, angry, frustrated, and suffering the effects of being ignored by a corrupted Congress that is responsive to the campaign funders but not to the citizens. Few trust their legislatures, many have given up on voting. But, the citizens of all parties, those who have not given up on our democracy, want reform.
We Must Organize to Use Our Votes, Starting In “Safe” Democratic Districts
Historically, when the need for a reform becomes great, one party or the other will support the reform in order to win favor with the voters. But when it comes to money-in-politics, neither major party has been willing to pick up that banner because both parties are dependent on money from the tiny portion of the population that has both the resources and the motives to pay for campaigns. As a result, the demand for reform grows without resolution because the voters lack the opportunity to settle the matter on election day.
We need to give voters that opportunity by making reform an election day issue. We need to recognize that incumbents aren’t going to undertake the extremely difficult work of shifting power in this country until they are put in a position where they will lose the next election if they don’t prove themselves to be real reformers. We need to organize to put our state and federal legislators in that position and keep them there for years to come.
And we need to start with “safe” Democrats. My experience has been that most, but certainly not all, of the citizens who most want to fix the money-in-politics problem are registered as Democrats and participate in Democratic primary elections. Because of gerrymandering, most of these citizens live in districts represented by Democratic politicians. This is where the reformers live and this is where change needs to start. We need to demand that our Democratic legislators be leaders in this political revolution.
More Congressional Co-Sponsors for Reform Will Not Be Enough to Save Our Democracy
There are two main approaches to make fundamental change in the money-in-politics problem. One involves the effort to establish publicly funded elections, so that candidates have an alternative to being dependent on wealthy, self-interested campaign funders. The other is to amend the Constitution to fix the Citizens United decision. Legislation to do each has been introduced in the 114th Congress (2015-2016).
Amending the Constitution or passing new laws are ultimately going to require the votes of legislators on the state and/or federal level. Therefore, it will be necessary to have in office legislators who will pass such changes even though doing so may put their own personal and political fortunes in jeopardy.
Progress in these efforts is measured by how many congressional co-sponsors the legislation has. Almost all of the co-sponsors of reform legislation in the current Congress are Democrats. There are 152 supporters of the public funding bill in the House, if we add 65 more, the thinking goes, that’s enough to pass it. The reasoning is that if we just elect more candidates who say they are willing to co-sponsor the reform bills, we can pass publicly funded elections and pass an amendment to fix Citizens United, too.
I used to believe this approach made sense but now I believe that it will not only fail to produce change, but that it is counter-productive. I will show, below, that the great majority of the co-sponsors of these reform bills have not demonstrated even the minimum level of leadership necessary to bring about our political revolution. And I don’t believe they ever will, unless the citizens of their district are organized to remove them from office if they fail to prove themselves to be real reformers. Further, asking legislators to co-sponsor these reform bills, but asking nothing else of them, is counter-productive because, by co-sponsoring these reform bills, safe incumbent Democrats are able to remove reform from the political debate in their districts and thereby pacify the most concentrated populations of potential reform advocates.
A Review of the Websites of Reform Legislation Co-Sponsors
Legislation to set up publicly funded elections has been introduced in Congress many times over the last 20 years. In the current Congress, the bill in the House of Representatives for publicly funded elections is H.R. 20, the Government By the People Act. In the Senate, it is S. 1538, the Fair Elections Now Act. H.R. 20, is sponsored by Rep. Sarbanes and has 151 co-sponsors. S. 1538 is sponsored by Sen. Durbin and has 21 co-sponsors.
On the other front, there are 174 Democratic co-sponsors of resolutions to amend the constitution to fix the Citizens United decision. S.J.Res.5, sponsored by Sen. Udall (NM), is the Senate resolution and H.J.Res.22, sponsored by Rep Deutch, is the resolution in the House.
We should expect real leaders of these politically revolutionary bills to use their websites, their face to the public, to say to their constituents, “Like you, I recognize that our democracy is in trouble. There are solutions to these problems and I am working hard to pass them. Look at what I have done already. I have co-sponsored the bills to fix Citizens United and to create publicly funded elections.”
Real leaders would take the opportunity to use their websites (over which they have complete control) to acknowledge the public’s frustration and to educate their constituents about the solutions that are available to the money-in-politics problem and to let the citizens know that their representative is on the forefront of this fight.
In August of 2015, I reviewed the websites of the 172 Democratic sponsors and co-sponsors of these two bills to create publicly funded elections. I also looked at the websites of the 174 Democratic sponsor and co-sponsors of resolutions to amend the constitution to fix the Citizens United decision . I looked at both the official congressional website and the campaign website of each of these elected officials. For the first group, I looked for statements on their websites about the public funding of elections bills or, more generally, about their support of publicly funded elections. In the second group, I looked for statements about the specific resolutions or for a mention of a plan to fix Citizens United.
Here is what I found:
Publicly Funded Elections
84% (145 of 172) of Democratic co-sponsors of bills to create publicly funded elections do not mention their support for this bill or their support for publicly funded elections more generally on either their official or campaign websites.
Only 3% (6 of 172) of Democratic co-sponsors do mention their support for these bills or their support for publicly funded elections generally on both their official and campaign websites.
Citizens United Amendment
76% (145 of 174) of Democratic co-sponsors of Congressional resolutions to overturn the Citizens United decision by amending the Constitution do not mention their support for these resolutions or any plan to fix Citizens United on either their official or campaign websites.
Only 6% (11 of 174) of Democratic co-sponsors do mention their support for these resolutions or a plan to fix Citizens United on both their official and campaign websites.
(Look here for details of this review.)
What Are We to Make of This Silence?
Given that so many of their constituents are angry, frustrated, and suffering the effects of being ignored by an unresponsive government and that great majorities of the citizens (of both parties) agree that the system is broken, why then, are more than 4 out of 5 of the Democratic members of Congress who say they support publicly funded elections not willing to tell the public that they have a plan to fix our broken democracy?
Why do 3 out of 4 not mention their participation in the fight to overturn the widely disliked Citizens United decision?
Why, when the Democratic presidential candidates are talking about this problem and highlighting their proposals to fix it, do Democratic Members of Congress who are already on record as co-sponsors of these reform bills, stay silent?
The very kindest explanation is that those legislators whose websites are silent on these issues are not eager to be the kind of leaders we are going to need in our coming political revolution. They are unmotivated and, if we don’t ask them to do more, they won’t. We need to ask them to do more, much more.
For many of these co-sponsors, the reason their websites are silent is that they have no interest at all in shifting power from the few to the many. The current system is working pretty well for them personally. They have a nice job and they want to keep it. The truth is that in many cases the corrupt system we are fighting to change is the same system that is keeping them safe in their jobs.
The “Co-Sponsor Maneuver”
The last time the congressional and state legislative districts were redrawn, a large majority of the districts where created so that one or the other of the parties is so dominant within the district that it is very unlikely that the other party will ever run a competitively-funded challenger against the incumbent. In the House of Representatives, most of the incumbents (90%+) of both parties are in safe districts. They only need to worry about a challenger from their own party. These incumbents don’t have to worry very much about that either because, unlike most potential challengers, these incumbents have their own sugar daddies; patrons who keep their campaign accounts full enough to discourage under-funded challengers in the primary.
But how do these Democrats in these safe districts respond to their constituents who point out that the Congress is corrupt and that our democracy is broken and that it needs to be fixed? They respond by claiming that they themselves are reformers. “Just look at the record” they say, “I have co-sponsored the public funding of elections bill. I co-sponsored the resolution to fix Citizens United!”
These politicians are having it both ways. They have found a safe, comfortable place for themselves in Congress. They have no interest in fanning the flames of reform or in telling the general public that there are solutions that can fix our democracy. They quietly tell the reformers that they support fundamental change. “You can look it up,” they say, “I am a co-sponsor of the solutions.” So we reformers should just quit bothering them about it; after all, they are not the problem, its the Republicans! This “co-sponsor maneuver” can quickly and at little political cost eliminate the likelihood that reformers will make trouble for them back in their district or state. (That’s been my experience with my Senator.) They have quietly sidelined citizens’ demand for reform of the corrupt system because it is this same system that protects and keeps many of these incumbents in Congress.
Co-sponsor’s claims that they are with us are, in most cases, simply not believable. We need to demand much, much more of incumbents who claim to be ready to stand with us in the serious business of moving political power from the few to the many.
We Need to Separate the Leaders from the Posers
So, we reformers have to ask ourselves: Is it reasonable for us to expect action from these “allies” who have told us (by the act of co-sponsoring) that they will revolutionize political power in this country, when they aren’t even willing to mention the money-in-politics problem on their websites?
Is it reasonable for us to expect that these safe incumbents will vote to exchange the current system, one that all but guarantees that they will be re-elected and perhaps be unchallenged, for a public funding system that all but guarantees they will have a competitively funded challenger in the primary and another one in the general election and, if they are in the House, that they will face the same thing every two years?
Is it reasonable to expect them to change the law and give up their future fortunes in lobbying fees when the day comes when they themselves head through the revolving door to become lobbyists?
No, it is not reasonable to expect that more than a few of them will do any of that without being forced to do so by their constituents.
We cannot count each co-sponsorship, by itself, as a measure of progress toward real systemic reform – not even if all of the co-sponsors post their support of reform on the websites. Easy promises of reform by safe Democratic incumbents not only takes the vigor out of our most concentrated groups of reform-minded citizens, it prevents us from knowing their true intentions.
Let’s remember that the last time the Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the Presidency (in 2009-10), the Democratic leadership failed to even allow a vote on the bill for publicly funded elections. There is no reason to think that party leadership (who are themselves at the center of this money and power economy [see: Pelosi, Boehner]) will behave differently next time, no matter how many supporters (real or pretend) the reform bills have. The pretend supporters will be happy to continue to claim they are with us and happy to let party leadership take the heat when the bills aren’t voted on.
Reformers have accomplished much in the effort to help the public understand the pervasiveness of the money-in-politics problem. We still need to do more in making people aware that solutions are possible. But unless we have a strategy to translate public desire for reform into real action by elected officials, we should only expect more cynicism, alienation, and non-participation from our fellow citizens and more crafty posturing by our legislators.
(Here is the story of my former Congressman who went “full-cycle”. In 2006, as a supporter of publicly funded elections for Congress, he beat an incumbent. Five years later, he was one of only 10 Democrats in the House to vote to terminate the existing program that provided public financing for presidential campaigns.)
Reformers need to get on with the real work we must do: organizing to use our only tool, the power to vote, to put our legislators in a position where they will lose the next election if they prove to be self-interested posers rather than real leaders for reform.
Reformers and reform groups need to demand that, in addition to promising future action, incumbent legislators (and candidates) demonstrate today, that they are committed to reform. We can’t wait until our D-Day, the day we need them to vote for real change, to find out that, not only are they not willing to charge out on to the beach with us, they aren’t even on the ship.
The Reform Package: What Reformers Want
How can we identify politicians who are true leaders; individuals who are not part of the problem but part of the solution? Reformers need to come together and agree on a Reform Package, a list of actions and commitments that candidates would be asked to agree to. Here is a draft of some ideas which could be included in the Reform Package. A politician’s willingness or unwillingness to act now, to support the Reform Package, will allow us to separate the safe and comfortable posers from the real leaders.
It would be great if we could ask candidates, as part of the Reform Package, to stop taking campaign contributions. But, we can’t do that. They absolutely need large amounts of money if they are going to keep their jobs. (That’s the problem, after all!) Until they have an alternative source of funding (publicly funded elections), they have to raise campaign money wherever they can. So, it isn’t realistic to ask them to stop participating in that part of the system. We need another approach.
Real Reform Leaders Need to Change the Way They SPEND Their Campaign Money
It may be that the one individual in your congressional district who contributes the most to political campaigns is your member of Congress. If you live in a “safe” district (of either party) it is likely that your representative collects large amounts of campaign money and then dispenses it to candidates they favor. Some of it they give to their party which, in turn, spends that money on candidates in competitive districts around the country. This money is given to incumbents because they have the power to cast a vote in Congress, a power that we, the constituents, gave them. (Here are examples of the campaign spending of a couple of members of Congress [Republican and Democratic] who live near me.)
As part of agreeing to the Reform Package, we need our representative to agree to spend his or her campaign money only on candidates who also support the Reform Package and to give campaign money only to organizations that give money to only candidates who support the Reform Package. Our representative can’t say he is part of the solution if he is financing the campaigns of candidates in other districts who are part of the problem. In other words, we need to demand that our local elected official stop giving money to the Democratic Party unless the Democratic Party stops funding opponents of reform. We need to force the Democratic Party to become the party of reform – whether they like it or not!
If safe Democratic incumbents are giving money only to other Democrats who have agreed to the Reform Package, then Democratic candidates in competitive districts will be incentivized to agree to the Reform Package. Because the Package includes the candidate’s agreement to publicize their support of the Package, we can thereby make money-in-politics an issue in these competitive races. In effect, we will be forcing candidates to publicly talk about an issue that is popular with voters but an issue they would otherwise never talk about because it is hypocritical for candidates who are dependent on money from wealthy self-interests to criticize their opponents for being dependent on money from wealthy self-interests. That’s one of the reasons the money-in-politics problem is rarely mentioned in campaigns. We can force that conversation into these competitive races.
If we make money-in-politics an election day issue in competitive districts, independent voters will recognize that there are solutions to the money-in-politics problem and there is something they can do about it: they can vote for the candidate who is part of the solution.
At some point, Republican candidates will see that they need to listen to these independent voters (and to reformers within their own party) and support reform themselves or lose these otherwise winnable elections. Then change can happen.
Let’s Ask Incumbents to Be Part of the Solution and Not Part of the Problem
The idea of the Reform Package is to get our incumbent legislators, both federal and state, to commit themselves to reform in a very real way and to do it today. As we have seen from the Co-sponsor Website Review, the great majority of legislators have little motivation to be strong leaders for reform, if they are not challenged to do so by their constituents. The current corrupted system is working well for them personally. The purpose of asking politicians to commit to the Reform Package now is to push them to be strong leaders and to go “all-in” for reform. If they are unwilling, then we know, right now, that they are part of the problem. We will need to find new leaders; leaders who are ready, right now, to be part of the solution.
We are not hoping to unseat our incumbents. We would much rather that they agree to the Reform Package and act like real leaders in the fight to move power from the few to the many. If they agree to the Reform Package and follow through with all of the actions described in it, great! Once we have challenged enough representatives to be strong leaders, we will have reform. In the meantime, there is nothing in the Reform Package that will burden your legislator in his or her duty to represent you and you neighbors in the Congress or in the state legislature. The Reform Package does not ask them to “unilaterally disarm”; they can raise money for their campaigns as they always have. They can give money to anyone they wish, as long as that candidate has also agreed to the Reform Package. We just need them to quit funding the enemies of reform!
What Reformers Need to Do
Reformers and reform organizations can start today by asking co-sponsors (and state and federal candidates) to do the minimum: if they support publicly funded elections and if they support fixing Citizens United, they need to say so on the “Issues” page of their websites!!! (Send them a link to this article.) If they are unwilling to do even that, we should just ask them to stop pretending that they are working to put power back in the hands of the citizens. We should ask them to withdraw their co-sponsorship of the reform bills and resolutions. Then we should get to work on electing a new representative for our local community.
Reform organizations need to come together and identify items to be included in the Reform Package. Then they need to help citizen/reformers find each other and come together in their local communities to ask their representatives and candidates (federal and state) to agree to the Reform Package and, if they won’t, select a challenger to the incumbent. We, the citizens, must organize ourselves in our own communities to push every incumbent to support the Reform Package and ask them to be strong leaders in our political revolution. We will need to run challengers against incumbents who will not.
Let’s Get Started
If we don’t make reform a district-level election day issue, every election day, we may never wrestle power from the few. We might not even get small, incremental reforms. After all, if there are no election day consequences for failing to reform, why should legislatures make even small reforms? Incremental reforms are good, but we should not imagine them to be stepping stones to the fundamental, revolutionary shift of power that our country needs.
A relatively small group of citizens in a district can come together, first to ask their legislators to agree to the Reform Package and, if they refuse, to find a candidate who will agree and then to collect signatures for that candidate in order to get that candidate on the ballot. The need to collect many signatures in a short period of time dissuades many potential candidates. Potential candidates will greatly value a standing network of reformers who can reliably collect enough signatures to get a candidate on the ballot. At the same time, incumbents would much rather have no challengers at all. If they know that by agreeing to the Reform Package they can avoid activating a network that will produce a challenger, they may well agree to the Package.
Reformers, using their personal social media networks to connect with each other and with their neighbors can quickly create a network within the district. When citizen groups do the same thing in many state and federal legislative districts we create a reform “brand”; a brand that can be earned by candidates of any party and will be recognized by voters everywhere. Then the voters will have the opportunity to use their votes to fix our democracy every election day by voting for the reform candidates. With national groups providing local citizens with coordination and on-line tools, this can quickly grow into a potent political movement. In low-turnout elections, it will eventually be decisive. When we upset a few incumbents, that will be an earthquake.
Our successful efforts to push safe Democrats to become strong reform leaders can create a parallel effort by citizens on the Republican side. Although Republican candidates almost never talk about the money-in-politics problem (never mind the solutions), Republican citizens are ready for it. If we all keep pushing, until most incumbents feel that they are in danger of losing if they don’t vote for real reform, then we win.
Although this may be a long struggle, we can begin with the comforting knowledge that, no matter how difficult our effort to remain a self-governing people, we won’t have to pay the terrifying price that has already been paid by those who have come before us. Our job as modern Americans is to identify and vote for candidates who are part of the solution and not part of the problem, to be organized for each election day, and to encourage our neighbors to do the same.
Frank Kirkwood lives in Pittsburgh. He is a former campaign manager and a pro-democracy advocate. He blogs at www.TrustworthyGovernment.US.