Effort to Reform Two-Party Duopoly Gains Steam
Judging by the enthusiasm, dedication, idealism and joyfully expressed righteous indignation on display at the Unrig the System summit in New Orleans last week, a potentially powerful national movement is building to combat the corruption and dysfunction visited on the nation by the Republican and Democratic parties.
Convened by the political/elections reform group Represent.us, the summit attracted 1,500 activists from all 50 states who are working mainly at the state and local level on various pieces of the problem— gerrymandering, lobbyist and big money influence on politicians, inadequate disclosure of campaign contributions, closed primary elections, and reversing the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited political spending by individuals, corporations and special interests.
The summit demonstrated that the political reform movement is growing in numbers, activity and intellectual heft—the last, supplied by distinguished Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter and colleague Katherine Gehl, co-authors of the compelling, convincing study “Why Competition in the Politics Industry Is Failing America.”
The movement scored some limited successes in 2015 and 2016 -- passage of an initiative establishing a rank-order voting system in Maine that would improve chances for moderate and Independent candidates to be elected (quickly overturned by partisans in the state legislature), an anti-corruption referendum in South Dakota (also overturned by the legislature), a constitutional amendment on ethics in Missouri (overturned by a court) and other measures in San Francisco, one county in Oregon, and Seattle. An initiative in Washington state failed.
An upsurge of action is underway for 2018. According to Represent.us’s political director, Dan Krassner, more than 2 million voters have signed petitions to get ballot access for reform initiatives in Utah, Michigan, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Alaska and North Dakota, Florida—and also to reverse the legislature’s decision in Maine and the court’s in Missouri.
National reform groups in New Orleans included the Centrist Project, which aims to elect centrist Independents to the U.S. Senate, governorships and state houses; Issue One, which has assembled an impressive array of current and former members of Congress and business executives to promote cleaner-government bills in Congress, the National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers, a coalition of (so far) 10 groups working on political change, and Common Cause, oldest of the reform groups.
Represent.us Director Josh Sliver told me that the purpose of the summit was to weld 100 or more scattered groups into a “decentralized movement to restore democracy in America,” communicating and cooperating under the banner UnrigTheSystem.
You could tell from what got shout-outs or hisses early in the summit (single-payer health care, the conservative Koch network) that a majority of attendees were Bernie Sanders liberals. Corporations were often identified as special interests, but not unions, especially public sector unions, which elect their bosses and are bankrupting some states and cities with lavish pension demands.
But Silver and other major speakers made the point repeatedly that the reform movement had to be “post-partisan” and non-ideological to succeed, that liberals have to work with Tea Party members equally vexed by the status quo. By the summit close Friday, the activists seemed persuaded.
Besides actress Jennifer Lawrence, who made a passionate case that “the American people who pay the taxes deserve a government that works for them,” foremost stars at the summit were Porter and Gehl, who showed how the “political-industrial business” delivers dysfunction and division to its ostensible consumers, the citizenry of the United States.
“The system is not broken,” said Gehl. “It works just fine for the people who designed it—the parties, their donors and the special interests they serve. The system is not broken. It’s ‘fixed.’”
The Democrat-Republican “duopoly,” Porter said, sets the rules by which politics operates in America. The parties battle savagely for power, but collude to polarize the electorate so it has only two choices in elections. They freeze out Independent and moderate competition and write campaign finance and lobbying rules ensuring that they, their consultants and special interests will grow in money and power without independent regulation.
The methods include partisan gerrymandering (which may be outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court, or not), primary elections closed to all but party members in most states, “sore loser” laws in 44 states barring primary losers from running as Independents in general elections, and rules making it all but impossible for an Independent or third-party candidate to participate in presidential debates.
“The duopoly avoids compromise. Party rhetoric divides voters based on hostility to the other side,” the two wrote in their study. “Rather than working to bring citizens together to further the public interest, each party demonizes the other party’s supporters, [inciting] citizens to vote based on anger and fear.” And much of the media is now complicit in the process, Porter said.
The result is gridlock in solving major problems, enactment of major legislation (when it occurs) on a strictly partisan (hence reversible) basis, declining trust in the federal government, rising disapproval of Congress and both parties, a growing plurality of voters identifying as Independents and increasing desire for a third party.
Yet the parties and their allies persist because too few have tried to stop them. That may be changing.
Gehl and Porter call for restructuring the election process-- through primaries open to all candidates and voters, with the top four moving on to the general election; ranked-choice voting with an instant general election runoff (voters would rank their choices, with losers’ votes re-allocated until a majority winner emerges), and non-partisan redistricting.
They’d reform campaign finance laws so that members of Congress do not spend a third to half of their time in Washington raising money for re-election, much of it from lobbyists. Public funding is one option, incentivizing small donor contributions another. And they advocate full real-time disclosure of all political funds raised and spent, plus elimination of co-called “dark money” protected by the tax laws.
Both Porter and Gehl are affiliated with the Centrist Project and favor its “fulcrum strategy” of electing enough centrist Independents in the Senate and state legislatures to form a balance of power they’d leverage to enact moderate measures.
The two—and also top figures in Issue One—hope that individual and foundation philanthropists will deem “restoring democracy” important enough to shift their giving—which totaled $390 billion in 2016--to reform organizations.
Nick Penniman, president of Issue One, co-wrote an article in 2013 estimating that only $45 million was invested in reform organizations and that their staffs totaled about 280 people. “They are trying to take on an influence industry of more than 10,000 registered federal lobbyists, plus another 10,000 ultra-wealthy donors and at least another 90,000 employees of the influence industry who don’t have to register.”
Penniman added that “philanthropy, it seems, has a blind spot for democracy, which has led to a chronic under-investment in the cause of reform.” He appealed for a 1 percent shift of charitable giving to the cause. This would amount to $3 billion.
As the New Orleans gathering demonstrated, there are more people now working for reform than there were in 2013, but the movement is still deeply underfunded given that more than $3 billion is spent on lobbying in Washington alone and $7 billion was spent on federal elections in 2016 and $3.8 billion on congressional races in 2014. Yet more went for state and local elections, also largely influenced by special interests.
There’s a robust, patriotic movement building for reform, but it needs help from those who have the most to lose if democracy breaks down, as obviously is happening. I hope Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, David Rubenstein and their friends are listening.