The Media Are Missing a Movement
Fixated as they are (sometimes legitimately) on scandals, tweets, protest marches, Russia and rumors, the U.S. media are missing the growth of a movement that has the potential to be as momentous as turn-of-the-last-century progressivism, women’s suffrage or civil and gay rights.
It’s the political reform movement, grounded in the well-documented fact that American voters are fed up with the way the Democratic and Republican parties are failing to serve the public interest and address its chronic problems.
Gallup’s most recent monthly survey shows that only 26 percent of voters identify as Republicans, 30 as Democrats and 41 percent as independents. Voters haven’t split evenly between categories since 2010.
Last year, Gallup found that 61 percent of voters think that a third major party is needed, the highest number ever, including 49 percent of Republicans, 52 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of independents.
Of course, there isn’t a third major party and the Republican and Democratic parties contrive in dozens of ways to freeze out competition and force voters to choose between the red tribe and the blue, each becoming more extreme in its views and constantly at work demonizing the other.
But that’s changing, and the change is what the media are missing.
The political reform movement involves tens of thousands of citizens, is active in every state and is achieving results.
A second, led by Unite America, is actually running independent gubernatorial candidates in Alaska, Kansas (pictured is Greg Orman) and Maine, U.S. Senate candidates in Maryland and Missouri, and 19 state legislative candidates in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington.
Unite America, with a $3.5 million budget, just hosted a summit in Denver attended by 200 candidates, donors and political experts to network and plot how to execute its “fulcrum strategy,” aiming to elect independent caucuses in closely divided legislatures (and eventually the U.S. House and Senate), which would have the power to broker agreements and break partisan gridlock.
The third wing is the 48-member bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, originated by No Labels, which has proposed changes in chamber rules to loosen what is now ironclad majority party control and encourage more bipartisan action.
One top item on the No Labels agenda is a radical proposal that the new House speaker be elected on a bipartisan basis. The Problem Solvers, though, would have to have the courage to band together and demand it as the price of their support.
A fourth arm, still developing, is the continuing legal effort by Washington, D.C., financier Peter Ackerman to get the Commission on Presidential Debates—currently completely dominated by Republicans and Democrats—to permit participation by an independent.
Dan Krassner, political director of Represent.us, a leading reform group with 750,000 members in 55 chapters and a $4 million budget, told me in Denver his organization counts more than 100 measures on state and local ballots this year designed to “unrig the system.”
One major effort of the reform movement is to end partisan gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts—the device by which the parties habitually isolate voters into “safe districts.”
In Michigan, for instance, 26-year-old Katie Fahey put up a Facebook post in 2016 that went viral and launched Voters Not Politicians, recruiting 10,000 volunteers who gathered 425,000 signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to take congressional and state remapping out of the hands of the legislature and assign it to a non-partisan commission.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce tried to get the courts to invalidate the initiative, but failed.
In Ohio, a citizen group called Fair Districts=Fair Elections gathered 200,000 signatures to put an anti-gerrymandering initiative on the ballot, forcing the state legislature to pass its own ballot measure. Parallel efforts are underway in Missouri, Utah, Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Meantime, other reform efforts are underway to install ranked-choice voting as the means of electing officials—a system widely used abroad, for overseas ballots and in some U.S. cities.
In 2016, voters in Maine passed a referendum to establish the system, whereby voters rank their choices among several candidates for an office, including independents, with the tallies for less-successful contenders going to voters’ next choice until a majority candidate is elected.
Proponents argued the system would encourage less negative campaigning and give an advantage to candidates relying on solution-based substance rather than demagoguery.
But in 2017, Maine’s legislature and its obscenity-prone GOP governor, Paul LePage, reversed the referendum’s result. This year, proponents gathered 77,000 signatures in the dead of winter to authorize a “people’s veto” and it passed in June, making Maine the first state to adopt the system. It was used for primary elections, too.
That did get some national press attention, briefly, as did other items on the reform agenda, including continuing efforts in North and South Dakota to pass ethics laws—against opposition from the Koch network, the oil industry, the states’ chambers of commerce and the GOP establishment—that would limit lobbyist contributions to political campaigns.
Episodic media coverage, though, ignores the fact that there is a growing national reform movement developing that deserves continuous monitoring. (It can be tracked at the Independent Voter Network.)
Besides media coverage, the movement lacks adequate philanthropic support from wealthy donors who are surely dismayed by a hyper-partisanship that may be America’s No. 1 national security danger, exploited as it is by Russia and other adversaries.
The last systematic analysis of reform finances, in 2013, was conducted by Nick Penniman, CEO of Issue One. It indicated that reform efforts had assets of $45 million, stacked against the hundreds of millions spent by the political parties and special interests. The movement has more now, but so do the entrenched interests.
And the movement still lacks the support of “heavyweights.” Issue One has attracted 21 ex-governors, 10 ex-ambassadors, 9 ex-Cabinet secretaries and 161 former members of Congress of both parties, but even they have not exercised as much influence as they could on public opinion.
Other movements—civil and gay rights, suffrage—gained traction through demonstrations. Sometimes, it took riots. That won’t happen with this reform effort. As Unite America’s CEO, Nick Troiano, said in Denver, what it will take is “winning” elections.
There are enough idealists at work that it has every prospect of doing that—and saving democracy in the process.