Fac­ing the four struc­tural threats to US democ­racy

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

It has been one year since Don­ald Trump was elected pres­i­dent of the United States, and Amer­ica’s demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions are clearly un­der strain. A mere 20% of Amer­i­cans now trust the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to “do the right thing,” while trust in Congress has fallen be­low 9%.

Among con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, in par­tic­u­lar, a “takeno-pris­on­ers” ex­trem­ism is un­der­min­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s ca­pac­ity for ac­tion, which is pre­cisely what many on the far right want. Ac­cord­ing to some pes­simists, the US Con­sti­tu­tion was not de­signed to ad­dress the chal­lenges of a coun­try so sharply di­vided by in­come, race, and par­ti­san­ship.

Yet state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments are still trusted by most vot­ers, and they have the power un­der the Tenth Amend­ment of the US Con­sti­tu­tion to strengthen demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. Al­ready, many states and cities are adopt­ing re­forms to en­cour­age po­lit­i­cal com­pro­mise and im­prove demo­cratic gov­er­nance. Bet­ter yet, some of these re­forms have na­tional im­pli­ca­tions, be­cause they will clean up the process by which mem­bers of Congress are elected.

State and lo­cal re­form move­ments are fo­cused on four struc­tural threats to democ­racy: ger­ry­man­der­ing; poorly de­signed pri­mary pro­cesses; money in pol­i­tics; and leg­isla­tive pro­ce­dures that im­pede com­pro­mise.

Ger­ry­man­der­ing, whereby state leg­is­la­tors re­draw con­gres­sional districts to favour their own party, al­lows politi­cians to choose vot­ers, rather than the other way around. While the prac­tice dates back to at least 1812, when then-Mas­sachusetts Gov­er­nor El­bridge Gerry over­saw the re­draw­ing of his state’s se­na­to­rial districts, it has been per­fected in re­cent decades, mainly by Repub­li­can­dom­i­nated state leg­is­la­tures.

Repub­li­can-drawn districts in Texas and the six swing states of Ohio, Florida, Michi­gan, North Carolina, Penn­syl­va­nia and Vir­ginia had a clear in­flu­ence in elec­tions to the US House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 2016. Now, al­most all of these states’ elec­toral maps are be­ing chal­lenged as un­con­sti­tu­tional. And in Gill v. Whit­ford, a land­mark case from Wis­con­sin, the US Supreme Court will soon is­sue its first rul­ing in a decade on the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of ger­ry­man­der­ing.

Else­where, state gov­ern­ments have taken the more rad­i­cal step of estab­lish­ing spe­cial re­dis­trict­ing com­mis­sions that are in­de­pen­dent of the two dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal par­ties. And in 24 states, vot­ers can pro­pose bal­lot ini­tia­tives to change dis­trict­ing rules and limit the im­pact of ger­ry­man­der­ing. Vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia and Ari­zona have al­ready done so, and sim­i­lar mea­sures will likely be on the bal­lot in other states in 2018 or 2020.

But even with in­de­pen­dently drawn districts, elec­tions in many parts of the coun­try will not be com­pet­i­tive, be­cause vot­ers from the same party of­ten live in close prox­im­ity. To ad­dress this, the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists T. An­thony Quinn and R. Michael Al­varez rec­om­mend re­form­ing the pri­mary process to “give vot­ers more choices, which in turn can stim­u­late in­creased voter turnout.”

By open­ing up party pri­maries to more can­di­dates, or by us­ing ranked-choice vot­ing (RCV) – which al­lows vot­ers to list as many can­di­dates as they want, in or­der of pref­er­ence – we can en­sure that elected of­fi­cials rep­re­sent the full spec­trum of vot­ers. RCV has al­ready been adopted by a num­ber of Amer­i­can cities and the state of Maine, and one hopes it will con­tinue to spread in the years ahead.

A third nec­es­sary re­form con­cerns money in pol­i­tics. Ideally, we should have strict lim­its and trans­parency re­quire­ments for all po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions. But the Supreme Court made achiev­ing that much harder with its con­tro­ver­sial Cit­i­zens United de­ci­sion in 2010, when it held that cam­paign do­na­tions – even from cor­po­ra­tions – are a pro­tected form of free speech. The court’s rul­ing not only in­val­i­dated ex­ist­ing cam­paign-fi­nance law; it also over­turned sev­eral prior Supreme Court de­ci­sions. Not sur­pris­ingly, hid­den spend­ing by big donors has sky­rock­eted in the past seven years.

Bal­loon­ing undis­closed po­lit­i­cal spend­ing and so­cial­me­dia ad­ver­tis­ing – by both do­mes­tic and for­eign en­ti­ties – has made in­creased trans­parency an ur­gent ne­ces­sity.

With de­tails con­tin­u­ing to emerge about how Rus­sia used so­cial me­dia to in­flu­ence the out­come of the 2016 elec­tion, a grow­ing cho­rus is call­ing for stronger leg­is­la­tion to reg­u­late on­line ac­tiv­i­ties. Cur­rently, plat­forms such as Face­book and Twit­ter are not sub­ject to the Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion’s trans­parency rules.

The reg­u­la­tion of po­lit­i­cal spend­ing is sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent at the state level. All 50 states re­quire dis­clo­sure for con­tri­bu­tions to cam­paigns for state of­fices, 39 states have a cap for in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions, and 22 states pro­hibit cor­po­ra­tions al­to­gether.

Fur­ther­more, many states are ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of mak­ing dis­clo­sure rules per­ma­nent through con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments. And 13 states al­ready of­fer a pub­lic-fi­nanc­ing op­tion for can­di­dates run­ning for state of­fice, with many more poised to fol­low suit in re­sponse to grass­roots pres­sure.

A fi­nal struc­tural threat to Amer­i­can democ­racy is the par­ti­san ma­nip­u­la­tion of leg­isla­tive pro­ce­dures. When the ma­jor­ity party in either house of Congress rou­tinely changes the rules to suit its own ends, craft­ing bi­par­ti­san so­lu­tions be­comes al­most im­pos­si­ble. Sim­i­larly, at the state level, leg­isla­tive su­per­ma­jori­ties, ar­bi­trary thresh­olds for pass­ing bud­get and tax mea­sures, and bal­lot ini­tia­tives fi­nanced by spe­cial in­ter­ests can all im­pede bi­par­ti­san prob­lem solv­ing.

But as Cal­i­for­nia has shown, struc­tural bar­ri­ers to good gov­er­nance can be elim­i­nated through cit­i­zen-driven re­forms. In re­cent years, the Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­ture has cleaned up re­dis­trict­ing, in­tro­duced “top two pri­maries” and an ag­gres­sive dis­clo­sure sys­tem, re­formed term lim­its, elim­i­nated a su­per­ma­jor­ity rule for state bud­getary mea­sures, and im­proved the bal­lot-ini­tia­tive process. As a re­sult, the leg­is­la­ture has be­come dra­mat­i­cally more ef­fec­tive, and its ap­proval rat­ing has gone from just 14% seven years ago to 57% to­day – its high­est level since 1988.

There is lit­tle rea­son to be­lieve that Congress will re­form it­self. But if the move­ment for pro­gres­sive fed­er­al­ism con­tin­ues to gain mo­men­tum and push through mean­ing­ful state- and lo­cal-level re­forms, fed­eral law­mak­ers will not be able to main­tain the sta­tus quo in­def­i­nitely. With a re­newed con­fi­dence in democ­racy, cit­i­zens can take ac­tion to en­sure that elected of­fi­cials are gov­erned by the right in­cen­tives, and mo­ti­vated to pur­sue bi­par­ti­san so­lu­tions to the coun­try’s prob­lems. If Cal­i­for­nia can do it, so can other states. Amer­ica’s founders cre­ated the Tenth Amend­ment pre­cisely be­cause they wor­ried about dys­func­tion in the cap­i­tal. It’s time we used it.

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