What sort of effective democratic political system does the United States want and need?
The “World’s Greatest Democracy” – that’s the United States, in case you wondered – is in very serious trouble. In addition to our problems in trying to react to a world on fire, many Americans have urgent needs that the federal government cannot do much to alleviate since policymaking is paralyzed by gridlock. Moreover, policy decisions are distorted by unrepresentative institutions and excessive influence from the wealthy and well-connected. Responsiveness to ordinary citizens may be at an all-time low. Sharply polarized political parties and crazed public rhetoric are tearing our society apart. A dangerous demagogue has won the hearts of one of our two major political parties and may conceivably be elected president in 2024, threatening our democracy itself. Or – more precisely – threatening whatever feeble amount of democracy we currently enjoy.
Little wonder that much of the world pays heed when China’s President Xi and others declare that Western democracy has failed.
In my view, our troubles – shared to some degree in many other countries around the world but exacerbated by our own peculiar (in fact unique) political institutions – have deep historical roots. These include the powerfully transformative effects of economic globalization, which—by creating a worldwide competitive market for cheap labor – has greatly empowered capital over labor everywhere, and has inflicted losses of jobs, wages, and whole communities of millions of working people in advanced countries. Especially in the United States, which (unlike most other rich countries) has failed to moderate this process or to share the gains of international trade with those who lose out to it. But the deep roots of our troubles also include related technological advances, such as the rapidly advancing automation of work (AI is coming after you, too!), instant international communication and investment, more rapid international trade, and contagious social media.
The roots of our troubles also include onrushing social changes. For example, poor immigrants flooding into rich countries, where (besides adding to labor competition – U.S. billionaires love to import cheap workers) they inflame cultural anxieties. Also, the empowerment of women, and their increased employment outside the home (In the 1960s the Pill produced profound changes), which threaten male patriarchy and arouse anxieties among some traditionalist female homemakers as well. Plus, growing restiveness – and new political and cultural strength – among such “others” as Blacks, Latinos, and gay people, which seems to terrify white nationalists. And the increased secularization of society, which enrages devout evangelical Christians. Even extended life spans – brought about by better nutrition and improved medical technology; only temporarily set back by the pandemic and U.S. policy fumbles – may add to our troubles, by putting heavier burdens on safety nets (more retired and sick people relative to a smaller workforce) and creating a larger pool of old, retired, often discontented people, especially in economically damaged rural areas.
Even if we wanted to reverse these historical trends (and I, at least, feel no inclination to reverse most of them), it would be a Herculean task to turn back the clock on any single one. To undo all of them would obviously be impossible.
I believe, however, that most of the troubling effects of these profound economic and social changes can be moderated and contained through government action powered by democratic policymaking. A few advanced countries have succeeded at this. For the United States, the key is how to achieve effective and democratic policymaking, at a time when our political institutions are profoundly paralyzed and unresponsive to the citizenry. If this is possible at all, it will require a breathtakingly broad set of major democratic political reforms.
In my stubborn optimism, I believe that at this particular historical moment, as at a few other times in the U.S. past – Jefferson’s and Jackson’s reforms; Lincoln’s brief but transformative presidency; the People’s Party and Progressive years; the New Deal; the Civil Rights Movement and Great Society – major democratic reforms may indeed be possible to achieve. The very anguish and despair caused by our deep troubles may, if mobilized with skill and hard work, contribute to the kind of Social Movement that has in the past (even in a capitalist, individualistic, Madisonian-crippled polity like our own) accomplished major political system changes. Changes like the broader enfranchisement of citizens and direct election of presidents; the abolition of enslavement; women’s vote and the direct election of senators; the empowerment of unions or new firm-based organizations to protect workers; and an end to legal segregation and racial disenfranchisement.
We need to be ready for action at any time when the opportunity arises. And we need to help make that opportunity occur. The first job, therefore – for those of us with the motivation, skills, and opportunity to think about it – is to think through carefully just what sort of effective, democratic political system we want; what specific political reforms might best bring it about; and how, precisely, we might achieve those reforms.
What sort of effective democratic political system do we want?
I am neither a political theorist nor an expert on comparative political systems – I am just a humble toiler in the vineyards of American politics. So my notions about democratic theory may well be parochial and ill-informed. Some desirable qualities for a political system seem pretty obvious. But some are not. The best means for attaining them are often quite uncertain. So I have peppered the following remarks with questions that are designed to provoke reflection and discussion.
Social Choice Theory
First, an effective democratic political system should indeed be effective, capable of action. As Jenny Mansbridge has eloquently pointed out, our new world of great social and economic complexity and interdependence calls for particularly vigorous government action, but Madison’s and other Founders’ obsession with preventing governmental tyranny has led instead to gridlock and inaction. Separation of powers, federalism, and checks and balances among governing institutions definitely have their virtues, but they can also unnecessarily delay and obstruct policymaking, especially when two political parties of roughly equal strength but highly divergent and polarized ideologies each control some of the institutions of government at any given time. Each party then exercises a veto over policymaking. This is an invitation to deadlock, inaction, and incapacity to deal with pressing problems.
Moreover, the distinct electoral bases of our different institutions, together with the increased power assumed by our unelected Supreme Court, have gradually evolved to produce more distinct differences among institutions. Notably a Supreme Court that strikes down important and highly popular policies, and a Senate with an increasingly strong pro-rural bias even as the U.S. population has moved more toward cities and suburbs. Those trends have exacerbated institutional conflict and deadlock. Further, we have invented whole new ways of our own to obstruct government action, including the routine partisan use of Senate holds and filibusters; strong House committees with extremist memberships; and one-party control of the House, which can be used – together with the pernicious practice of allowing tyranny by a small majority of a small majority – to enable minorities of House representatives to block any action by that body.
Clearly, something needs to be done about obstruction and gridlock. What, exactly?
Second, an ideal democratic system should encourage deliberation by citizens and public officials. Polarized parties, demagogic politicians and pundits, and virulent lies in the media have jeopardized the ability of ordinary citizens to obtain good information for forming coherent policy preferences that reflect their interests, values, and conceptions of the common good. (Could something like a “rational public” possibly have survived the current torrent of misinformation and lies?) And deliberation by public officials is inhibited by extremism among their “bases” of donors and activists, and by heavy-handed, money-enforced discipline imposed by congressional party leaders.
How can we improve the information available to the public? How can we increase the freedom and motivation of officials to think clearly and discuss honestly the merits of alternative public policies?
Third, any morally just polity should protect minorities from harm by intolerant individuals or by governments, even governments pushed into it by their own citizens. (How frequent is “tyranny of the majority,” anyhow? My guess – limited to the current well-educated and mostly tolerant American public – is, not very often.) But how, exactly, should we do that protecting? Constitutionally guaranteed rights seem to be a natural part of the answer. But what rights, exactly? Who decides what they are, and who protects them? The record of our Supreme Court is decidedly mixed. It has done a great job of protecting the property of the affluent, but not so great at protecting the well-being of slaves, former slaves, native peoples, Japanese internees, and other oppressed groups.
Fourth, and to me the heart of the matter in democratic policymaking, is a high level of responsiveness to ordinary citizens. Governments should provide policies that their citizens want. This, of course, is not everybody’s notion of democracy. The early Robert Dahl critiqued it under the scornful label of “populistic democracy.” Over the years, many theorists and elites have attacked the idea. So an initial question to grapple with is whether or not the public’s policy preferences are worth paying attention to. Especially in this period of rampant lies and misinformation. My own answer is “mostly yes,” but there is plenty of room for discussion and disagreement.
We must also ask precisely what collective decision rules and procedures best embody the concept of democratic responsiveness. May’s Theorem – a crucial but often neglected bit of democratic theory – makes clear that in choosing between just two alternative policies or candidates, majority rule is the only decision rule that can ensure responsiveness to the citizenry in which all citizens are treated exactly equally. This seems to me to be clearly desirable.
But what about collective choices among multiple alternatives? William Riker used to argue that Kenneth Arrow’s “(im)possibility” theorem showed that democratic decision-making is indeterminate, hence impossible. Several formal theorists have proved that (within certain specific models of multidimensional preferences) majority rule among sequences of alternatives can lead to chaotic voting cycles, with no determinate winner.
These pessimistic and ideologically conservative interpretations of Arrow are almost certainly mistaken about what happens in the real world. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, in real-world decision-making, majority rule need not apply to a hypothetical universal domain of all conceivable (including bizarrely configured) sets of individual preferences. It only has to produce results working with citizens’ actual preferences, which, within any particular group or society, seldom display weird combinations of desired policies. The citizens generally share much the same structures. Nor do the particular structures assumed by many formal theorists – in which everybody’s preferences line up neatly in a finite-dimensional vector space – have much to do with reality. One-dimensional politics (and its ideal but seldom-realized outcome embodied in the “median voter theorem”) is an extreme example that applies only to unusual cases like the two-party U.S. Congress, which crams all the rich variety of policies into a rigid single dimension that is not shared by many citizens.
After reviewing the available empirical data, Gerry Mackie concluded – persuasively, to me – that Arrow’s theorem “does not describe the real world.” Arrow’s conditions or assumptions have “no descriptive or normative force” of their own.
So the most democratic voting rule, when feasible, may be simple majority rule, as applied sequentially or simultaneously to all pairs of candidate or policy alternatives. Ideally, this would mean choices among all pairs of “alternative social states:” alternative policy packages that combine definite outcomes for each possible kind of policy. (Alternatives that combine precise levels of spending on defense, aid to education, etc., as well as decisions on every sort of social policy, foreign policy, and more.) Then the obvious democratic choice is the “Condorcet winner,” the alternative that would beat each and every other alternative in head-to-head majority-rule voting.
But what if (unlikely, perhaps, but certainly possible) there exists no Condorcet winner? Then we need a different rule, such as ranked-choice voting (RCV) with single transferable votes (STV). RCV/ STV generally gives similar results to pairwise majority rule but also resolves ties and produces definite outcomes even when there are collective majority-rule intransitivities. I will briefly revisit such rules below in connection with specific electoral reforms.
More fundamental for what an ideal democracy should look like is the well-known problem that majority rule over ordinally ranked alternatives does a poor job of taking account of the intensity of preferences. Majority rule cannot fully take into account either intra-personal intensity (an individual prefers X over Y by much more than she or he prefers V over W) or interpersonal intensity (poor person A prefers high Social Security spending over low spending much more than rich person B prefers low over high.) Any serious treatment of redistributive policies requires considering interpersonally comparable, cardinal (or at least interval) utilities. Will a poor person gain more utility from a dollar received than a rich person loses from that dollar being taxed away? How much more, at what levels of income and wealth?
Although many economists seem to have blind spots about this, it seems important to me to use the best cardinal-level or interval-level information we can get about citizens’ wishes. Certain decision rules, such as the Borda count, can take some account of intrapersonal intensities (some have other attractive features too, e.g., resistance to agenda-setting manipulation), but they do so only by assuming that interpersonally the total range of intensity for each individual is the same as for every other individual. Anything like the utilitarians’ imperfect goal of attaining “the greatest good for the greatest number” (maximizing the sum of total utilities in a given population – which can result in depriving sick people and minorities, unless they are specially helped and protected) requires real inter-personal comparisons, not just assumptions. (Note, though, that certain plausible assumptions, such as declining marginal utility of money, can in fact dictate more egalitarian results of utilitarian decision-making.)
The problem, of course, is that good information about cardinal or even interval-level utilities is hard to get. It is difficult enough to measure the relative magnitude of one citizen’s preference difference concerning one pair of policies as vs. her/his preferences between another pair. (All the harder to assess the intensity of one citizen’s preferences compared to another citizen’s. Most potential indicators of intensity are notoriously subject to strategic misrepresentation, perverse incentives (we do not want to encourage throwing bricks through windows), or unfair magnification through unequally distributed resources (“intense” campaign contributions or propaganda megaphones from the rich.)
In practice, we probably have to rely on readily available behavioral measures. We can observe who claims to feel intensely, who devotes time and energy to protests and demonstrations, who writes personal notes and letters to politicians, even who screams loudly. But to interpret such behavior correctly requires care and skepticism. Some of the best politicians seem to be very skillful at this.
The good news is that political parties or candidates may be able to take intensities into account when they put together packages of policy stands –stands that roughly define “alternative social states” – that voters can choose among. For this to work, it is essential to arrange things so that the parties and candidates appeal to equally weighted citizens, not to money givers or well-organized business corporations. And essential that, amidst the likely fluff, nonsense, and ambiguity of campaign rhetoric, parties and candidates make sufficiently clear where they stand on policies. Also, it is essential to offer enough choices to voters (not just the two that Americans are often stuck with) so that most voters can find and vote for at least one attractive option.
How can we make these things happen? Possible methods involve a number of different democratic reforms and raise some tricky questions. Which is likely to work better, choices among candidates or among parties? If parties, with or without prearranged candidate lists? How many parties or candidates? How can we manage the number, and how “open” should the system be? Precisely what sorts of choices should voters be allowed to make? Force them to pick one? Or let them rank many? How, exactly, should we count and aggregate the voters’ choices?
Fifth (and implicit in some of the above), hand in hand with responsiveness to the citizenry must go representation by elected officials, as opposed to legislation by plebiscite. Referenda should be reserved for citizen control of grossly anti-popular actions or inactions by officials. Ordinary citizens cannot – and should not be asked to – gather the enormous amounts of technical information needed to pick precise levels of spending or precise wordings of legislation for every imaginable sort of policy.
In large and complex modern societies, political division of labor is unavoidable. The citizenry can and should dictate the general contours of policies (much more defense spending? a little more? much less?) and judge the results. Legislators and other officials with high levels of skills and expertise are needed, however, to work out the precise details of policies that fall within those contours. To design policies that best fit the collective preferences, needs, and values of the citizens. Those officials may also need some leeway – with accountability afterward – to enact certain policies that violate citizens’ currently expressed preferences but that officials judge more likely actually to fulfill the citizens’ needs and values. (How often does such a divergence between needs and preferences occur? Not as often, I suspect, as many policy-making elites like to think, but this question merits discussion.)
The central dilemma for representative democracy is how to make it truly representative. How to select a set of competent officials who are committed to pursuing the citizens’ needs and values; how to incentivize or compel them to actually do so; and how to hold them accountable and throw them out of office if they do not.
To maximize officials’ representativeness requires a number of hard-to-achieve properties in the political system.
- Officials need easy access to full information about citizens’ preferences. Will polls and surveys do it? How? (e.g., can poll questions individually or jointly capture full rankings, or preferred tradeoffs among complementary and substitutable policies?) Other methods of information gathering? We know that there are systematic biases in the information conveyed by constituents’ communications, lobbying, the media, etc.
- Elections of officials should reflect equal voices for all citizens, with high levels of unbiased participation. No elections in obscure times or places or with restricted participation. (E.g., no low visibility, low turnout, highly unrepresentative one-party primaries.) No barriers to voting that particularly hit low-income people or minorities. No excessive influence by wealthy campaign contributors and corporations. Nor by small groups of extreme activists.
- The electoral system should fairly count and aggregate voters’ choices. Our unusual U.S. system of plurality, winner-take-all voting is an abomination that can badly misrepresent what most voters want. (E.g., when a “spoiler” third-party candidate like Ralph Nader enables the less-preferred major-party candidate to win.) The flaws of plurality voting are exacerbated by heavily one-party districts – whether gerrymandered or “naturally” clustered geographically – in which extremists can heavily influence the nominating, and political minorities can be shut out entirely. The electoral college has alarmingly often worked against the will of the citizenry. The election of two Senators from each state (whether the state is very large state or very small) results in a Senate that badly misrepresents citizens of the country as a whole. The unelected Supreme Court can defy the popular will and overturn policies that large majorities of Americans favor. Our shortfalls in all these matters are major targets for democratic reform.
- In order to hold officials accountable, citizens need accurate, easy-to-obtain information about exactly what those officials have been doing. At present U.S. citizens have a hard time figuring out even how well or how badly the economy is going. (President Biden appears to suffer from a big information gap about this.) People need help. What can we do to assist them, in the face of partisan lies, media distortions, and crazed social media?
In my view, political parties can greatly help citizens achieve what they want from government. Parties can provide “cues” (e.g., the party ID cues that we Americanists are always going on about) that help people with voting choices. Beyond that, they can help voters form policy preferences, by providing accurate, digestible information about which policies will best satisfy their needs and values. Parties can innovate and lead. Sometimes they can lead by enacting policies (Obamacare!) that majorities of citizens initially oppose but come to be happy about.
But the downside of parties – especially when we are limited to only two of them – is that they can (as Michel’s “iron law of oligarchy” long ago pointed out) go astray and become unrepresentative of ordinary citizens. Misleading in their cue-giving. Perverse in their policy making. Party elites, financial contributors, and party activists can push parties in very undemocratic directions.
The pernicious effect of money in politics is obvious enough – the Trumpian GOP remains in important respects a creature of corporate America. But some of my friends and colleagues seem unwilling to think about the money problem with respect to the Democratic Party. In our present system the Dems, too, must rely on big money. The affluent and wealthy people they get funding from are mostly liberal socially (sometimes more liberal than the American public), but they tend to be economically conservative. This severely limits what the Democratic Party can do for workers and lower-income people, including the disaffected rural people who have been roiling our politics.
The dreadful impact of the current unhinged crowd of GOP activists seems evident, too. We would not be suffering from so many Matt Gaetzes, Lauren Boeberts, and Jim Jordans if it were not for a bunch of gun-toting, race-hating, angry (and, to be fair, scorned-and-ignored-by-urban- elites) GOP activists. But again, all too many of my colleagues seem not to notice the destructive, vote-losing impact that Democratic activists have when they take identity politics too much farther than the contemporary American public wants to go. Now, and probably well into the future, the ideas of defunding the police or throwing open our international borders are not vote winners. If the Dems lose in 2024 it will not be just because they have an aging and charisma-challenged leader. It will partly be because the Democratic Party has been caught off base on the two big GOP issues, crime and immigration, as well as the inflation that has damaged and alienated some core Democratic groups.
In my opinion, there is no need for any private money in politics. We should curtail or forbid it as soon as possible. But party activists are essential, both in order to make the election trains run and to innovate and lead on policy matters. Just two caveats: 1) activists should think strategically and try to lead only in directions – and achievable distances – that they can ultimately persuade majorities of Americans to embrace. E.g., civil rights for Blacks, equality for women, gay rights. I see that kind of leadership as being the proper role for activists in a democracy. 2) We should carefully delimit the electoral power of activists of either party. One way to do that is to allow for multiple parties. An easier step might be just to eliminate the unrepresentative, one-party primaries that activists dominate and use to produce unpopular nominees. (Trump vs Clinton? Biden vs. Trump? Many Americans have found those to be painful forced choices.)
What concrete democratic reforms do we need?
The problems and goals discussed above point toward a need for a wide range of democratic reforms. Some would be deep and fundamental, perhaps requiring Constitutional amendments. Many would likely provoke furious opposition from those who benefit from the status quo. Those beneficiaries include people in strong positions to obstruct reform: many current officeholders and many donors, activists, and leaders of both of our major parties.
Let us suspend feasibility concerns for the moment, though. It seems prudent to plan right now for what we ideally want to do, aside from questions of immediate feasibility, so that we are ready if the moment of opportunity suddenly appears. Or if we can create such a moment.
There is inevitable uncertainty concerning the likely results of some reform ideas, especially those that have not been tried before. They call for research, deliberation, and (in some cases) state and local experimentation. In any case, I am no expert on the details of reforms. I am notably ill-informed, for example, on the merits of comparative electoral systems (I count on Lee Drutman and other experts for that.) We should all listen to those who have had experience – in some cases, career-long experience – working for and enacting actual reforms in places like Evanston, Chicago, Springfield, and the U.S. as a whole. Some of the following observations, therefore, are only tentative. Others are more confident.
Some suggestions about concrete reforms:
Ban or severely restrict private money in politics.
I agree with Larry Lessig that private money profoundly corrupts American politics. It badly undermines the principle of equal voice for each citizen, an essential feature of democracy. We should eliminate – or at least strictly limit – the influence of money on our elections and upon officials’ policy making. Our elections and policy deliberations involve public goods that merit funding only by public money.
This means eliminating or restricting all private money, large or small (beware the many thousands of relatively small campaign contributions that have fueled some Trumpistas.) Money from any source: individuals, corporations, NGOs. Money flowing through any and all channels: candidate or party campaign war chests; PACs (whether supposedly “independent” of candidates or not); shady organizations ostensibly devoted to “social-welfare” causes.
To the extent that we can figure out how to do it without curtailing important free speech, this also means severely limiting the impact of money on the public’s deliberations about policy. Especially money that spreads lies and misinformation that may distort citizens’ policy preferences. Corporations should not be permitted to spend millions of dollars purveying outrageous climate-change denials or claims that tobacco is good for you. If we continue to rely almost entirely upon privately owned media we also need to do something to prevent media owners from misusing their noisy megaphones. Freedom of the press should not mean grossly amplified political voices for those who own presses. The owners of social media should not be permitted to encourage or allow their users to propagate the sorts of lies, deranged rants, and misinformation that currently pollute our public discourse. At a minimum, carefully designed regulation is needed.
Similarly, money-fueled influence needs to be banished from interest group lobbying. Fair and effective policy deliberations require hearing from all sorts of voices, including voices that you and I are not fond of. But it is undemocratic to permit the universe of policy-influencing lobbying voices to be heavily biased toward the monied and the well-organized. Currently, business corporations, business alliances, and professional associations occupy much too much of the lobbying space. Banning corporate and NGO campaign contributions would definitely help moderate this bias; officials would have less reason to heed the loudest voices and more reason to attend only to the merits of the arguments presented to them. But the sheer number of lobbyists matters, too. Even if we disarm groups by confiscating their unequally distributed weapon of campaign contributions, the wealthy and well-organized will undoubtedly continue to dominate in the number of lobbyists they have the motivation and resources to pay for.
What should we do about this? Transform our whole Madisonian system of interest group pluralism? In what way, exactly? More modestly, perhaps we should just subsidize and support groups that represent the under-represented, such as workers and poor people. That would move us toward a more level playing field. But how, exactly? (Encourage unions and other worker organizations, certainly!) Who decides which groups to help, using what criteria? At a minimum, we need to require full disclosure of all lobbying efforts: money spent, contacts made, arguments offered. (A publicly available archive of lobbyists’ arguments, draft bills, etc. would be very helpful.
The most straightforward way to enact any of the above types of democratic reform is through federal legislation that mandates changes in state and local, as well as federal, politics.
At the present moment, of course, almost any such legislation is made impossible by our reactionary Supreme Court. Through a series of wrong-headed decisions over the years, the Court has ruled out any serious effort to regulate – let alone eliminate – the influence of private campaign contributions. It has declared that to give political money is constitutionally protected “speech.” Even if the money is contributed by a purely fictional “person” that was created by state charter for entirely different legal purposes: a limited-liability corporation.
What to do, in the face of such a formidable barrier? One naturally thinks of a Constitutional amendment aimed at these particular policies, along the lines of the Constitutional amendment that permitted the U.S. government to levy an income tax. But – as supporters of equal rights for women, among others, have painfully learned – it is very hard to amend the U.S. Constitution. Even when you have broad popular support for doing so. It might be a waste of energy to try to do so for the sake of a single policy area, however important. Perhaps a package of Democracy amendments that brings several democratic reforms would be warranted. Certainly, an overhaul of the persistently most undemocratic institution we have, the U.S. Senate. Along with an amendment that would make the Supreme Court more responsive to the citizenry, in order to (as Larry Kramer has put it), let the people themselves interpret the people’s Constitution.
Without the need for any Constitutional amendment, simple federal legislation could enlarge the Court and permit some quick progressive and pro-democratic appointments of justices. The mere passage of time, and the election of a progressive President with a big Senate majority, might accomplish the same thing, at least temporarily. There’s the rub. Without basic Constitutional changes, a new Court majority might soon reverse past progress.
Meanwhile, we are not helpless. Simple legislation could at least mandate disclosure of all political contributions, including all currently “dark” money. And all lobbying activities. Disclosure alone is no panacea, but it would almost certainly help. Watchdogs can be expected to call out the politicians most heavily dependent on dirty money and cause them some trouble at re-election time. Better FEC enforcement of current regulations would also help.
Without any Constitutional change, simple legislation could also dilute the impact of private money, by offering public money as a supplement or substitute. Money in elections almost certainly has declining marginal effects (as do all the goods money can buy); the only question is how much it declines at what amounts of money. This determines how much public money is needed.“ If all candidates have adequate public campaign money, a moderate advantage in private money added to it should not make a big difference. So enough public money, available to all viable candidates, could give them a good fighting chance against candidates with deep pockets full of private money. All the better if the public money were made contingent on voluntary agreements to forswear all private contributions – or all but the smallest – (along with the use of personal wealth, too?) in order to be entitled to any of the public money. Even some superrich candidates might be challengeable.
There are some tricky questions about precisely how to implement public funding of elections. For which elective offices? Ideally all of them. It would be expensive, but worthwhile for democracy. For which candidates? All viable ones. Not only incumbents but all viable challengers as well. How to define and measure viability? Presumably by petitions, with required numbers of citizens’ signatures. How many signatures? Forbid the use of money or professional organizations to gather signatures, permitting only unpaid volunteers to do it? Perhaps more feasibly, subsidize signature gathering, at escalating levels of subsidy after increasing numbers of signatures have been obtained?
A key question about public funding of elections concerns whether it replaces, supplements, or just matches small private contributions. “Matching” programs are certainly better than nothing, so long as only very small private contributions are matched. (How small, exactly?) But much more democratic are “democracy vouchers” that go in equal amounts to all citizens, to be divided among candidates as the citizens choose. Again, it would be best if vouchers were only valid for candidates who have voluntarily agreed, in return, to accept no private money at all.
Public funding of elections faces one feasibility barrier that most democratic reforms do not: public skepticism. Why give a lot of tax money to those damned politicians we are so disenchanted with? To overcome that obstacle will require not only breaking through the usual obstacles from elite defenders of the status quo, but also informing, persuading, and mobilizing citizens to enthusiastically insist on public funding. There have been local successes at this in some blue areas. We need a big national success.
Unclog the machinery of policy-making.
Perhaps even more urgent – if we want to prevent the United States from being a world laughing-stock and want to meet pressing needs for government action – is to eliminate the most egregious obstacles to getting anything done.
An easy start requires no new laws, just a majority vote of legislators to change one institution’s rules, such as the Senate “hold” and the Senate filibuster.
There is no excuse for the hold, by which a single senator can indefinitely block any or all nominees for federal office. (All high-level military promotions, for example; Sen. Tuberville’s months-long hold on them has created disarray in the U.S. armed forces at a particularly awkward time.) The hold should be abolished as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the personal power that the hold confers is treasured by many senators of both parties. To get rid of it will require considerable pressure from outraged citizens.
Dealing with the filibuster is more complicated. It is tempting to simply abolish the filibuster, as disruptive to majority-rule democracy – which it clearly is. But there is something to the hope (seldom realized in practice) that the Senate might be “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” In principle, extended debate can be a good thing, revealing of preference intensity and helpful for illuminating complex aspects of policy decisions. Moreover, during this period of closely divided and sharply polarized parties, it might be unwise to make abolition of the filibuster our first order of business. There have been times (e.g., early in Trump’s presidency) when only a filibuster-wielding Senate minority has been able to prevent temporarily unified policy-making institutions – temporarily unified under the other party – from passing very harmful and ultimately unpopular legislation.
Short of abolishing the filibuster, much could be done immediately to curtail its major abuses – especially the routine partisan use of the filibuster (even just the threat of a filibuster) to create a “60-vote Senate,” in which a minority of senators can block major legislation. Blocking legislation is especially easy for conservatives since the pro-rural bias of the Senate membership practically guarantees that there will always be a large minority, if not a majority, of conservative senators.
The most abusive effects of the filibuster could be greatly curtailed by some simple rule changes. Insisting on germaneness in debate, so that extended remarks only concern the merits of public policy, not readings from nursery rhymes or telephone books. Forbidding comfort breaks in the middle of long speeches. Putting reasonable time limits on the length of any one senator’s speech, and limits on the total debate on any one legislative topic, so that all ideas and opinions can be aired but ultimately a vote is taken on policy proposals. Lowering the cloture threshold a bit more. Insisting on actual filibusters, imposing real costs on obstructors, rather than deferring to a threat of a filibuster. (To be sure, Senate leaders have to worry that requiring actual filibusters can interfere with doing business even on minor, consensual matters. But the above changes would do much to limit the magnitude of and damage from actual filibusters.)
Also easy in principle would be to change the rules and procedures of the House of Representatives (doing this by simple majority vote of all representatives) so as to get rid of one-party control of that body. And to abolish its evil sibling, the “Hastert rule,” which allows a majority of the House majority (which can constitute a small minority of House reps as a whole) to block any action of any sort. Even action to keep the federal government open by raising the debt ceiling and approving a budget. Or action to elect a Speaker so it can carry on any business at all.
The Hastert rule is not even a formal rule; it is simply the current practice of House Speakers to defer on all matters to a majority of their own party caucus. Given enough public pressure on Speakers (and on near-sighted partisans who have been perfectly happy with the Hastert rule when their party held a House majority), it should not be difficult to overturn or at least modify the Hastert rule. Especially after the recent GOP spectacles of Speaker chaos and narrowly averted government shutdowns.
More deeply embedded are the House rules that create one-party agenda control, which (given a small margin of majority-party control) permits a handful of Matt Gaetz-type mavericks to withhold support, deprive the majority party of its majority, and shut the whole show down. Given polarized parties, one-party control of the House also leads to big policy lurches from left to right periodically, as one party or the other wins a small majority. This has a number of undemocratic effects. Including frequent failure of the House to reflect the will of the majority of Americans at any given moment, and increased probability that the House will clash with more democratically elected institutions (chiefly the Presidency), creating deadlock and inaction.
Pillars of one-party rule include powerful Speakers; a Rules committee that can shut out opposition by disallowing amendments to proposed legislation or altogether refusing to schedule proposals for debate; a hard-to-use discharge petition; and control of party money.
Strong Speakers and one-party rule have come and gone over the years: up under Speakers Reed and Cannon; down when a cross-party coalition of Progressives insisted on having a voice; and so forth. Right now, a potential left-center coalition somewhat resembles the old Progressives, but without the Progressives’ organization or cohesion. Those may be possible to achieve only with a wholesale collapse of the current two-party system. Or at least with major democratic reforms that ideally make both parties more representative of the American citizenry. If just one party becomes representative, that should give it an enduring popular majority like that of FDR’s Democrats. Who knows, the Democrats might once again become a working people’s party.
Well short of such a major transformation, however, it should be easy to get rid of some of the pillars of one-party House rule, if many Americans become aware of its downsides (Gaetz has helped) and insist on changes. Limit the Speaker’s powers (e.g., less discretion to recognize only conforming representatives; less power over committee appointments. But not single-member power to call for removal votes, a disastrous idea.) Less iron-clad agenda control by the Rules committee (e.g., no “closed rules” that ban amendments altogether.) Easier discharge petitions to require floor votes on popular legislation.
Conflict Among Institutions
Even if we manage to unclog decision-making within both the Senate and the House, however, there will still remain the very big problem of multiple veto points, rooted in our Constitutional system of separation of powers. Separation of powers – together with the fact that our executives, judges, and two-chamber legislators are chosen at different times, in different ways, with different political bases – means that clashes among institutions are very common. Deadlock and inaction often result.
The only solution, other than an improbable and perhaps undesirable centralizing of the system (get the Supreme Court out of policymaking? Go to a unicameral legislature?), is to work toward less conflict among our governmental institutions: more similar processes of selecting officials and holding them accountable, so that the institutions do not take such starkly different actions. Most of the virtues of a separation of powers – safeguards against hasty decisions; different types of expertise; a vigorous executive together with a more deliberative legislature – can be achieved without arbitrarily produced differences among the institutions. (Surely it no longer makes sense to deliberately have an upper chamber that represents states rather than people. Does someone have a coherent argument for that?)
Increased harmony among institutions could be achieved in various ways, but the way that I consider by far the best is to make all the institutions more democratic: more responsive to the preferences of U.S. citizens as a whole. Unclogging decision-making processes within each institution would make a good start: Marty Gilens’ data indicate that a big barrier to democratic responsiveness is not just the undeniable edge that the affluent and business groups have over ordinary citizens in enacting new policies; even more important is the multiple-veto-point system that the wealthy and others can use to block policy changes. There is a strong status-quo bias in U.S. politics. But thorough-going democratic reform of each of those institutions could – by making them all pull in the same, democratically chosen directions – reduce conflict among them. That would prevent deadlock and enable the government to act, while also increasing the democratic responsiveness of the system.
Depolarize our political parties and make them more responsive to the citizenry.
The sharp party polarization of recent years has brought many evils upon us. Fevered, angry, and conflict-producing rhetoric. Policy lurches, disagreements, and deadlocks both within and among institutions. Gridlock and inaction. Failure to respond to the citizens.
Multi-Party Proportional Representation
The conceptually simplest solution – and perhaps the long-run best solution – is to break out of our two-party straight-jacket and move to a multi-party, proportional representation system that represents every view in society roughly in proportion to its level of citizen support. Abolish the single-member-district, plurality voting system that has caused us so much trouble. Allow citizens multiple choices – multiple party lists to pick from, or multiple candidates to rank – so that minor candidates or parties can be chosen with real effects and without wasting votes.
This particular historical moment of widespread disenchantment with our two parties and their leaders invites serious discussion of the multi-party option. I leave it for others to explore the detailed questions about what sort of electoral system might be ideal (citizen choice of a single party list? Ranked-choice voting and single transferable votes among (party labeled, if they wish?) candidates? Some mix of national PR and geographical representation? Worth close attention is how to solve the coalition problem. Even if all parties get proportional representation in the legislature, might a resulting coalition of parties misrepresent the citizenry as a whole? How could this be prevented?
Also important to discuss is the feasibility question. Given the deep entrenchment of only two parties in our laws, norms, habits, and political organizations, would it actually be feasible to overhaul the system? If so, how?
My own tentative answer to questions about both the desirability and feasibility of multi-party PR is that the times may well call for it. But why not get there incrementally? Why not try to cajole or force current major party leaders to go along with democratic reforms that threaten – and could evolve into – a full-fledged multi-party system? But which give our two parties a fair chance to become more responsive to the citizenry, and thereby to continue to have a big role (even continue to dominate) in U.S. politics for a long time.
A fairly simple start would be to enact state laws (or better, a federal law that uniformly covered all state and federal elections), that require that ballots be open to multiple parties and that allow fusion tickets. That is, make all elections open to new parties that meet some threshold of popular support (presumably through petitions) to get on the ballot. And permit those parties to endorse – and have their votes counted for – major party candidates when they wish to do so.
That would encourage citizens to organize and form new parties, which I think is definitely worth encouraging. It would make it easy to vote for new parties without running the current “spoiler” danger of electing the less-preferred major candidate when only the major party candidates have a real chance. (Donald Trump in 2024?) If citizens can vote for a new party without counterproductive effects, they may start doing so in larger and larger numbers, eventually leading – if the major parties do not mend their ways – to stand-alone victories by new parties. And the emergence of a multi-party system.
A good starting point would be to allow multiple candidates and fusion tickets in all of our single-member-district elections, including the Presidency and governorships. (Unitary executives require us to keep single-member districts in those cases: we have to pick just one.) Within any single-member district, ranked-choice voting and single-transferable votes, rather than plurality first-choice voting, are essential in order to fully avoid the spoiler problem. But fusion would be a useful, temporary step along the way toward this system.
A nice feature of this approach is that it might leverage the threat of a multiparty system to force increased popular responsiveness by the two existing parties. How probable is it that our major parties would respond? Worth discussing, but in my view that may not be crucial. One way or another, our parties and elections would become much more democratic.
Proportional Representation American Style
The combination of old-party threat and new-party opportunity also applies to what Marty Gilens and I have called “proportional representation American style.” This could be applied to the House of Representatives, to all state legislatures (both upper and lower chambers), and – if we can get multiple senators in high-population states for greater Senate representativeness – to the election of U.S. senators.
The central reform would use federal law to overturn the misguided 1967 requirement of single-member districts and instead require that all states form multi-member legislative districts and allow multiple candidates (including those from new parties) to appear on the ballot. Through RCV and STV (any arguments for a different vote-counting method?), citizens could rank all or a subset of candidates, and then those with the highest levels of support would simultaneously be elected to all the seats that were being filled. The use of RCV to select several legislators at the same time would be far superior to using it to pick just one (e.g. in a single-member legislative district); it would produce much more nearly proportional representation in the legislatures.
It is also essential (at least as long as our two parties hang on to their duopoly) to replace our present system of nominating candidates, which is an abomination. One-party primary elections, often held at obscure times – and always suffering from low and unrepresentative turnout – mean that most nominees in single-member districts (especially the winners in heavily one-party districts, where a yellow dog could win the general election) do not faithfully represent the citizens of the district as a whole. As a result, legislative bodies often poorly represent the citizenry of their state or the country.
My preferred remedy is to admit that our current system of primary elections was chosen in error: on this, the Progressives went wrong. To me, it seems best to go to a system of general elections only (“instant runoffs,” if you will). Choose officials in relatively high-turnout, all-citizens-allowed, November elections. Give the nominating job back to party professionals. But also make sure that those professionals have strong incentives to come up with vote-maximizing – not dollar- or activist-maximizing – candidates. Abolishing primary elections would be a big step toward forcing parties to nominate candidates who can win in multi-member-district, ranked-choice, general elections, where activists and money givers have less influence. Ranked-choice voting can ensure that candidates (often, but by no means always, “moderates”) who appeal to many ordinary citizens will win a good many votes.
With or without primary elections – which, if kept at all, should probably be open to all citizens, of whatever party affiliation – the essence of this idea is that only multi-member legislative districts permit fair representation of all the main views in a particular geographic area, in rough proportion to their prevalence. That means all important minority views, even in an area that is heavily dominated by one or another party or ideology (for example, deeply red or deeply blue states.) Multi-member PR is very good for minorities of any sort, whether partisan, ideological, ethnic, or racial.
It would not be sufficient to keep single-member districts but eliminate deliberate gerrymandering (e.g., to have district boundaries drawn by independent, non-partisan commissions – a reasonable intermediate step.) Boundaries that were based on the supposedly neutral criteria of compactness and contiguity would put highly concentrated populations – like urban ethnic minorities – into heavily one-party districts that waste their votes and poorly represent other district residents. Moreover, to ask districting commissions to maximize district competitiveness (e.g., to make every district as close as possible to 50%-50% R and D) would run into the inescapable problem that we have many heavily one-party states. In a one-party state, uniform maximization of the closeness of election results might lead to a narrow majority-party victory in every single district.
Instead, we need multi-member legislative districts. How many members? Not too many, or voters will be confused and find it hard to choose among them. A good rule of thumb might be no more than four or five legislative offices to be filled at once, and no more than seven or eight candidates on an RCV/ STV ballot. Restricting the number of candidates or parties is crucial, but to do that fairly and effectively will take careful planning and probably some experimentation. Presumably by petitions. (Ideas?)
For state legislatures and large-population state congressional delegations, therefore, “proportional representation American style” would require creating several mega-districts within each state. Enough mega-districts to select just four or five legislators each. (Small states could elect all their members of Congress state-wide.) This could be achieved state-by-state through state laws. But much better would be a federal law mandating universal implementation of the system. Either way, states would presumably draw the boundaries. Squabbles over boundary-drawing seem likely, but these should not be very consequential for democratic outcomes. PR within each of a number of equal-population mega-districts, when aggregated over a whole state, should produce a good approximation of PR for the state as a whole, almost regardless of how those district boundaries are drawn. Fine if current incumbents fight over who runs together with whom, or if counties resist being split up.
House and State Legislators
How does this candidate-centered idea relate to the most attractive alternative, PR through multi-party elections, with voters picking a single party list? Legislators could be chosen in descending order from the various party lists, in numbers proportional to the number of votes the party gets. That might well be the ideal system. It is certainly popular around the world. But to me – given the deep entrenchment of our two parties – it may be very hard to get there in one big jump. (Ideas about how?) Candidate-centered PR American style might be easier to sell to strong partisans and officials of the GOP and/or the Dems since it leaves open the possibility for them to continue to dominate U.S. politics – if they respond better to the citizenry. Yet at the same time, it opens space for new parties to field candidates running under new-party labels. And unless the old parties scramble to improve their responsiveness, a multi-party system could emerge.
After the establishment of multiple parties, a small final step, if desired, could be to switch the voting method within established mega-districts from candidate-based RCV to party-based choice of a single party list. This might make choices easier for voters. But more subject to representational slippage? That might depend on how the party lists are formed. But given the new incentives of multi-party competition, it might make little ultimate difference whether party officials did it themselves or left nominations to partisan primaries: if those went as badly as our current primaries, the party that used them would simply lose seats and be replaced by more representative parties.
What do you think?
Make all our governmental institutions democratically responsive.
The above ideas would be very helpful for increasing democratic responsiveness, de-polarizing our parties, and reducing gridlock among most of our governmental institutions. They should apply to all state legislatures and governors; city councils and mayors; the U.S. House of Representatives and the Presidency. But to fully achieve our goals will require democratic reforms in the selection and accountability of officials in all our institutions, notably including the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court. Each of them poses special problems and involves particular barriers to reform, including Constitutional barriers.
The Senate moved significantly toward being a democratically elected body with the 17th. Amendment’s belated requirement that senators be directly elected, rather than chosen by state legislatures. But it remains highly undemocratic – increasingly so, as the years go by – because of the Constitution’s Article I Section 3 provision that the Senate will be composed of two senators from each state, each with one vote. Hence the absurd situation that each citizen of low-population Wyoming has about 66 times as much representation in the Senate as each citizen of high-population California. Senators from small, heavily rural, conservative states constitute a majority of all senators. So even if all undemocratic procedural barriers are removed (the hold, the filibuster, broad unanimous-consent requirements), conservative senators have easily enough votes to block all sorts of policies favored by large majorities of Americans. And they do often block them (e.g., sensible gun safety measures. Also many lower-visibility non-decisions that few citizens are aware of.) This also sets up conflicts with the House and/or the Presidency, leading to gridlock.
What is to be done? In Article V of the Constitution the Founders attempted to make it impossible to change this situation: “No state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Surely such a provision cannot have a sacred status (Other views? We had better check with Samuel Alito and Mike Johnson.) Surely it can be amended like any other provision. Presumably, in fact, a single amendment could both eliminate the prohibition on change and modify the two-senators/two-votes-per-state provision.
We have seen historically that it is possible to amend the Constitution. If the pressure gets high enough, sometimes the states needed to ratify an amendment will even do so against their apparent self-interests. But Constitutional amendments belong to a special category of reforms that are likely to be extremely difficult and time-consuming to achieve. They are likely to require intensive support from a broad-based, energetic Social Movement of the sort that has succeeded in the past.
The decision to pursue a Constitutional amendment should be taken cautiously. To me, though, reform of the U.S. Senate should be the #1 candidate to merit engaging in such a struggle. Without it, the United States seems doomed to a continuing drift into less and less democratic responsiveness, more and more gridlock and inaction.
What sort of amendment(s) to pursue, exactly? Conceptually simplest might be to follow the same path as most of the advanced world: neuter the unrepresentative upper chamber of the legislature by removing most of its policy-making power. But many provisions across the Constitution build in the idea of a powerful Senate, powerful in legislation, treaties, appointments, and – crucially – central to the two most plausible and most often-used pathways (out of a confusing total of four total paths) for amending the Constitution. Can we really expect the Senate to neuter itself, even under great pressure? Any ideas about whether and how this might be done?
Supposing that we focus on democratizing the electoral base of the Senate, how should that be done?
A small but simple step in that direction, doable without touching the Constitution, is to admit a few new states with very different populations than inhabit the current rural, white, small-state Senate majority. Obvious candidates include Washington DC and Puerto Rico. The U.S. Virgin Islands seem worth a look too. From within currently existing states (given those states’ consent), part or all of some major metropolitan areas might also be made separate states, while trying to avoid leaving reactionary senators in the residual states. This has its complications, and it is certainly not a full solution to the problem. But just six or eight more urban-oriented senators could make a very big difference.
The next time there are progressive majorities in both the House and Senate, I would put a very high priority on trying to admit some new states to improve the Senate’s representativeness of the United States as a whole. But the whole GOP plus some Dems may be inclined to oppose this. Heavy-duty persuasion may be needed.
In any case, for the long run, it seems essential to pass a Constitutional amendment that addresses the number of senators per state and/or the number of votes per senator.
The most dramatic and fully effective move would simply be to give each senator a number of votes in the chamber proportional to the number of people in his or her state. This should apply to all matters (legislation, treaties, nominations, resolutions, Constitutional amendments, etc.) Suddenly, each senator from California would have 66 votes! A hard sell, no doubt, but a spectacular one if it can be achieved. More realistically, we might go for some fraction (halfway?) of full representation.
One problem with the multiple-votes-per-senator proposal, aside from political feasibility, is that the personal views and idiosyncrasies of a single 33-vote or 66-vote senator would suddenly assume great importance. This might lead to capricious behavior and bad effects. That problem points toward making at least part of the solution be multiple senators for each high-population state.
Here the obvious problem is that even if the smallest states were limited to only one senator each (which seems clearly desirable to me), several states would have 20, 25, or even 33 senators each, and the total size of the Senate would be very large and unwieldy. How far should we go in that direction? Perhaps we should give each state a number of senators roughly proportional to its population, but all in the range of one to (say) just ten or twelve senators each. Ideas, anyone?
And, of course, various mixes of those two approaches are possible.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is an extremely tough problem, both conceptually and in terms of finding feasible paths to reform. Do we need a constitution-interpreting Supreme Court at all? Or was Marbury wrongly decided? Should we return the power of constitutional interpretation and enforcement to “we the people,” with whom the Constitution supposedly originate
If so, how?
The main argument against totally defanging the Court – or (more easily) severely limiting its substantive jurisdiction by federal statute – is that we want some way to protect minorities against majority errors or persecutions. The Court is widely considered to be the natural protector in our system, even though its record is very mixed: some success at protecting vulnerable individuals and small groups, but much less success at protecting threatening political movements (especially on the Left), and miserable failure to protect our largest and most terribly treated minorities, native Americans and Black slaves. If we want to keep a strong Court as a rights protector, someone should think about how to make sure it does a better job of it.
To me, the most straightforward way to make the Court less of an obstructor to government action, and less of a barrier to democratic policymaking, is to make it more democratically responsive. This can be done without messing with its powers or with the system of indirect popular accountability via presidential appointments. We just need to make vacancies and new appointments more frequent, so that they better reflect the citizen preferences that yielded recently elected presidents, rather than being relics of past times or unusual political moments. More frequent appointments would also tend, over time, to smooth out partisan or other fluctuations in the characters and ideologies of justices appointed by successive presidents.
A simple start, to deal with the current McConnell-engineered, highly unrepresentative Court (in which Chief Justice Roberts is the closest thing we have to a centrist), is to enlarge the Court’s membership. Or, at minimum, credibly threaten to enlarge it, as FDR did, aiming to motivate a little self-restraint by the justices. The size of the court can be changed by federal statute; it has in fact been changed a number of times. New appointments by a progressive president to a Court of 13 or even just 11 justices could greatly improve the Court’s decisions and significantly unblock one of the most intractable barriers against democratic policymaking.
A long-term bonus to enlarging the court would be the tendency of enlargement to increase the average frequency of appointments. It would thereby increase their average recency and their responsiveness to the political tides of the day, while also smoothing out fluctuations and reducing legitimacy-damaging opinion reversals like the undoing of Roe.
For a more substantial long-term increase in democratic responsiveness, however, I believe we need to work for a Constitutional amendment. It might take one or both of two approaches: raising the minimum age at which justices can be appointed (to 50? 55?); and limiting justices’ terms in office, abolishing lifetime tenure but preserving independence from the other branches while in office (fixed salary; removal from office only by impeachment with cause.)
Raising the minimum age would shorten average terms in office and help increase the frequency of appointments. Its chief disadvantage would be retaining the present incentives for presidents to appoint judges with long life expectancies, and for justices to continue to hang on long after their peak powers have passed. To avoid ending up with a Court full of nonagenarians, term limits (20 years in office? 25?), or specific retirement ages (75? 80?), would be much better. But also perhaps tougher to get passed. Raising the appointment age without touching lifetime tenure does have a pleasant simplicity to it. Reformers need to work this out.
Give all citizens an equal voice in elections and policy making.
An equal voice for all citizens lies at the core of the idea of majoritarian democracy. The reforms discussed above would contribute to equal voices in some crucial ways: reducing the very unequal political influence of money-givers, party activists, and small-state residents; overcoming institutional blocks against the majority getting its way; better reflecting the full range of citizens’ preferences in the conduct of elections and the counting of votes. In addition – and as a culmination of these institutional and procedural reforms – are a set of more individual-citizen-oriented reforms that will help to ensure that all citizens have an equal opportunity to participate in politics; and to ensure, as best as possible, that a representative sample of citizens actually do participate in selecting and communicating with their officials.
Recent partisan efforts to repress voting obviously need to be resisted or reversed: limits on registration opportunities and on times, places, and manner of voting; disenfranchisement of groups like ex-felons; burdensome requirements on voting (e.g., minority-targeted voter ID laws.) We should note that, among these regressive measures, only voter ID laws have much appeal to average citizens, who like the idea of preventing voter fraud – however rare it actually is. A possible response would be to accept the idea of requiring proof of identity and citizenship but to do so through universally issued national identification cards. (Such cards would help with some other problems too, such as catching errant fathers who try to flee their alimony and child-care responsibilities across state lines.) But this common-sense idea, a matter of course in much of the world, would probably upset libertarians and individualistic conservatives.
Enfranchisement reforms are well understood and are already being pursued by many progressives, including the House progressives who have passed an excellent, fairly comprehensive democratic reform bill. Completed federal legislation seems imperative. State-level struggles are definitely worthwhile while federal action is blocked, but they cannot be counted upon to result in uniform victories.
The long-run objectives of producing universally equal opportunities for participation – and good representation of all citizens by those who actually participate – will require several conceptually simple steps. They begin with the abolition of personal registration: the states or federal government should automatically register all citizens. Universal registration is essential.
Next, come abundant and easy opportunities to vote. Ballots mailed out to all citizens can help, as can early voting. But so far they have especially helped those (e.g. upper-income people) who were already participating at high levels and have not much reduced the unrepresentativeness of the electorate. Mail ballots have to be accompanied by substantial time to fill them out and easy ways to submit them: for those mistrustful of return by mail, many easy drop-off points, and no interference with people willing to help gather and submit ballots. Easy opportunities for in-person voting are important too. Many places to vote, open for substantial hours, on convenient days. A national holiday (why not Veterans’ Day?), for workers whose employers discourage taking time off to vote.
Together with the above-discussed reforms to abolish obscure primaries, ease new-party candidacies, permit broad expressions of preferences through ranked-choice voting, etc., these simple measures should take us a long way toward citizen equality. The problem, of course, has been a lack of political will to do it. As Walter Dean Burnham and Alex Keyssar pointed out, various elites throughout U.S. history have sought to restrict the electorate. Right now an entire major political party seems to aim to do so. When the stars next align correctly and produce progressive control of the House, Senate, and Presidency all at once, progressives should put a very high priority on these and other quickly doable reforms. Higher priority, even, than on most substantive legislation. More democratic institutions and procedures will enable the enactment of many more popular progressive substantive proposals well into the future.
Reformers should prepare carefully for a future moment of wholesale democratic reform through federal legislation and rule-making. Meanwhile, reformers should do the best they can at the state and local levels.
Strategies, Priorities, and Prospects
I believe that active reformers and reform organizations should set most of their own priorities, based on what they believe is most important; on what opportunities arise; and on what they are willing to devote their own time, energy, and persistence to working for. Division of labor and specialized expertise make sense, too. I just have a few suggestions for consideration.
First, narrowly defined equal-voice reforms are certainly important and worth pursuing right away. But I suspect that a number of institutional and procedural reforms – even if less exciting, less obvious, even arcane – may actually be more urgent. Marty Gilens’ data indicate that the biggest single barrier to democratic policymaking in the United States is not citizen disenfranchisement; not even the malign influences on policymaking that compete with the citizenry (money, interest groups); but simple barriers to action by majorities of Americans. Even big majorities of Americans. The status-quo bias in U.S. policymaking is, to me, our number one problem. Reforms that would overcome veto points and harmonize (by democratizing) our institutions seem to me to deserve especially high priority.
Second, different reform proposals differ markedly in the likely ease or difficulty of designing and enacting them. It makes sense to work right away on some of those that can be done very simply, e.g., by a majority vote of legislators in a single chamber. Soon – but perhaps not immediately – end one-party rule and the pernicious Hastert practice in the House. Ease discharge petitions. Curtail the Speaker’s and the Rules Committee’s dictatorial agenda control. (Caveat: a slim progressive majority may want to do its other work first! Indeed, before anything else, ditch the one-member call for a Speaker’s removal.) In the Senate, as soon as possible get rid of the Hold. Curtail the length of filibusters. Insist on actual debate, not just threats of long-winded speaking. Make sure all speeches are germane to the topic of debate. Shave down requirements of unanimous consent. Some of these reforms should attract bipartisan support.
A second tier of feasibility involves federal legislation, for which the President, the House, and the Senate all need to fall in line – an increasingly rare phenomenon. Reformers need to plan carefully for when that next occurs and be ready to jump right in with a substantial menu of reforms by federal law. If one body can prepare by drafting, refining, and passing legislation before this moment of opportunity, all the better.
Right away, if possible, admit a few new, urban-oriented states to the union. This would immediately start to pay big dividends. It may deserve top priority, along with enacting the House’s already prepared equal-voice enfranchisement reforms.
Over the longer haul, require multi-member congressional districts and open-candidate, ranked-choice voting in all states. Also require RCV for nominations (in nonpartisan primaries, if we must have primaries) and for electing the president. If the Electoral College is retained – the best remedy to eliminate it may be a state compact to all vote for popular vote winners – apply RCV to slates of presidential electors. At a minimum, authorize fusion tickets in all federal elections. Quickly require disclosure of all lobbying contacts and all private financial contributions. When possible, enact state-wide public financing for all federal elections, preferably through “democracy vouchers.” Early on, enlarge the Supreme Court, and make new appointments quickly. Figure out how to equalize citizen-focused interest groups and how to regulate the media.
Some of these pieces of legislation are more urgent than others; some will be easier than others to draft and get passed. We will need to be flexible about what to push first and how hard to push it.
The third tier of difficulty involves Constitutional amendments. Amendments seem to me to be clearly needed in at least three areas. To ban or limit private money in politics, especially money from corporations. To make the Senate more representative of all Americans. And to make the Supreme Court more democratically responsive. Each of these will take long-term organizing and hard work. They will probably require a very broad-based, powerful Social Movement. But it seems to me that in the long run, those three sets of reforms will be essential for American democracy – especially improving Senate representativeness. Those fundamental reforms deserve the same high level of energy and persistence that the People’s Party and the Progressives once devoted to women’s right to vote and the direct election of senators.
As to overall feasibility: this is a daunting menu of sweeping reforms. As an oldster, I know that moments of opportunity for major U.S. political reforms come few and far between. In my lifetime I have observed only one such moment, in 1964-1965, after the GOP’s crash with Barry Goldwater. (At the time, my fifteen-year-old self assumed that the subsequent burst of legislation reflected politics as usual, not a rare event that had come only because of unusual and unexpected circumstances.) After those successful reforms, the U.S. suffered from a reactionary counterattack and from decades of increasing economic globalization, in which an internationalized labor market put heavy pressure on high-wage workers in all advanced countries, severely weakened labor, and badly damaged democracy in a number of countries – notably including the United States. Moments of progressive democratic reform have definitely not been routine in my lifetime.
Still, by the same token, I have seen such a historical moment with my own eyes, a moment that included a big victory over Jim Crow and the re-enfranchisement of Black Americans. I know that such moments can occur. And that they can occur suddenly, unexpectedly, without the need for catastrophic events like the Great Depression and World War II to power them (as they powered the New Deal.) Best to prepare for those moments and be ready for action at any time.
My record at prognostication is not unblemished, but it seems to me that right now we may be on the cusp of a similar moment of opportunity. The old order looks very shaky. Neither major party – and neither of their likely 2024 presidential nominees – is sparking great enthusiasm from most Americans. This party system, deeply embedded though it is in our laws and habits, seems ripe for collapse. If it does collapse, the question is, what comes next? Democratic reform? Or right-wing authoritarianism?
In optimistic moments I envision a 1964-like electoral outcome in 2024, in which Donald Trump’s gross flaws and misdeeds catch up with him and he is thoroughly trounced, taking down the entire MAGA wing of the GOP with him. Such an outcome seems worth working for, praying for, and preparing to take advantage of. But will it happen?
In more pessimistic, Trotsky-like moments I fantasize that perhaps a Trump victory in 2024 would be just the disaster that finally pushes us into a wholesale reform of our creaky political system. But will we be around to inspire and organize those reforms? Or will we be languishing in internment camps? Who knows.
Whatever the future may bring, this does seem to be a promising moment for thinking about what sort of democracy we want and exactly how we want to achieve it. As Hamlet said, in a grim context, “the readiness is all.”
This paper was prepared as background remarks for a small conference of American politics scholars, reform activists, and reform-minded officials, to be held in early December to discuss Democracy and Inequality. This essay draws heavily from Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America? (2017). For a readable, detailed discussion of a similar set of democratic reforms, see American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Our Common Purpose (2020)