Making Our Democracy Functional

Former President Jimmy Carter told Der Spiegel in July that “America has no functioning democracy.”  He was speaking in the context of national security surveillance, but I think his statement should get us all thinking about the state of the union in light of the soap-opera Congressional antics that have shut down huge parts of our government.  A country beset by serious challenges to our economy, our competitiveness, our growing gap of income inequality, our embarrassing slippage in the global rankings on everything from infant mortality to life expectancy, educational attainment, and healthcare, and our deteriorating physical infrastructure, responds by doing . . . what? By shutting down the government!  It reminds me of the old Eddy Arnold ballad, “Make the World Go Away.”  Well, the world’s not going away, but America’s place in it might be.  And this is no ballad; this is a failure of American democracy.

It’s no accident, either.  I wrote in this space last January: “Yet not everybody is mourning this myopic preoccupation with fiscal cliffs.  In fact, there are those who love them.  What better strategy for avoiding all our nation’s real-world problems than to create one artificial deadline after another that will keep Washington tied in knots all year long?”

Wasn’t it just last January that we began a new Administration with hopes for putting politics aside, even if just for six months, so we could tackle some of these challenges that no one would take on during campaign season? There was talk of immigration reform, fixing our broken voting laws, repairing our roads, bridges, public utilities and airports, making sure every American had access to low-cost, high-speed, opportunity-creating broadband, and making healthcare (passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court) actually work. High hopes, but no “Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant” in this show.

It’s ten months later and here is how we’re doing: the most dismal Congressional record ever; no appropriations bills passed—not even one; important national defense installations furloughed; dedicated public servants here and overseas denied a pay-check (read “the means to live”); most of the big problems ignored or occasionally punted to some commission designed to substitute the appearance of action for real action; and every day of shut-down adding to the cost of government, further busting the budget, and increasing the national debt.  Oh, wait—that’s the next crisis.

Maybe the confluence of the budget stand-off and a debt ceiling debacle will get us to some kind of resolution so we can reopen the doors of government and get on with the business of the people.  But my bet is that any solution will be temporary so that those who oppose the very idea of government can manufacture more artificial crises in the months ahead, thereby forestalling votes on the real problems that confront the nation. That, my friends, is their agenda.

Let me add that I don’t hold just the Congress responsible for this ludicrous situation.   During the 2012 campaign, the President didn’t talk much about having a Congress that he could work with.  Sometimes he made it sound like there was actually considerable bipartisanship going on in Washington.  There wasn’t.  If a President is having real problems with Congress, he needs to campaign on that.  This one didn’t.   Harry Truman called out Congress and told it like it was in 1948.  It didn’t keep him from getting elected; in fact, it helped.  And, yes, the Democrats regained control of both Houses of Congress.

But it is more than personalities or the daily ups-and-downs of politics that brings us to the brink. Our problems run deeper.  Here are my candidates for what is really holding America back:

FIRST, THE OUTRAGEOUS ROLE OF MONEY THAT HAS POISONED THE POLITICAL BLOODSTREAM.  Revised figures tell us that the total cost of the 2012 elections was some $10 billion.  Those dollars fueled races at every level from President to township.  Let’s focus on Congress, because it is Congress that shut government down.  Congress depends on special interest money and its members spend an outrageous amount of their time (day-in and day-out, even on week-ends and during vacations) dialing and schmoozing for dollars when they should be focused on managing government.  Money buys elections; money opens doors; money even writes the legislation Congress considers and dictates the favors that are bestowed. I once taught U.S. History and I looked pretty closely at the notorious Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s.  Believe me, it had nothing on today’s Gilded Age in terms of inequalities, tawdry politics, and government-for-sale. Today, almost a year after the campaign, money is still running rampant in Washington, the statehouses, local campaigns, and even the election of judges.  Money is paying off campaign debts, opening doors, collecting for past favors, and fueling the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

Until we learn how to limit the power of money in the body politic, we will not cure the failures of our current system.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United to allow even more special interest spending in our campaigns guarantees us more years of negative, anonymous television ads and more years when the votes of some count a lot more than the votes of the rest of us.  And now the Supreme Court is considering a new case—McCutcheon v. FEC—that could amount to a Citizens United Part 2.  The court might actually remove the limits on individual campaign contributions as well as campaign spending!

We need a Constitutional Amendment to take these decisions away from constant legal challenge.  We have had laws like McCain-Feingold to place some limits on campaign spending, but without it being clear that Congress has authority to pass such laws again (admittedly that will also take a more representative Congress), the special interests will continue to win.  Sixteen states are now on record calling on Congress to do this.  It’s time to heed the voice of the people.

SECOND, GERRYMANDERING. The current system of drawing electoral districts has taken most of the competition out of our House of Representatives elections.  Districts are mostly drawn up by the state legislatures following the decennial census.  The lines are politically-driven and designed to favor incumbents over challengers.  So the incumbent worries less about a challenge from the other party than about a primary challenge in his own party.  The result: Republicans march rightward to ward off the ultras and Democrats trend left. General election outcomes are foreordained. As for the “Vital Center” that political scientists used to hold up as democracy’s great enabler?  Try to find it in Congress.

California found a way to redistrict by taking the line-drawing away from the politicians and giving it to an expert commission.  It was a huge step forward.  Every state should do this.

THIRD, THE SENATE FILIBUSTER.  Just as gerrymandering has rendered the House irresponsible, so the filibuster renders the Senate ineffective.  There is neither rationale nor excuse for a tiny minority’s ability to bring the Senate to a halt, especially over matters that were never intended to require a super-majority of 60 votes.  The Constitution is clear on which matters require more than a majority for passage—such things as ratifying treaties and impeaching Presidents—but no Founding Father envisioned such a  requirement for the simple act of bringing an item to the floor for discussion or for approving  a President’s nominations for agency personnel.  During my years working for legendary U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings, and for many generations prior to that, the filibuster was rarely deployed.  Legislators worked hard to win votes, fair-and-square.  And when they were behind in the vote count, they didn’t end-run the Constitution to keep the other side from winning. Many groups, including my colleagues at Common Cause, are working hard to reform the filibuster.  They need your help.  With a Senate always at the mercy of a little band of willful blockers, decision-making is stymied.  Self-government can’t survive such paralysis.

FOURTH, THE DECLINE OF MEDIA AND THE CIVIC DIALOGUE.  Democracy requires an informed citizenry.  That’s never been more true.  Our country confronts deadly serious challenges, as mentioned at the outset, and (unlike the board game of Monopoly), there is no “Get Out of Jail Free” card in our future.  It will require tough decisions, good decisions, informed decisions.  Our media is not proving up to the task.  Too much news has been shunted aside to make way for infotainment.  Too many newsrooms have been shuttered, with opinion-shouters riding high and fact-seeking reporters reduced to seeking jobs.  Our investment in real journalism has been, experts tell us, cut nearly in half since the 1990s.  We need a thriving press to hold power accountable, to look behind the corporate press release instead of publishing it as news, and to enable a vibrant civic dialogue.

Huge media conglomerates have gobbled up hundreds of independent newspaper and broadcast outlets, more often than not cutting the newsroom staffs in order to finance the heavy costs of the merger or purchase transaction.  Wall Street’s bottom line has displaced the community’s public interest as local media disappears.  Diversity opinions, indeed whole diversity populations, go uncovered.   Public affairs are pushed aside by an “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality.  Don’t get me wrong—there are numerous broadcasters and editors out there still fighting for local and diverse media, but they are less and less the captains of their own fate and more and more jeopardized by the unforgiving expectations of hedge funds and Wall Street financiers.

To make a bad situation worse, years of wrong-headed decisions by government—especially by the Federal Communications Commission (where I served for more than a decade, often as a dissenter)—blessed this merger-mania and went on from there to eliminate most of the public interest obligations that broadcasters were expected to carry out in return for their free use of the public airwaves.

A great place to begin real media reform would be to say no to some of these merger deals.  Just this year, in telecommunications and media, they add up to tens of billions of dollars.  Then the FCC could get serious about some genuine public interest oversight as the law charged it to do.  It also needs to step forward to guarantee an open Internet (the so-called network neutrality issue).  The Internet holds such great promise for creating not just better communications, but better opportunities for all Americans.  Yet there are more than a few disturbing signs that the Net itself is heading down the same path toward consolidation, gate-keeping, and lack of any public policy input.  What a tragedy it would be to allow the great promise of the Digital Age to fall victim to monopolies and special-interest government!  This is vital: opportunity delayed is opportunity denied.

I put this media issue last because it’s what I want to end on.  To my way of thinking, we won’t get very far in meeting those other three challenges—big money, gerrymandering, and the filibuster—until we have a news and information infrastructure that presents these challenges to all of us in meaningful way—not as stories of personalities, horse-races, polling, who’s up and who’s down, but as substantive challenges to our ability to perform the practical art of self-government.  Indeed, we may well have avoided the current government shutdown if the media had done a better job of explaining why the country was heading there in the first place.

America needs good government. It needs to limit the influence of money and empower the institutions of democracy.  It needs representatives who feel the public interest in their bones.  It needs polling places where everyone votes and everyone’s vote is equal.  And, as much as anything, it needs a media that tells the story of America and that sustains a small “d” democratic dialogue that is the only way to restore the Promise of America.

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About Michael Copps

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of the public interest; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. He is director of Common Cause's Media & Democracy Reform Initiative.

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