Democracy in America made a surprising–and welcome–comeback this spring. Many of us assumed the front-loaded primary season meant the contest would be less democratic than ever, but instead Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were forced to fight the longest and most nationally inclusive race for a presidential nomination in history. About 3.5 million new voters registered and cast ballots, boosting participation among young people and people of color to new highs. More people voted in the Democratic primaries in North Carolina and Indiana than turned out for John Kerry in those states during the 2004 presidential race. The previously untapped potential of our democracy was on full display.
No candidate has spoken to this potential more directly than Obama. Millions of Americans embraced the presumptive Democratic nominee’s “firm conviction…that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
Obama’s audacious hope is intoxicating, but that hope must be sustained by a vision of what a more perfect union would look like.
Essential to realizing that vision in the twenty-first century is a transformation that doesn’t rank high in any poll or list of probable reforms.
If we are to realize the potential the primary season has revealed and begin moving toward that more perfect union, if we are to finally transcend our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, progressives will have to drive a bold agenda to invigorate democracy at home and capture greater power for the people. There may never be a better time than the next few years.
Some in Washington have touted the export of democracy abroad (often with disastrous results) while they neglect our own. The terrible irony is that they would not grant unconditional funding to a country whose democratic design looks like ours. The machinery of American democracy is broken: mistakes, chicaneries, snafus and disasters debilitate almost every race everywhere, every two years, with the result that an increasing number of Americans report feeling alienated by the voting process.
There are clear signs of the decline of our democracy: registration and voter turnout lag far behind other democracies; ever larger numbers of citizens are disenfranchised; the cost of running for office is spiraling out of control, excluding citizens of average means from participating in government; and our media, the forum for the healthy debate so essential to any democracy, are increasingly incapable of acting in the public interest.
This decline predates the 2000 presidential contest. Some of its roots are found in the invidious history of racial discrimination of which Senator Obama (all too briefly) reminded us. That unresolved election focused attention on our increasingly dysfunctional electoral system and the larger problems of our democracy. The past seven years of extremist Republican rule have stymied every effort to address the flaws that the 2000 election revealed.
Pollsters tell us that “process reforms” don’t galvanize voters. Candidates slight them. Pundits often scorn them, assuming that money will always dominate and that corruption is simply a fact of nature. But the primary season just past–which saw Americans of every background and political persuasion becoming experts on superdelegates and tuning in to a live broadcast of the Democratic Party’s rules and bylaws committee meeting–suggests that Americans do care about how our elections are run, and that they want them to be fair and functional. Obama–and, for that matter, Republican John McCain, who made his reputation as an election reformer–should, in this election year, address the concerns of millions of Americans about a broken system. And in 2009 progressives should recognize that it is vital to break from cynicism and advance a vision of government that is, in fact, of the people, by the people and for the people. It’s time for Just Democracy.