Dozens of Democrats are angling to be considered 2020 presidential prospects. That’s healthy, for the party and for the country. When a political party has a long list of primary contenders, candidates seek to distinguish themselves. The more lamentable among them focus their energy on raising money, or assembling predictable lists of endorsements from the insiders who invariably counsel caution and compromise. The best contenders, on the other hand, place their faith in big ideas.
Put Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a progressive who is pondering a presidential run, in the “big ideas” category. He just put out a “Blueprint to Restore American Democracy,” a terrific document that extends from the senator’s understanding of the fundamental challenges facing a country where the diminishment of democracy began—long before Donald Trump assumed the presidency.
“Abraham Lincoln described the American experiment as ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ Yet the federal government today is a far cry from that vision,” explains Merkley. “Instead, our democracy has been corrupted by the privileged and powerful to ensure that it does not reflect the will of the people, but instead serves to further consolidate wealth and power among the minority who already have both.”
Merkley is focusing on more than the mechanics of democracy. What concerns him is the role that America’s democratic deficit plays is fostering inequality and unfairness.
Because the will of the people is so frequently and dramatically thwarted by barriers, which favor the few while disenfranchising the many, Merkley argues that “our government has failed to take on the challenges that impact wide swaths of working America. People work longer hours, struggling to hold onto modest pay and benefits, while Wall Street gets extraordinarily wealthy. College and homeownership slide out of reach. Health care costs keep going up. Fossil fuel barons run our energy policy while ferocious storms, catastrophic forest fires, and endless droughts wreck lives and livelihoods and compromise our children’s futures.”
To address the crisis, Merkley outlines an ambitious reform agenda. It begins with a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and provide a framework for addressing the corrupting influence of money in politics. The senator also proposes to give shareholders a voice in corporate political spending, and to give citizens legal standing to sue corporations if the FEC fails to enforce election laws.
Merkley wants to end partisan gerrymandering “by requiring independent redistricting commissions to draw lines for all congressional districts, based on clear criteria to ensure representatives are responsive to their constituents.”
He also wants to protect and expand the rights of voters by reinstating the Voting Rights Act and ensuring equal access to polling locations, requiring all states to allow early voting for at least two weeks before Election Day, stopping voter list purges, restoring voting rights for those who served time for felony offenses and establishing a nationwide system for automatic voter registration and same-day registration.
These are all the requisite building blocks of a reform program for times such as these. But what makes Merkley’s blueprint so vital are the even bolder ideas he outlines as part of his agenda for “ensuring equal representation.” This goes to the heart of any serious debate about representative democracy at a time when The Guardian reminds us that “US democracy is running into serious trouble—but it is not all, or even mostly, Donald Trump’s fault.”
He wants to abolish the Electoral College and elect presidents by a national popular vote. Arguing that the Electoral College is “profoundly unfair,” Merkley recalls that “In just two decades, we have now seen two elections where the majority of voters supported a candidate who did not become the president, due to the Electoral College. Now is the time to introduce an amendment to the Constitution to elect the president of the United States by direct popular vote.”
Merkley also wants to provide a pathway for voting representation in Congress for American citizens who are currently disenfranchised. “There are roughly four million taxpaying Americans living in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the territories who do not have representation,” Merkley’s blueprint notes. “They should have the opportunity to have their voices heard in Congress. Congress should convene a commission to propose a path forward to ensure that American citizens have the meaningful ability to shape their government, regardless of where they live.”
That’s a big idea. A big enough idea to distinguish Jeff Merkley as a prospect who merits attention as the 2020 race unfolds.