The rise of Bernie Sanders, whatever the fate of his campaign, has likely altered the trajectory of progressive politics in the United States for decades to come. He has not only rallied millions of supporters to stand with him, in the words of Michael Harrington, on “the left wing of the possible,” he has significantly expanded the realm of the possible itself. Yet for many on the left even Sanders’s fiery denunciations of a rigged political and economic system fail to account for how profoundly that is the case and how challenging it will be to un-rig it. In this installment of “That’s Debatable,” our continuing series of forums, Wendy Weiser, Rob Richie, and Sanford Levinson argue that deeper structural reforms would be necessary for a “political revolution” to make our federal government more responsive to the people in whose name it governs and whose interests it is supposed to serve.
The Revolution Is Participation
There is no silver-bullet reform that can fix all that’s gone wrong with our democracy. We must start by reversing the wrong turns of the past decade—overturning Citizens United and related cases, rolling back voting restrictions, and ending partisan gerrymandering. But even those changes won’t be enough. A new judicial approach to money and politics won’t bring back the campaign-finance laws that have been struck down, nor will it get rid of the taste many wealthy individuals and corporations have acquired for using their money to influence politicians and elections. Removing barriers to voting will improve access and turnout, but it won’t get us anywhere near full and equal citizen participation. And ending gerrymandering won’t automatically create community-oriented politicians or make our elections competitive.
To refocus our political system on the people, we need a sustained effort to revitalize our democracy. We need to significantly expand participation.
Voting remains the central and most powerful form of participation. Indeed, it is because of what the voters are doing in this primary election cycle that we know how much the public cares—and how deeply angry it is—about the state of our democracy. But only 36 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 2014 congressional elections—the lowest participation rate in seven decades. While turnout in this year’s presidential primaries is up from an abysmal 16 percent in 2012, in half the states that have voted so far, fewer than 30 percent of voters participated. Participation in funding campaigns is even lower—only 4 percent of Americans contributed to any political campaign in 2008.
Increasing those numbers should be a national priority. And there is a lot the federal government can and should do to foster participation above and beyond un-rigging the system.
First, it should take responsibility to automatically register every eligible citizen to vote. Nationally, this could add 50 million new voters to the rolls, while increasing accuracy and cutting costs. Oregon and California passed this groundbreaking reform last year, and Oregon has already seen a fourfold increase in registrants since it implemented the law in January.
It should also adopt common-sense reforms like early voting that make the system more convenient for voters and make it easier for campaigns and groups to mobilize them.
But for voting reforms to have a big impact, we need more groups to galvanize citizens to participate. Scholars have documented a long and steady decline in membership associations, civic groups, and political parties—all of which once provided avenues for ordinary citizens to become politically engaged. Here, too, the government can play a role. New Deal–era legislation created the conditions for the growth of trade unions and advocacy organizations, while earlier government programs favored membership associations. Public policy should again encourage the development of groups that promote civic and political participation and amplify the voices of ordinary citizens.
On the campaign-finance front, while limits are important to curb corruption and domination by the few, reforms that focus on broadening participation can have a major impact. For example, the small-donor campaign-finance system in New York City has significantly increased the number and diversity of political contributors. By matching each dollar contributed with six dollars in public funds, the system magnifies the importance of small donations and encourages politicians to seek support from ordinary citizens, not just big donors.
In short, a necessary part of transforming our democracy, and putting the people back at the center of our politics, is increased participation. We should prioritize public policies, like automatic voter registration and small donor public financing, that advance that goal.
Bernie Sanders’s campaign has exposed a hunger for a “political revolution” felt by tens of millions of Americans—especially millennials. Yet thus far he has provided few details on how he would accomplish his reforms. This absence is most apparent regarding the need for meaningful competition among candidates reflecting a full spectrum of political views and differences.
Fortunately, meaningful change is within reach. As law professor Larry Lessig highlighted during his brief campaign for the presidency, the proposed Ranked-Choice Voting Act would liberate voters from “spoiler” worries when more than two candidates run and would ensure vibrant, contested, and representative elections for the House. Republicans could win in Manhattan, Democrats in the Texas Panhandle, and minor parties and independents could hold the major parties accountable.
When used as “instant runoff voting” to elect one candidate, voters rank candidates in order of choice, with each first choice counting as one vote. If one candidate wins a majority of votes, the election is over. But if a majority is not reached, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and their votes automatically count for whichever candidate is ranked next. This process continues until a candidate wins a majority of votes. So if voters wanted to vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein, the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, or independent Mike Bloomberg, they could do so even while indicating a backup choice of their preferred major-party candidate. Liberating the ballot in this way would mean that the far larger and more representative November electorate could engage with the kind of real differences of opinion we’ve seen articulated in each party during this tumultuous presidential primary season.
To be sure, Bernie Sanders has backed ranked-choice voting, including testifying in 2007 in Vermont for state legislation to establish it for congressional elections. It’s already in place in a dozen cities in the United States, helping to elect innovative new mayors like Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis and Libby Schaaf of Oakland. A ballot initiative in Maine this fall proposes using the system to elect governors and representatives on both the state and federal levels of government.
Ranked-choice voting becomes even more empowering when combined with multi-winner elections to create an American version of proportional representation, wherein like-minded voters can elect favored candidates in proportion to their share of the vote. This change would make every corner of every state competitive for both parties, unlike our current winner-take-all system. It would forever end the baleful effects of gerrymandering and other partisan tools that allow one party to win far more seats than their votes deserve. It would bring sorely lacking gender, race, ethnic, and political diversity to Congress.
Like most needed electoral reforms, from automatic voter registration to the National Popular Vote plan for presidential elections, the Ranked Choice Voting Act can be enacted by a simple statute, not a constitutional amendment—it’s evolution, not revolution. For millions of Americans, the dysfunction of our political system may be frightening, but it’s creating a unique reform moment. We must seize this opportunity.
Connecting the Dots
It is unfathomable to me that self-described radicals continue to be so systematically obtuse with regard to the way that the United States Constitution—and not merely a few mistaken Supreme Court decisions—is itself a major contributor to the rigged nature of our society. One would never know either from reading this magazine or from hearing Bernie Sanders’s almost liturgical denunciation of the American polity that the Constitution even exists outside of its interpretation by the Court, let alone that it is highly relevant to issues at stake in this presidential campaign. To be sure, much mention is made of the escalating “showdown” over the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia, but this simply feeds the altogether misleading view that the Constitution is only what the Supreme Court says it is. That is false.
This focus on the Supreme Court—and on what cases come before it—obscures the fact that in many ways the most important parts of the Constitution are those that are never litigated and are therefore impervious to judicial interpretation. To take the most obvious example, what part of “two” is it possible to misunderstand with regard to the Constitution’s disastrous apportionment of senators for the states? Though it is politically gratifying that my two favorite senators, Sanders and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, have the same number of votes as the senators from my home state of Texas, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, the arrangement is otherwise indefensible, given that Texas, with 27.6 million people, has roughly 40 times the 626,000 people who inhabit Vermont; even worse, California has 70 times the population as Wyoming, but the same number of senators. James Madison correctly described this arrangement as a “lesser evil” justified, like slavery, by the necessity to procure acceptance of the Constitution. There are many other such examples of “hard-wired” aspects of the Constitution that were designed in 1787 to rig the game in favor of maintaining the status quo, whether involving slavery in particular or existing distributions of wealth more generally. The 13th Amendment prohibited slavery, but it did nothing to eliminate other constitutional biases in favor of the status quo.
Instead of condemning these biases, Sanders offers programs that, however appealing, have no chance whatsoever of adoption given the political system established by the Constitution, with its baroque system of “checks and balances” and multiple “veto points” over changes to the status quo. He is blowing the chance of a lifetime to educate the American public and help create a popular movement that might ask intelligent questions about whether we are well served, in the 21st century, by our distinctly 18th-century Constitution.
Interestingly enough, Texas Governor Greg Abbott is able to “connect the dots.” He has recently endorsed a new constitutional convention and suggested nine new amendments that would make our system even worse. Would that Sanders were equally willing and able to connect the dots and begin building a vital movement for genuinely progressive constitutional change. That would be far preferable to simple opposition to proposals like Abbott’s by proclaiming the necessity of preserving the Constitution of 1787.
One doesn’t know whether Sanders doesn’t realize the implications of our dysfunctional Constitution or whether he believes that violating the civil religion of “constitutional faith” would be, even for a “democratic socialist,” a step too far. The same could be said of The Nation. Neither possibility reflects favorably on the editors or their preferred candidate.