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.