An Immodest Proposal

12/16/2010 09:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'd like to make a proposal, for which I must first set the scene. Bear with me.

It appears Congressional Democrats have unenthusiastically swallowed President Obama's tax deal with the Republicans more or less whole, somewhat as if they were swallowing a hand grenade: it tastes awful going down, and it may be fatal at the other end. Meanwhile, Obama is waiting with visible irritation for the applause to begin: another sparkling achievement to be pasted into his presidential scrapbook, and nobody, it appears, is all that pleased. Nobody except the Republicans, who are struggling to conceal their delight.

It's all a terrible mess, but one thing is absolutely clear: in order to make this deal look good, we've had to lower our expectations about six feet underground. And like most things at that altitude, they're likely to get buried.

Normal, everyday Americans know things aren't going well, and we know the government isn't doing much that will help. Washington is completely disconnected from the rest of the country: with big corporations making record profits overseas, Wall Street awash in treasure, and politicians up to their earlobes in cash, it must be hard to imagine the common people are really hurting as badly as they are. So the impetus to do anything about it just doesn't exist.

The good news is normal Americans are searching for answers. Certain issues seem to have become clear.

Obama needs desperately to be reminded whose side he's on -- and that he's expected to lead, not just mumble platitudes about bipartisanship and then let the Republicans call the tune. Democrats need to be reminded that they squandered their historic opportunities during the 111th Congress, and the voters they seem to think won't go elsewhere have shown that they will. Republicans, on the other hand, need to be called back to planet Earth; they seem to have forgotten how gravity works.

So here's my proposal: a simple way to get the government paying attention to us common folk again. It doesn't require a third party, demonstrations, riots, or a whole lot of money. Here's how it works: concerned, voting Americans essentially form a Union of Concerned Voters. They sign up at what amounts to a vote bank -- like a credit union. An online checklist allows each signatory to indicate the conditions he or she requires to be met. The more people that sign up, the more votes are in the bank. The checklists are tabulated into priorities, according to the number of checks each issue gets.

Here's the fun part. If that vote bank ends up with five million signatories, for example, that's considerably more members than the tea party. Candidates can look at the top issues as identified by the voters. The candidates who are a good fit can pledge to govern according to those priorities, item by item. The bank organizes a list of candidates based on where they stand with these priorities. Now, all the voters in the bank have a clear idea of who is for them, and who is against them. And the candidates know the job they are expected to do. Voters will more easily recognize if the candidate later strays from those priorities.

I believe one reason Obama has so perilously lost touch with his base is because he governs as he campaigned: by saying whatever he has to say to get consensus. The problem with consensus is it can end up anywhere: it's pure deal-making, the opposite of a principled position. A vote bank of the kind described here would ensure that the candidate knows exactly what the consensus is before the election, so there can be no doubt what the voters intend be done. When a hot-button issue arises, we can remobilize the vote bank, send out another checklist, and alert our elected representatives to the priorities of signatory voters.

The best thing about this is nobody can control the agenda. The only way to manipulate the system would be to manipulate the checklist, but that can be open-sourced and decentralized so there are no secrets to its operation. The phrasing of issues could be edited for neutrality, after the fashion of Wikipedia; issues for the checklist could be submitted by anyone, with the most popular ones percolating upwards. Very little trust is required to make such a system work.

Of course, such a vote bank is probably illegal, or we'd already be doing it. Then again, maybe not. This isn't a binding agreement, after all. It's not a contract. Voters are just pledging to vote for the candidate that comes closest to what they want; that doesn't mean they ultimately have to vote for that candidate. No coercion is involved. It's just a means of creating a platform outside either of the parties now sending America into a death spiral.

It might even get the attention of the people in Washington -- after all, in a city without principles, only money and votes matter, and votes can be bought. Take a few million votes off the market, and we stand a chance to make principles more important than cash.