09/02/2010 09:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Visioning Democracy

Change in politics does not occur without passion, and passion in turn requires a compelling vision of how things could be done differently. In this, the political Right has it all over the Left. Its vision of a minimalist government that promises personal freedom resonates deeply in American culture.

No comparable unifying theme brings progressives together. In Europe, socialism once filled that role but does so no more. It is simply no longer credible to argue that the path to a better life is defined by the public ownership of the means of production. Similarly, United States populism -- even in its Left versions -- has been badly tarnished. The populist mantle has been used by too many crackpots and possesses too little content to be useful in mobilizing large numbers of people.

Yet the fact remains that America desperately needs to change. For thirty years the Right's political and economic agenda has driven this country's politics and policies. What we have to show for it is a society increasingly in disarray. The economy has collapsed and income inequality has increased. We are fighting two wars in the Middle East that are not only deeply unpopular, but show no signs of coming to an end any time soon, let alone ending in victory. And though evidence of the destructive effects of global climate change is all around us, literally no legislation on the subject has been adopted by the Congress.

What is particularly distressing about all of this is that Barack Obama came to office riding a wave of emotion that suggested that his promise of change could and would be realized. A year and a half later, Republican stone-walling, the Administration's own caution, and the lack of unity among Democrats have made that optimism look naive. The health care and financial sector bills that were passed are not trivial accomplishments. But they come nowhere near what really has to be done for affordable health care to be made available to all Americans or for financial speculation to be reduced enough to result in a more productive, less crisis-prone economy. Obama called for change, but his election did not bring it. Why?

David Callahan's new book Fortunes of Change (1) provides insight into this failure. It details how a significant number of very rich individuals have become an important source of funds for liberal causes. These wealthy women and men contribute millions to the campaigns of progressive office-seekers, fund their own candidacies, and/or donate money to liberal advocacy organizations. The problem is that however effective this support has been in changing American society - and it has been important in breaking down racial and gender barriers - it limits liberalism's ability to construct the kind of compelling vision that is necessary for the radical reform the country needs. What is required is a deepening of democracy so that the profound political alienation that prevails today can be overcome. But, as Callahan writes, "the outsized influence of rich people over electoral outcomes - whatever their ideology - undermines the ideal of one person, one vote."

Because the problems that face the country are complex, the strengthening of democracy requires above all that citizens be provided with the opportunity and resources to study, debate, and thus influence the policy alternatives among which they will choose. This means that public funding should be provided to candidates for public office. But as well, public funding should establish forums in which citizens can widely debate and discuss issues. Doing so would enhance citizen empowerment and provide a foundation for the construction of a compelling alternative to the Right's market-based libertarianism. That alternative vision would be that anyone could choose to participate in social and political decision-making on an equal basis. The raw power of wealth - either conservative or liberal - would be reduced by such citizen empowerment. Decision-making would be more broadly based, with wide deliberation substituting for elites' money as the political policy arbiter.

Realizing such a vision requires treating the political process broadly conceived as a public good, a service to be paid for with tax revenues, like the defense budget. Another way of saying this is that George Soros and other wealthy funders cannot claim to be and will not be considered promoters of the vision progressives need until they use their funds to support programs that -- when implemented -- would reduce their own influence in the name of enhancing political equality.

(1) David Callahan, Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2010)