THE BLOG

Fixing Our Democracy

08/06/2014 01:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2014
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Our democracy is broken. Eighty-five percent of Americans do not approve of the current Congress. Seventy-four percent of Americans say the 113th Congress has been unproductive. They are right. This Congress is on track to pass the least number of laws ever, even fewer than the 112th Congress. This year, Congress has passed exactly zero bills related to the No. 1 issue on the minds of a vast majority of Americans: jobs. Regardless of who wins the Senate in November, the next Congress is assuredly going to give us more of the same paralyzing gridlock of inaction.

Forget about passing new laws; we're still fighting over the old ones. The last major legislation enacted into law is the Affordable Care Act, back in 2010. Four years later, after the Supreme Court upheld the law, 24 US states have refused to expand Medicaid and offer federally funded health care to their poorest. Even after the Hobby Lobby decision, various aspects of the law are still being viciously litigated. Two US Appeals courts, on the same day, issued contradictory opinions on the same aspect of the law. In the same week the GOP house approved suing Obama for executive actions, members of the GOP asked the president to take executive actions to solve the border crisis.

Sixty-five percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. At the same time, seventy-one percent support raising the minimum wage, seventy-two percent support government spending on infrastructure to create jobs, and 6 in 10 Americans want the government to set limits on CO2 emissions... just to name a few things with broad-based public support. Americans not only want action, they know what actions they want.

For a representative democracy to work, two things are required. First, a broad conceptual agreement on who we are and what we want; and second, that our elected officials actually represent our interests. Of late, we are failing on both fronts. Now it seems, we can't even agree on what the most basic tenets of Constitution itself mean. What is freedom of religion to some is religious oppression to others. What is freedom of speech to some is the super-rich being able to buy elections to others.

Some basis for our historic dysfunction is the well-documented mission to blockade all things Barack Obama. If Obama is for it, then block it. Then, celebrate. Another reason, which I have written about previously in this space, is that while the majority of people agree on many issues, those that don't. Really don't.

The fracturing of our democratic process, however, has deeper roots. We are more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. There are fundamentally different, and diametrically opposed, visions of what America is, and what it should be. Bridging that gap requires transcendent leadership that can elevate the level of debate, rise above the hyper-partisan bickering, and inspire us to see our best selves.

For all his trying, President Obama hasn't succeeded as that generational leader who unifies us around a common vision of a better tomorrow. At least he's tried. Our congressional "leaders" meanwhile, are not only failing to inspire or unite, they are actively working to divide America along partisan fault lines, pandering to our worst fears and insecurities. They are professional politicians purposely increasing our polarization, hoping we don't notice that they are busy representing the massive financial influences -- the corporations, billionaires and unions -- that got them elected in the first place. In order words, the very politicians who thrive on dysfunction over democracy feed the polarization that makes us dysfunctional.

As daunting as this seems, restoring our democracy requires two relatively simple changes. First, we have to take the money out of politics by limiting all campaign contributions to $100 maximum, and allowable only by individual citizens who are registered to vote in the election to which they are contributing. No out of state or out of country money. No corporate money. No union money. No mega-rich individual donors. $100 cap per person.

Let our voices be heard at the ballot box and town square, and let's let our core founding principle -- equality -- apply first to how much influence any voter can have on political outcomes. Additionally, taking the money out has the potential to breed a new kind of politician who wins votes with the power of their ideas, not the size of their media budget. Less media will necessitate debate and dialogue for candidates seeking exposure as flooding the airwaves with blatantly false attack ads won't be possible.

The second change is even simpler. Make all party primaries open. Let members of that party and independents can vote in primaries. Independents are the largest voting block and tend to occupy the sensible center. Parties will run more moderate candidates to win the independents so we'll be closer to common ground at the onset. The levelheaded voices of moderation and compromise, albeit inspired by core party principles, will be much more likely to agree on legislation that represents the will of the people.

Our society and our democracy are complex, fragile organisms upon which small changes can have great impact. Are the two ideas above just enough to lurch us out of paralyzing inaction, or are they too naïve to ever work? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know this: The only way to stop doing nothing... is to start doing something.