09/09/2013 02:10 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

A Second Front for Democracy Reform

Peter Buffett recently called for a "new operating system" for philanthropy. Which got us thinking about operating systems, philanthropy and democracy.

That's why we're calling for a "second front" in the battle for money-in-politics reform. It's time for a truly board conversation about how we can fix a system that is so clearly broken.

Writing in the New York Times, Buffett quoted Albert Einstein who said that you couldn't solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it.

"Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market," Buffett suggests.

"One vast market" - that's what many people think U.S. politics and policy making has become. This market, dominated by super PAC's and large donors, thwarts or seriously dilutes most efforts to promote public health, address pernicious environmental problems, create a more sane and stable financial industry, reform our education system, fix our tax code and allow for greater competition (and fewer subsidies) in many industries.

There is not an elected leader of either party who would or could stand at a podium and honestly say that our democracy is functioning well, that the system we have for electing our leaders is fair and equitable, or that our government is effectively doing it's job solving the considerable challenges we face.

Voters have less and less faith in their leaders to honestly address these complex challenges of our time. They look at campaigns that are flooded with money, often times from identified interests who have a financial stake in the outcome of a contest, and other times by anonymous donors who hide behind creative tax designations and conclude--accurately--that our democratic process is an inside game.

Political scientists have long since stopped talking about all non-voters being "apathetic," we now know that a large number of non-voters are rational actors who have concluded that the system isn't responsive to their thoughts or concerns and so have opted out of what they perceive as a fixed game. Former Senator Bill Bradley used to make an apt analogy -- if you regularly got up to cross the room and change the setting on your thermostat, to make it a little warmer or a littler cooler, and the temperature never changed, you'd eventually stop crossing the room.

The stakes for our democracy couldn't be higher. A recent survey, conducted by Opinion Research Corporation on behalf of NYU Law School's Brennan Center For Justice, asked 1,000 voters nationwide about Super PACs, corruption, and voting. Fully a quarter of Americans -- 26 percent -- say they are less likely to vote because Super PACs and their donors are drowning out the voices of ordinary citizens, making their votes less important.

And in a separate poll conducted early last year for the reform group Public Campaign, voters were asked what has the most influence over members of Congress. 59% of respondents said "special interest groups and lobbyists," 46% said "campaign contributors." Only 15% said the "views of their constituents" and a mere 12% said "their own conscience." Those numbers could not be more chilling.

The skepticism about our political system isn't limited to elected officials or voters. In a national survey of business leaders, conducted early this summer on behalf of the Committee for Economic Development, 75% of respondents said the U.S. campaign finance system was "pay to play" and 87% said it "needs major reforms or a complete overhaul."

Given all of this evidence, why isn't our nation united around the cause of reforming our political process? Why haven't both conservatives and progressives, Democrats and Republicans, come together to demand that we fix what is so obviously broken?

In part, it's because reforms are regularly perceived as being advocated by those who are trying to advantage the system to their benefit. When many people hear the words "campaign finance reform," they often think of a cause that only liberal Democrats support. That's what our second front is all about -- a truly trans-partisan space where Americans of every political stripe can find common ground and come together to fight to fix our political system.

John Gardner, the Republican founder of Common Cause, used to talk about making democracy work better "no matter who was in charge" and we think it is time for us to inject that perspective into the current conversation about money in politics.

Citizens United and the rise of super PACs have created a pivotal moment of awareness with the public that spans partisan boundaries. That's why this effort must be positive and inclusive, welcoming everyone -- civic leaders, business leaders, Republicans and Democrats, social change advocates from every corner. Because, at its core, this is everyone's cause. It is the cause of those who care about recruiting the best and brightest citizens to run for public office, reducing cronyism and rigged markets, making government more effective and efficient and encouraging fact-based debates about public policy.

But what's missing is a safe space where leaders and donors of all stripes can find common ground and then work together to bring more firepower and resources to, as the survey of business leaders recommended, fuel a major overhaul of the system.

In the current context, where reform is oftentimes viewed as a partisan cause, the spending levels of the interests who have a stake in the game dwarf the resources of the reform community. The total staff size of the money-in-politics reform community is about that of a midsize law firm, around 280 people working at the state and national levels, with a total annual expenditure of about $45 million. Most of that $45 million is spent gathering campaign-finance data and making it available and comprehensible to an already cynical public.

Compare that to an influence industry that numbers more than 10,000 registered federal lobbyists (many of whom are former members of Congress), plus another 10,000 ultra wealthy donors, and at least another 90,000 employees of the influence industry who don't have to register as lobbyists. In 2011, lobbyists disclosed $3.3 billion in spending.

Without reframing the cause of reform as neither left nor right but all-American it seems clear that progress will be very hard to achieve.

Even the biggest political spenders from both sides of the ideological spectrum agree on the dysfunction of our political process. Each side cites the transgressions of the other. But they have been unable to come together to work together to fix a system that they acknowledge is flawed, but guess is flawed less for their side than the other.

We believe that business leaders, philanthropists, non-profit executives, academicians, and political leaders of every stripe should play a role here. We also believe that the philanthropic community -- including organizations like ours -- can provide the space needed to find common ground.

Addressing this core dysfunction of our democracy is about as all-American a cause as you can find in today's polarized political environment. And it is due time for all of us to come together and fix it.

Chris Gates is Executive Director of PACE-Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. He is the former President of the National Civic League, the nation's oldest good government organization. Nick Penniman is the executive director of Fund for the Republic.