02/20/2013 01:44 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

A New American Foreign Policy: Democracy at Home

When Secretary of State John Kerry bid farewell to the Senate earlier this month, he issued a grave warning to the nation. There is a "dangerous...erosion in the quality of our democracy," he told a full house of Senators. "The corrupting force of the vast sums of money necessary to run for steadily silencing the voice of the vast majority of Americans."

"Call the corrosion of money in politics what it is," Secretary Kerry continued. "It is a form of corruption [that] muzzles more Americans than it empowers [and] sows the seeds of unrest." Anticipating his new office, Kerry concluded that the conduct of American elections damages our credibility abroad. "For a country that can and should extol the virtues of democracy around the world, our job is made more difficult" by money and the disgraceful fact that "so many struggle still to exercise the right [to vote] here at home."

When the leading diplomat of the world's leading democratic nation describes his own government using the words "corruption" and "unrest," money in politics can no longer be considered a necessary political weapon but a weapon of mass destruction to democracy at home and abroad.

Over the past few years, I have been privileged to watch a young democracy, South Africa, begin to stand on its feet some ten thousand miles from home in New Hampshire. In the process, I have noticed a few sobering similarities to our own. South Africa, considered by many to be the "America of Africa", provides a telling case-in-point of why we would all do well to heed the Secretary's words. Our democratic futures are at stake.

Twenty years ago, South Africa tottered on the brink of civil war. A white apartheid state seemed unwilling to relinquish the reins of power which it had consolidated over three-and-a-half centuries of racist rule, except by mutual destruction. A fractured black majority, embittered by past oppression and emboldened by the prospects of power, was primed for further violence if its democratic demands continued to go unmet.

Into this minefield stepped states-men and women schooled in the art of forgiveness. They promised racial reconciliation instead of retribution, protection of individual rights, promotion of shared responsibility, and equal opportunity for all. They promised democracy.

The efforts of South Africa's first democratically-elected president, Nelson Mandela, and millions of everyday peace-makers around the country, gave birth to a "rainbow nation" in 1994 that has rightly been called miraculous. Today, South Africa is no longer a pariah state but an engine of economic growth for the continent. GDP has risen, urban infrastructure is world-class, and social development is picking up steam under black leadership and a gradually-integrating private sector. Human rights are firmly entrenched, the rule of law has been reestablished, and with a new generation of "born-frees" now coming of age, apartheid is quickly becoming a thing of the past - or is it?

But the delivery of democracy in South Africa was incomplete. A progressive constitution and bill of rights failed to protect the country's politics from the predations of special interest money. As the cost of elections soared in recent years, secret unlimited donations have flooded the country's political parties from corporations and foreign states seeking undue influence in politics. Like America's own surge in Super PAC spending in 2012, donations from abroad and a raft of party funding scandals threaten South Africans' faith in democracy, contributing to a sharp decline in voter turnout from 86% in 1994 to 57% in 2009.

The human cost is clear. Nearly twenty years into democracy, South Africa's many legitimate gains are overshadowed by a stubborn apartheid fact: almost half the population still lives in degrading poverty and income inequality ranks highest in the world. The government's own Special Investigative Unit estimates the cost of corruption in the billions of dollars a year - more than the state budgets for housing, health, and education.

Who are the democratically dispossessed in South Africa? They are people like Nkwame, a friend and social justice campaigner whose hunger strike protest against township violence and poverty outside Parliament in Cape Town could not earn him a community meeting with the provincial government, even as black and white businessmen enjoy dinner with the president for a fee. Nkwame and countless veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle believe the fight for true democracy must continue in our day.

South Africa is sadly not alone. In America, the lion's share of campaign funds come from less than one percent of the population - much the same 1 percent that now enjoys more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of citizens combined. Just as wealth and opportunity still cling to racial lines in South Africa, America's own black and Hispanic families enjoy a small fraction of the assets of whites, and their children are three times as likely to grow up poor. This vicious cycle of mutually-reinforcing political and economic inequality has contributed to making America the most unequal nation in the developed world.

As Secretary of State Kerry affirmed, democracy has always been America's most precious export. But is our export flawed? Two misguided wars and countless military interventions into the twenty-first century, it is time we accepted that the power of American argument is stronger than the argument of American power when it comes to spreading democracy around the world - so long as we match our words with deeds. Our Declaration of Independence and South Africa's Freedom Charter remind us of the hope and promise attached to a simple idea: "The people shall govern!" It's time we made good on that promise, starting at home.

Daniel Weeks is Past President and Policy Advisory at Americans for Campaign Reform based in Concord. In 2011 he launched the Money and Politics Project with support from Open Society Foundation in South Africa. He currently resides in Cape Town.