What Was Missing From the Democrats' Debate Stage

Last Tuesday, five Democrats took the stage in the party's first national debate. There were differences no doubt. But what was striking was how much they agreed upon  --  if not in what they said, at least in what they ignored.
10/21/2015 10:58 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2016
In this Oct. 13, 2015, photo, Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sander
In this Oct. 13, 2015, photo, Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. Democratic presidential candidates gave a meaningful public nod to the Black Lives Matter movement in their first televised debate. The candidates invoked its slogan and raised the core concerns stemming from police killings of African-Americans. Protesters have articulated those concerns in disrupting some of the candidates’ campaign events. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Last Tuesday, five Democrats took the stage in the party's first national debate. There were differences no doubt. But what was striking was how much they agreed upon  --  if not in what they said, at least in what they ignored.

The night was filled with plans. Plans for breaking up the banks. Plans for fixing the tax system. Plans for strengthening social security. Plans for dealing with income inequality. Plans for regulating guns.

But what all these plans depend upon is the one institution that no one dared mention: Congress. Because the unavoidable truth is that there is no chance that Congress would enact any of these right and ambitious plans. With things as they are, the Democrats' plans are just fantasies.

The Democrats would argue that that's precisely why we ought to elect a Democratic Congress‚ too. But few believe the Democrats can regain control of Congress next year, and even if they get the Senate, none believe they'll have majority enough to neutralize the Republicans. The Democrats' debate was thus an elaborate hypothetical -- if we had a Congress that we could actually lead, then look at all the wonderful things we would do.

Yet even this makes the problem sound too simple. The issue with Congress is not a party. The issue is corruption. Not the corruption of criminals, but a corruption of the most basic value of any representative democracy: that it represent its citizens equally.

Congress has allowed a gross and corrupting inequality to grow within its institution. And until we have leaders willing to call out this corruption and show America how it could be remedied, nothing real is going to change.

This inequality shows itself in two very different ways, one familiar and one less understood.

The familiar is campaign finance. Members of Congress are dependent on the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent to fund their campaigns. That makes them hypersensitive to the needs of that tiny minority. That in turn leads government policy, as political scientists have shown, to bend to that tiny, unrepresentative minority. That bending breaks the ability of Congress to address a whole host of fundamental problems  -- from climate change to clean air and clean water, from gun safety to securing social security. Practically everything every one of those Democratic candidates wants to do would be held hostage by this inequality. Yet none of them even acknowledged this absolutely obvious fact.

But just as important, if less commonly seen, is the inequality created by the way Congress selects its Members. Relying on politically gerrymandered districts produces a brittle and polarized House, one increasingly incapable of even governing itself, and certainly unable to address fundamental problems sensibly. We don't have immigration reform in America because of hypersensitivity not to money, but to an extremism that gets voice in America because of how Congress gets chosen.

Both of these inequalities could be solved. But that would take leaders willing to address them. Yet none of the Democrats even acknowledge the inequality in how the House gets constituted, and though most of them talk about the problem of money in politics, not a single candidate in that debate even mentioned the only immediately feasible change in how campaigns are funded -- public funding. Certainly none of them helped America to see why this corruption must be fixed first if any of the promises they are making are to be even credible.

It is in the nature of politicians of course to promise the moon --  whether or not the rocket can fly. But we won't make progress on what Al Gore has called our "democracy crisis" until there's someone on that stage willing to say what is true: that if the system is rigged, we must unrig that rigged system first. Or else all the dreams that these Democrats are so passionately describing will be just fantasies. Again.

This post originally appeared on Medium.