The State of Our System

Although I am the prototypical super-nerd who habitually watches wall-to-wall coverage of the State of the Union address, I must confess that I recorded it on Tuesday night. Perhaps this only increases my nerd status.
01/14/2016 10:33 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2017

Although I am the prototypical super-nerd who habitually watches wall-to-wall coverage of the State of the Union address, I must confess that I recorded it on Tuesday night. Perhaps this only increases my nerd status. But as I was driving home -- at the same time President Obama was concluding his speech -- a barrage of messages and social media posts lit up my mobile: "POTUS must have read your book!" "So much of your book was at the podium!" "Almost sounded like the prez was quoting directly from Unlock Congress."

When I finally did hit the play button, naturally I watched with added enthusiasm. And while I don't agree with everything that the president said, it was incredibly heartening to hear the most powerful leader in the world talking about essential democratic reforms in such a grand and traditional venue. I'm not talking about the policy prescriptions he ticked off early in the speech, but instead the structural solutions he devoted time to down the home stretch. Not partisan positions, but logical proposals designed to empower every American -- and strengthen our processes of elections and governance. The president said it best: "If we want a better politics, it's not enough to just change a Congressman or a Senator or even a President; we have to change the system to reflect our better selves."

President Obama zeroed in on two important defects that do no less than rig our American democracy:

"We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can't bankroll our elections -- and if our existing approach to campaign finance can't pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution."

Let's first address the corrupt practice of gerrymandering. The problem is not just confined to the cynical scissoring up of districts for partisan gain. It's true that Americans have been self-sorting geographically, leading to a more politically polarized national map. But this fact gets run through a meat grinder when blended with the rules. Constrictive party primaries strangle competition. We accept winner-take-all elections in single-member districts as ironclad necessities (the Constitution mandates neither).

What we get in return are dangerously predictable election results. In 2014, the non-partisan FairVote Center made predictions in 368 of the 435 congressional races -- without factoring in polling data or campaign expenditures. They were correct in 367. The rules and rigging of our elections sustain the stale partisan divide on Capitol Hill, shrink an already threadbare political center, and distort a bedrock principle of American democracy: fair representation.

There are better ways to run elections -- and there are reform champions out there working to make this a reality. In about 25 percent of our states, we now have redistricting commissions trying to reverse the effects of gerrymandering by redrawing the lines in a more non-partisan fashion. But that alone won't be enough. We need to go further and adopt FairVote's Ranked Choice Voting Act that will create proportional representation through multi-seat districts. Through RCV, everyone's vote will count, and therefore, candidates will be forced to fight for votes from all quarters as opposed to just narrow base blocks. They'll be motivated to consider and debate ideas from a broader array of constituents, and by extension, campaigns will necessarily become more positive. These by-product characteristics can be carried to Washington, D.C. where we need them most.

On the second issue -- which I refer to as "the money flood" -- the president explained that if we don't reform the mad flow of dollars:

"We forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure."

We already know, empirically, that he is right.

We know that a record sum was spent on the 2014 mid-term elections -- more than $3.7 billion. And, thanks to Swiss cheese campaign finance rules, today's hunt for dollars makes the game of a generation ago seem like child's play. Former Congressman Tim Wirth (D-CO), who left office twenty years ago, has described the current environment as "getting paid for political outcomes" and "legalized corruption."

The exchange of favors in the D.C. political economy may technically be legal, but its distorted ramifications are indisputable. In their extensive research covering 1,800 policy questions in Congress over two decades, researchers Martin Gilens and Ben Page concluded that economic "elites" in the 90th percentile were fifteen times as important in determining policy outcomes as average Americans.

Fortunately, once again, there are solutions afoot that we can get behind to start turning back the tide. U.S. Representative John Sarbanes's (D-MD) Government By The People Act would provide refundable tax credits for average Americans who make small donations -- and it would match and leverage those contributions by a 6-1 ratio. A similar bill called the Fair Elections Now Act sits in the U.S. Senate, waiting for action and passage.

These measures would not in and of themselves solve the dirty deluge caused by the money flood. But they would at least begin to flatten out a terribly uneven playing field. At the same time, lawmakers and candidates opting into a system of matched funds would free themselves of the burdensome and time sucking activity of sucking up to the wealthy. Today, incumbent legislators are forced to behave like hamsters sprinting on a greased political wheel with no "off" switch. We need to dial back that speed setting. We must allow our leaders to consider ideas and solutions to our public policy challenges in a way that inoculates them from the cash kings who are applying pressure every day to look the other way.

To drive the point home on Tuesday night, the president expressed his own regret over the poisonous level of partisanship that grew on his watch in the White House. This admission served as a predicate for the plea he voiced in the very next paragraph:

Changes in our political process -- in not just who gets elected but how they get elected -- that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That's what's meant by a government of, by, and for the people.

It's that kind of familiar language that spurred my friends and colleagues to send me messages during the State of the Union address. And it was all very nice to hear. But it won't mean a thing unless we take his words to heart. Unless we get informed and get involved. Unless we vote. We must push our representatives to fix our politics by reforming the rules. We must unrig the system, in order to unlock our potential. It is positively possible. And it all starts with us.