By Jack DuVall – September 14, 2012
The fall campaign of this election year has begun. What follows in this article, however, is not an analysis of the presidential race, but a wider look at the recent history and present state of American politics, and how we’ve arrived at a point of crisis in our political system. As I hope to explain, this crisis could enable a new popular movement or a leading political figure – like the protagonist of this election, Barack Obama – to open the door to a broad democratic resurgence in America, based on proposing and fighting for fundamental reform in the way we are governed. Even if he wished to do so, however, Obama will not take the risk of making such an unexpected proposal before an election that he now seems likely to win. But it goes without saying that his re-election will not by itself liberate American government from the forces that are undermining our democracy. Without far-reaching reform, I see no realistic way for those forces to be neutralized.
Although the ideas and views expressed here are sometimes passionately worded, this is not intended as a partisan statement in the context of this election, and I am not working for any party or candidate. While the facts of our present circumstances force me to talk candidly about the actors and events that I believe have brought our political life to its present crisis, my interest is in helping to chart the way out of our impasse — toward a fairer and far more democratic system.
This document is built on a series of propositions about the fundamental shape of American political conflict today, why it has to be changed, and how that should happen. It’s an argument, but also a manifesto — a call to action.
A Creed and a Call
When Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary election during his campaign for the presidency in 2008, his remarks that night so galvanized the spirit of his followers, that it no longer seemed unlikely that he could capture his party’s nomination and the White House. Here is part of what he said, as it was later turned into a music video that rocketed around the world:
“It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom: Yes we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes we can. It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballots; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land: Yes we can, to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.
“We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change. We have been told that we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. They will only grow louder and more dissonant. We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.
“We will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea — Yes. We. Can.”
The content and cadence of this message reminded me of some of the language used by leaders of the great “people power” movements of the past several decades – in countries such as Poland, the Philippines and South Africa. Those leaders spoke to everyone as heirs of a single country, not as having separate grievances. The original soul of the country was invoked through the memory of ancestors who responded to an earlier call for action. The arrival of a new opportunity and a new period in the people’s experience was declared. The resilience and determination to see a battle through to victory was affirmed. And most of all, victory was defined as coming from what “we” can do together, not what the candidate or leader had promised.
Barack Obama was raised in part by his grandparents. His grandfather, Stanley Dunham, was from Kansas and served in the U.S. Army, landing in France in 1944 along with forces which followed up the successful invasion of Normandy in World War II. He was part of what was called, fifty years later, “the greatest generation,” although it was no greater in human spirit or potential than the generations that survived severe deprivation during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the financial panics and depressions of the late 19th century, the Great Depression of the 1930s – or even now, when persistent joblessness, shrinking public budgets, and disparities in economic privileges are pulling us apart.
The American generation of Obama’s grandparents (and my father, who flew on cargo aircraft as a radio operator in the war) grew up in dire straits. But it is no exaggeration to say that after World War II, they were seen by the people of many nations as having saved the world: They had led the way in stopping the genocidal terror of the Nazi regime in Germany and the aggressive expansionism of a military regime in Japan. And who were “they”? Not only those in combat, but also the vast majority of all adults, who were summoned by an American president to a herculean, collective effort of wartime organizing, rationing, price controls, endless work and great personal sacrifice, in order to build a huge land force and naval armada, deploy it, and with Canadian, European and Asian allies, crush a worldwide threat to the rights and freedom of people everywhere. All of this was done in less than four years.
Barack Obama heard the stories of World War II directly from his grandfather, and like many Americans, watched documentaries and movies on TV that showed how the war had been fought. But he knew it wasn’t merely a victory of arms, because his grandmother had worked in a Boeing B-29 assembly line in Wichita – as he noted in his convention speech. Obama’s mother was born during that war. Her life and future, as an anthropologist doing field research in Indonesia, would not have been the same without that victory, because most of Asia would have been occupied by the Japanese. Obama himself would probably never have been born, because his African father would not have gone to Harvard and Hawaii for his education, nor perhaps anywhere in the West.
The effort of “the greatest generation” wasn’t limited to winning a war. Millions of soldiers and sailors came home, and thanks to progressive legislation that gave scholarships to millions and because factories hired millions more, an unprecedented number earned college degrees or directly joined the work force, providing the minds and hands that gave us a post-war economic expansion lasting half a century. Their sisters, who had worked in the war too, many of them for the first time in their lives, emerged from the war unwilling to take a back seat to history — and soon they were flocking to colleges and universities and joining the ranks of the labor force.
What was equally consequential was that African-Americans, who had served in uniform or worked alongside white Americans during those fateful war years, were also unwilling to sit in the back of the bus any longer. So the civil rights movement sprang from the neighborhoods and church basements of more than twenty states to wring equal rights from the clenched fist of segregation and repression, which had soiled the reputation of the nation for almost a century.
Four historic presidencies followed victory in World War II: those of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It was Truman who opened university gates for veterans and also created the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Western Europe, turning old enemies into new allies and sparking a European economic boom and the first continent-wide peace in more than a thousand years. Dwight Eisenhower, the commander of allied forces in Europe during the war, built the nation’s interstate highway system, used federal troops to open up Southern schools to black children, and began five decades of negotiations with the Soviet Union which gradually mitigated the risk of nuclear war. John F. Kennedy, himself a decorated naval officer in World War II, intervened to check police repression of civil rights activists in the South, defused a nuclear crisis involving Cuba, and challenged Americans to support a space program that would put men on the moon within eight years, which we did. Lyndon Johnson created the “Great Society”, providing systematic medical care for the poor and the elderly, the first nationally financed public housing for the poor, and a major expansion of federal parks protecting the natural wilderness left in America.
Each of these presidencies was based on the assumption that the public spirit and civic zeal that had won an historic victory in a world war were still alive in American hearts and would respond to the call for national action in peacetime, to build and leave a better country to later generations. That spirit was summoned with such success that the result was a twenty-year public renaissance, replacing the convulsions of an economic depression and a tortuous war with a national conviction that there would be no limits on what we could do together as a people.
From Public Spirit to Private Cynicism
The renaissance of America’s public spirit was short-lived. Lyndon Johnson’s decision to intervene in Vietnam put the nation on the path of an unwinnable ten-year war that was not only lost, it also set in motion a series of events which poisoned the well of faith in our leaders. Johnson bequeathed the war to his successor, Richard Nixon, who decided to intensify it. Nixon’s bombing campaigns raised Vietnamese deaths to over a million, while the military draft alienated millions of young Americans from their government. In the midst of this, Nixon secretly authorized burglaries aimed at a well-known anti-war dissident and the Democratic National Committee, leading to a broad White House cover-up that misused the FBI and CIA. When they were exposed, Nixon’s lying and illegal acts forced his resignation, climaxing the worst crisis of public confidence in government in the nation’s history.
After Presidents Ford and Carter softened public anger, the next president failed to follow suit. Instead he invoked a vision different from any president before. In his inaugural address Ronald Reagan stated flatly that government “is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That line, and the animosity toward public action that it necessarily represented, both exploited and tried to justify the substantial residual distrust of public leadership that the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon had fostered. Yet if government “is the problem,” no one should be surprised if people stop listening to appeals for public action, since that can’t be undertaken without government. Reagan never admitted that the legitimacy of action by government in a democracy is indisputable because it is based on the consent of the people established through elections.
The explanatory value of Reagan’s language was subverted historically at the outset of his presidency by his antagonistic conception of American government. As memories of his personality fade with the passage of generations, it will be thought strange that anyone who believed in “government by the people” ever admired his words about it. In a democracy, hatred of government reveals hostility to public action – and disdain for voters who have the power to favor and endorse it. Ultimately that antagonism consumes itself, since it cannot arouse enduring public support for any national endeavor — and all human communities, especially nations, require public endeavor to overcome crises and resolve the inequities that arise in open, competitive societies.
Nevertheless, for the past thirty years, the myth about government that Reagan promoted has done no small amount of damage, through the justification it lends to extreme measures to oppose not only most national improvements that require public action, but also to adulterate the media space in which those who favor public action advocate their causes. In the present period, this justification has led directly, through Republican presidents’ appointments, to a conservative Supreme Court majority that has licensed the wholesale distortion of public debate in elections — through its approval of unlimited financing of advertising that disproportionately represents private interests. It has led to the suppression of voting by people who are stereotyped as favoring government action, including people of color, students, and citizens who are recent immigrants. It is why the political strategy to oppose Barack Obama’s presidency was predicated on deliberate dissemination of scurrilous and defamatory personal claims about him, which were aided by groups that went uncriticized by Republicans. It is why a systematic effort has been carried out by a major commercially owned television network to air entirely untrue claims about the meaning and effects of Obama’s actions as president. It is why the speeches and remarks of the Republican nominee for president are filled with false descriptions of Obama’s programs and actions, both at home and abroad.
If democratic government, the means of public action, is “the problem”, then public action to solve our problems is a contradiction in terms. But if that were true, the United States could not have prevailed in World War II, the “greatest generation” could not have earned university degrees, there would be no interstate highways, African Americans would still be going to segregated schools and unable to vote in many states, we would never have landed men on the moon, and elderly Americans would have no public help in obtaining medical care. Even the national parks might now be privatized (an actual objective of many in the Republican Party).
Americans are living through a period in which the political party favored and financed by most of the country’s business and financial community has resorted to types of language and methods of political action more often used in one-party states — in order to mislead as much of the public as possible about the character, intentions and actions of a sitting American president elected by a decisive majority of voters. Arguments based on rational ideas, and public speech consistent with facts, are no longer that party’s stock in trade.
Unless this growing disinformation is openly challenged, it will extend the alienation from government which the Vietnam War began, Nixon aggravated and Reagan deliberately enlarged. Their aides and followers are still with us, engaged in what may be the most astonishing level of cynicism in the use of public language seen anywhere in a modern democracy: The more they run down the purposes of government, Republican leaders seem to believe, the more the public will believe that it’s government which is running down the country, and, ironically, elect them to run the government. Thus do they hope that public action — deprived of popular understanding and backing, and without its capacity to act constructively because Republicans have discredited it – will die entirely, leaving only private action to solve problems of economic weakness, social injustice and the failure to enforce people’s rights. But removing those barriers to a better nation no longer seems to be their concern.
Today’s Republican leaders would bring about the end of any true public purpose for our life together as a people. Yet that day will not come, if those who believe in public action realize that through their participation in political campaigns, their advocacy of public causes, and even as necessary their organizing and resistance, they can exemplify what it means to be free and courageous citizens, eager to solve our problems. To build a new majority to take decisive and long overdue public action on a host of challenges, we have to reassert the legitimacy and the necessity of acting together through democratic government.
That legitimacy is found in the preamble of the Constitution, which declares that government must “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [and] promote the general Welfare.” If government exists to take public action on behalf of these goals, then the belief that “government is the problem” is a lie, and all of the ensuing lies about the supposed evils of various types of public action, and the claim that it diminishes liberty, have no credibility. While that won’t shut up those who lie to keep the public deceived, it does give those of us who want to defend genuine democracy and revive the public spirit a powerful weapon: Telling the truth, about the purpose of self-government and what we must do to fulfill it. The only question is whether that truth-telling will be effective.
Language to Defend Government
In 1984 and 1988 I wrote speeches for two Democratic presidential candidates and two Democratic presidential nominees. While doing this, and aggravated by Reagan’s doctrine of the evils of government, I saw that his personal popularity had built something of a shield around his aphorisms, which were repeated by Republicans as if they were true because Reagan had said them. Journalists liked him because he had a sense of humor, though he was largely kept away from them. Many in Washington assumed he was just an actor mouthing lines, and the political class didn’t pay attention to high rhetoric anyway. All this influenced Democrats to ignore his language and go after his policies. This was a grievous mistake.
When I read the final texts of speeches that I had drafted for those Democratic candidates, I found that the arguments I used to challenge the Republican idea of government had usually been deleted, while the arguments about the flaws of their policies were retained. Had I been writing romance novels, the equivalent would have been to remove all the scenes in bedrooms or at weddings, while leaving in scenes about the separate jobs of the couple, the plumbing of their houses, and the hobbies of their grandparents. Romance is not about work, equipment or other people; it’s about love. Democracy is not about policies. It’s about vision: “Yes we can”, not “Build affordable housing.” Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis never understood this.
Neither did Bill Clinton. Not since John F. Kennedy, to whom Clinton compared himself, had the Democrats given us a president of such confidence and charm. Clinton’s voluble manner exhibited his intelligence and humor. But it also distracted him and his advisors from noticing that while he could explain his policies without sounding like a dentist discussing dentures, he could not defend his policies from the continual claim by Republicans that they would hand power to an evil government and take money away from you and give it to others who would waste it. Clinton didn’t offer a defense, because his advisors believed that “big government” was politically indefensible. So he said he wanted a more efficient government, and then the debate was safely on ground the Republicans owned: the cost of government, rather than its purpose and value in doing the will of the people. It was still bad, but Bill would minimize the badness.
Clinton built the rationale for his presidency on the shifting sands of policies, like a new trade agreement with Latin America (which did little to benefit American workers), trying to help Boris Yeltsin democratize Russia (too little, too late), continuing Republican deregulation of business (which helped sow the seeds of the ’08 financial collapse), and much else, some of it fairly progressive. But none of it inhibited voters from later electing a president who was just as retrograde about public action as Reagan. Clinton prospered politically as long as his personal appeal held up. His attempts at a vision for government — the “New Covenant” of 1992 and the “Bridge to the 21st Century” of 1996 — were vague phrases soon forgotten. Later, after Clinton had admitted that he had lied during the investigation of a White House scandal, public tolerance for any utterances out of Washington dropped even further. After 2000, the public language that would defend the capacity of American government to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare” was nowhere to be seen, and Republicans renewed their crusade to destroy the legitimacy of public action.
Dogma and Division
The ensuing serial debacles of George W. Bush – an unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq which led to the deaths of 100,000 Iraqi civilians and added more than a trillion dollars to the national debt, the failure to defend and adequately rebuild a major American city from an unprecedented hurricane, using torture and degradation of prisoners as tactics in the “war on terror”, and the loss of common sense in further deregulating Wall Street, which led to a financial collapse – virtually insured that he would be followed by a Democrat. For once, history arrived on time. An unlikely man won the highest office and showed promise of reframing the purpose of government in ways that could summon a new majority for assertive action to avoid a depression and make overdue public improvements at the same time.
Obama’s constituency included the progressive left, which had been aggravated by the eight preceding years of strident nationalism and abuses of rights. Many on the left, having honed their ideological edge under Bush, assumed that Obama would exorcise their demons. Instead, the country watched as he spent his first months in office preventing the disintegration of American banking, which could have destroyed the pensions of the American middle class. This avoided a depression, but it earned him scorn on the left for failing to nationalize the banks and reform capitalism, a project for which there was no blueprint in any case and would never have cleared the Congress. Similarly, Obama’s decision to embrace a substantial reform of the insurance-based health care system in a way that was politically possible and gave health insurance to 30 million Americans, drew heavy criticism on the left for failing to nationalize the entire system, another political non-starter. Finally, when Obama discovered that much of the effort to suppress transnational terrorist networks that had supposedly been undertaken by his predecessor had been left substantially unfinished, he resolved to finish it. While that too was largely successful, his use of unmanned drones – a less costly and destructive tactic than ground war, but one with tragic civilian casualties — deeply angered the anti-war left. Many of them returned to the alienation which the Bush years had triggered.
Recently I opened an online newsletter from Truthout, a progressive-left aggregator of news and commentary. Its headline shouted, “Anger and Political Culture: A Time for Outrage!” Stories included an article about whether business schools are incubating criminals, one alleging that the U.S. is about to take its “drug war” to Africa, and another one speculating that youth unemployment might have led to the Colorado shooting massacre. It left the impression that the American government is intentionally harming Americans and the rest of the world. The assumption that our government’s primary role has been to promote war and capitalism may or may not stand up to serious empirical debate. But the certitude and even venom of the language behind that assumption don’t invite a fair discussion any more than the language of the radical right does, so it fails to persuade those who don’t already believe it. Moreover, as with the language of those who hate government, it excoriates the motives of those who, for better or for worse, were elected or appointed with public consent and who happen to be the political system’s primary means of public action at any particular time. There are few successful politicians in America, however well-funded, who are not exquisitely sensitive to the public mood. The challenge is how to address that mood, re-educate the electorate, and summon the public will for new national action.
If any appreciable part of Obama’s winning coalition in 2008 doesn’t vote in 2012, it may cost him re-election. In the case of the ideological left, he risked this result with open eyes by opting to govern as he did, and the options he chose can be defended in terms of having avoided further economic decline and having reduced a publicly feared security threat, which were objective problems that he believed he had the duty to address. But however it might choose to react to Obama’s decisions in his first term, the progressive left faces a fateful decision for the causes of economic and social justice which they champion. If they overlook the substantial differences for the country between how Obama and the Republicans would govern, and they stand aside from the election –or even later follow the remnants of Occupy into some sort of street “revolution” — there is little in American history to suggest they would get anything other than repression from Romney as well as no revolution.
But the lesser voting numbers of progressives this November would matter less than the absence of their intellectual and organizing force on behalf of achievable changes in the system itself, and that represents a greater potential abdication of responsibility. Changes in the system, of the kind that I propose below, will require even with Obama’s re-election a unified effort of everyone who is not satisfied with American government but also favors equal rights and justice. The left should consider what is more relevant to reviving the public spirit of the country, without which no systemic change is possible: ideological purity, or an argument from national purpose and history that can summon broad public support to begin to reverse the flow of democratic power away from the people.
Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson knew how to build coalitions across ideological lines and rally the support of those who didn’t know the cause of major problems but did know they had to be solved. Yet the ideological left seldom makes a creative argument for the public good defined in terms that affect the lives and rights of everyone. Instead, it sticks to condemning political wrongdoers and arguing vehemently for radical change. This is language that might be used to make a prosecutor’s argument in a trial, but it is not language that will summon people who are not interested in war, capitalism or even environmental crises, but simply want America to be governed well. They will listen and be inspired by language that offers to unite us on the basis of reason – not dogma. That’s the great underserved constituency for change in America – a new pragmatic, enlivened majority waiting to be called forth, waiting for bracing ideas that are proportionate to the problems we face.
One major difference between the conservative right and the progressive left is that the right is funded by self-made business titans and industries hostile to safety and environmental regulations, while the left is forced to rely on small donations from cosmopolitan white-collar workers, teachers, civil servants, parts of the educated working class, women, and minorities whose rights are often ignored. For the “Tea Party” to keep its support coming, its default language doesn’t have to be much more than barely comprehensible shouting. But for the center and the left, there is no substitute for concise, rousing language that can mobilize people on the basis of rational arguments. That is the only hope to rally a new majority for public action. So the potential for support of major reform is in inverse proportion to the rage of its advocates. Whether or not he has been an effective advocate of reform thus far, Obama understands this.
Poetry and Reason
Former New York governor Mario Cuomo once famously said in the early 1980s that campaigning for office requires poetry but legislation has to be written in prose. If only his fellow Democrats had listened to him, we would be better off today, since prose about policy has long been the staple diet of sitting still for most Democratic political speeches. One anecdote is hard to forget: A friend of Michael Dukakis was reported to have said that the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee had once gone on a vacation to Cape Cod and taken along a book about Swedish land-use planning.
Twenty years later, Barack Obama gave hope of escaping from this dolorous valley of language – although his eloquence has mainly been limited to big-occasion, set-piece speeches. In the White House, Obama has mostly abandoned the “bully pulpit”, avoiding even televised press conferences – which baffles most observers, given his ability to be articulate, concise and cool, none of which are common traits of politicians. My guess is that he likes the inside job, where analysis and reason dominate, rather than painting on billboards in the storm of unreason that now casts a pall over our society. But it is precisely the plaster cracking in the walls of our politics that offers an opportunity to forge a new majority for public action, because, as measured by all polls, a substantial majority of voters are a very unhappy, captive audience to the partisan barking, media circus and carnival of lobbying in Washington. Obama has kept his distance from all that, giving him an opportunity to move his language to a higher level and improve his chance of making historic changes mid-way through his full potential time as president.
When Abraham Lincoln walked onto the national stage of politics in 1858, he was immediately derided for his backwoods accent, ungainly looks and cornpone stories. But those traits had marked him as authentic, and he’d built a loyal constituency in Illinois, with whom he knew how to talk. Years as a trial lawyer had given him the ability to think fast on his feet, and a lifetime of reading Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible had made him a remarkable writer. He had all the tools needed to speak effectively to any part of the society in which he found himself. When he spoke in New York for the first time in 1860, before an impressive audience, the editor of a major newspaper noticed that Lincoln’s “calm, humorous logic aroused the crowd into more of a frenzy than any sermon or vest-ripping diatribe ever had.”
The spine of Lincoln’s language was what he called “cold, calculating reason” – a relentless argument that dissolved the lies of those who were blocking progress and that lifted people’s sights to a higher vision of what Americans could do if they united again behind the ideas that gave the nation its purpose. But Lincoln didn’t just reinforce the people’s memory of that purpose, he reinterpreted its meaning. His great contribution was to rescue from the confusion of our politics the founders’ endorsement of equal rights, which make democracy and thus freedom possible. Everyone is included in America, or it isn’t free at all.
In a democracy, political language is not merely instrumental, nor reducible to a tactic in a campaign. It explains the real purpose of having a democracy. It reveals the soul of who we are. Define that, and marry it to the substance of where you want to lead us, and you will become a successful leader. The Republicans don’t seem to understand this, and that is their supreme vulnerability. They no longer believe in democracy, nor are they interested in what the people believe — or else many of them would not try to mislead them. And they give few signs of wanting to establish equal justice, insure domestic tranquility or promote the general welfare.
The Campaign of 2012
Obama showed in 2008 that he knows how to ground his views in an account of our history explained with principles that everyone embraces, and there were echoes of this in his convention speech in Charlotte. That lays a floor of legitimacy beneath what he says he stands for, and it also expands the definition of who he says he will represent. The left now despairs that Obama will not condemn political and business leaders who are weakening the public resources needed to strengthen society. But Obama said in 2008 that he wants to disenthrall the country from incendiary politics and build on higher ground. He was not prepared, however, in 2009 for the gale of destructive words that would be blown at him by many Republicans.
Self-disarmed from responding in kind to their attacks, Obama chose to bet on proving his opponents wrong by governing well. On the basis of an orderly command of his presidency and his prevention of a general collapse, he’s done that, satisfactorily if not dramatically. But the universal assumption that “it’s the economy, stupid” (a phrase coined by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political guru), i.e. that certain economic indicators are the paramount measure of a president’s effectiveness, hoists Obama on a contradiction: If the country is being governed better (which it is), why hasn’t the economy returned to normal growth (even though “normal” was, in reality, an economy that was floating on Bush’s deficits and an enormous bubble in the housing market)?
What I’m about to propose as the tenor and thrust of ideas that could be offered by the president is academic for purposes of affecting the 2012 campaign. There may be hints of this in what we hear Obama say in the weeks ahead, because he does think in historical terms and he does believe that democratic government should help animate people’s opportunities and elevate our society. But what I propose is far more sweeping. I do not believe that a mandate can be won by a Democratic president, much less by any progressive political leader, without proposing ideas that can be as vivid in the public mind as our problems are.
While Obama may win re-election narrowly on the basis of doubts about his opponent, or his own personal qualities as a trustworthy figure, he cannot win the election on substantive grounds and win a mandate to govern forcefully without replacing Carville’s economic test by a higher test of political purpose. Instead of asking for another term on the basis of what he proposes to do to restore full economic momentum, Obama should explain that a fateful historical challenge remains ahead of us, and that the real cause of an unfair, stalled economy is our unfair, stagnant politics — and that we will never fully solve any of our major public problems, economic or otherwise, unless we reform the way we govern ourselves. How do we liberate the people’s government from its control by forces that blockade our progress? How do we return control of government to the people, in order to return vitality to the economy and restore public confidence in the nation’s direction? Public confidence will revive if the people believe that they have the power to hold government accountable — and not otherwise.
Sometimes an election is decided by the question of which candidate the voters like more as a person. At other times it’s about which candidate seems to have the best ideas or programs. But neither the perfect person nor the perfect program stands a chance in our present system of politics, submerged in advertising that deliberately misleads voters, with legislation partly written by the interests that finance political campaigns. American democracy is failing, because public action that is equal to our problems has been halted. In short, American government doesn’t work any longer, so it is time to change how it works.
The Republican Blockade
In 2012, it is obvious that the capacity of government to take any action on the economy or any other public crisis has been hostage to the House Republican majority and to filibuster-threatening Republican Senators, some of whom wanted to sabotage the economy so as to stymie Obama and shred his agenda. They have done this in the House by refusing to bring up any new legislation proposed by the president; by refusing to negotiate (except on their terms) congressional action required by law; by consistently underfunding public action on infrastructure, energy reform, climate change, arms trafficking, job retraining, and dozens of other public needs; by refusing in the Senate to consider hundreds of appointments that the president has made to staff the executive branch and the federal judiciary; and by individual Republican members of the House and Senate using internal procedures to block debate on bills and resolutions they reject – all of which represents a direct and arguably unconstitutional disruption of democracy itself. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the two principal writers of The Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788, would be astounded to learn that this had been tolerated by any president or by the people.
But President Obama can’t direct his political campaign against the House Republicans – that’s inside-the-Beltway-maneuvering to most Americans. Instead he should take note of the fact that members of Congress are usually anxious to do the will of those who put them in office. The problem today is that those are the interests which finance their campaigns. If Congress won’t act (and that issue alone is what re-elected Harry Truman in 1948), then the larger political system that blocks such action has to be changed. If private interests are stonewalling public action, private interests have to be separated from subsidizing public actors, in order for the people to steer our democracy.
In the past, Democrats and other reformers have assumed that the only way to dissolve the control of Washington by private interests is to limit their campaign contributions. That hasn’t gone anywhere as a national political issue, not because Democrats aren’t sincere about it (the enormous Republican advantage with mega-donors is proof that they would be), but because the proposed fixes are always presented in the language of policy. “Campaign finance reform” sounds like a manual for lawyers, not a menu for voters. Moreover, it’s negatively framed, easily defined by Republicans as an infringement of freedom – “they’ll stop X from donating to a candidate” — rather than explained as a way for the people to recover their ability to influence government.
Instead, it’s time for radical simplicity about changing the American political system. It’s time for a single, short set of proposals that are equal in scope to the severe problems of our politics, which create ineffective government. Allowing government to be controlled by those who finance our politics is not democracy, it is corruption. How do we act together as a single nation of citizens to hold public decision-makers accountable to us, instead of letting them be accountable to those who have the means to monopolize the system? How do we break the blockade of government by those who oppose the public interest?
Reclaiming Government for the People
Eight years ago I was on a public panel discussion at Swarthmore College with a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and a professor at Boston University, to talk about various global issues. It was the middle of the 2004 presidential campaign and inevitably we were asked about it. A very young Swarthmore student framed the problem of the campaign in an astute way: She said that despite John Kerry’s superior command of the issues, seen in the television debates, she sensed that Bush was going to be re-elected, because his intensity and animation seemed proportionate to the fears and anxiety of the country, while Kerry was relaxed, perhaps too cool and self-assured. The voters wanted a leader who was as agitated as they were, about what was wrong – even if it was the man whose actions had made things worse.
This struck me as a key insight, which I now call the “rule of proportionality” in summoning people to support a cause. I came to perceive through my work on the history and strategy of nonviolent movements that people will not be enthusiastic about any political cause unless the statement of the problem and the changes proposed to solve the problem were both proportionate to the concern or distress that the people already felt, on the basis of what they saw in their everyday lives and sensed from the media. You can’t toy with people’s attention or disappoint their yearning for a break-through, much less exploit their grievances as a justification to propose something unrelated, ideological or merely remedial. You have to enlist their spirit and appeal to their imagination about how the crisis or problem can be solved by making a substantial break with the past to overcome the injustice and corruption that has held us back as a nation.
Although it may have been unrealistic for any president to have been expected to move the American economy from imminent collapse to robust new growth in less than four years, it is still necessary for Barack Obama to explain to the American people why the path to that growth is not clear, and how we can remove what’s holding us back. New economic proposals alone will not persuade a majority which is large enough to give the president a fresh mandate for dramatic change. The problem of how to explain the present impasse in our economy can only be solved by enlarging the definition of what is wrong: The economy cannot be unblocked with economic policies alone, because the nation’s political system is responsible for blocking the action that could have taken us farther by 2012 — and will block progress in the future unless we fix it.
The Supreme Court decision that effectively awarded the 2000 election to George W. Bush contained this amazing statement (written by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia): “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College.” While rescuing Bush from a Florida recount, the conservative majority on the Court gratuitously told Americans that they do not even have the right to vote for president – state legislatures ultimately have that right. In one action, the Court withdrew the opportunity for the people’s votes to be fully counted as accurately as possible in the election of 2000, and it also elevated state legislators above the people as the ultimate arbiters of who should become president.
Yet the Supreme Court would never have had the opportunity to intervene in deciding the outcome of a presidential election had it not been for the existence of the Electoral College. In the election of 2000, a virtual tie in the counting of “electoral votes” by states determined that the outcome in a single state, Florida, would dictate the national result. But this was not a fluke, it was the product of an intrinsically unjust mechanism. By requiring that each state has at least three votes in the Electoral College, regardless of how small a state’s population may be, the Constitution insures that citizens’ votes for president have unequal effect on the outcome of an election, with individual voters in the most populous states having the least effect. In the 2008 presidential election, California had 246,580 voters per electoral vote, and Wyoming had 84,886 voters per electoral vote, meaning that each vote in Wyoming had almost three times the effect on the election’s outcome as any vote cast in California.
In addition, because most states with small populations – which disproportionately influence presidential elections — do not have large cities, the influence of people in large cities is subordinated in our most prominent cycle of elections, although they are often the stoutest defenders of social liberty, the strongest innovators in culture and usually the incubators of new ideas for economic growth – in other words, a chief source of our national vitality. It is no accident that 10 of the 15 most populous states are not among the “swing states” that are predicted to have the greatest impact on the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.
What is more, after the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, permitting unlimited corporate as well as individual contributions to independent political action committees, the disproportionate impact of these “swing states” allows the most privileged interests in our society, which mainly favor one major political party, to focus efficiently their campaign cash so as to dominate the public airwaves seen and heard by people in the states which will determine the election’s outcome. This finely orchestrated and massively financed effort to push a limited number of voters’ impressions of presidential candidates in one direction could not determine the outcome of a national election were it not for the existence of the Electoral College.
The dominance of presidential elections and the overweening influence on the public agenda by a finite set of private interests is built – through the Electoral College — on an antique relic of political arguments that died more than 200 years ago. It is compounded by the capability to distort public discussion of national problems which is conferred by billions of dollars spent on campaign advertising that typically creates artificial debates based on false claims and contrived issues.
In short, the people do not fully elect the president democratically, and the structure of presidential elections and the rules of campaigns permit domination of their outcome by the same forces that blockade public action in the Congress. Both national elections and national legislation in America are bridled and saddled by a political and economic aristocracy. What we have is political dressage, not genuine democracy.
The vast majority of voters seem to share this view. In 2010, a CNN poll found that only 15% of Americans trusted government to do what is right most of the time. This year, Gallup found that just 13% of Americans trust the Congress. This distrust is not because Americans believe the Republican argument that government is evil. Beneath any disenchantment is the desire to believe again — to belong again to a place, a cause or a dream that offers common meaning with others. In an election, the country is our cause. Too often, that cause has been appropriated by Republicans, while Democrats talk about policies. But no party that will not let the people be the arbiter of power should be allowed to claim primacy in speaking for them. Who really speaks for the people? The answer to that question will determine the outcome of this election.
The Citizen’s Amendment
Republican politicians depict the people as upstanding, law-abiding Americans who are victims of a government that takes their money and gives it to people who haven’t earned it. But this has resonance only if they can divide one group of Americans from another. Telling someone that he’s a victim and that he needs to be rescued defines that person as a client, not as a partner much less as the real source of power in our society. This is another contradiction at the heart of conservative dogma: They celebrate individual freedom, but they never define individual voters as having power apart from those who govern. Yet describing people as victims overlooks the greatest single source of public leadership: summoning the people’s conviction that their action as citizens is vital to the nation. Today Americans do not believe that they have more than marginal power to influence the work of government, and they are correct. But they are equally certain that they should have more power. The political party that explains how decisive power can be recovered by the people, and how it can be used to insure that government is fair and far-sighted, could dominate American politics for at least three generations.
In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln appealed to Americans to recognize that the nation’s existence was at stake, and that all future Americans would remember what they did: “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” He did not talk about himself, he talked about everyone. He also did not promise that through his action alone, the crisis would be resolved. He appealed continuously for the people to rally to finish the full struggle. The trial he brought the nation through was greater than what we face today, but we have a burden he did not: Today the people doubt they can do anything to make a change, including Obama’s opponents on the right and Obama’s opponents on the left. They believe the system is against them. The irony is that a greater, enduring majority to change that system would be less difficult to summon than any transitory majority for a proposal or policy that has to emerge from a system that does not change. There is no practical way ahead for the nation until the people change the way their government works.
That change can only come by amending the Constitution (the process of which gives the people many opportunities for exercising influence), since the conservative majority on the Supreme Court and the blockade of the Congress by private interests now prevent any meaningful statutory changes. The only way to persuade a majority of voters to support constitutional change is to show clearly that that is the only way they can recover the power to retake control of Washington. “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” will perish in America unless the people make it more democratic.
I believe that only one omnibus amendment should be proposed. Call it the “Citizen’s Amendment”. Here is a draft of provisions that I would argue are the simplest that can win broad public approval but can also accomplish a major shift of political agency from private interests to the people as a whole:
1. The right to vote for president. The president shall be elected directly by all citizens. All citizens shall have the right to vote in the election for president as well as the right to vote in elections for members of Congress who represent them. All citizens shall have the right to have their votes counted, in a fair, accurate, secure and open process. Every citizen’s vote must have equal effect in producing an election’s outcome. Because an equal effect by each vote is prevented by the Electoral College, it is hereby abolished.
2. The rights of access to voting and competing for federal office. No citizen shall be denied fair and equal access to voting, and all candidates and parties competing for federal office shall be given fair and equal access to the ballot. To facilitate these rights, all state and local laws affecting elections to federal office shall conform to uniform standards approved by a permanent independent federal commission established to regulate the conduct of all elections to federal offices.
3. The right to support political candidates and campaigns. Individual citizens exclusively shall have the right to contribute money, services or other forms of material support to the campaigns and other political activities of incumbents or candidates for federal office. Organizations of any kind shall not be defined or regarded as citizens or persons for purposes of exercising any rights under this amendment. Congress may by law regulate the amounts and types of such support from citizens, but no one citizen’s support shall have a value in excess of a maximum dollar amount, which must be set by law.
4. Redress of grievances concerning violations of these rights. The Congress shall provide for open, public procedures, in addition to litigation, to enable due process for redress of citizens’ grievances concerning any claim related to the rights under this amendment. Any plausible grievances or complaints pertaining to the counting of votes or other election procedures which may affect the outcome of an election shall be resolved prior to the date for any person, confirmed to have been elected, to take the oath of office.
Any presidential candidate, much less an incumbent president, who advocated this kind of amendment, and explained how it would reinstate the people as the pivot of political power, would seize the attention of the public as a whole – and the ferocity of opposition to these reforms would only dramatize the need for them. Only reform that is large enough to change the way our democracy works will galvanize people to support it. Only change that is proportionate to the people’s disillusion with government will be seen as worth that support.
Moreover, only reforms of this magnitude will have the capacity to reverse the strategy of some Republican leaders — which is to degrade the capacity of government to serve the public, so that their ideological goals of privatizing public services and “starving” government of revenue can be attained. This strategy depends on (a) achieving a massive financial advantage in buying broadcast time to sell a false narrative about government and about their opponents, directed at the relatively few “swing states” they need to win the Electoral College in a presidential election, (b) voter suppression directed at their opponents’ constituencies in all states they regard as winnable, and, as I believe, (c) covert digital vote-counting manipulation in selected states to tip the results of elections toward their candidates, if necessary and possible in close elections. There is substantial evidence that this occurred in Ohio and Florida in 2004 and that the capacity to attempt it in 2008 was available to veterans of the 2004 Bush campaign – although that capacity could not be used because Obama won by too large a margin for anomalies to go unnoticed.
The anti-democratic intent behind the yearning of many Republicans to retake full control of the federal government is hiding in plain sight. Although only Ron Paul among Republican presidential candidates has been honest enough to use constantly the right-wing aphorism that America “is a republic, not a democracy,” just try Googling that phrase, and you’ll be overwhelmed with its use by conservative bloggers and web sites of all kinds. There has even been a kind of anticipatory panic about Obama, that he might actually try to change the system, even though he’s given no evidence of wanting to do so.
This anti-democratic fear is strange coming from politicians who say they want to reduce the power of government. To whom else would power then logically be shifted? To the people, one would think. But that appears to be anathema to many Republicans. Why? Because it would jeopardize the power already wielded by those who finance their campaigns, and also unpack the loaded deck of the American system which favors small states and non-urban voters while voting regulations in many states disfavor minorities, recent immigrants, the poor and workers. Some Republicans seem to fear a more democratic future in which they realize that those who favor their ideas are likely to shrink as a percentage of the electorate. That may be why they have tried to impose statutory constraints on voter registration and access to the polls. So the struggle to strengthen American democracy is not just a struggle to give more power to the people and restore the American purpose. It is also a struggle to prevent a foreseeable attempt to reduce that power even more.
In sum, the Citizen’s Amendment would check the expansion and consolidation of unaccountable political power by unelected private interests which are unavailable for public inquiry — as well as represent a historic expansion of leverage over the work of government by the people as a whole.
It would do this by removing several structural constraints on the ability of citizens to insure that their preferences are reflected in the composition of the Congress and the Executive Branch: (a) the unequal effect of votes for president in different states, (b) the confining of presidential campaigns to a small number of states and the consequent marginalizing of three-quarters of the population in receiving attention during those campaigns (insuring that the parochial interests of those swing states, such as logging, mining, ethanol, farm prices and “the right to life”, obtain disproportionate attention by government), (c) the vulnerability of our elections to digital fraud, and most of all, (d) the transfer of power from wage-earning citizens to those who have the ability to drown the people’s voices in a tsunami of campaign financing by unknown donors giving unknown amounts of money.
The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court created the potential for arbitrary private control of the content and outcome of American election campaigns, and of voting and of vote-counting. Whether this control is exercised successfully for the first time in a presidential election, we may find out this coming November. Whatever the result, Americans must remove the capacity to exercise this control – and that can only be done through a constitutional amendment. My view is that only a Citizen’s Amendment, which expands the people’s voting rights and power over government, will appeal to a sufficiently broad coalition of Americans who are disillusioned with the system to attract the massive wave of support that will be necessary to enable its passage by state legislatures.
But a Citizens Amendment would only be the start. If it became part of the Constitution before 2016, it will take another 20 years to achieve further constitutional change bringing full democracy to the United States. Lincoln’s dream was for a government that gave every person “a fair chance in the race of life.” Long before Lincoln, Aristotle dreamed of a government that exists for the equal advantage of all who are ruled. But there is yet another phase of the democratic dream that is now dawning: a government that works so as to remove any distinction in principle between the ruler and the ruled.
I believe that by mid-century, Americans will vote instantaneously on national consultative referenda created by citizen petitions, and that some questions will be submitted by presidential order or congressional vote to a binding decision by popular referendum. Unlimited time in office by members of Congress will long since have been ended by term limits. The Senate will be reorganized so as to better represent the real will of the American people, unmediated by the arbitrary division of people by states . This will be done either by reapportioning seats to award more seats to larger states, or by adding nationally elected Senators. No members of Congress will be able to block legislation through “holds” or filibusters.
By then, constitutional changes such as the Citizen’s Amendment will have opened the way for new political parties, and campaigns will likely be conducted primarily through digital devices (no longer hand-held) that will accompany us wherever we go, as groups and individuals. All offices and departments of government will be required to make regular reports directly to citizens, and responses to voice and text inquiries will be required to be provided instantaneously.
This more open, transparent and continuously interactive process of democratic decision-making – call it Democracy 2.0 — will still be financed through taxation. But purpose-driven programs and public institutions may be financed primarily through public bonds earmarked for specific purposes, such as education, health care, and space exploration. The vitality and expansive reach of all this public action will enlist broad participation and create vast communities of interest and support. Digital platforms that are continuously alive will enable tens of millions of participants to be active in these networked communities, wherever they may live physically. Eventually these communities might supersede the sense of belonging to particular states and cities, although the physical form of the latter will still be managed in the traditional manner. Another level of transnational and global digital platforms and networks will draw allegiance away from nation-states, whose operations will gradually recede in determining the shape of human affairs.
Democracy as Life
All these changes – or others that serve their purposes in approximately the same way – will unfold whether or not the United States reorganizes and strengthens its democracy so as to prepare for this new era. But if we don’t, we will not be able to adapt to a new order in human life. The state-centric world of highly structured institutions and central power-holders is coming to an end. Political nationalism, ethnic rivalries and animosities, and attempts by individuals or organizations to hoard resources and deliver no public benefits that are affirmed democratically, will be swept aside.
The purposes of our lives are facilitated by political freedom, and freedom requires democratic order. But the architecture of all political order, and the social order on which it rests, are about to undergo the most profound reorganization since the invention of agriculture permitted the construction of cities. Technology is not driving this transformation, because technology is only a form of mechanism. Our unsatisfied aspirations and our appetite for wider, fuller, even nobler lives will be its cause.
In the shadow of this future, we are now groping in the dark to accomplish the simplest adjustments demanded by the justice that we know must balance the rights we claim. We do not do justice very well in America, in relation to our ideals, as shown by our history with native Americans, African-Americans and others whose rights have been seriously violated. We are an ambitious and creative society, but we are often not fair to one another. We pay lip service to our values in hopes that our children will uphold them.
The difference between our dreams and our reality as a nation is not just a function of whether individuals can muster self-discipline and enterprise. It is also a function of how we make decisions about the public services we give ourselves and the public character by which history will remember us. Abraham Lincoln said that the “central idea” of our founding was equality. We cannot say that we have succeeded as a nation until the way we govern ourselves reflects that central idea. Does each of us have an equal right and opportunity to affect and influence our common decisions, made through government? Today the answer to that question is no. That answer is not acceptable, if we want to be who we say we are.
The purpose of America was always to determine whether liberty and equality could join in public marriage. Our best leaders have believed that that would be the foundation for national success — and an example for the world. Our best moments have been when we have overcome grave threats to one or both of those ideals. The generation of Obama’s grand-parents and of my parents overcame such a threat, from abroad. We now face another, from within: the gradual demise of the democratic dream, beginning with the loss of equality in exercising the power to govern ourselves.
The struggle to recover that idea, and make it vigorous, practical and universally enforced in this, the country that belongs to all of us, remains before us. That is the call to action that I hope President Obama decides to offer, in his own way and in his own words. Without his re-election and cooperation, I believe the way ahead would be more difficult, though not impossible. Lincoln said that the struggle to preserve democracy in his time was “for a vast future also.” With his help, we passed that test, and now we face another. For American democracy, either light or darkness lies ahead. Which will it be?