Renewing Our Democracy

Another Reason to Reform the Senate

As the topic of the distinctly undemocratic Senate has garnered increased attention in the press, we wanted to repost a piece from NDN's spring '12 researcher Leslie Ogden. She previously published this op-ed in the Tufts Daily covering Senate's small state bias, and is worth revisiting as we think about our representation in government: 

"The list of reasons why Americans feel their politics are broken is long and growing. Here’s one of many: The U.S. Senate, which due to the way the U.S. population has grown and settled, has developed a “small state bias” so grave that it is on the verge of becoming an undemocratic institution. The issue is serious enough that it has become necessary to question whether major reform of Congress, and particularly the Senate, is needed.

According to the 2010 census, it is now the case that half of the United States’ population lives in just nine states, with the other half of America living in the other 41 states. While the voters in these top nine states have equal representation in the House with 223 Representatives (the other half has 212), in the Senate it is a different story. Because of this population distribution, the half of the U.S. living in the largest nine states is represented by 18 Senators. The other half of the country living in the other 41 states has 82 Senators, more than four times as many. You don’t have to be good at math to see how much less representation in Congress those living in the big states have today.

Let’s take a closer look at this dynamic by examining California. With a population of about 37 million, California has more than 66 times the population of the smallest state, Wyoming, which has 563,626 people. California has 53 Representatives, and two Senators; Wyoming, one Representative and two Senators. So despite having 66 times the population of Wyoming, California has only 53 times the number of Representatives and an equal number in the Senate.

Furthermore, the four smallest states combined have eight Senators, giving California only a quarter as many Senators as Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, even though California has 14 times the population of these states combined.

In creating our bicameral legislative system, the founding fathers attempted to balance the issue of big/little states by creating a House whose representation was based on population and a Senate based on proportionality. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison explains his intent to create a “mixture of principles of proportional and equal representation,” particularly “among a people thoroughly incorporated into one nation, [in which] every district ought to have a proportional share in the government.” In essence, to create an equal vote that is a “constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States.”

However, due to the growth of the number of states in the U.S. and the migration and expansion of our population, the big/little state balance in the Senate has become approximately one-to-four, creating a “small state bias.” This small state bias is additionally exacerbated by the proportional allocation of Congressional seats, which immediately gives each state one Representative, regardless of population. This means that while California has more than 66 times the population of Wyoming, as we saw, it only has 53 times more Congressional seats. Therefore, even in the House, large states do not receive the proper amount of representatives because each state is automatically allocated a Congressman, regardless of the mathematical proportion. The net result of this is that smaller, more rural and less demographically diverse populations in the U.S. have exaggerated influence in Congress today.

Where this small state bias becomes undemocratic is on issues that affect large and small states very differently. Immigration reform is a good example. Most of the new migrants who have come to the U.S. in this last wave of very heavy immigration have ended up in the large states. Seventy percent of Hispanics, for example, reside in the top nine most populous states. The states where most recent migrants and their families live have somewhere between 20 and 30 Senators representing them in Congress today even though they have a majority of the U.S. population. The other states, with a minority of the U.S. population, have between 70 and 80 Senators representing them. Despite the fact that poll after poll show that a clear majority of Americans support “comprehensive immigration reform,” it has been extremely difficult to get it passed through Congress in recent years. The voices of the majority who support immigration reform are wildly underrepresented in the current design of our Congress.

At a time when societies around the world are working hard to improve their own civic institutions, it would be a welcome sign for the world’s most important democracy, the United States, to help inspire this process by updating and renewing its own."

 

Leaving The Reagan Era Behind - Why Political Reform Matters for the Center-Left

Have found it interesting in the morning after the horrors of the Sandy Hook shooting discussions about what it would take, politically, to make our gun laws a bit more reasonable.  Many of these discussions have eventually ended up reviewing the role of the "Republican House," a House which is either going to be a bulwark against "liberal overreach" (their formulation), or a reactionary force thwarting the will of the majority eager to leave an old age of politics behind (mine). 

John Boehner is in no easy position right now.  He retained control of the House not through popular will and the consent of the governed, but vigorous redistricting (as the Times documents today).  His caucus is made up largely of Members from 70 percent plus GOP districts, whose values on most major issues are out of step with the majority of the country.  The Speaker's job of course is to fight for his caucus, something that so far this year is driving his and his Party's poll numbers down to extraordinary low, even dangerous levels.  His caucus is in the thrall of late Reagan era rigid, reactionary, ideological positions - no tax hikes, no amnesty, no Obamacare, no gun control - which leave little room for compromise or negotiation.  The big question of this Congressional cycle is how long can Boehner and his team hold out against the popular will, and a much more organized and aggressive Democratic team. The negotiations over the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling are the first test of this new political moment.  This is not just a Democrat vs. Republican battle, but very much one of forward/backward as I wrote in this major magazine article, and posited in "A 50 Year Strategy," a landmark Mother Jones piece from a few years ago (see Krugman's smart take on all this).  And it is unclear how it is all going to turn out.

The Times redistricting piece today raises important questions about whether the particular distribution of today's US population has created a political system slow or unable to accommodate the popular will, or this era of politics.  The Times piece looks at the packing of Democratic voters in urban areas.  We have identified another, and I think, more serious problem - that half of the nation's population today lives in just nine states.  Half of our country - more diverse, more urban, more immigrant - is represented by 18 Senators.  The other half - more rural, more white, older - is represented by 82 Senators.  This flow of our population into these 9 states over the past generation has resulted in what we described as a "small state bias," which is in itself has become a major mechanism for thwarting the national will.

This discussion began with more reasonable gun laws, but could also be applied to an issue like immigration reform.  In the 2012 exit polls, fully 65% of voters embraced legal status for undocumented immigrants, a number consistent with most polls over the past 7 years.  And yet we cannot move immigration bills through Congress, largely due to conservative (read House Republican) opposition.  Why is this? I believe it comes down to a great degree to this issue of the distribution of the population.  The majority of the country who want immigration reform is not represented by a majority in the Senate, or House, due to the methods we use to apportion representation in Congress.  It is this small state bias at its most extreme.  

The big societal and political breakthrough we saw this past cycle - the growing acceptance of gay marriage - happened without needing a vote of House Republicans, playing out in the courts and in the states.  I am not suggesting in any way that the center-left should not fight with everything it has for its agenda in Washington these next two years. But we also have to understand that the Senate and House are not in synch with the growing majority consensus on issues like immigration reform, gay marriage, reasonable gun laws, economic and fiscal matters and other issues. The battles in Congress these next two years are going to be tough, hard and sometimes disappointing - but of course very much worth waging.  The current House is just wildly out of step with today's America.

And it is also why a big, broad political reform agenda whose goal is to make it easier for everyone to vote and to remove anti-democratic processes from the system should be at the very top of the center-left's agenda in the years to come.

Update, Mon AM - New HuffPo poll shows majority support for more reasonable gun laws, assault weapons ban.  Why I have no doubt these numbers may shift in the months ahead, it demonstrates that there is a working majority ready, now, to move on improving our gun laws.

Tues, AM - A new National Journal piece details the latest GOP scheme to game the US political system.  This one will move to apportion electoral college votes by district in Democratic leaning blue states.  One more reason why it is time for the Democratic Party to offer a big and bold political reform agenda, including the embrace of the National Popular Vote effort, which would eliminate the electoral college altogether.

June, 2015 Update - Hillary Clinton just offered a bold new political reform plan.  Check it out, and see more of NDN's work in this space over the past few years.  

"Forward, or Backward?" - The Descent of the GOP Into A Reactionary Mess

This is an English language version of an essay which originally appeared in the Mexico City-based, Spanish language journal, Letras Libres.  The Spanish version was translated from an earlier version of this essay, which I added to a bit for this version.  So it should be seen as a version of the Spanish original, and not a direct translation.  The Spanish version can be found here, and a pdf of this version can be found below.  Enjoy. 

President Barack Obama has attempted to frame the choice for Americans this year in a simple way – he will take the country forward, Mitt Romney will take it backward.  A simple construction, but a powerful one I think to understand the true nature of the 2012 American elections.    

As the people of Latin America well know the world, and our hemisphere, is in the midst of profound change. Described by the brilliant Fareed Zakaria as an era witnessing “the rise of the rest,” we are seeing a historically significant movement to market capitalism and democracy in virtually every part of the world.  An unprecedented global middle class is forming; trade flows are expanding; the internet and the mobile phone are connecting humanity as never before; a “youth bulge” in many developing nations offers both promise and great peril; ideological opponents of this post WWII inspired version of a nation state are weakening; and as we feel every day in our own lives, the velocity of this transformation seems to be only increasing.  

There can be little doubt that despite the remarkable progress made over the past generation across the globe, there are significant challenges remaining: tackling climate change, improving the way we provide skills to our workers and students in a more competitive global economy; state capitalism as seen in China and Russia and other nations; and a still unstable Middle East and Islamic world just to name a view.  But while significant challenges remain, there can be little doubt that humankind is going through perhaps it’s more remarkable and productive period on all of our history.  More people can do, contribute, and participate meaningfully in the life of their communities and nations than ever before.  What lies before us may be indeed a dark time, but my own sense is that we also may be entering – if we get things right – an unprecedented age of possibility for the people of the world. 

While this age holds great promise it has proven to be profoundly unsettling to the great architect of this age, the United States.  In the past decade and a half we have seen a President impeached; a contested Presidential election settled along partisan lines; high levels of electoral volatility; twelve years of no wage and income growth for American workers; dangerous levels of inequality; reckless foreign engagements which cost the nation extraordinary sums of money, global prestige and human capital; a Great Recession; a financial collapse; a burst housing bubble and one of the most devastating attacks ever on American soil.  It is hard to argue that America’s response to this first decade or so of this new century has been successful abroad or at home.

Additionally, these great global changes have manifested themselves in very particular ways in American society, which has magnified the sense of rapid and even unsettling change which is so much a condition of modern life across the world.  As perhaps the most technologically advanced nation on Earth, the transformation of our economy from industrial to digital has been perhaps more profound here than just about anywhere else.  One very direct impact of this has been the incredible speed in which remnants of the industrial age – companies, skills and schools, well known consumer brands, broadcast media – have been rendered obsolete and not yet fully replaced by their digital analogs. 

But perhaps most profound of these uniquely American changes is the way our people have changed.   Our demographic and racial history – the triumph of Europeans over Native Americans, and the subjugation of African slaves – is well known.  It produced a society dramatically unequal, where an overwhelming majority oppressed powerless minorities.  Any student of American history knows how significant the struggle over equality and racial integration has been, and by the early 1960s American had become a nation ninety percent of white European descent and about ten percent black and everything else. 

But this demographic and racially trajectory set on a very different course in the 1960s.  The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s finally ended institutional segregation in America.  And one of the most important piece of legislation ever passed in America that no one has ever heard of – the immigration act of 1965 – had the effect of changing America’s immigration targets from white Europeans to Asians and Latin Americans. 

The net impact of both these changes is the most profound demographic and racial transformation of the people living on this land called America since the arrival of the Europeans in the late 15th century.  In the past 47 years, fueled by high levels of non-white immigration, America has gone from a 90 percent white/10 percent minority nation to one 65 percent white and 35 percent people of color.  Current estimates have the nation becoming majority non-white in 2040. 

Of course the central driver of this change is an historic wave of immigration from Mexico and Latin America into the US.  In 1965 there were 3 million Latinos in the US.  Today there are 45 million Latinos 15 percent of the US population, a group is they were their own country would be the second largest Latin country in the Americas (if we exempt Iberian Brazil).  There are now more Latinos in the US than African Americans, and people of Mexican descent make up a full ten percent – one out of ten – of the people who live in the US today.   This figure is expected to double by that magic crossover point in 2040, with Latinos making up fully 30 percent of the US population, or almost a third.

Additionally, the great baby boom generation, for so long the dominant driver of American culture, is aging, and yielding to a new generation, made up largely of their children, the Millennials.  This generation is the largest generation in US history and is beginning to enter the American electorate in very large numbers.  Its members have grown up in the world I have described – more global, more connected, more competitive more diverse and have had very direct experience the inadequate response offered by American leaders in the past decade.  America has in essence its own “youth bulge” and how this generation swings politically might just determine which party reigns for the next 30-40 years and much else about American culture. 

By any measure – our own youth bulge and this historic transition to a non-white America - is an extraordinary level of demographic and socio-economic change, one which should be expected to roil the traditional politics of a nation. 

It is the premise of this essay that American politics in 2012 can be best understood by examining the reaction of political parties, ideological movements and elected leaders to the vast changes – demographic, economic, geopolitical – roiling the world today.  

The Democrats have talked of “building a bridge to the 21st century,” moving America “forward,” and “pivoting to Asia.”  Both Presidents Clinton and Obama have put crafting an adequate response to globalization and our changing economy front and center in their politics.  The current Administration has struggled to free American foreign policy from a failed neo-conservative period and launched the most ambitious global trade process in a generation; is re-orienting US foreign policy towards Asia; has attempted to usher in a new era, slowly, with Cuba; seen relations and trade with our neighbor Mexico deepen as never before; and by embracing the aspirations of everyday people of the North African and Middle East, and through its Internet Freedom agenda, in other parts of the world, has begun, in fits and starts perhaps, to re-identify America with its liberal internationalist tradition which has done so much good for so many. 

The Democrats are also in the process of building a political coalition of the people of this new America.  In 2008, President Obama won two-thirds of both the Millennial vote and the Hispanic vote, margins which helped him win 53 percent of the national vote, the best showing for a Democrat in a Presidential election since 1964.  The Democratic coalition is young, diverse, growing and geographically spread out.  In 2008 it found its young modern black berry wielding, globetrotting, self described racial ‘Mutt,” Barack Obama, who was not just America’s first black President but clearly the first President of a 21st century America on track to have a non-white majority by 2040. 

The story of the Republican and conservative response to these great changes in American life has been a very different story.  A little history is in order here to explain.

The rise of modern American Conservatism was fueled by its response to the success of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and the triumph of integration over segregation.   The Republicans, who had been out of power in the US since the early 1930s, adopted very direct appeals to whites unsure or uncomfortable of integration at the very core of their emergent politics.  Their political strategy was called the “Southern Strategy,” which sought to and successfully flipped the more racially intolerant South from the Democrats.  Their economic approach, low taxes, less government and accusing Democrats of “tax and spend” was a way to say Democrats were taking money away from “you” and giving it to the “them,” an undeserving class who of course happened to be black.  Their foreign policy – strong anti-Communism – was also fundamentally about exploiting fear – however appropriate - of a dangerous foreign threat. 

Lead by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, the Republicans used this new formula to break the hold of Democratic liberalism on the country, winning the Presidency in 1980 and finally ending sixty years of Democratic control of Congress in 1994.   Conservatism was indeed a highly successful political enterprise of the later part of the 20thcentury.  It unseated the Democrats; helped bring an end to communism abroad (though Democrats did their part in this too) and on domestic issues provided a needed corrective to a US liberalism which had perhaps lost its way after many decades in power.

But the historical context which created the conditions of this conservative ascendency began to be swept away by events.  Large waves of immigration dramatically increased the share of minorities in the American electorate, making the GOP’s core domestic offering, infused by exploitation of racial fear, much less appealing.  The end of Communism, the Clinton Administration’s aggressive championing of the liberalization of the global economy and the PC/Internet tech boom unleashed powerful new forces which have led to rising global competition, the “rise of the rest” and a very different global economic and geopolitical dynamic. 

As the world changed, and a new set of much less agile leaders took the reign of power, the Republican Party and its Reagan coalition has struggled to understand new realities and adapt.  President Bush simply didn’t understand the new emergent threat of non-state terrorism and left American unprepared for 9/11.  His economic policies, enormous tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and “de-regulation,” led to a housing collapse, rising inequality, slow job growth, declining incomes, a financial collapse and the Great Recession while offering no correction as conditions worsened.  And the development of the concept of "pre-emption" in foreign policy seems in hind sight to be particularly reactionary, a loud angry scream against “the rise of the rest” and the end of true post WWII American supremacy. 

While on immigration and integration George W. Bush was much more modern than his Party, by 2005 his more enlightened approach to immigration and the changing racial dynamic had been roundly rejected by mainstream Republicans.  In the fall of 2005, despite the President’s opposition, House Republicans passed a bill requiring the arrest, deportation and felonization of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.  It was as many said at that time an invitation for all these new non-white arrivals “to go home,” and of course was among the most shameful pieces of legislation ever passed by the United States Congress in its history. 

What we didn’t know in 2009 after the departure of President Bush was whether the terrible outcomes of the Bush Presidency were due to his failures, or to a broader set of failures gripping the modern Republican Party.  The rise of the Tea Party in 2010, and the Romney campaigns embrace of Paul Ryan, an intellectual leader of a new and more reactionary right, has made it clear that this resistance and fear of modernity is now at the core of today’s Republican Party.  What animates and unites the right in 2012 is the simple call for smaller government and less taxes, an approach not dissimilar from the tax and spend arguments of previous decades.  The Romney/Ryan ticket has called for the elimination of all taxes on investment income, lower taxes for wealthy Americans and severe cuts in all programs benefitting the middle class and those striving to get there.  The only part of the government which would receive funding increases would be the Defense Department, even though today the US spends more on defense than every other nation on earth combined.  

Despite the very real threat of global climate change, the Romney energy plan calls for continued preference of development of dirty fossil fuels over cleaner forms of energy.  Romney remarkably moved his party far to the right on issues of race, embracing the nativist strategy of “self-deportation,” a position which had never been adopted by a mainstream Republican leader before.   And on foreign policy, the only issue he has really engaged on is Iran, calling for exactly what American did so unsuccessfully in Afghanistan and Iraq – a unilateral invasion by the United States, and in this case, Israel, with no real articulation of what would come after yet another US military action in the region. 

What I think has to be considered disturbing as opposed to just disappointing, however, is the growing mainstreaming of anti-democratic strategies by the right.  Many states with Republican legislatures have past new laws making it harder for people to vote, which will disproportionately affect the Democratic leaning younger and more diverse electorate.  New campaign laws advanced by Republicans now allow unlimited, unreported contributions to be used in elections, making the voice of a privileged few as powerful as the voices of millions of every day Americans.  The debt ceiling fight last summer was a tactic to avoid the normal legislative process to produce a budget and amounted to an elevated form of political blackmail. 

At the recent Republican Convention in Tampa, the words globalization, rising powers, rise of the rest, were not mentioned.  The audience in the hall was almost entirely white.  This was the second GOP Convention in a row steeped in nostalgia for an America long gone (and probably never there in the first place).  And this Convention, as was reported by many, was full of harsh, over the top criticisms – many inaccurate or false – of America’s current mixed-race President but while offering no solutions to the many problems facing America and the world today. 

In this election cycle the Republican’s angry war against modernity has escalated and appears to have become institutionalized.  It is almost as if the more the world moves away from the simplicity of the Reagan moment the more angry and defiant – and of course wrong – the Republican offering is becoming.  It is understandable, perhaps, but especially tragic, nonetheless. For at this moment the vast changes cascading across the world are bringing about a world of more potential and possibility than any time in human history.  There are more people alive today who have the life circumstances and education levels to add value to the human condition – in art, in medicine, in science, in sport, in commerce, in NGOs and government – than ever before. 

For leaders of what we call the center-left – the descendents of FDR, JFK, Clinton and now Obama – this moment is one of great political opportunity and arguably historic responsibility.  In a time of great change it is hard to conserve – for the things one is trying to hold to, as we see with the party of Romney – are being swept away by history’s rapid course.  It is a time for those in who believe in progress, the opposite of the conservative impulse, to assert themselves on the global stage.  To provide the type of prosperity and peace, and sense of possibility, that the world and our societies offer today is our great opportunity, and an opportunity which holds greater promise for mankind than ever before.  But it will only be achieved if we stay deeply grounded in new realities of this new century and show the courage to build a new politics for a new time and the new aspirations of people hungry for a better life. 

So in a very real sense the American election of 2012 is about “forward,” and “backward.”  And just like President Obama got this framing right, he is closer to getting the policy response right to the vast changes afoot in the world today than an aging and reactionary American right, which is why he appears headed towards re-election despite challenging times domestically and abroad.  It is indeed the great question of American politics now whether and when the Republican Party can modernize and adapt to the new realities of the 21st century, choosing forward over backward.  Doing so of course would be good for America, and for the world.   But how this happens and who leads them to this better place is still very hard to discern sitting in Washington, DC in the fall of 2012. 

- Simon Rosenberg

September 15, 2012

Washington DC

 

 

Has Congress Developed An Undemocratic Small State Bias?

Today Ezra Klein wrote a very interesting piece about Common Cause's new lawsuit challenging the Constitutionality of the filibuster.  In his piece he has this passage:

In the end, the Constitution prescribed six instances in which Congress would require more than a majority vote: impeaching the president, expelling members, overriding a presidential veto of a bill or order, ratifying treaties and amending the Constitution. And as Bondurant writes, “The Framers were aware of the established rule of construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, and that by adopting these six exceptions to the principle of majority rule, they were excluding other exceptions.” By contrast, in the Bill of Rights, the Founders were careful to state that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

That majority vote played into another principle, as well: the “finely wrought” compromise over proper representation. At the time of the country’s founding, seven of the 13 states, representing 27 percent of the population, could command a majority in the Senate. Today, with the filibuster, 21 of the 50 states, representing 11 percent of the population, can muster the 41 votes to stop a majority in the Senate. “The supermajority vote requirement,” Bondurant argues, thus “upsets the Great Compromise’s carefully crafted balance between the large states and the small states.”

This insight - that the way the country has grown and added states since our founding over 200 years ago may have upset the large/small state construct of our Congress - is an idea we explored at a recent forum we convened at Tufts University on "Renewing Our Democracy."

A spring research fellow here at NDN and current Tufts senior, Leslie Ogden, researched this idea, presented at the forum, and published this article containing data Ezra eventually tweeted about today:

The list of reasons why Americans feel their politics are broken is long and growing. Here’s one of many: The U.S. Senate, which due to the way the U.S. population has grown and settled, has developed a “small state bias” so grave that it is on the verge of becoming an undemocratic institution. The issue is serious enough that it has become necessary to question whether major reform of Congress, and particularly the Senate, is needed.

According to the 2010 census, it is now the case that half of the United States’ population lives in just nine states, with the other half of America living in the other 41 states. While the voters in these top nine states have equal representation in the House with 223 Representatives (the other half has 212), in the Senate it is a different story. Because of this population distribution, the half of the U.S. living in the largest nine states is represented by 18 Senators. The other half of the country living in the other 41 states has 82 Senators, more than four times as many. You don’t have to be good at math to see how much less representation in Congress those living in the big states have today.

Let’s take a closer look at this dynamic by examining California. With a population of about 37 million, California has more than 66 times the population of the smallest state, Wyoming, which has 563,626 people. California has 53 Representatives, and two Senators; Wyoming, one Representative and two Senators. So despite having 66 times the population of Wyoming, California has only 53 times the number of Representatives and an equal number in the Senate.

Furthermore, the four smallest states combined have eight Senators, giving California only a quarter as many Senators as Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming, even though California has 14 times the population of these states combined.

At our forum, which included a presenation by Pam Wilmot, the head of Common Cause in Massachusetts, we also looked at moving towards a single national popular vote for President and recent efforts to make it harder for people to vote.  However you feel about the large/small state issue we raise here (which I think is pretty serious) we hope this research, this forum and the other articles we published from the forum will help stimulate a vigerous debate about ways we can renew and improve our democracy.

Thoughts on "Renewing Our Democracy"

Am back in DC after two terrific days up at Tufts.  Yesterday spent the day at a very exciting and action packed Tisch College Board meeting.  I agree with our Chair Deb Jospin's take that the there truly is an extraordinary amount of remarkable things flowing from the college these days.  And it is a true honor to be back on campus on part of it all.

On Wednesday, NDN, along with Tisch College and many other campus partners including the Roosevelt Campus Network Tufts chapter, held a very strong forum on campus called, "Renewing Our Democracy."  Inspired by the heroic battles waged by brave leaders across the world for greater liberty and freedom in their own countries, we felt it was time to consider steps we could take here at home to improve and strenghten our own democracy.  As a guide we took to heart Thomas Jefferson's hopeful belief that each American generation would need to reapply and renew the revolutionary spirit to their own unique moment in history.  It sures feels as if that moment is upon us now in the US, and that this remarkable generation, the Millennials, coming of age and increasingly to power, has an extraordinary opportunity in the years ahead to reinvent the great American democratic spirit for a new day. 

We will have video of the event here on the site next week.  In the meantime feel free to review three op-eds which ran in the Tufts Daily by three of our presenters: 

"Let Every Vote Count" by Pam Wilmot

"Suppressing Youth Votes? An Invitation to Dialogue" by Peter Levine

"Another Reason To Reform The Senate" by Leslie Ogden

You will see from the range of ideas in these op-eds that there is a great deal we can and should be putting on the table about how to best improve our own democracy in the years ahead.  Of course we would be interested in any additional ideas you may have, as this is a subject we intend to stick with and drive a robust discussion on over the next few years, at least.

Finally, I want to thank our intern up on the Tufts campus, Leslie Ogden, for making the event such a success.  She did a remarkable job in bringing together appropriate partners for the discussion, building a top flight program, condcuting new and original research and making a strong presentation, and just making everything work well.  It was a great performance by a young and talented leader.   A big big shout out from DC this morning to her..

Update: Check out this coverage of the event published on the Tufts Campus.

Update 2: We put together this simple backgrounder if you want to read more.  And you can watch the video of the event here.  There are some strong presentations in here, well worth reviewing.

Renewing Our Democracy: Suggested Reading

There is broad agreement that something feels broken in American politics these days. We all know the story – a dysfunctional Congress; new restrictions on voting, particularly for students, being put into place; new campaign rules allowing unlimited and untraceable contributions giving the wealthiest among us a greater seat at the political table; national elections which do not allow more than three-quarters of the country a meaningful chance to choose their own President; and disappointing levels of voting and participation by far too many.

To look at these issues, and to offer some concrete suggestions for how we can best “renew our democracy” for a new age and a new group of American voters, we’ve assembled a terrific panel of experts. Join us on Wednesday, April 4th at noon, in Barnum 008 at Tufts University.

Gerstein, Josh. "Voting Rights Act under Siege." Politico, February 19, 2012.

"Justice Dept. Blocks Texas on Photo ID for Voting." New York Times, March 12, 2012.

Liptak, Adam. "Voter Rolls are Rife with Inaccuracies." New York Times, February 14, 2012.

Loth, Renee. "Don't block the vote for students." Boston Globe, February 18, 2012.

Newmark, Craig. "Voter Protection Infographic."

Norden, Lawrence, and Wendy Weiser. "Voting Law Changes in 2012." Brennan Center for Justice, October 3, 2011.

Richie, Rob. "One Person, One Vote Should Come First." US News and World Report, March 9, 2012.

Shapiro, Ira. "Take Back the Senate, Senators." New York Times, March 28, 2012. 

Renewing Our Democracy

29%.   That is the percentage of Americans who approve of the President’s performance today.   To me it is an accurate appraisal, as it has been a disappointing time for our nation.  Despite a sustained economic recovery wages haven’t risen and jobs haven’t been created at historic norms.   Iraq has gone terribly wrong, costing American lives, respect and so much money.   Katrina showed terrifying incompetence, reminding us with Bush we are not safer.  So little has worked as advertised in this age of Bush, and critical challenges like the funding of the retirement of baby boom, really improving our schools, fixing our broken immigration system, offering all Americans access to health insurance, lessening our dependence on foreign sources of energy and global climate change have gone unmet.

But there is another dimension to this disappointing age of Bush that needs a thorough discussion – its morality.  Has there ever been an American governing party which showed so little regard for the rule of law? Have there ever been so many criminal investigations into a governing party in American history?

Consider the record.   

  • Duke Cunningham receives the longest jail sentence of any sitting Congressman in American history.
  • House Majority Leader DeLay, one of the criminal masterminds of this era is indicted, for among other things, corrupting the redistricting process in his home state Texas. 
  • #3 at the CIA, Dusty Foggo, indicted. 
  • Former House Appropriations Chair Jerry Lewis, the architect of the corruption of the earmarking process, has racked up over $1 million in legal bills and seems to be the next to go.
  • A business rival of Jack Abramoffi is denounced on on the floor of the House by now convicted Congressman Bob Ney and is then soon murdered by a known South Florida mafia hitman.
  • Two senior White House staffers – Libby and Safavian – are indicted, brought to trial and convicted. 
  • A senior official at Interior pleads guilty and is on his way to jail.
  • The Republican leadership covered up, for years, the awful sexual recklessness of Mark Foley, and then put him in charge of the Committee for Missing and Exploited Children. 
  • A male prostitute, with a public web site hawking his services, somehow gains a White House press pass, and regularly asks questions at the daily White House press briefing for what is in essence a fictitious conservative organization. 
  • The Administration and Republican Party’s condoning of torture, establishment of secret prisons, regular practice of “rendition,” their repeal of habeas corpus for non-citizens and the overall undermining of the Geneva Conventions.
  • The hanging out to dry of those kids in the Iraqi torture photos, calling them a few bad apples, when we now know that extreme torture policies had been signed off on by Rumsfeld himself.  The warentless spying on our citizens. 
  • The extraordinary and perhaps illegal overstepping of even the generous provisions of the Patriot Act for National Security Letters. 
  • Putting our kids into battle without proper equipment or training. 
  • The incredible politicization of the US Attorney system, starting in 2002 with Rove’s removal of the US Attorney in Guam for pursuing a guy named Jack Abramoff.  Attorney General Gonzales' public, and now exposed, lie about his role in it all. 
  • Jack Abramoff and his corrupt use of non-profits, his ripping off of Indian tribes, his serial bribing of public officials and his countless visits to the White House.
  • The scandal of Walter Reed and other Veteran’s homes, and of the Administration’s repeated attempts to cut veteran’s benefits while sending our kids to fight in his ill-conceived war. 
  • The savaging of two war heroes, John Kerry and Max Cleland, by a President who skipped his National Guard Service and a Vice President who deferred his way out of Vietnam. 
  • The lying to the world about the cause of war. 
  • The corruption and patronage of the Iraqi contracting process. 
  • The buying off of journalists and commentators from Miami to Washington. 
  • Their argument in the 2000 Florida recount that conducting a legally sanctioned recount of what was clearly a troubled election was illegal – an argument amazingly upheld by their allies on the Supreme Court.
  • An FEC audit finds the 2004 Bush campaign overspent their Federal allotment by $40 million, a whole lot of money in a race decided by a single state.  
  • Their systemic efforts to deny legitimate voters their right to vote. 
  • Their ignoring of the cries from New Orleans. 
  • Their cutting the taxes of the wealthiest among us while blocking an increase in the minimum wage, currently at its lowest level of buying power in 50 years.
  • The demonization of Hispanic immigrants in the 2006 elections.
  • The over the top partisanship on just about every issue. The list goes on and on….

I am no historian, but we have to start asking - has there been anything like this in American history? This kind of whatever it takes politics – the abuse of power, the systemic corruption, the sense that the rules don’t apply to them, the trampling of our liberties, the constant and never ending lying?  The conduct of our leaders in this period has extra-ordinary, corrupt and terrible.  It has been a profound betrayal of the public trust placed in them by the American people.

We will probably now see a protracted battle over whether it is proper for Rove and the White House team to offer proper Congressional testimony on the firings of the 8 US Attorneys. While this is an important battle, and of course they should all testify, the real battle ahead for the leaders of both parties is to re-establish the morality and virtue of the American government itself.  The modern conservatives running our nation these past few years have betrayed our noble heritage, betrayed their historic commitment to limited government, and certainly betrayed the “for the people” sentiment of their Party’s visionary first President.  We have lost, temporarily, something that has made America different, and better, than the rest of the world.  Together, we need to bring it back, and re-establish here at home what we have worked so hard to export to the rest of the world – liberty, open markets, the rule of law, and of course, democracy.

But bringing back the moral mission of America in the years ahead, doesn’t mean looking the other way and pretending these terrible years never happened.  Leaders of both parties need to hold Bush and his allies accountable for the way they’ve run our government. We have to take steps to understand what happened, undo things that can be undone, have a public discussion about our democratic heritage and the rule of law, and then, where appropriate, be forceful in holding those who broke American law accountable.  If Republicans are unwilling to do this, Democrats should do it themselves, all under the banner of “renewing our democracy,” and look to broaden the initiative to include things like the webcasting of all Congressional hearings, same day voter registration and other efforts to make it much easier for people to register and vote (like the funding of vote by mail experiments), much stiffer criminal penalties for those acting to deny any voter the legitimate right to vote and better disclosure for all 501 c (3)s, 501 c (4)s and 501 c (6)s organizations which collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars influencing the public debate but have very light reporting requirements.

Another important step in this effort to “renew our democracy” should be a bi-partisan effort to significantly increase the budget of Department of Justice’s Office of Public Integrity for the next ten years, and work to wall off those there from outside political interference.  Because of the deep and broad public corruption of this era, this office, which been the lead anti-corruption prosecutor in recent years, has more work and possible cases to try than it can handle.  It needs more resources to make sure than any significant corruption during this era is pursued, either through investigation or trial.  As it is non-partisan and staffed by career prosecutors, it will be seen as fair and just.   Failure to give this Office more money is a tacit acceptance that those who broke the law in this era will go unpunished, something that no leader of either party can accept.   

The behavior of these modern conservatives running our country these last few years has been disgraceful.  It is critical that our emerging leaders punish those who broke the law, stop other potential betrayals of the public trust, and start a process that will renew our democracy, giving the American people faith that their leaders once again have their best interests at heart.

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