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No Wonder So Many Are Disillusioned by Our Politics -- We've Got an 18th Century Political System

It’s time for American patriots to roll up our sleeves and get to work to reform our political institutions.

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The Weakening Pulse of Democracy

But this spectacular economic collapse was just the climax of a long downhill slide for America, the last remaining superpower of the Cold War era. The crash of the economy exposed an ugly truth: The forces that have drastically increased economic insecurity and risk for so many Americans are rooted in fundamental shifts over the last thirty years. These longer-term trends, which culminated in the Great Recession, mark one of the great social transformations of the postwar era. But how could such alarming concentrations of wealth be possible, more than eighty years after the lessons we thought we had learned from the Great Depression? How could there be so much poverty and inequality within a nation that has so much wealth and power? And how could those who wrecked our economy end up profiting so brazenly from the destruction they created? These are the questions on many lips and minds, not only in the United States but around the world, where a struggling Uncle Sam has lost much of its narrative appeal and sizzle as an international beacon.

There are many potential responses to those questions, but overwhelmingly one factor is looming larger: The economic collapse was preceded by a long-standing political collapse.  Unfortunately, the antiquated American political system is desperately broken, mired in antiquated ways that have resulted in political paralysis in the face of urgent new challenges. Even today, policies that will exacerbate the inequality, unemployment and sluggish economy, such as tax cuts for the wealthy and the slashing of Social Security and Medicare, retain considerable political momentum among political elites, despite their unpopularity in opinion polls. The political system has become unresponsive to “We the People.” At this point, the economic system — and those who dominate it — have captured the political system.

Understandably this has prompted great outrage and frustration among the American people. These passions crystallized into a right-wing populist movement known as the Tea Party, and later into a youth-inspired protest encampment in the belly of the beast called Occupy Wall Street (which eventually spread to other cities around the United States). Both of these populist insurrections struck a chord when they said, in effect, that it is time for Americans to take back our government. More than two hundred years after our national “birthquake,” government of, by, and for the people remains an unfulfilled promise.

Today, the antiquated American political system finds itself plagued by partisan polarization, a rigidly divided Congress, superficial debate, and paralysis in the face of new global challenges. Even before the economic crisis, the U.S. was beset by choiceless elections, out-of-control campaign spending, backward voter registration laws, a filibuster-gone-wild U.S. Senate, mindless media, even a partisan Supreme Court. Americans are increasingly frustrated and have tuned out, causing the middle to collapse and allowing the partisans and apparatchiks to take over.

The Way Forward

Fortunately, there is a better way than the status quo, one that can lead us toward a brighter national future. That better way involves making fundamental changes to our basic political and media institutions, and bringing them into the 21st century. It involves not only crafting laws to cope with new assaults on American democracy— such as the horrendous US Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, which has opened up the spigot for corporate donations and unlimited spending in our elections—but also figuring out how to transform our increasingly creaky and antiquated political institutions. 

In 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy I provide a blueprint for renewing the American republic. I outline ten essential steps that can repair and modernize American democracy including:  ways to allow more people to register and vote and to make sure voting equipment counts our ballots properly; replacing winner-take-all elections with alternative methods like proportional voting and ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting) that give better representation, promote higher voter participation and encourage constructive debate and coalition-building rather than scorched-earth tactics. I propose that presidents be elected by a national popular vote, and I advance reforms for the sclerotic Senate, which increasingly exaggerates the power of sparsely populated, conservative “red” states, and its arcane rules like the filibuster that undermine majority rule. I also propose reforms for the U.S. Supreme Court, which now resembles an unelected legislature of nine members that not only is badly out of step with mainstream America but where “five votes beats a reason any day.”  And I promote the advantages of publicly financed elections, free media time for candidates, more vigorous public broadcasting and media reforms that will produce a more robust debate in the free marketplace of ideas.