Primary Tuesday: A Day of Infamy for Democracy Reformers that No One Noticed

The political events of Tuesday, September 9, will soon be forgotten—if they ever were noticed in the first place. But those handful of people who have been paying attention to the downward spiral of American democracy, there’s no nice way to say this. It was a disaster, unless you consider losing everywhere somehow a noble gesture.

What happened? On the three frontlines of the modern democracy reform movement, three different strategies failed to win enough votes to achieve their stated goals. In the U.S. Senate, a constitutional amendment proposal to empower Congress to re-regulate campaign contributions and spending not only devolved into the predictable partisan divides, but Senate Democratic leaders couldn’t even keep enough members present, literally a quorum, to keep debating it. A final Senate vote is expected this week, where there is zero chance that it will get two-thirds majority needed to pass.

Examples two and three comes from Tuesday’s primary elections in New York State and New Hampshire. In these states, candidates embracing political anti-corruption banners, both of whom were promoted by different slices of the democracy movement, also lost.

In New Hampshire, conservative Republican Jim Rubens was backed by the Mayday PAC, created by Harvard law professor Larry Lessig, which spent $1.6 million on ads for him. Rubens and another challenger facing ex-Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, each received 23 percent. Meanwhile, in New York State, where the Mayday PAC didn’t spend a million, a law professor and anti-corruption expert running for governor, Zephyr Teachout, got 35.5 percent of the vote against incumbent Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“I will not be your next governor, but the Democrats of this great state have been heard,” she told supporters in a packed New York City nightclub, the Times reported, adding her vote percentage was “the strongest challenge to an incumbent governor since primaries for the office were established in New York in 1970.”

Of all these efforts, Teachout deserves praise for her personal gumption and daring to take on Cuomo, a heavy-handed governor whose moves to sabotage a political reform commission that he created prompted Teachout to challenge his re-election. And like Teachout, Lessig also deserves some praise for going out on a limb to raise millions, pursuing his ideas like a Silicon Valley startup, and seeing where they led.

“There’s no spinning this,” he blogged early Wednesday. “We tried something that others said couldn’t be done. So far, the evidence supports their theory. We went big in New Hampshire. Going big increased the salience of the issue among the citizens of New Hampshire. But among the 7% of New Hampshire who voted in the Republican Primary, another issue was even more salient: who could beat the Democrat in November.”

The uncomfortable question here is when are progressives going to win on an issue that they say is so near and dear to their political hearts; and fundamentally tied to the very fabric of American democracy—from the way we conduct elections to lobbying?

“We’re reaching a point where mere mortal individuals who don’t happen to be multimillionaires really want nothing to do with this political business,” said Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin on the Senate floor. “It has become the hobby of the high rollers.”

These kinds of moral declarations are the bread and butter of progressive democracy reformers—and have been for years. It’s hard not to agree with the obvious, which is American democracy has become, in most instances, a plutocracy.

As Frank Bruni wrote in his Wednesday morning Times column, most Americans really really dislike the Congress. Yet, they’re poised to re-elect as much as 90 percent of them in November. Of course, there are many reasons for that, most of which are inside-ball power plays, like redistricting, which cement the governing class’s grip.

But, meanwhile, back in the ranks of democracy reformers, all that we are left with are sermons that preach to the converted in Congress—while all others leave the room. Or election night speeches that tout great symbolic victories, while the objectionable incumbent returns to his desk the next morning. Why can’t we do better?

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