How Democracy Could Save the Democrats

Malcom Gregory Scott
6 min readSep 21, 2017

The political class seems to be struggling with the question of whether the DNC can save itself, and if so, how.

Here’s an idea: promise to restore democracy.

American democracy is broken, and assailed by enemies foreign and domestic; Donald Trump and the do-nothing congresses of recent years are the proof. Democrats seem to think they just “need to do a better job” connecting with older white working class men, reach out to Obama voters who broke for Trump, and advocate, and if elected, implement policies that “protect the middle class”. That last part, however, the part about actually implementing policies is the real crux. No matter how wildly popular democratic policy proposals may be, from Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All senate bill, to the policies comprising the DNC’s “Better Deal”, none will ever become law until the outcomes of elections accurately reflect voters’ will, and elected officials honestly represent voters’ interests. Instead of promising economic reforms they can never deliver under the current system, rigged, as it is, in favor of elite interests, democrats should be advocating meaningful reforms that would actually restore democracy

Full disclosure: I am a democrat in name only, and that only recently, having registered with the party for the first time since 2000 when I moved to Oregon last year, and doing so strictly to cast a primary vote for Bernie Sanders. When it comes to the substance of shared policy goals, however, I am not a typical democrat. Democrats say they want comprehensive immigration reform that includes a secure border and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here. I want open borders, across which free people may travel as freely as capital and goods already do. Democrats propose a modest increase in the minimum wage, and helping the middle class. I argue for ending wage slavery altogether, and helping the poor. Democrats talk about how the U.S. should be rebuilding its infrastructure — highways, bridges, airports, sewers. I want to talk about rebuilding the soil to transform agriculture from a carbon-emitting industry to a carbon-sinking permaculture, and planting millions and millions of trees wherever farming is impractical.

DINO, though I may be, I still value democracy as one of the three essential components, along with transparency and accountability, of modern self-governance. Truly, American democracy is in crisis. Shouldn’t its titular party come to the rescue?

For too long, the left has been criticized, perhaps fairly, for failing to convey an understandable overarching philosophy. The criticism derives not from a lack of substance among democrats, either in philosophical values or practical policy proposals, so much as from the lack of a simply stated argument in which all the seemingly disparate values and policies cohere. One of the advantages to the Restore Democracy agenda I’m proposing is that it facilitates precisely that.

Every issue dear to the democratic base suffers because of very specific failures of the mechanisms of representative democracy. Democrats must trust their voters, and speak to them as adults about how progress on those issues remains unrealistic so long as big money rules a system rife with voter suppression, vulnerable to foreign meddling, and burdened with anachronisms from our less democratic past. Sanders’ candidacy touched on this, referring to the political revolution required to achieve any of his campaign’s stated policy goals, but Sanders never addressed how exactly that might happen. Democrats need to map out a detailed course of action to do just that.

Such radical political reform is necessary before democrats can even hope to achieve meaningful economic and social reform or to implement environmental protections. Even the bug-a-boo of “identity politics”, the most dangerous hazard to the DNC’s future according to Steve Bannon, is ultimately about nothing less than civil rights for women, people of color, queerkind, and other marginalized people. I can conceive no clearer demonstration of the party’s fidelity to the core democratic value of inclusiveness than by restoring the most basic calculus of the universal franchise: one person, one vote. Where, indeed, must equality begin in a democracy, if not at the ballot box?

Consider what such an agenda must address. Certainly it must include some proposal to solve the problem of campaign financing. So long as state and federal elected officials must raise large sums of money in order to win and hold office, their true constituents will always be the big donors, as recent research has demonstrated to be the case. Democrats should propose radical changes to how campaigns are financed, including, if necessary, a constitutional amendment to deny personhood to corporations, and appropriating sufficient money for any public financing plan. Such proposals will require standing up to the media conglomerates which profit mightily from the excesses of the status quo, and opposing the fossil fuel industry, the health insurance companies, big pharma, and all the other corporate actors that exploit opportunities to essentially pay legislators to maintain outlandish, contrarian, and obstructionist positions on everything from banking rules and food safety regulations to healthcare access and climate change policy.

Equally important in a Restore Democracy agenda would be plans to increase voter participation, including aggressively combatting voter suppression efforts, expanding voting hours and poll access, and perhaps funding programs to actively register more voters. Because partisan polarization has paralyzed the congress and made bullies of majority parties in many statehouses, any meaningful reform agenda must also confront gerrymandering, the practice whereby legislators pick their voters rather than vice versa. Improving ballot access for candidates running without the nomination of one of the two major parties might likewise ease polarization, and lead to more democratic outcomes. Then, of course, remains the matter of the electoral college, which should either be eliminated, or reformed to fulfill its original purpose, which, in the last election, it clearly did not. Finally, and relevantly, democrats must propose investments in the cyber security of state voter rolls and balloting systems, and outline policies that will prevent, or at least minimize foreign meddling in American elections without violating state sovereignty or hindering free speech. Of the many planks in a Restore Democracy platform, this last may be the hardest one to nail.

Of course, I can already hear the objections of long-time party insiders and doctrinaire blue dogs: how democrats mustn’t offend corporate America lest fundraising be impossible, how democrats can’t win unless they connect to white working class men with an economic message, appeal to people of color and other disadvantaged populations with a strong message of inclusion, and remain true to their commitment to protect the environment. I urge them to remember the fundraising lessons of the Sanders campaign, which proved that it’s possible to raise huge sums of money in small amounts from ordinary citizens, and I’d ask them to consider how easily a powerful message of economic or environmental justice might be entailed in an explication of the political reforms absolutely necessary before income disparity, tax code inequities, bloated military budgets, endless wars, corporate welfare, carbon pollution, environmental degradation, or any other urgent issue can be addressed.

A Restore Democracy agenda would have broad appeal to all kinds of democrats, however much they may disagree about free college tuition or single payer healthcare, potentially uniting the party in the midst of its losing streak. It would be an inclusive agenda, likely to attract new voters previously disengaged from a system perceived as broken, an agenda that could drive the party’s growth at a time when trust in most institutions is waning. It would be a redeeming agenda, perhaps capable of reclaiming the allegiance of previously disillusioned democrats like me. It would also be an ambitious agenda, one that would require democrats in all fifty states and the district to work together as never before — county, state, and national organizations alike — to push the required reforms at all levels of government. It would be fresh and bold in an era when voters plainly yearn for change, yet it would appeal to the growing nostalgia for a time before Trump’s reign of chaos by promising to restore order to our democratic processes. It would be, in short, the perfect remedy to save the ailing party, and along the way, it might even save American democracy.

--

--