Our political system is failing because our government has become little more than a perpetual banquet for selfish interests that feed themselves first, and worry about the health of the nation later, if at all (See part 1 in this series).
This is the situation in which we now find ourselves, and it must be reversed.
For "we the people" to fix the system, here is an uncontroversial, common sense, and unifying organizing principle:
Remove from the American political system every incentive that favors service to selfish interests over the common good of the country as a whole.
The first step is also common sense. Since the country is split into two roughly equal polarized factions, on the left and right, it’s essential that each faction get an equal number of seats at the table, and negotiate around the above organizing principle.
With these assumptions in mind, in 2010 I began a four-year odyssey, brokering meetings between prominent reform-minded conservative and progressive leaders.
To lure each side to the table, I proposed that the agenda include two major reform concepts, which would constitute a kind of deal between the left and right.
The left would get its favorite reform: clean elections. We’d agree to develop a new campaign finance system for the United States, one that would ensure that candidates for elected office could no longer take campaign donations from the same interests they would regulate once in office.
The new system would guarantee fair elections, without advantages for incumbents, the very wealthy, or particular political parties. Of necessity, we’d also address the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
The right would get its favorite reform: congressional term limits. We’d do whatever we could to discourage political careerism and promote citizen government. The precise limits, like Clean Elections, would be subject to negotiation.
We also decided to include a ban on gerrymandering. Everyone outside of the system dislikes the practice of politicians creating their own uncompetitive legislative districts, from which they cannot realistically be removed.
The three reforms would go forward packaged together as a comprehensive anti-corruption amendment to the US Constitution.
Along the way, our great and unified reform movement of the left and right might force the passage of lesser reforms legislatively, such as banning campaign contributions from lobbyists and government contractors, eliminating leadership PACs (which are slush funds for politicians), and forbidding fundraising while Congress is in session.
Politically, the key here is to choose proposals with overwhelming support on both the right and left. In other words, to build momentum toward term limits and clean elections, which require a constitutional amendment.
Policy wonks and recognized leaders could meet in a manageable-sized group, balanced on the right and left, to develop the solutions. Then these solutions could be put out to the public via the Web and subject to a majority or supermajority support from each side at the popular level.
Social scientists teach us that such a process, which 1) includes balanced, diverse, and critical points of view, and 2) is subject to broad popular input and approval, will produce the best outcomes.
We would need to create the strongest reform-solutions possible because they must be both powerful enough to defeat the status quo and safeguard our republic for the long term.
Survey data suggests there already was existing popular consensus for what we hoped to achieve. I was convinced that the popular response to our united reform movement would be awesome (in the true meaning of that over-used word), once we got underway.
Unfortunately, the project never got off the ground. All of the major progressive leaders and organizations ultimately refused to engage in a balanced approach with conservatives.
Ironically, partisanship, group-think, and the controlling influence of money – all maladies that need to be purged from the system, itself – were themselves keeping the progressive reformers and their organizations from doing what was necessary.
Conservative leaders, on the other hand, were ready to engage based on the plan outlined above.
Senator Tom Coburn agreed to have dinner with Larry Lessig to explore the possibilities. But that dinner never happened.
Charlie Koch, who despises crony capitalism, sent word down through his organization that the project was “interesting” and that funding was a possibility.
I had two meetings with two different Common Cause presidents. The second was a long dinner with Common Cause senior staff and Peter Schweizer, the highly respected and connected conservative reformer. He is president of the Government Accountability Institute and author of Clinton Cash, among other successful books about corruption and political reform.
Schweizer is the natural leader of the conservative side when it comes to all issues relating to corruption, and he was all in.
Earlier, I had paired Schweizer with Lessig, who walked us to the altar and left us standing there when it became clear that a lot of money was at stake.
Larry Lessig is a good person who was extremely helpful during the first two years of the project. Similarly, I met some fabulous people at Common Cause and in other reform organizations. Good people can make mistakes, and in this crazy partisan climate, misperceptions about “the other side” are really easy to make.
It’s not too late for any of these progressive reformers or organizations to change course. If they are serious about fixing the system, then they can still engage seriously with the conservative side. That means balanced fifty-fifty power sharing in a united reform movement behind authentic leadership for each side. It's the only way forward.
Ultimately, big-name leadership is only one leg of the three-legged stool on which a united reform movement must be built. And it’s the least important leg.
Funding for a balanced left-right reform movement is critical. Ralph Nader likes to point out the potential for any one of America’s many billionaires to smash the current self-interested political system. Nader’s right. Whoever eventually steps up, will be the political/financial hero of our time.
Like no other progressive leader I met, Nader immediately grasped the significance of what Peter Schweizer and I proposed at our meeting with him.
Unbeknownst to us, he was already working on a book, Unstoppable, which is about the potential for progressives and conservatives to work together against corrupt power structures across a range of issues.
After leadership and funding, comes the most important element in a united political reform movement: the people, themselves. We must create the most powerful grassroots movement in over a hundred years. If the people lead, the leaders and funders will follow.
Conservatives and progressive teams can form up to fix the system in every county, city, and town across the country. This, in of itself, will go a long way toward restoring the civility that has been torn asunder by manipulative self-serving political and media interests.
We’ll have to work social media as aggressively as do all of the political hacks who are constantly poisoning our political system and dividing our communities. (You can start helping immediately by sharing this column!).
Fundamentally, it’s not complicated at all. We must defeat the selfish interests that have captured our government. The left and right must unite to restore government of, by and for, the people.
Let’s do this, before it’s too late.
Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one here.
Editor’s note: Stephen Erickson is the author of “What Would Madison Do? The Political Journey Progressives and Conservatives Must Make Together” and founder of the Clean Government Alliance. You can reach him at [email protected].