There is a widespread feeling in America that our democracy has been subverted — that someone else is running the show. We’re not entirely sure who it is — Wall Street banks? The “One Percent?” The military-industrial complex? The Trilateral Commission? — but many of us have the sense that somehow it’s not us. The Tea Party on the right and the Occupy movement on the left have this much in common and are very angry about it. And a lot of us in the middle feel dispirited and powerless to affect this government that should be, in Lincoln’s famous words, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
So here’s my list of six things we need to do to put power back into the hands of the people, where it belongs.
6. Reform the filibuster.
In the U.S. Senate, a filibuster is a method that allows a small number of Senators to block a vote on a measure they oppose. Historically it has been a rarely used tactic that a minority who felt very strongly about an issue could use to force a compromise with a majority. It has some value for that purpose, but in recent years it’s been badly abused.
It used to be that Senators had to actually stand on the floor of the Senate chamber and talk continuously for hours or even days in order to maintain a filibuster. But that practice has eroded. Now, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to block a bill, making it an easy, cost-free tactic. As a result, we’ve reached the point where it is just assumed that a 60% majority is needed to pass anything. This is ridiculous, and it creates congressional gridlock.
There are times when a minority really does have a better idea. But if they want to overcome the will of the majority, they need to be willing to put in the considerable effort that a real filibuster requires. The Senate needs to go back to its original practice, restore the filibuster to its original purpose, and get on with the nation’s business.
How to change it:
The filibuster is just something that’s written into the rules the U.S. Senate made up for itself. The Senate has the power to change those rules at any time.
5. Abolish the electoral college.
Our method of electing a U.S. President was designed back in the day when travel was difficult and no message could be transmitted faster than it could be carried on horseback. In these times of instantaneous communication between any two points on the earth, it’s an anachronism. The electoral college system allows a candidate who has garnered fewer votes nationwide to become president anyway. This has actually happened four times in our history, most recently in the year 2000.
Update, Nov. 9, 2016: Whoops – it just happened again!
But the electoral college has an insidious effect in every presidential election. If you happen to live in a state where a clearly insurmountable majority of voters favor a candidate that you oppose, your vote for president essentially doesn’t count.
The vote of every citizen of the United States should be weighed equally in presidential elections. The electoral college subverts that basic principle.
How to change it:
Abolishing the electoral college would require amending the U.S. constitution. That’s not easy, but it’s been done 27 times, most recently in 1992. It takes action by Congress to get the ball rolling, and there are enough vested interests in the current system that it will take pressure from constituents to get Congress to act. The constitutional amendment process is described here.
Much the same effect could be achieved without a constitutional amendment by changing the way individual states apportion their electoral votes. Most states take a winner-take-all approach, but Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral votes according to the popular vote in each congressional district. It only requires legislation on a state level to switch from winner-take-all to a more representative way of apportioning electoral votes.
4. Eliminate campaign spending limits, but require full disclosure.
Many efforts have been made to reign in or regulate campaign spending. None of them have been very effective. Money is extremely powerful, almost a force of nature, and it will find a way to make its voice heard. This has been shown time and time again: clamp down on it in one place and it simply springs up somewhere else. And now the “Citizens United” decision by the Supreme Court giving corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections makes it difficult or impossible to legislatively restrict their power.
It’s time to face reality and give up on the idea of enforcing campaign spending limits. But what we should do is require full disclosure. So-called Super PACs, which now have no limits on their spending as long as they do not directly coordinate with a candidate’s campaign organization, are required to disclose the names of individuals and organizations who contribute to them. But there is a giant loophole in the law that allows them to also accept money from 501[c] groups, which are not required to disclose contributors. So billionaires and giant corporations are able to shovel money indirectly into a Super PAC and hide behind a veil of secrecy as they pound us with propaganda and outright lies. The fact that they can do so without accountability allows them to essentially buy elections – and we’ll never know whose strings our elected officials are dancing to.
How to change it:
Eliminating the disclosure loophole for Super PACs will require legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president.
3. Implement ranked choice voting.
As much as the Democrats and Republicans seem to be at each others’ throats these days, on some important issues (the nation’s military spending being a prime example) there’s not a hair’s breadth between them. There is tremendous cultural and political diversity in America, which the two major parties do not reflect. Third party candidates, be they Libertarians, Greens, Whigs, or independents, find it nearly impossible to gain any traction even if their views reflect the feelings of a sizable number of citizens, because voting for anyone other than a Democrat or Republican is widely seen as “throwing away your vote.” The fear is that by voting for your favored third party candidate, you’ll be making it more likely that your least favored candidate will win.
Ranked choice voting (also known as instant-runoff voting) eliminates this impediment. It allows you to truly vote your conscience, confident in the knowledge that if your first choice earns too few votes to win, your vote will go to your second choice – you won’t be assisting the candidate you’re most fervently against.
I’m proud to say that my own city, Minneapolis, has adopted ranked choice voting for city elections, and it has worked well. Implementing it everywhere would bring some much-needed diversity into our political process.
How to change it:
Voting procedures are controlled by individual state, county, and city governments, so ranked choice voting must be implemented locally by each governmental authority. It will probably be easiest to get people comfortable with the idea at the city level, and move up from there.
2. Protect the right to vote.
A very troubling trend is sweeping America: in many states, legislation and constitutional amendments are being passed that introduce new hurdles into the voting process. Most often, this comes in the form of requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID – something that sounds reasonable on the face of it, until you consider that as many as 11% of legally eligible voters do not have such an ID. And many of those who don’t find it very difficult or expensive to get one.
This is all being done in the name of preventing voter fraud. But the type of voter fraud these measures are supposed to prevent is something that almost never happens. And the new restrictions disproportionately affect students, the elderly, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and members of racial minorities. It’s clear that the true motive behind these initiatives is voter suppression.
Other methods of voter suppression are also underway. In some states, officials are conducting massive purges of registered voter rolls, attempting to cut back the hours that polling places are open in certain districts, or putting new restrictions on absentee ballots.
Voting is fundamental to democracy. We should be bending over backwards to remove obstacles to voting, not erecting new ones.
How to change it:
The new efforts to require voter IDs are mainly happening at the state level, either through legislation or amendments to state constitutions, so turning them back must be done on a state-by-state basis. Other efforts at voter suppression must be recognized and fought at the county and local level.
1. Teach critical thinking.
This is the most important of all. Without a citizenry that’s able to distinguish truth from untruth, the other changes I’ve suggested won’t get us very far.
The airwaves and the internet are awash in distortions of fact, inaccurate statistics, quotes out of context, character assassination, logical fallacies, misdirection, half truths, pandering, fear-mongering, and utter fabrications, all intended to influence how you think, act, and vote. Such tactics are employed by politicians, pundits, talk show hosts and op-ed writers from every party and every point on the political spectrum. You needn’t wonder whether you’re being manipulated. You are.
I’m not saying that everyone does it, or that everything you read or hear is a lie. There are honest people out there, and actual facts and truths are available. But how do you tell which sources you can trust? How do you distinguish fact from fiction?
This is where critical thinking comes in. Critical thinking is a way of rationally deciding whether a claim is true, false, or somewhere in between. It requires open-mindedness and a number of skills that can be taught. Unfortunately, it’s not taught nearly enough. As a result, many people remain trapped in their own mindset, believing anything that fits their preconceived notions and rejecting anything that doesn’t.
Critical thinking needs to be taught in schools at every level, from elementary through college. It needs to be offered in adult education classes, and it needs to be taught to immigrants seeking to become U.S. citizens. The ability to think critically is our greatest defense against demagogues and others who would mislead us to further their own selfish interests.
How to change it:
Start with yourself. Require verification. Be skeptical of everything – especially your own assumptions. Read and support nonpartisan fact-checking websites, like FactCheck, PolitiFact, and Snopes. Teach your kids or your grandkids to do the same.
I don’t know how to get critical thinking into school curricula, but some of you out there reading this do. Go do it.
As a friend of mine recently told her students, “If you don’t use your brain, someone else will.”
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None of these things will be easy, but they can be done – sometimes through small steps.
We have to remember: Our government is not some foreign body that’s been imposed upon us. The government is us. It is our own creation. The only power it has is the power we collectively give it. And collectively, we have the power to change it.
“Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact, it is the only way it ever has.” ― Margaret Mead