America’s political dysfunction should concern all citizens regardless of their views. While this dysfunction is greatly exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s shortcomings, the root cause is failure of elected representatives and citizens to do their jobs.
This failure has consequences. Examples include impeded social progress, rising inequality, inability to develop realistic budgets, tax policies that hinder growth while benefiting corporations and the rich, and high cost health care that is neither universal nor the highest quality. Why are we unable to address these important issues?
America’s unique system of constitutional values, democracy and capitalism is our enduring advantage. The ability to adapt and re-balance this system to contemporize our constitutional ideals, provide citizens with increasing opportunity and maintain a dynamic economy has been the secret sauce of increasing prosperity and social progress. However, these adaptations require patriotic sacrifice.
When citizens and elected leaders have put partisanship aside and compromised in the interest of all, social disruption has been contained. When we have failed to do so, change has required a costly civil war, disruptive social movements, and conflicts between business and labor. At the present time, we seem unable to debate, compromise and change.
Failure of citizens and representatives to perform the basics of democracy will only lead to further dysfunction and eventual social conflict. There is a better way.
The primary role of our elected officials is to use legislative and economic levers to constantly re-balance our system to ensure fairness and opportunity for all. The majority of Americans see their performance as abysmal. Our representatives are failing to do their job.
Transparency International ranks the United States 16th in public corruption, for good reason. Special interest money determines not only who can be elected but also the agendas that legislators take up. Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said it best when asked why there was no congressional committee addressing poverty: “Poor people don’t make campaign contributions.”
This corruption extends to virtually every area of public policy: health care, tax reform, spending priorities, budgets, education, job creation, etc. There can be no representative democracy when unfairly constructed voting districts predetermine election outcomes. There is no representative democracy when representatives serve private rather than public interests.
Corruption must be eliminated if all Americans are to enjoy hope, voice and opportunity. Representatives must commit to at least the following changes:
- Publicly funded presidential and congressional elections. Ban individual contributions above $5,000 and any contributions from businesses, super PACs or other outside sources. Overcome the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling with a constitutional amendment.
- Voter registration systems that securely register the greatest number of citizens. Consider compulsory voting or, at the minimum, voting incentives or penalties. Initiate a digital national identity card program that will make it easier for citizens to vote and serve as proof of citizenship.
- Nonpartisan citizen panels to create voting districts that fairly represent voter geographic distribution. Do not allow single party partisans to select their own voters, as is the current practice in most states.
- Voluntary education programs to enhance citizen engagement, understanding and responsibility. Pay citizens to attend.
- Increase House terms to three years while legislating a two-term maximum for both senators and representatives. Fewer elections. Better continuity.
- No representative compensation from lobbyists or other sources. Increase representatives’ compensation to attract the best citizen patriots regardless of social, racial and economic background.
In 2018, let’s elect representatives who will work for all.
Consider our collective failure to perform even the basic functions of the job of citizenship. More than 90 million eligible citizens failed to vote in the 2016 presidential election, granting minority interests undue weight and influence in the result. This failure is exacerbated in congressional elections where even fewer voters turn out.
Democracy is further subverted by inadequate voter understanding of the issues, inability to think critically about media representations of candidates and their positions, and unwillingness to break free from social and economic groupings that too often predetermine voting preferences. There is no democracy when citizens fail to engage and participate.
All citizens must register and vote in the 2018 congressional elections. High voter participation promotes an outcome that best reflects majority opinion and reduces the partisan bias of the ideological poles of our society. In preparation, citizens must demand more from candidates. Rather than relying on the same information sources, party dogma or social groupings, consider balancing information with sources that present opposing views.
If this proves too difficult, let’s at least ask candidates to respond to questions of fundamental value. Citizens need to understand candidates’ proposals to:
- Ensure citizens register to vote and receive the support and tools they require to be informed voters.
- Reduce America’s child poverty rate and provide our children with adequate nutrition, health care and living conditions.
- Reverse increasing income inequality.
- Ensure that, over time, we better balance our national revenues and expenses.
- Provide affordable and high quality health care and reduce the number or drug- and gun-related deaths.
- Ensure that all students have access to world-class education.
- Invest in adequate numbers of meaningful jobs and a workforce that can adapt to ever-increasing technological advances.
- Collaborate with other nations to improve global economic, environmental and physical security.
It is up to citizens to support candidates who focus on the issues that develop our societal values, our democracy and our economy. It is up to the media to give candidates adequate, balanced and rigorously fact-checked exposure on these issues. Citizens need not agree on policy change details, but we must agree that our democracy requires that citizens and representatives do their jobs.
Historically, America’s founders and its greatest political, social and business leaders have put their individual interests aside in the service of our ideals. Today, it is up to a new generation of citizen patriots and leaders to put aside partisanship and make the sacrifices needed to sustain and improve that legacy. America’s system is a worthy cause. Are we up to the job?
Mac Regan, a retired global human capital practice leader and worldwide partner at international consultancy Mercer, is a graduate of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a member of its Advancement Committee and the author of “Global Citizen Patriots.”
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