The Ills That Kill Democracy

Call me naïve.  I arrived in Washington, DC fifty-two years ago full of vim and vigor to take part in the great pageant of American reform, convinced that in the years ahead the political arc would bend ever-upward toward a fuller democracy.  I had studied the nation’s history, broken free of a politically conservative upbringing (it would be called moderate Republican today, if there was such a thing), and concluded that being on the ground in DC was where I needed to be to help bend the arc skyward.  So, I spent the bulk of the next half-century trying to do just that.  Those years included fifteen working in the U. S. Senate, eight in the Executive Branch, over a decade as a member of the Federal Communications Commission, and almost another decade now at Common Cause, the renowned watchdog citizens group.  I witnessed great changes, to be sure, even meaningful progress in such areas as civil, women’s, gender, disability and indigenous people’s rights.  But so much remains undone.

All change is not progress. The arc hits speed bumps along the way, and sometimes the journey I thought I was on seemed more like Sisyphus trying to push that rock uphill.  “Keep pushing” is still my mantra, but the awful damage we have inflicted, or let happen, to our democracy now threatens its very existence. Democracy’s discontents are many, and I will expand on a few of them below, but note first that every passing day of not confronting them makes democracy’s fulfillment ever less likely.  In truth, our democracy is crumbling. As Joe Biden often says: I’m not joking.

Herewith a quick overview of some of the things that ail our democracy:

MONEY.  Over $14 billion were spent on the 2020 election campaigns.  That’s just sickening.  Big money corrupts the campaigns and co-opts the politicians.  It sets the priorities in Congress, determines the schedule of legislation, and often actually writes the laws that are passed. Most office-holders spend the bulk of their days, each day and every day, raising money and giving access and doing favors for those who write the big checks.  I realize this is no news flash—most people “get it” that money holds sway in politics.  But “getting it” doesn’t fix it.  Congress, big money’s loyal beneficiary, could conceivably do that.  But it won’t—unless we demand it.  Most of us aren’t.

GERRYMANDERING.  Our “system” of drawing electoral districts has taken the competition out of all but a few dozen House of Representatives races.  Incumbents win, challengers lose.  And these one-party districts quickly devolve into conservative strongholds becoming more conservative and liberal ones becoming more liberal.  It’s not good for what political scientists used to call the “Vital Center”.  A lot of us “get” this, too, but the incumbents are in charge in state capitals just like they are in Congress, and they continue on their merry way.  Who’s to fix it?  Maybe us—if we demand it.  But most of us aren’t.

THE FILIBUSTER.  As gerrymandering distorts the House, the filibuster renders the Senate ineffective.  Contrary to anything in the Constitution, the filibuster was never intended to apply to most legislation.  True, the founders carved out a few exceptions requiring more than a simple majority, like approving treaties or judging impeachments, but they did not envision and certainly did not approve requiring super-majorities to get the nation’s business done.  Even when I went to work in the Senate in 1970, Senators worked hard to build coalitions and win votes for their proposals, and when they failed, they didn’t resort to end-running the Constitution to keep the other side from winning.  Most of us “get” this one, too, but still the obstructionists run the process.  Who’s to fix it?  Maybe us—if we demand it.  But most of us aren’t.

THE JUDICIARY.  This is a more recent addition to my catalogue of threats to our democracy.  Many of our courts are becoming as polarized as Congress and state legislatures.  The system just isn’t working very well.  Judges appointed or elected on the basis of their political ideologies are making a mess of impartial justice.  Entrenched interests shop for courts where their kind of judges sit.  And, too often, a politicized district court will decide a case one way, an appeals court with another ideology will reverse the district court’s decision, and it may end up at the Supreme Court where, we all know, political viewpoint can easily trump impartial decision-making.  I realize few among us can be truly impartial, and we should not expect unachievable purity in our courts, or any place else for that matter, but when politics trumps an open mind in the dispensing of justice, democracy takes another hit.

I also believe that the increasing trend toward electing judges and making them conduct campaigns for their seats is a deep pot-hole on the road to a functional judiciary, especially in an environment where big money and redistricting influence those very elections.  Diminishing trust in the institutions of government is close to the core of our seeming inability to tackle the many problems that bedevil us.  When that lack of trust extends to the courts who are charged with the foundational responsibility of protecting our most basic values, we lose an essential component of successful government.  I doubt Congress will fix this any time soon.  Who’s to fix it?  Maybe us—if we demand it.  But most of us aren’t.

MEDIA.  I know—regular readers of my musings are thinking it took me an awfully long time to get to the subject that some think consumes me.  So, I won’t belabor it here.  But I am more concerned than ever that our media is failing its responsibility to inform our civic dialogue and give us the facts we need in order to keep our democracy going.  The consolidation of the media, the substitution of glitzy corporate infotainment for investigative journalism, the mass closing of news bureaus, and the loss of over a third of our newsroom employees have seriously dumbed down our national conversation.  We need a thriving journalism to hold power accountable, to tackle issues that don’t receive due coverage, and to dig for facts instead of shouting opinions.  Hedge fund buy-outs and private equity news management are poor guardians for the kind of information upon which our national well-being depends.

Hopefully reinvigorated independent government agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, along with the Department of Justice’s anti-trust team, will reverse some of the damage that has been done.  Sadly, Congress and its big-money patrons have so far refused to confirm the nomination for an FCC slot that is needed to give the commission a working majority.  Once that is done, this agency can move ahead to begin reviving public interest media oversight.  Yet truly comprehensive media reform can come only when the people demand it.  But most of us aren’t.

TECHNOLOGY.  This leads us to the final challenge I will discuss today.  Broadband and the internet could have, should have, led us into a new age of enlightened democracy.  To be sure, broadband has enhanced our lives in many ways, and it has long been my contention that access to this technology is a civil right because no one can be a fully-functioning member of society without access to robust connectivity.  The good news is that the pandemic woke up enough decision-makers to pass the Infrastructure Act that provided $65 billion to help bring modern broadband to every household across the country. House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn deserves huge thanks for his leadership in making this happen.  Now the job is to make certain these monies are wisely spent, that they are not monopolized by the big telecom and cable companies, and that due diligence is practiced at every step on the road to universal broadband coverage.

But there is no gainsaying that the internet has in many ways gone astray.  What was once envisioned as the new town square of democracy has in many instances become the purveyor of disinformation and misinformation that have poisoned our civic dialogue and contributed mightily to the polarization of our politics.  Just as bad, we have done little about it.  While other nations, notably in the European Union, have passed legislation and regulations to drastically curtail these abuses, the United States has failed to act.  Oh, we talk about it a lot, and some good bills have been introduced in Congress to provide at least a little basic oversight, but nothing really substantive has been accomplished, nor has the totality of the tech challenge even been broached.  Instead, it’s become another partisan and polarizing political free-for-all, and the big tech companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying to make sure nobody trots on their turfs.

Hopefully some anti-trust cases will move forward, as they are in other countries.  But these take years to decide.  Just as bad, important courts (see above) have adopted anti-trust theories that remind us more of the nineteenth century Gilded Age than they do of twenty-first century America.

The internet is at the heart of our future.  It becomes more pervasive with each passing day.  Something so integral to our lives has, of course, huge public implications.  It cannot be allowed to just go its own way, with different tech giants practicing vastly different approaches to privacy, content modification, and disinformation.  It is critically important that these firms be subject to some public interest oversight, some limitations on their ever-growing size, and some requirements for transparency in not just their algorithms, but also their overall behavior.  No company in a democratic society should be allowed to exercise so much power as these tech and other communications behemoths wield.

There is a time to debate and a time to act.  But there will only be action if we, the people, demand it.  The time for spectator democracy is past.  The time for participatory democracy is here.  Now.

Michael J. Copps