What Is It That We Want?

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the Benton Foundation blog.

Michael J. Copps

Congress is dysfunctional.  The courts are a bad and dangerous joke.  Independent government agencies are on the cusp of being dismantled.  The Administration’s agenda is largely blocked.  Companies large and small have pillaged the economy and jacked up prices that impose real pain on American consumers, long after economic circumstances can justify it.   The media, which have a solemn obligation to give us real news and information, choose instead to blanket us with infotainment and trifle that divert our attention from the real problems that are undermining our democracy.  And we, the people, have let it happen.

“Boy, Copps has turned into an old crank,” some will say.  Well, the above paragraph may paint with a somewhat broad brush, but there is enough truth there to justify a deeper look.  Stay with me here.

A DYSFUNCTIONAL CONGRESS.  We have a Congress brought low by money, ideology, partisan redistricting, filibusters, and precious little accountability.  This is not entirely new—it’s just worse than ever before.  Oh, I know—go back through our history and you’ll never find a perfect Congress.  And, yes, some important legislation has been passed in the wake of COVID.  But we’ve never had the amount of special interest money and high-paid lobbyists buying Capitol Hill votes and setting back democracy as we have right now.  Money is poisoning democracy’s well, and if it isn’t curbed—really curbed and really soon—I don’t believe our democracy will survive.

Democracy has been undermined by Congressional redistricting for many years, but never like the ubiquitous and blatant partisan electoral maps as we have today.  Whole blocs of citizens have seen their voting power diminished and often destroyed, thereby entirely losing their voices in charting our country’s path.  Millions of Americans’ ballots are diluted to the point where they just don’t meaningfully count.  Think about that!  It could be your ballot I’m talking about.

Filibusters and other legislative end-runs are all the while dooming important legislative proposals and Presidential appointments.  We are almost three-quarters through this Administration, and many of the President’s appointments to high office are stuck in the Senate confirmation hell-hole.  How does it help our diplomacy when Senate rules allow one Senator to hold up confirmation of dozens of ambassadors and other officials?  We have enormous global problems to resolve, but egregious partisanship keeps hundreds of diplomatic posts empty.  The last time I checked, over one-fourth of U.S. ambassadorship positions lacked a Senate-confirmed appointee.  Talk about dis-serving the national interest!  How can government do its jobs without leaders at the helm?

AN OUT-OF-WHACK JUDICIARY.  If there is one branch of government where wisdom, historical knowledge, and beyond reproach integrity are supposed to reign, it is surely the judiciary.  But, now more than ever, hyper-partisanship dictates who gets appointed to the Supreme Court.  Special interests wield a lot more influence than the general public on who gets nominated.  (Sometimes the Senate even finds ways to delay these important nominations until a different and more politically agreeable President takes office.)  Increasingly, archaic ideology more than informed constitutionalism informs the dizzying array of decisions the high court pronounces.  To make matters worse, our highest court operates without anything approaching a credible code of ethical behavior.  Justices, and even their spouses, engage in money-making “jobs” and “opportunities” that cast grave suspicion on their integrity—their sense of what is right and what is wrong.  These judges get away with behavior that not even a congressman can do!

Now we are entering an era when judges at local and lesser levels are increasingly selected through expensive electioneering.  These contests go largely unreported, but sometimes cost millions of dollars.  Those dollars come frequently from wealthy special interests.  Judgeships for sale to the highest bidder!  Is this how justice is served?

Special interests also know how to court-shop.  They find ways to present their lawsuits to judges who are known for their friendly political leanings, i.e., their ideologies.   Then a case will often go to a court of appeals whose majority may have opposite leanings, and the initial decision may be overturned.  This yo-yo process can continue all the way to the Supreme Court.  Is it any wonder, then, that the judiciary is rapidly falling into public disrepute?

Justice is not politics.  This is serious business that goes to the people’s faith in securing justice through our legal system.  Our democracy cannot allow these abuses to continue.  Judicial reform is essential reform—and its time is now.  Out-of-touch judges need to understand what their behavior is endangering.  And we the people need to insist upon it.

CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY FOR INFLATION AND THE ECONOMY.  Surely there are multiple causes for the inflation that has stalked our economy for so many months.  COVID and the costs of alleviating the suffering it brought clogged supply lines around the globe, created huge spikes in energy prices, and wreaked havoc on the world economy.  But there was a huge amount of profiteering involved, too, from businesses large and, yes, sometimes small.  Airlines, energy producers and distributors, financial services, telecom, meat and food processors jacked up prices, and their quarterly profits zoomed skyward—into the tens of billions—while consumers paid the price.  Seeing the big guys profiteer, plenty of smaller enterprises followed suit and took advantage of their opportunity to gouge consumers over and above legitimate price increases.  I’m not saying “all”, but I did say “plenty”.  A walk down many store aisles is still shocking today.  You can’t convince me all those price hikes are justified.  Nor are all those shrinking cartons and containers that force us to pay more for less.  It’s a far cry from pulling together to overcome a serious problem.

MEDIA THAT FALLS SHORT.  Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised that I hold media accountable for much of our diminishing democracy.  Large corporate media would rather focus on entertaining viewers and listeners instead of informing them of what is actually going on.  Instead, we are bombarded with the spitballs Trump and DeSantis hurl at each other every night on the network news.  Local news is a shell of its former self because the big guys have swallowed up hundreds of community stations, vastly diminishing local and regional news and important beats at the local and state levels.  How can we have better news when we have seen over one-third of newsroom jobs cut in recent years?  “If it bleeds, it leads” coverage, weather and sports seem the totality of too many outlets across the country.  There are still independent and high-performing community stations around, don’t get me wrong, but it is every day more difficult for them to survive in such a consolidated media environment.

WHAT ABOUT US?  I remarked at the outset that we, the people, have let much of this happen.  That’s harsh, I know, but we each must do a better job of fulfilling our responsibilities as citizens.  This country of ours, despite its many daunting challenges, remains the world’s best hope—if we do our part.  That means voting, yes, but it means insisting on media and reporting that dig for facts, cover all beats, and provide us with fact-based information that enables us to vote intelligently.  It means getting involved before and after we vote, holding elected and appointed officials responsible for good and intelligent behavior, pushing them to redeem their electoral promises, and organizing with like-minded fellow citizens to make sure political promises are kept.  True reform seldom comes as a gift from beneficent lawmakers on Capitol Hill.  It comes when they feel pressure from back home.  That means pressure from you and me.  It’s hard but necessary work.  Without it, we get the mess we have.  Democracy is not a spectator sport.  It is a participatory obligation.  Harsh as this piece may seem, I still believe we can stop our democracy’s slide and redeem the promise of America—if that’s what we really want.