Restoring Our Republic
John Sarbanes, The Huffington Post
September 14, 2016
The story goes that Benjamin Franklin was approached by Elizabeth Powell as he exited Independence Hall in Philadelphia: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” The 81-year old Franklin replied, “[A] republic... if you can keep it.”
Keeping our republic has become the passion of millions of Americans who are convinced that their government is broken. They see a Congress captured by special interests and frustratingly unresponsive to the needs of everyday Americans. Whatever else they may disagree about, Democrats, Republicans and Independents have all arrived at the same explanation for the rot in our politics: Big Money.
According to a recent Ipsos poll, 7 in 10 respondents agreed that our democracy is at risk if action is not taken to address the undue influence of money in politics. The same poll found that 8 in 10 respondents view that influence to be worse than at any other time in their lives and an overwhelming 93 percent of respondents felt that elected officials listen more to big-money campaign donors than to regular voters.
In the current year’s presidential sweepstakes, the public’s anger and cynicism has found varied expressions. Attacking a “corrupt campaign finance system,” Bernie Sanders lit up a world of $27 donors who demanded to have their voices heard. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has seized on anger at Washington insiders to peddle the perverse notion that the people’s interests will be best protected by electing a billionaire who (by his laughable assertion) is unbeholden to the moneyed class.
Against this backdrop, the call for reform is growing louder. The public knows that we need to put a referee on the field of our democracy to blow the whistle on the big-money players. That’s the reason to require disclosure of secret money and to put limits on the spending of Super PACs and special interests. But Americans who feel powerless are also realizing that the best way to fight Big Money is to compete with it through citizen-owned elections. It’s the equivalent of coming out of the bleachers and onto the field of their own democracy, where they can call the shots. It’s about getting even, instead of just getting mad.
In Connecticut, Arizona and New York City, grassroots donors have been getting even for years when it comes to the funding of state and local races. And this trend is continuing. Last November, citizens in Maine and Seattle voted to enact a new generation of ethics and campaign finance reforms. This November, voters in Washington State, and Maryland’s Howard County, will have the same opportunity.
But something even bigger is happening. It looks — finally — like the idea of small-donor empowerment is arriving on the national stage. In Washington, House Democrats recently unveiled a “By the People” reform package that includes key proposals to finance Congressional and Presidential campaigns with small-donor matching systems. These policy prescriptions are mirrored in the Democratic National Platform, which contains arguably the strongest commitment to fundamental campaign reform in our history. And the Democratic nominee for President, Hillary Clinton, has embraced small-donor matching as a game changer in the way we finance federal elections. She knows that this kind of reform will spur everyday Americans to re-engage in their democracy. But just as importantly, it will allow a whole new generation of candidates to run, compete and win without having to depend on the wealthy and the well-connected.
In a political system where money is power, too many Americans feel utterly powerless. We can give those Americans power again by building a new system of funding campaigns — one where small contributions leverage financial resources for political candidates at a level that actually gets their attention. Empowering people is the way to restore faith in our democracy. In the words of Ben Franklin, it’s the way to keep our republic.