This is the silent political revolution of 2020
Lawrence Lessig, CNN (Opinion)
As the Democratic Primary kicks into high gear, it is increasingly clear that 2020 could give America a choice that it has not had since Richard Nixon resigned: An election that promises critical change to our political system. At least 7 of the remaining candidates in the Democratic primary have committed to making fundamental government reform their first priority in office. We have not been this close to real change of America's politics since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is therefore time that the candidates' plans -- and how they differ --become the focus of more media attention.
Michael Bennet, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang have promised both to make this reform happen, and to happen first. This itself is a first in the history of American politics.
The inspiration, in part, for this movement is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Many of these candidates are following the template of HR 1 or the "For the People Act of 2019." In the lead-up to the 2018 election, Pelosi's colleague, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), convinced her and the Democratic leadership to make political reform the priority in 2019, if indeed the Democrats won control of the House. Pelosi delivered on her promise, passing HR 1 in March this year. But as important as the substance of that bill is, the title is even more important -- by denominating the bill as first, Pelosi said what reformers have been insisting upon for decades now: that we must fix democracy before democracy can sensibly address America's problems.
HR 1 had packaged four critical reforms (among others) in a single bill: a small-dollar matching system to help fund congressional campaigns, an end to political gerrymandering, a promise to restore the Voting Rights Act, and the end of at least some of the revolving doors in DC that make it so difficult for our government to actually represent America.
Of these reforms, changing the way campaigns are funded is the most important. He who pays the piper calls the tune. And until Congress ends its corrupting dependence on the funding of the very few, Congress will not be free to legislate in a way that benefits Americans generally.
Many of the Democrats have taken these ideas. Some have improved upon them. Yang has proposed giving every voter 100 "democracy dollars," so as to bring radically more Americans into the process of funding congressional campaigns. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had proposed up to $600 before she withdrew from the race. And Bernie Sanders has now followed the lead of his campaign co-chair, Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA), and endorsed "democracy vouchers" -- cash vouchers given to eligible voters to donate to a candidate of their choice -- as a way to help fund congressional campaigns.
Sanders' boldness here is not surprising -- though it is disappointing he has not yet committed to making reform happen first. Warren's relatively timid package, by contrast, is surprising, given the boldness of everything else she has proposed. Her public funding plan (a 6 to 1 match of contributions less than $200) simply tracks HR 1, and her refusal to join the movement to enfranchise not just those who now contribute to political campaigns, but the 99.5% who do not (give at least $200) -- through democracy vouchers, as Sanders has proposed -- is genuinely puzzling.
For you'd think that a candidate so focused on the fact that most Americans can't afford even a $400 medical bill should be more attuned to the fact that most Americans won't spend $200 on contributions to politicians.
But these are details. The critical fact these proposals reveal is that these presidential candidates recognize that reform must happen first. The debates have covered a wide range of policy proposals -- single payer health care, free college, the Green New Deal. Yet those conversations presume we already had a Congress that can actually legislate. We don't. We have a failed institution at the core of our government -- Congress -- and failed because it is so dependent on the campaign funds of the very few.
Until Congress becomes independent of the influence of the tiny and wealthy fraction of Americans that donate to campaigns, debates about different versions of health care reform or gun safety legislation are just blather. Real policy change in America is just fantasy until real political reform in America actually happens.
That reform won't happen unless the issue becomes more visible and more regularly debated. That requires the press to better understand that fixing this issue is constitutionally possible and politically necessary. It also requires that candidates have the courage to move their ideas off their web pages and into every speech they give. Some do that already in a powerful and effective way. Warren has become the anti-corruption candidate, her timid public funding proposals notwithstanding. And even Joe Biden has now joined the reform movement, with an ambitious package of promised change, though he, like Sanders, has not yet committed to making that reform happen first.
That's what every candidate for President must now do. No doubt, for many, 2020 is primarily an election about Donald Trump. But the Democrats especially need to give America a reason to believe that government can work for America, not just for the funders of political campaigns. This reform movement is that chance -- if only it can be brought out of the closet and set into the light.