Magazine article The American Prospect

A Broader Definition of Democracy: Small Reforms Won't Bring the System-Wide Change We Need

Magazine article The American Prospect

A Broader Definition of Democracy: Small Reforms Won't Bring the System-Wide Change We Need

Article excerpt

"Over the last several years, the race for money and influence and power has left the hopes and concerns of most Americans in the dust. All you see from Washington is another scandal or petty argument. And so we get discouraged. Half of us don't vote. The half of us who do vote are voting" against somebody instead of voting for something. We know what fills the void: the lobbyists, the influence peddlers with the cash and connections.... They write the checks, and you get stuck with the bills."

At the 2007 Take Back America Conference, Barack Obama offered a thorough explanation of the challenges to American democracy. Now we have a political opening, a historic opportunity to improve our democracy and reverse the cycle Obama described. This opportunity is not simply or even primarily because of Obama's evident talents or because an African American president will help heal our nation's original sin. Rather, it is the result of a long shift in the tides after the low point of voter suppression and public disenchantment in recent years.

From 2004 to 2006, the political momentum was with those forces pushing for greater restriction of democracy. The wave of voter- identification laws proposed in state after state and upheld in court were but one example. Somewhere in mid-decade--perhaps beginning with the Jack Abramoff scandal and continuing on through the Bush administration's overreaching in firing and hiring U.S. attorneys and manipulating research results by the Election Assistance Commission for partisan ends--the trend reversed. The 2008 election was an affirmation that there is a political opening to resume and win a pro-democracy agenda. In the past two years, Iowa and North Carolina passed Election Day registration; Florida and Rhode Island restored enfranchisement to many ex-felons; instant run-off voting passed in Minneapolis and Oakland; and public financing of some statewide political campaigns passed in North Carolina and advanced in Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico, and Alaska.

The Obama administration will accelerate this trend because the new president (and former organizer) understands that democracy requires a demos. This understanding corroborates the conclusion of a year-long "Democracy Agenda" research project that I led for the Proteus Fund together with other pro-democracy reform funders. That project found that democracy is best understood using systems analysis as a complex set of relationships with institutional, cultural, and procedural dimensions. Democracy includes the executive branch as well as the civil-rights movement; poll workers and voting machines as well as the maldistribution of opportunity created by the allotment of wealth; lobbyists' and corporations' influence over public policy as well as civil-society institutions based in communities, labor unions, and identity- or issue-based groups. Many factors help and hurt our democracy.

In order to sustain the increased participation of citizens, the Obama administration as well as Congress and state governments must undertake a major reform effort, one that's interconnected and self-reinforcing. This is not just good policy, it is good politics; it's not just right, it's smart--it's an approach that is very much in the self-interest of the new president and the expanded Democratic majorities in Congress. The Obama campaign first proved in the 2007 Iowa caucuses that the usual political calculations can be upended by virtue of expanding who's involved. High levels of citizen participation will help a nascent progressive majority's power to be felt, both in enacting a substantive policy agenda and in winning future elections.


The components of a "pro-democracy" reform agenda can be classified in nine categories:

* Active, everyday citizen participation and organizing: Shared governance and deliberative democracy can improve governmental decisions and ensure popular satisfaction with outcomes; card-check elections for unions and other labor-law reforms can empower workers; changes in the tax code would facilitate community organizing. …

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