By James Kwak
We have lots of problems: Expensive yet mediocre health care. Lack of retirement security. Out-of-control megabanks. Inequality of opportunity. And, of course, climate change.
At the end of the day, though, there are only two things that matter: early childhood education and electoral reform.
We need smart, motivated, knowledgeable voters. And we need a political system in which all people have an equal say. Without those ingredients, no amount of well-meaning, reasoned, fact-based argument is going to do much good.
Just think about climate change, for example. It’s abundantly clear that the planet is getting warmer because of our greenhouse gas emissions, the process is irreversible at this point, and the downside risks to billions of people are enormous. Yet, in the country that won World War Two, rebuilt Europe and Japan, won the Cold War, and exported most of the technology that makes the modern world modern, we are incapable of doing anything about climate change. Why?
Because our political system is blocked by the fossil fuel industry, politicians dependent on the fossil fuel industry, and ignorant zealots who oppose a carbon tax because it is a “tax” and a cap-and-trade system because it is “regulation.”
That’s why I’m supporting Larry Lessig for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sure, I’d like to see Bernie Sanders become president — or, more accurately, I’d like to see a lot of the policies that he proposes become law. I’d even be OK with Hillary Clinton — that is, the version of Hillary Clinton who gives speeches to Democrats when she’s campaigning for the nomination. But in the current political system, a smart president with his or her heart more or less in the right place, plus $2.50, will get you a small coffee at Starbucks. Remember, we’ve had one of those for the past six and a half years. Sure, Obamacare is better than nothing. But just twenty-five years ago, it was a conservative think tank’s alternative to real health care reform, before it became Mitt Romney’s health care plan.
By the time Barack Obama leaves office, Democrats will have controlled the White House for sixteen out of the past twenty-four years. Both Bill Clinton and Obama were elected with large majorities in both houses of Congress. And yet, on most social and economic issues (apart from “cultural” issues, most notably marriage equality), we are barely holding the line against a conservative onslaught. Tax rates on investment income — virtually the only thing that matters when it comes to long-term inequality — are higher than under President George W. Bush, but lower than when Clinton took office. The estate tax has been slashed. Federal regulatory agencies have been hamstrung by industry lawsuits. Funding for food stamps has been cut. Privatizing Medicare is the official policy of House Republicans, including Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. Things are considerably worse on the state level: think about Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, or the fact that twenty states have refused to accept federal money to help poor people by expanding Medicaid. Even the “victories” have been bittersweet: the Dodd-Frank Act did a patchy job partially reversing decades of deregulation that produced the financial crisis, and the Affordable Care Act enshrined into law something that was considered a conservative plan just twenty-five years ago. The most common argument for electing a Democratic president in 2016 is to prevent things from getting worse: to stop Republicans in Congress from gutting the federal government, and to stop the Republican majority on the Supreme Court from getting even stronger.
For thirty years, since Ronald Reagan’s first term, Democrats have been playing a short game, focusing on winning the next presidential election (to prevent things from getting worse), and slowly sliding to the right in order to win that election. Republicans have been playing a long game, focusing on base-inspiring ideological issues, state legislatures, and the federal judiciary (although they kind of shot themselves in the foot under George W. by succumbing to garden-variety corruption). And yes, if you look at presidential and congressional elections, we have been winning about half of them. But the outcome has been a slow retreat in which Democrats sign off on one conservative idea that is now considered “moderate” only because an even more conservative idea has outflanked it on the right.
The fundamental issue is the political system itself, not the content of the policies that it produces. It isn’t just Democrats who think that the political system is bought and paid for, either: that’s one of the reasons for Donald Trump’s popularity amid a sea of politicians with Super PACs. If we want real change in the long term, we have to fix the system. That means real equality of political participation, not just the formal equality of one person one vote — if, that is, you can get yourself registered, and avoid having your voting rights stripped by your state, and get out of work in time to make it to the polling station, and live in a place where your vote matters.
One of the most common objections to Larry Lessig’s candidacy is that even if he does become president, he won’t be able to pass his electoral reform bills. But why won’t he? Because Republicans have a solid lock on the House of Representatives — and they have it because of systematic gerrymandering on the state level. Again, the problem is with a political system that allows the majority in the state legislature to use redistricting to entrench itself in power.
If we don’t fix the system — then, well, nothing else really matters. Forget about doing anything about climate change.
At a minimum, Larry Lessig’s campaign will bring attention to the importance of electoral reform and political equality. And if he does win the Democratic nomination? Well, I’d like to see the election that will follow. We know that a large majority of Americans have lost faith in the political system. What will happen when one candidate campaigns solely on a platform of leveling the playing field?
(And, let’s face it, it’s not like we have such great candidates this time. Bernie Sanders is a self-professed socialist, Hillary Clinton is one of the most disliked people in American politics, and … Joe Biden?)
Finally, yes, even a President Lessig, elected in a referendum on political equality, might not be able to pass the reforms we need, at least not in the next term of Congress. But, as Lessig wrote, what is the alternative? Does anyone believe that either President Clinton or President Sanders will be able to do anything about political equality? How could either of them come into office with more of a mandate for change than Barack Obama had six and a half years ago? And what impact has he had on the political system itself? Zero.
Now, it turns out, there is one little problem. Without a huge Super PAC backing him, Lessig needs as much free media as possible to make his case, and there’s no better free media than the televised debates. But he may not be included — because the organizations that run the polls that determine who gets into the debates are not including Lessig’s name, even after he raised $1 million and announced his candidacy. According to some sources, the reason could be that the Democratic National Committee has not “welcomed” Lessig to the race, which it did with the other announced candidates. That, of course, would be only too ironic, in the year that the entire party establishment is rowing hard to lock up the nomination for Hillary Clinton.
If you think that Larry Lessig should at least be included in national polls so he has a chance to qualify for the debates, there is of course a petition you can sign.
And free, universal early childhood education? Well, there’s overwhelming evidence for its benefits. But until we fix the political system, it isn’t going to happen.
Also posted at Medium.