There is a lot of anxiety today about the failings of our democracy—the polarization, the inability to solve national problems. Shouldn’t we do something about it?
But two assumptions are often made which work against any action:
- All that we as citizens can do is choose political leaders. Specialists in government are responsible for taking action and making decisions for which citizens have no expertise. That’s democracy.
- Things aren’t really as dire as the media presents. Sure, we can and should make improvements. But we’ve got a good system, and we’re the most prosperous nation on earth. The media is incentivized to be alarming because it sells.
My rebuttal to the first assumption is this: political will is everything. Politicians won’t work on hard problems unless they know that ordinary voters are judging their performance with discerning. That discerning can only come from knowledge, from an actual understanding of the issues and of politics and basic economics. It may not be trivial to get such knowledge into voters’ heads, though it can’t be said that we’ve ever tried before. And new tools have become available in the last twenty years that we could apply to the task.
If, hypothetically, most voters understood the issues, beyond the platitudes, recriminations, and slogans we currently get from politicians on the left and the right, it is plausible to predict that Congress would solve more problems. So, the people could help. But what about #2 above? Do we even have serious, hard problems that need solving?
Well, what about our unstoppable growth in federal debt? What about addressing climate change? Or electoral problems like gerrymandering and campaign finance? And when will we get some serious legislation on immigration? These and other big problems are discussed regularly in the news. Not everyone would agree about the urgency of each of them, but it’s hard to imagine them getting solved without a greater amount of political will.
Our government has been terribly ineffectual at solving these basic, immediate, well-known problems. It makes us feel beaten down. So much so, that today we can’t even allow ourselves to dream about more dramatic reforms to our government that could really serve us well. Things that would make our government work a lot better, that would make it more accountable, that would make people feel positive about our government. Let me list a few of my own brainstorms.
With a couple caveats first. One is that some may sound a bit left-leaning. That’s unavoidable—liberals tend to advocate change, and conservatives tend to oppose it—and some of these changes would be fought by the libertarian-minded and of course by entrenched interests. The second caveat is that I am not a political scientist. I am sure political scientists could come up with a better wish-list than this. That said, here are a few reform ideas:
- Get big private money out of elections
- Outlaw legislation that benefits special interests and diffuses the costs onto the public
- Give Congress a lot more resources so that the courts don’t have to do so much legislating
- Implement next-generation information systems for better public service
- Dramatically reform and reorganize social programs (health care, welfare, etc.) to simplify, rationalize, and cost-reduce them
- Develop more rational, less burdensome regulatory systems—better processes, technologies, standards, maintenance
- Real programs to deal with the effects on people of economic change—globalization, automation, dislocation
- Regulate the media (fairly of course) – both mass media and social media – to stop impairing the public interest
So again, regarding assumption #2, I don’t know if there’s a way to objectively measure how bad things are today, and with what degree of urgency our problems need to be solved. My main point, though, is: look at all of the opportunities lying in wait, opportunities to make things better!
I personally don’t think we need to worry about a revolution, a fascist takeover, or an Armageddon if the failings of our democracy aren’t immediately “fixed.” But we are stuck in a deep rut, and we don’t have to be. We just need to develop a new way to generate enough political will.