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We keep trying to reform our political system to make it more “democratic.” Grassroots organizations across the world are pushing reforms, trying to bring politics closer to the people. Parties have turned to primaries and local caucuses to select candidates. Ballot initiatives and referenda allow citizens to enact laws directly.
Many democracies now use proportional representation, encouraging smaller, more issue-focussed parties, rather than two dominant,“big tent” ones. At the same time, voters keep getting angrier.
It appears that popular democracy has paradoxically eroded trust in political systems worldwide. What if we are going in the totally wrong direction?
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk to Ian Shapiro, a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University. He is the co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself.
Shapiro argues that the devolving power of political parties — and the evolving power of grassroots — is at the core of the problem. To revive confidence in governance, he says, we must restore power to the core institution of representative democracy: the political party.
Shapiro explains that when voters have too much control, it often sets the system up for failure and disappointment. Instead, we should look at political parties as teams that bundle lots of issues and put many programs in front of voters that are not based on single-issue constituencies.
Voters need to understand, Shapiro tells Jeff Schechtman, that there is an opportunity-cost to everything, and that we have to approach all issues with moderation.
Comparing the political process to “last best offer arbitration,” he explains why moderation is even more important than compromise, which often leads to extreme positions as a starting point.
In the end, Shapiro shows how and why political parties have gotten weaker — and that many of our problems of governance stem from exactly that.
Martin Sheil, a former IRS investigator, walks us through what we know about Trump’s taxes.
It seems that every time we experience a “gilded age,” the rich, perhaps worried that the pitchforks will soon be at the gates, increase their giving.
According to David Callahan, our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast and the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, political polarization has divided the world of large-scale giving as never before.
Each side looks askance at the philanthropists on the other side. For those on the left, the Koch brothers are evil in their giving. For those on the right, George Soros is a symbol of all that is wrong with giving.
Callahan, also the author of The Cheating Culture, explains how the billionaire class, which, over the past 40 years has led the charge to shrink the size of government, now seeks to privatize public good. The super-rich aim to mobilize their wealth and their “I alone can fix it” philosophy to determine where dollars are needed in the public sphere.
Callahan reminds us that this has led to the delusion that the wealthy, no matter how that wealth is acquired, wield some special powers to determine what’s best. The delusion has been amplified by the current occupant of the White House.
All of this, Callahan says, has led to the virtual institutionalization of the wealth gap. What we need now, he argues, is less accumulated wealth dispensed by private individuals, and more redistribution of wealth under public auspices — allowing people to democratically select what goals and values they want to advance.
Given the ongoing standoff between Congress and the White House, it’s becoming clearer each day that the “tiebreaker” will be the 2020 election.
So it’s encouraging to learn that the prospects for voting reform are not as bleak as some stories might lead us to believe. Amid voter apathy and voter suppression efforts, there are leaders and activists in some states and local communities across the country who are successfully working to bring more people to the polls.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Joshua Douglas, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law and an expert on state constitutions and election law procedure. He is also the co-author of an election-law case book and co-editor of Election Law Stories.
Douglas argues that change best happens locality by locality and that, in spite of all the bad news, he is seeing many new efforts at voter expansion. Promising local experiments, mostly in blue states but some bipartisan efforts as well, include felon re-enfranchisement and lowering the voting age.
Douglas views voting reform as a two-pronged approach. Herculean efforts are necessary to fight back against the harsh tactics of voter suppression. At the same time, uncompromising resistance has to go hand-in-hand with proactive efforts to extend the franchise. If we are only engaged in the fight against suppression, he says “we are only doing half of what’s possible.”
Some examples: lowering the voting age to 16 — coupled with different kinds of civics education —and the availability of modern voting systems that still provide paper back-up. Citing the positive results of automatic and same-day voter registration, he shows why these efforts are increasing turnout.
Douglas points out that even in Kentucky and Iowa, two of the states aggressively engaged in voter suppression, some progress is being made. He details some inspiring stories of voting reforms that give hope for the future of democracy in the US.