Two years ago, Barack Obama electrified the nation with a promise of "change we can believe in." That was the wrong pledge.
Americans need far more than change we can believe in. We need change we can count on.
And the only kind of change we can really count on is change that empowers us to count on ourselves. Yet a program for that kind of change is nowhere to be found on the American political agenda.
The best hope average citizens have to fight for their interests and beliefs is to take back the institutions of representative government. Our most important problem isn't the size of government – it is how to achieve governance that's far more democratic.
A cycle of bias
But a cycle of bias is preventing us from doing just that. This cycle has three parts.
The first consists of the rules of the political game, beginning with the domineering role personal and corporate wealth play in politics. But the problem goes far deeper than money.
Sedimented institutions worsen the bias by lessening choice, interest, and participation. These include: a two-party duopoly that freezes out other voices; voting on a workday; "gerrymandered" districts that unfairly protect incumbents; an Electoral College that limits campaigns to "battleground" states; and laboriously registering voters one at a time.
Then there is the revolving door from Congress to lobbying firms, further ensuring that policy will suit special interests, leaving out the rest of us.
The second part of the cycle of bias is the way political parties selectively mobilize voters. Politicians use their resources to organize those who have voted before, our already most organized citizens, casting the least organized and protected among us back into the political wilderness.
Finally, the agenda of policy proposals set by political, business, and media elites neglects many citizens, especially – but not only – the poor.
Even in historic 2008, 40 percent of eligible Americans didn't vote, while citizens in the bottom fifth ranked by income voted at only 60 percent the rate of those in the top fifth. Many opt out not because they don't care, but because a biased political agenda doesn't meet their needs.
Is this just par for democracy? No. Other advanced nations don't have such low turnouts and large class voting gaps. Nor did America in the second half of the 19th century when turnout often hit 80 percent and the poor were as likely to vote as the rich.
Eight steps for change
What can we do to end this cycle? Here are eight action items:
•Take private wealth out of politics. Amend the Constitution to overturn our activist Supreme Court's fantasy that unlimited campaign spending is free speech. This would free Congress to write effective campaign finance reform in which one person – not each and every dollar – gets one protected voice.
•Vote on "Democracy Days," not Tuesdays. We should vote on weekends or make Election Day a national holiday. We wouldn't advise a new democracy to vote on workdays. Why do we do it here?
•Automatically register all voters. The government knows how to find us for war or taxes. It should use this prowess to register us to vote, as governments do in most other advanced nations.
•End gerrymandering. Nonpartisan commissions should be established to draw legislative district lines to maximize competition and fairness. Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.
•Establish proportional representation. Our system of winner-take-all elections awards all legislative seats only to parties already able to win pluralities in geographic districts. Proportional representation gives all parties a fair share of seats based on the percentage of the vote each gets. This would boost voter choice and break the two-party duopoly.
•Directly elect the president. Five states have already signed a compact to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. If states adding up to a majority of electors sign on, the Electoral College will become history.
•End the revolving door between Congress and K Street. Members of Congress should be constitutionally barred for life from working as paid lobbyists. If politicians want to "serve the people," that's a price they'll pay.
•Pass the democracy amendment. Believe it or not, the word "democracy" never appears in the Constitution. Let's put it there to create a clear constitutional standard for future legislation and Supreme Court rulings.
Some may find this agenda too procedural, even a bit dull. That group won't include political elites desperate to keep their power. To them it will be a radical, direct threat.
With so little to lose and so much to gain, let's create a new national movement to revitalize American democracy. The agenda for change is there. It only awaits a "Continental Army" of new winter patriots, willing to sacrifice just a little to defend American democracy so much.
Tom De Luca is professor of political science at Fordham University. He is a coauthor of "Liars! Cheaters! Evildoers! Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics" and "The Democratic Debate: American Politics in an Age of Change." He's also the radio host of “American Dialogue with Tom De Luca,” beginning September 14 at 6pm, at www.talkingalternative.com.