Last week the Supreme Court, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, struck down aggregate limits on contributions to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees. Given how much ink has been spilled already, I won’t presume to say something new about the decision here. Let me instead admit to an ambivalence that the Court’s decision has surfaced for me with respect to the Hewlett Foundation’s developing plans for grantmaking in the democracy area.
As I worked through the laments and diatribes from reformers that flooded my inbox and Twitter feed after the decision, I kept coming back to an old Henny Youngman joke. When someone asked him, “How’s your wife?” he’d quip, “Compared to what?”
Compared to the lofty if increasingly beleaguered ideals of campaign finance regulation envisioned by the reform community, the McCutcheon decision was an outrage. That said, I found myself agreeing with Nate Persily and David Brooks as they argued that, compared to the realities of the post-Citizens United status quo, McCutcheon should be seen as an improvement. It will be, insofar as it brings more money back into the disclosure system and strengthens the hand of electorally-accountable political parties vis-à-vis more single-minded and irresponsible outside interests and ideologues.
A basic premise undergirding our grantmaking in support of democracy is that healthy political parties are an essential component of representative government. One of the things healthy parties do is seek to rally elected officials, party activists, and voters behind a political vision capable of winning and sustaining majority coalitions. Human nature being what it is, party leaders are better able to catalyze such collective action when they have ample funds at their disposal – especially relative to outsiders seeking to pull the party’s aggregate vision and coalition in one particular direction or another.
The McCutcheon decision and the subsequent commentaries brought home to me the extent to which our strategy in this area embodies a core tension. On the one hand, we would like to see party leaders with access to the resources they need to build majority coalitions. On the other hand, we would also like to see the disclosure of, if not limits on, the contributions from what political scientists call the “intense policy demanders,” i.e., the interests and individuals lined up behind each party, threatening them and / or egging them on with increasing amounts of so-called “dark money.”
Our disposition thus finds us with one foot in the strengthen parties camp and one foot in regulate campaign finance camp. Some of our friends and advisors who are active in party politics have looked at our grants to campaign finance reform groups and have asked, in effect, what are you guys thinking? Conversely, many of our reform-minded thought partners and grantees (at least the more candid ones) have openly worried that we are becoming apologists for corruption with our belief in routing more campaign finance through the parties in order to strengthen their influence.
F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Of course I’d like to think that is what we are doing here. But I also appreciate that we could be naively if not foolishly wrong.
What is your take? Can we hold onto both of these “opposed ideas?” Should we try to do so? We’d welcome your input on these issues.
I recently participated in a workshop on electoral systems reform sponsored by Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and its new Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective. This session brought together scholars and advocates of electoral reform from the US and abroad to consider the potential of electoral innovations like proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, and mandatory voting to address political dysfunction in the US. I subsequently caught up with Larry Diamond, who leads the CDDRL, to pose a few questions on his aspirations for this new program and what he's taking away from its initial workshop. Daniel Stid: The mission of the CDDRL is to “understand how countries can overcome poverty, instability, and abusive rule to become prosperous, just, democratic, and well-governed states.” It traditionally has focused on problems of democracy and governance in the developing world. What prompted you to create the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective?
Larry Diamond: We often take for granted that the United States is a country with well-established rule of law, effective governance, and free and fair elections. American democracy is not under threat the way that it is in many places around the world. That said, the United States fares poorer on many democratic outcomes, including inequality, political participation, and trust in government institutions, relative to its democratic counterparts. Additionally, American democracy seems increasingly dysfunctional, and unable to address the core policy challenges confronting the country.
We created the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective to investigate problems that have gained increasing public and scholarly attention. These include polarization, gridlock, income inequality, capture of the policymaking process by special interests, and prohibitively costly elections. We are looking to the experience of other advanced democracies for insight into the contemporary American experience. This comparative approach allows us to move beyond the fixity that many American organizations adopt. Ultimately, the Program on American Democracy will produce policy-relevant research that offers ways to improve the quality of democracy in the United States.
Daniel Stid: You have been working to advance democracy around the world throughout your career. A recent Economist cover story on the problems facing this form of government observed that “The United States has become a byword for gridlock, so obsessed with partisan point-scoring….that America’s image – and by extension that of democracy itself – has taken a terrible battering.” Would you agree with that claim? Are the problems of democracy in the US materially undermining its progress elsewhere in the world?
Larry Diamond: Citizens around the world who are fighting for liberal democracy still see the United States as a model; our civil liberties protections are sorely lacking in many other countries. However, we are not immune from democratic backsliding. Gridlock, partisan discord, and problematic election administration have gotten particularly worse in recent years. This calls into question whether or not democratic institutions are better for governance, and over time could affect our credibility in promoting democratic values.
However, I do think that a coherent reform agenda can improve the quality and functionality of American democracy. There is a groundswell of public opinion showing that American voters are fed up with status quo politics. The frustrations of the engaged public can be channeled into reforms that foster compromise, coalition-building, and improved democratic performance. I am hopeful that the democratic process itself can be used to improve American government, and to help restore democracy's public image around the world.
Daniel Stid: What struck you as the most important themes coming out of the workshop on electoral systems and the challenges and opportunities facing reformers in the US?
Larry Diamond: One of the reasons we focused on electoral systems—that is, the rules and methods by which we elect political representatives -- is that they are relatively easy to change. Many longstanding democracies, including Australia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and Italy, have reformed their electoral systems in response to political crises. In the United States, we have "winner-take-all" elections which are actually quite rare among advanced democracies. In the workshop, we discussed alternatives such as ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and compulsory voting. We also considered reforms to primary elections and the electoral college.
One of the most important themes coming out of the workshop was that different electoral systems can produce quite different outcomes. By changing the rules, you change politicians' incentives—they might be less likely to attack their opponents, to spend exorbitant campaign sums, and to advocate extreme ideological positions. These reforms may therefore well be worth seeking. However, another important theme was that electoral systems reforms might have a limited impact. Institutional change can only go so far in reducing polarization and gridlock among the national parties. So these reforms need to be seen as part of a larger agenda to make institutions more effective.
The past few weeks have seen several thought-provoking pieces by friends and colleagues grappling with the question of how to fix our dysfunctional political parties and their influence, or lack thereof, in Congress. We might group these reflections into two schools of thought—one that sees the answer to our present challenges in reestablishing at least some of the authority exercised by the party bosses and political machines of yore, and the other in emulating leading policy entrepreneurs of more recent vintage, several of whom alas have just announced their retirement.
Rick Pildes and Jonathan Rauch have gone contrarian and argue that the problem is not that our political parties are too strong, but that they are too weak. Pildes laments not polarization but rather “fragmentation”, i.e., “the external diffusion of political power away from the political parties as a whole and the internal diffusion of power away from the party leadership to individual party members and officeholders.” Rauch, invoking the pungent wisdom of George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, argues that “politics needs good leaders, but it needs good followers even more, and they don’t come cheap. Loyalty only gets you so far, and ideology is divisive.” He continues: “Leaders need to be able to reward followers and punish turncoats and free agents. Sometimes that will look sleazy, undemocratic, or both, but it is often better than the alternatives.”
At this point, both Pildes and Rauch are more concerned with elevating the need for stronger party leadership—and followership—than they are in making specific prescriptions. Yet they acknowledge that remedies for the problems they are diagnosing would reverse longstanding thrusts of progressive reform by giving party leaders more say in candidate selection and more control over campaign finance. Rauch puts a fine point on it: “The next round of political reform should make party bosses and political machines stronger, not weaker.” Toward this end he also calls for the return of earmarks, those much reviled but apparently necessary bits of legislative fat needed to grease the skids of policymaking.
Norm Ornstein and Mark Schmitt, on the other hand, reflecting on the recently announced retirements of Democratic representatives John Dingell, Henry Waxman, and George Miller, hold these legislators up as the real exemplars. Over four decades in the case of Waxman and Miller, and indeed for nearly six decades in Dingell’s case, these men have had a tremendous impact on policymaking in Congress, notwithstanding that, as Schmitt notes, they “were neither party leaders nor followers, and they neither dispensed nor collected earmarks.” To be sure, they were partisan Democrats, but they largely made their mark as entrepreneurial legislative craftsmen who developed and carried out ambitious, long term policy agendas from the committees and sub-committees they led over the years.
As Ornstein notes, the problem is that these problem solvers are retiring, and in the current environment it is highly unlikely that they will be replaced by politicians prepared and able to spend their adult lives working the levers of power within the House of Representatives as creatively as their predecessors did. For his part, Schmitt is more hopeful – and explicitly rejects the call for strengthening party leadership in general, believing that “fragmentation of the kind represented by Miller and Waxman in particular—individual political actors with brains, values, and nerve—can create the kind of fluidity and innovation that politics needs. Without them, a politics made up of strong party leaders and docile followers would be like an economy made up of huge stagnant companies and their employees, with no room for entrepreneurship or competition.”
One theme spanning these divergent views is a shared and increasingly urgent focus on the imperative of solving the collective action problem in American politics and government. Democracy reformers have long focused on the perceived fairness and appropriateness of the electoral “inputs” to Congress, but this can obscure the importance of and even undermine the institution’s ability to govern—its capacity for “throughputs,” if you will. Notwithstanding the differences between them, Plunkitt’s musings on the low but sturdy virtues of “honest graft” and the Subcommittee Bill of Rights from the 1970’s that empowered Waxman and Miller both embodied conceptions of how to govern that more or less worked for their respective times and contexts.
But these solutions tend to be fleeting, as times and contexts change. The challenge is that once again the U.S. needs a new conception for how to solve the problem of governance, and solutions that worked in the past won’t be readily available to us in the future, at least not in the same form, given how the polarized party system, our legislative institutions, and public attitudes toward government and representation have evolved.
What are the possible outlines of the emerging solution? In addition the ideas put forth by Pildes, Rauch, Ornstein, and Schmitt, it seems likely that some aspects of the solution are also anticipated in the thinking that Daniel Dagan, Steve Teles, and Katrina vanden Heuvel among others have been doing around trans-partisan coalitions and policy-making, or in the masterful work done by the recent American Political Science Association Task Force on Negotiating Agreement in Politics orchestrated by Jenny Mansbridge and Cathie Jo Martin. One thing is for certain: this is a huge challenge, and it will require the best thinking of people of this caliber in order to tackle it.
January may strike you as an odd time to walk the length of New Hampshire, but that is what a hardy band of citizens are up to as I write this post. Rallied by Harvard Law School Professor Larry Lessig, on January 11 the participants in the New Hampshire Rebellion set out from Dixville Notch, 20 miles south of the Canadian border, in a freezing rain. They will finish their 185-mile trek on January 24th all the way down in Nashua on the Massachusetts state line.
Their walk marks the opening salvo in a three-year campaign to use New Hampshire’s preeminent presidential primary as a foundation for elevating campaign finance reform to the top of the national political agenda. The New Hampshire Rebellion is raising awareness by asking every presidential candidate at every campaign event in the state between now and the 2016 primary one simple question: “How are you going to end this system of corruption in Washington?”
In developing the foundation’s democratic process initiative, we have recognized how waves of so-called “dark money” or undisclosed contributions flooding into political campaigns are contributing to the problem of polarization that we want to help solve. This is especially the case as candidates seek to raise money from well-heeled and often ideologically-driven donors in order to ward off rivals from the more extreme wing of their party if they are incumbents, or to finance just such an insurgency as challengers by assuring potential patrons that they will never compromise with the other party.
Thus when Larry Lessig described the plans behind the New Hampshire Rebellion and asked us for a small grant to support efforts to engage the public on the importance of campaign finance reform, we said we would be glad to help by donating to the public charity serving as the project’s fiscal sponsor. We have been impressed by the grassroots attention he has attracted to this issue; his TED Talk on this topic, for example, has 1.3 million views.
Lessig’s call to combat the systemic corruption of Congress taps into a deep and perennial wellspring in our political culture. As Bernard Bailyn noted in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the colonists were in no small part prompted to rebel by their outrage at what they perceived and described as the corruption of the independence of parliament – and the resulting endangerment of their own liberties – stemming from the machinations of George III and his ministers.
Indeed, Article 10 of New Hampshire’s State Constitution, ratified in 1784, picks up on precisely this theme in preserving a right to revolution for citizens of the Granite State: “Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government.”
So while they may call themselves rebels, participants in the march are really upholding the best traditions of citizenship in a republican government. “Live Free or Die” is New Hampshire’s state motto. Since they are already doing that, I just wanted to encourage the marchers to stay warm and keep moving – you are almost there!
As recent events make all too clear, the democratic process of the United States is in bad shape. Even apart from the travails of Obamacare and the high-stakes combat in Washington over the government shutdown, we are confronted by legislative inaction on a range of pressing policy issues, a runaway campaign-finance system, new assaults on voting rights, worsening economic inequality, and growing cynicism and withdrawal among citizens taking all this in.
The Hewlett Foundation has a particular interest in these issues given that we make grants to solve social and environmental problems at home and around the world. We cannot always count on persuading the government to adopt policies we favor, nor is our ability to do so the measure of whether our political system is working, but our grantmaking presumes a minimally rational and functioning democratic process. Unless the mounting problems of governance are removed or reduced in importance, we risk being stymied on other aspects of our work.
In the spirit of transparency, and in the hope of soliciting some constructive feedback, let me outline how we are planning to respond to these challenges.
To focus our efforts, we are going to zero in on the problem of political polarization and its three most notable markers: increasing ideological coherence within and divergence between the Republican and Democratic parties, hyper-partisanship, and gridlock.