In my last essay, I used the civic frescoes of the 14th-century Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti as a starting-point for scrutinizing the culture of US politics as most appallingly revealed in our recent electoral process.
I’ve heard or read a great many analyses of the election, but there’s a key point most seem to be missing. I’m concerned that the way we do electoral politics—perhaps even more than our substantive disagreements over candidates and policies—is worsening the disinformation, demonization, and polarization that have made our political life so often demoralizing and frightening.
We need to talk about how to repair that, how to get from Lorenzetti’s image of bad government in which Tyranny rules over a court of vice personified to his “Allegory of Good Government,” marked by prosperity, relationship, and celebration.
GOOD GOVERNMENT, OUR REPORTCARD
First, though: what is meant by “good government?” And does the United States’ system shape up when measured by those standards? Here are a few examples.
I’ll start with the thought-experiment of the philosopher John Rawls, who said we should judge a society from what is called the “original position.” Imagine designing a social order without yourself knowing what gender, orientation, cultural identity, race, religion, wealth, position or other circumstances you would occupy. Not knowing where I would stand in an imagined world, I would argue for guaranteeing the best possible living conditions and circumstances at the lowest end of the scale of power and privilege. The golden rule would be my guide, refusing to prescribe for others conditions that would be hateful to myself.
So the first principle is simple: a good government is one in which the person with the least social and economic power is able to live a good and decent life: well-being, livelihood, community, human rights, and all the rest.
How are we doing when measured by this criterion? Abysmally.
Assuming Congress continues its stalemate over pandemic relief, 12 million people will lose their unemployment benefits at the end of 2020, plunging many into a desperate cycle of poverty, homelessness, and disease. The lives of people of color have consistently been treated as less valuable, as demonstrated by rates of illness and death and every other measure. The federal government has done little or nothing to provide basic security and stability to those most harmed by the quadruple pandemic of COVID-19, racial injustice and violence, economic meltdown, and climate crisis. In fact, this bad government has exemplified callous neglect and more powerfully than ever driven home the point that under this system, well-being is a privilege, not a right.
In a good government, everyone has a say, not just those with money or status. There are avenues for dialogue and deliberation far beyond casting a vote every few years. Elected officials and their helpers are accessible and engaged in public dialogue, not just when it’s time to campaign.
How are we doing according to this criterion? Terribly.
Thank goodness there are exceptions, but what most often passes for discourse with elected officials is the type of ersatz town meeting where questioners are vetted to avoid embarrassing the politician who purports to represent them—given perhaps two minutes of deeply divided attention. Even more often, the only available avenues of communication are form letters and online auto-responses.
In a good government, suffrage is universal once a citizen has attained the specified age: registration is easy and accessible, as is voting itself. Actions intended to discourage voters from exercising their rights through disinformation, intimidation, or withdrawal of access to voting are outlawed and subject to severe penalties.
How are we doing according to this criterion? Horribly.
You can learn a lot on one page. The ACLU has compiled a thorough list of restrictions on both registration and voting, well worth perusing to see the nauseating lengths Republicans will go to in suppressing real democracy.
If I were to depict a good government, I would have to begin with the virtue of selflessness, because this is the quality most lacking in our current what’s-in-it-for-me? system. (There’s an over-abundance of examples, so picking one almost at random: #IMPOTUS’ jacking up prices at Trump hotels to house Secret Service members, even when they didn’t actually stay there.)
I might borrow Rodin’s masterpiece of good government, “The Burghers of Calais,” commemorating an episode during the Hundred Years’ War in which King Edward II offered to spare the city of Calais if six of its leaders presented themselves as ransom, their necks draped in nooses and the city keys in their hands.
OVERHAULING ELECTORAL POLITICS
There are many ways to achieve good government. The one that stands out for me now is conditioned on examining the culture of electoral politics to identify the flaws that keep democracy at a distance. I want to focus here on four of the most egregious electoral problems and what we can do about them.
First, Our present system does not reflect voters’ will, but places ultimate power to select a President in the hands of a few individuals.
Eliminating the Electoral College is the best remedy, but that takes a constitutional amendment. There’s a quicker fix in the meantime. More states need to pass the National Popular Vote legislation, guaranteeing that the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationally would be elected. States representing 196 electoral votes have already passed it; if it passes in enough additional states to add up to 74 more electoral votes, it will go into effect.
Second, Presidential campaigns take way too long, an exhausting two-year horse-race of ads and sound-bites that everyone hates and that sheds little light on actual qualifications, proposals, and visions.
The UK has the advantage of a parliamentary system in which elections can be called when necessary. In 2011, a law was first passed mandating a general election every five years, so that sets the bar. But Parliament can call for more frequent general elections. Generally, the campaigning period before UK general elections is about five weeks. In France, it’s about two weeks; in Canada, a few months; in Mexico all broadcast outlets provide equal time to candidates and the campaign period is 90 days.
In the US we have hyper-inflated campaigning to rhyme with hyper-capitalism, a vast, endless, and expensive advertising fest that substitutes images and memes for ideas. The whole system is a machine created to bombard voters into surrender.
The remedy is to restrict the formal announcement of candidacy and release of campaign advertising to a limited period before each election: I’d say four months should do it. There’s a large industry of consultants, pollsters, spin-doctors, advertising agencies, and other campaign operatives who grow rich through this system and would protest with all their might. But organized people can overcome organized money anytime. And this repair to our system hasn’t even been tried.
Third, the electoral system is driven by money, even when money turns out not to be the key.
Democrats outraised and outspent Republicans in South Carolina and Kentucky, but Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham both won re-election to the Senate. There’s ample evidence by now that elections aren’t bought, but both major parties continue to act as if they were, often spending campaign funds unwisely—guided by their biases and blind spots—as Steve Phillips has demonstrated in his pre-election analysis of Democratic Party Superpac spending.
This systemic flaw blights elections, making them all about money. Who is not well and truly sick of the fact that any contribution, no matter how modest and hard-won, triggers a dozen more begging letters? Even the best candidates who genuinely value responsive democracy feel forced into the money game—perhaps refusing funds from PACs or corporations, which is good, but still beseeching small donors to keep giving, raising vast sums that add up to the largest war chests.
The damage is ongoing and continuous, not restricted to campaign season. Even successful candidates engage in perpetual fundraising so as to contribute to other campaigns, heaping up gratitude that can result in good committee assignments and other perks. Even the best people feel obliged to take part in this never-ending ask, because in our electoral system, the currency is…well, currency. For members of the House of Representatives, who must run for election every two years, it is appalling. The massive damage done by performing politics as a series of financial transactions is by now so familiar as to go unremarked. We are inured to the reality that we have made our system of governance a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America. But we should be shocked.
The best remedy is radical, so it would take a lot of time and effort to apply it. But it is simple: public campaign financing for all elections, leveling the field for all candidates. There are different models, including some that provide a public match for small donations only.
Short of that, we could adopt the UK system, which places no limits on individual campaign contributions, but does limit how much candidates can spend in a given election. There are population-based formulas involved, but in recent elections most candidates have spent the equivalent of around $20 million (in contrast, Biden and #IMPOTUS together spent over $6.6 billion, more than 330 times that much!). However it’s done, the underlying principle is clear and urgent: get obscene amounts of money out of politics.
Fourth, the restrictions that make registration and voting challenging clearly fall most heavily on those with the least social and economic power.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the draconian measures the state of Florida has taken recently to stop people convicted of felonies from voting even though voters passed a law allowing this.
One remedy is already in place in nearly half the states, same-day voter registration, which allows someone to show up on election day with proof of residency, register, and vote. There’s also critical legislation under consideration. the Voting Rights Advancement Act, legislation to protect against vote suppression that has already been passed by the House. It was introduced in the Senate as the “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act” and is being held up by Mitch McConnell.
The changes I’ve mentioned and others like them would go a long way to creating a completely different container for the electoral aspect of democracy. It’s just as important to consider how to fill it. A few ideas appear in my 2013 novel The Wave (in which I was a bit premature in fantasizing that financial scandals in the 2016 election would result in ejecting private money from elections).
What we need to do is upend our current electoral habits. Right now, they focus on promoting the virtues of one individual over another, and staging silly debates in which people who later praise and adore each other seek out their sore spots and dig in (e.g., Biden and Harris). But what really matters is how the rest of us think and feel about values, issues, and possibilities, and how candidates respond.
When I served as Chief Policy Wonk for the US Department of Arts and Culture, we invited people around the country to take part each January in the People’s State of the Union (PSOTU), hosting Story Circles to share their own understanding of the state of our union. “Democracy,” we said, “is a conversation, not a monologue.” Participants uploaded their stories as text or recordings to a web portal, and they were shared in multiple ways. My favorite was An Act of Collective Imagination, which drew on stories from PSOTU 2015 to say what mattered most to people who took part, what they wished and worked for. I’d like to see almost all campaign appearances eliminated and voters invited instead into Story Circles to which candidates are challenged to respond.
I’d like to see the type of creative forum that some community artists have used, such as equipping young adolescents with ample background on the issues and allowing them to question candidates. If the habit of lying is fully ingrained, candidates may not find it harder to lie to children than to adults; but based on what I’ve seen, the children are far less gullible and the follow-up questions piercing.
I’d love to see neutral organizations such as the League of Women Voters challenge voters to create digital stories—short videos—first-person accounts of life at ground-level, with the most generative ones selected by a participatory process for public screening and response by candidates.
Theater artists should be invited to stage performative interventions designed to reveal candidates’ values and approaches. I’m a big fan of the Golden Rule, so if you’ve been reading my stuff, you know that if I were in charge, I’d make politicians live by the rules and programs they adopt for others. Let’s have candidates reside for a month in public housing; send their families to public health facilities when they’re ill and their kids to public schools; sleep a week in a homeless shelter; grocery-shop for their families in a food desert; and so on. Let’s get some expert documentary filmmakers to record it all and condense it into excellent programming. Then have a national streaming and broadcast festival to collectively decide what it all means.
And I’m only getting started…. What are your ideas?
To depict the model of political life that could incorporate such initiatives, I choose a mural that is part of the RFK Learning Center, cited at the former Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Created by Judy Baca and the Social and Public Art Resource Center, “Seeing Through Other’s Eyes” depicted Kennedy side-by-side with farmworkers’ organizer Cesar Chavez, sitting at the heart of a lotus whose petals depict the struggles of millions who’d hoped Kennedy would represent them with integrity and passion.
“Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” by Dee Dee Bridgewater.