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What the Democracy Spring protests miss

Democracy Spring protesters march to the US Capitol to protest big money in politics, April 11, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Democracy Spring protesters march to the US Capitol to protest big money in politics, April 11, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Over the past week, a bunch of activists marching under the banner of "Democracy Spring" descended on Washington, DC, provoking 1,400 nonviolent arrests to call attention to issues of big money in politics and voter suppression.

"The American people will no longer accept the status quo of big money corruption and voter suppression," announced the website for Democracy Spring. "There will be a growing political cost to pay for candidates and politicians who defend corruption." The demands on Congress are clear: "Either end the corruption of big money in politics and ensure free and fair elections or arrest hundreds of people, day after day, simply for demanding an equal voice."

I get why folks are protesting. Something sure feels rotten in Washington. There are real and legitimate concerns about whose voices get heard in policymaking and whose voices get dismissed. And I completely share these concerns.

Generally, I agree with the policy demands of Democracy Spring. I'm all for small-donor matching, and absolutely on board with voting rights protections, though I'd ditch the emphasis on overturning Citizens United, which feels like an evasion on a number of levels. (After all, it's not like we had this wonderful and equitable campaign finance system prior to the 2010 Supreme Court decision; moreover, advocating a constitutional amendment is pretty much a pointless exercise in today's divided politics, especially when a simple change in the balance of the Supreme Court would likely achieve the same goal.)

There are, however, some problems with how this movement has framed the issues. In short, there's too much focus on corruption and elections, too little focus on policy process and the trade-offs of actually governing.

Given that we may be entering into a chaotic period in American politics where there is a real possibility for reform, getting the framework right matters. So these are important disagreements to work out now, rather than later.

Democracy is about much more than elections

The Democracy Spring movement posits a pretty straightforward theory of the problem. The problem is that the people are not being heard because of big money and voting restrictions. If we could get big money out of politics and make it easier for everyone to vote, democracy would become more responsive to a larger number of citizens.

There's certainly some truth in these assertions. The high costs of elections have no doubt pushed candidates and parties to shift their policy priorities. Increasingly, big donors play the role of political gatekeepers, determining who runs for office. And voting restrictions make politicians even less responsive to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, who are most likely to be affected by these rules.

But this leaves out the thing that happens in between elections — the actual governing and policymaking. There's a reason that corporations spend 13 times more on reported lobbying than they do on campaign contributions. It's because most of the policy action takes place in persistently making policy arguments, in working on policy details, and in endless monitoring to seize every possible opportunity and respond to every possible threat.

Elections determine who sits in office. But lobbying and advocacy determine what happens in between elections. Lobbying is so important I wrote a whole book on the topic.

Let's say we significantly reduced the amount of big donor checks in elections and expanded voting rights. We'd probably elect a slightly different House and Senate. But probably not all that different, since incumbency still provides a tremendous advantage, and most races are pretty much already decided for one party given the geographic distribution of party affiliation (a problem that goes far beyond gerrymandering, by the way).

Probably this new Congress would feel a little less concerned about big donors' feelings. But as its members set to legislating, they'd still be faced with the complexities of actually writing and passing bills, which means they'd still be relying on outside lobbyists for policy expertise, as they do now.

This is why I've argued repeatedly that the most effective way to reduce the influence of private lobbyists is for Congress to invest in its own staffing capacity, giving offices and committees the resources to develop and evaluate policy without having to turn to biased advocates. Congressional offices can only legislate where they have policy expertise. And if they are still relying on primarily industry lobbyists for policy expertise (as they are now), that severely limits what they can do.

"Corruption" is not the problem

I understand why protest organizers like to talk about "corruption."  They think it mobilizes people to get angry and show up. And it probably does.

The problem is that "corruption" is an easy but vague criticism to throw at a hard problem. "Corruption" is a difficult thing to define, and therefore mostly just winds up being a subjective epithet that sidesteps the deeper problems.

Take a moment to read the "Equal Voice for All Pledge" that Democracy Spring activists now want all candidates to sign: "Our government should be free from the corrupting influence of big money in politics and solely dependent upon the People. I declare my support for pro-democracy, anti-corruption reforms, including voting rights protections, citizen-funded elections, and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United." (Emphasis mine.)

If you read this closely, you'll see that two things are opposed here: "the People" and "the corrupting influence of big money in politics." Also note that "the people" are equated to "democracy." But think harder about the implicit assumption here: that both "the people" and "big money in politics" are single unified actors, with diametrically opposing views. This is simply not true. Big donors disagree with each other all the time. And most importantly, so do "the people." That is politics!

The particular danger here is the underlying consensus fantasy (a stubbornly persistent theme in American political thought):€” that if only we could be rid of special interests and big money, "the people" would surely all agree on the proper course of action, which of course would be wise and just and fair.

But one needs look no further than this election to see that this is not at all true. This is a very diverse and divided country, with strongly differing views on difficult issues like immigration and race and the role of religion. Do Democracy Spring protestors really think that "the people" who are supporting Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would agree with them on the majority of the issues? And if they grant this, then which "people" should rule?

Democracy, of course, is supposed to be the process by which we navigate these honest differences. But in so doing, it inevitably means that some people are going to win and some people are going to lose. And those who lose invariably argue that they lost because the process was "corrupt," which is a far easier thing to argue than that they were wrong, or that they lost on the merits.

And herein lies the problem with using "corruption" so centrally.€” It implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) assumes that there is some a priori, Platonic ideal of the "public interest," and that anything that deviates from this ideal must be a form of "corruption." Certainly there may be examples of clear bribery where it is appropriate to use "corruption." But as a vague catchall, to say something is "non-corrupt" is an impossible standard.

We have many competing ideals of the public interest, and we argue about them all the time. Again, this is what politics is about — finding the workable trade-offs in competing visions of the public interest.

By contrast, the "Equal Voice" framing in the title of the pledge seems much more promising and realistic as a standard. It's at least something to work toward, and something that is even potentially objectively measurable. "Non-corrupt," by contrast, requires highly subjective judgment. There is no way to objectively measure it or agree on it as a standard. Which means that it will inevitably disappoint.

How should we think about political reform, then?

The big challenge is that successful democratic governance is really, really hard.€” At heart, it's an attempt to maintain legitimacy by producing compromise in the face of sometimes deep disagreements over fundamental values and often diametrically opposed interests. Which is a very difficult thing to do. Hence, Churchill's famous quip: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

The reform challenge is to wrestle honestly with this problem. It has to think hard and realistically about how the incentives of individual political actors can be channeled toward the greater good, largely within the existing institutional structures (because changing institutions is really, really hard). It has to think about how citizens can combine meaningfully to have a large voice, how compromise and bargaining can happen in a way that is legitimate, and how political actors can be entrepreneurial in responding to public concerns. It has to think realistically about what is actually possible.

Democracy can work better or worse on a standard of how well it resolves public problems. And on that standard, American politics is working worse now than it has in a while. But an unrealistic ideal is a recipe for frustration. Unrealistic demands tend to be as counterproductive in politics as they are in human relationships.

This is the thinking that underlies my recent New America policy paper, "Political Dynamism: A New Approach to Making Government Work Again," which attempts to lay out a realistic framework for political reform. It's a framework that shares many goals and concerns with the Democracy Spring agenda, and has significant policy overlap. But I think I actually have far more hope in the possibilities of politics, hope I would argue is necessary to proceed productively.

If I may quote myself for a moment:

The answer, in short, is more politics: a political system that is fluid and competitive; a system that leverages diversity and creates opportunity for experimentation and change; a political system that expands, not limits, the combinatorial possibilities of political innovation and deal-making; a political system that helps citizens to aggregate and realize their interests in the most efficacious ways, rather than simultaneously expecting them to be super-engaged and expert while giving them few meaningful choices.

In all likelihood, we are coming to a rare moment in American politics, when a whole bunch of existing arrangements will be called into question as the parties realign and governing coalitions shift. In these moments, there are possibilities for genuine reform. But these moments do not come often. So thinking carefully about reform is really important. If we miss the moment or get it wrong, it could be a long time before we get another chance.

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