We’ve seen a lot of politicians talking about “infrastructure” recently. While everyone seems to have a slightly different vision of what that catch-all term means, we have transpartisan agreement that we need to do something about our most critical infrastructure. But while our roads, bridges and sewers certainly need work, I’d argue that the infrastructure we most urgently need to invest in isn’t so concrete — it’s our democracy.
We built the United States on ideas such as “one person, one vote,” and that the people elect officials who then represent them and their interests in Washington. These ideas have been railroads and bridges, so to speak, for our national progress. And, while we certainly have made progress from the drafting of the Constitution through today, those tracks and spans are eroding.
Money may not be the root of all evil, but it’s certainly at the core of our democracy problem. A series of bad Supreme Court decisions eliminated campaign contribution caps, declared that money deserves free speech protections and ruled that corporations are people. That unleashed a torrent of special interest money that has drowned out the voices of regular Americans. Now, to successfully run for office, incumbent politicians and hopeful candidates must spend their time courting the people and corporations that can afford to give the most money. Time spent seeking those big dollar checks is time not spent legislating or talking to constituents. No wonder most people feel that Congress doesn’t represent them.
Not only does our current system encourage candidates to pander to the wealthy, it also significantly restricts who can run a successful campaign. The cost of running for office is, for most people, prohibitive. If you don’t have access to big money, it’s almost impossible to win a gubernatorial or national race. As a result, in too many cases, who runs for office and who can win has already been decided by big money, well before we get a chance to vote.
We need to shore up our democracy before it collapses. Communities across the country are doing just that by enacting election reforms that elevate the voices of average people and make it possible for candidates to run for office without tethering themselves to big money. Small donor matching systems, such as the one passed in Washington, D.C., this week, provide public matching funds to candidates who choose to only accept small contributions and to forgo corporate contributions.
These programs work. In Montgomery County, MD, candidates are running competitive campaigns while shunning big money. New York City has had a similar program for decades and it has empowered people from across the city to run for office. Different iterations of these programs provide incentives ranging from tax credits to democracy vouchers.
Opponents of these programs often say that the money would be better spent on x or y issue. The truth is, without a functioning democracy, we don’t stand a chance of solving any of the issues our country and communities face. If people care about the environment, we need politicians who will put public health — and Earth’s health — ahead of polluting industries. If people care about the budget, we need politicians who will prioritze their constituents’ principles over their campaign war chest. The only way to do these things is to divorce the ability to run for and win office from the need to raise money from big-moneyed interests.
The bottom line is, without a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions, we can’t just excise big money from politics. If we’re going to protect the principles of “one person, one vote” and representative democracy, we need to make the voices of the millions of Americans who are small donors matter again in our political process. We need to invest in our democracy.