I have never been a fan of political reforms, whether it is campaign finance or redistricting or something else. I find most to be either poorly constructed, naive or ineffective. Rather than address what is the underlying problem- a civically unengaged and underinformed populace- these reforms only serve a symbolic function.
Campaign finance reform is often trotted out by goo goo types as some sort of panacea to ending the influence of powerful interest groups. But there are several problems with most proposals. Let us assume that such reform does pass constitutional muster and contributions are severely limited. In such a world, where campaigns do not cost any less to wage, politicians would be forced to spend even more time dialing for dollars. This would take away from their time spent legislating, governing or meeting with constituents. Also, political money is like water- you can reroute it, but it will always find its level.
Total public financing of campaigns is a non-starter, too. How many people would be willing to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars to finance political campaigns, when those dollars could be used to pay teachers’ salaries or feed the hungry? Plus, there is the very real concern of using tax dollars to finance campaigns of people who may be racists or anti-Semites or any other number of objectively bad ideologies. The whole issue of publicly financed political speech is a 1st Amendment nightmare, to be sure.
Every ten years, political reformers also bring out their arguments for altering redistricting. I will not deign to justify the obscene level of gerrymandering that now exists. However, what is the solution? Some call for a non-partisan commission to conduct the line drawing. But who will appoint the members- the same politicians from whose hands we’re seeking to take redistricting. Is there any reason to believe that proxies for politicians will come up with lines that are fundamentally different from those their sponsors would have drawn?
Others propose that redistricting ought to be handed over to the courts. But the judiciary has been very reluctant to involve itself in what it believes to be a political process. There is also the problem presented in states where judges themselves are elected, rather than appointed. One can imagine the types of favors that these judges might wish to extract from their state’s political class.
Term limits has seen something a resurgence lately, too. Their appeal baffles me because unlike the other proposals, which take power away from the political class, this one takes power away from the people. In a way, term limits are the ultimate admission of civic incompetence. To support term limits is to say that the voters are too dumb or too ineffectual to vote properly, therefore we must limit their choices. As has been noted over and over again, we already have term limits- they’re called elections.
So where does this all leave us? Is our democracy a hopeless cause? I do not believe so. What we need is a renewed emphasis on civic engagement. This has to encompass education and activism. People need to understand what their government does, how it works, and how they can affect those policies and decisions. All too often, people feel powerless to change their government. And when that happens, we get silly proposals like term limits, campaign finance reform and redistricting reform. But, if 2008 proved anything it is that the people do have a voice and can come together to change their government.
A healthy democracy requires lots of work from its citizens. Unless we come to grips with our responsibilities we will have the government that we deserve. And we’ll be subjected to waves of symbolic reform. Instead, we must reform ourselves and become active citizens.