After Jan. 6, 2021, a day that will “live forever in infamy,” as the new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called it, there can no longer be denials that the mechanisms of American democracy need greater protection and that the threat of rule by future presidents like Donald Trump needs to be minimized.
Trump’s defeat and the return of his cynical enablers in the Senate to minority status can be seen as the first of many vaccinations the body politic will need to fight off future infections from novel anti-democratic viruses. Many more inoculations will be needed because just like viruses mutate, the forms of dark populism and authoritarianism change throughout history.
It may turn out that a planned, intentional and farsighted prescriptions for our civic illness aren’t possible in a country so large, so diverse, so unequal, so wired and so fractured. It would be disgraceful not to try, however.
Social and political repairs needed
It is important to note that the most important factors in America’s civic future certainly involve economic inequality and distress, race, and social mistrust. Repair of political systems and structures may be a necessary ingredient for effective, equitable economic and social policies — and effective, equitable policies that ease mistrust and polarization may be a necessary ingredient of political repair. There’s a catch-22.
Surveying some of the strictly political reform ideas common since Trump arrived, three categories emerge. This is a sampling.
► The government. The elephant in the room of political reform is the Electoral College, which, of course, benefits the elephant party. In 2000 and 2016, the Electoral College enabled the election of two presidents who lost the popular vote, a subversion of basic democracy. The clean solution is to abolish the Electoral College; the complicated solution is to tinker with the allocation of electoral votes.
With or without electoral votes, we now know that the process of certifying and tallying votes is byzantine and exploitable. The process is largely governed by the 1887 Electoral Count Act which needs to be gutted and modernized to be safe from renegade state and federal legislators — and incumbent presidents. Similarly, states have to have the funding to conduct open and secure elections that are safe from sophisticated manipulation and hacking, domestic and foreign, and that requires federal legislation.
Other ideas, some radical: Increase the number of House seats to more proportionally represent the population and to create smaller, more organic districts; give the vote to citizens of the District of Columbia; change the structure of the Supreme Court by adding seats or term limits; curb partisan gerrymandering.
Understandably, many are now calling for a high-level presidential commission. That would at least raise the profile of democracy repair and offer a first step.
► The parties. Though not a reform, there’s a fresh round of calls for a third party, a perennial political daydream. The idea is that Republicans who left the party, exemplified by leaders of the Lincoln Project, could run against pro-Trump incumbents in purple states and districts, creating a swing caucus in Congress that might lessen gridlock and inoculate against the growth of post-Trump Trumpism.
Homegrown insurrection:Capitol riots instigator is among us. Americans must flush this corrosiveness away.
More substantially, it is well past the time to look at curbing the length and expense of American political campaigns. The way to do this is to shorten the primary season, which is controlled by state legislatures and the two monopoly parties. Governing in the 21st century, in many ways, is constant campaigning. This could help. Shorter, cheaper campaigns might also attract more high-quality candidates who find the current fundraising marathons unpalatable or corrupt.
National service and civic education
► The electorate. The traditional, government-based approach to increasing political participation is to try to boost voter turnout. Making Election Day a federal holiday has been proposed many times, for example.
Mandatory national service is a more high-concept but indirect idea, proposed as an effective way to bring young people from backgrounds together in meaningful, enduring ways and to promote active civic participation from a young age.
Riots at the Capitol:Where were Capitol Police? Tolerating white rioters in ways not afforded Black protesters
Civic education (it used to be “civics”) has suffered terribly under shrinking school budgets and increased testing mandates. There is a growing movement across the country to reinvent and resuscitate civic education for all middle and high school students. Federal funds could get that moving in a meaningful way, giving young people more civic buy-in, literacy, power and tools to navigate the perils of social media, misinformation and ideological news.
This is just an incomplete and admittedly top-down list of possible paths to new political vaccines. President Joe Biden might want to jump-start this important work by, ironically, naming a Democracy Czar.
Formerly with CBS News, NPR, BBC News and Scripps, Dick Meyer is the author of “Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.” Follow him on Twitter: @DickMeyer_DC