Before November’s election, I was collaborating with a young colleague from Political Science on a book that we’d decided we wanted to write about America’s democratic institutions, and whether and how those institutions function in a modern world that is very different from the world in which they were created.
It was going to be about “civic mechanics,” about how a democratic society should choose the people who make its policy decisions, not about the content of those policies.
Then we woke up on November 9th, and deep-sixed the project.
To be perfectly blunt–and politically incorrect–we realized that the problems with American democracy were far more profound than we had thought (and we weren’t very optimistic to begin with). An electorate and a system that could make someone like Donald Trump President was much farther gone than we had imagined.
The book project has been discarded, but before the election we had begun making a list of changes to our electoral system that we’d dubbed “utopia.” I found a copy the other day when I was cleaning out some files.
Here–for what it’s worth–is what we’d listed before we abandoned the project. Important details, caveats and justifications are missing, but you’ll get the idea.
In our democratic utopia:
- A bipartisan national commission would administer elections under uniform standards, to minimize state-level game-playing, encourage (rather than discourage) turnout and standardize the voting process.
- We’d get rid of the Electoral College, allowing my urban vote to count as much as the vote of rural inhabitants. (I didn’t say our list was realistic.)
- Gerrymandering would be illegal; Independent Commissions would draw state legislative and Congressional district lines.
- Numerous positions that are currently elected would be appointed (coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees, etc.) The Governor would appoint the State Treasurer, Attorney General and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, increasing Gubernatorial accountability and avoiding unseemly and damaging turf battles like those Hoosiers saw when Governor Pence refused to work with Glenda Ritz.
- Election day would be a national holiday and voting would be mandatory, as it is in Australia, where non-voters are fined (it’s pretty nominal) and ballots have a “none of the above” option, or voting would be by mail, as they do now in Oregon, Colorado and Washington State, increasing turnout and saving lots of public money.
- A Constitutional Amendment would overrule Citizens United.
Our utopia would also address the growth of propaganda that has been spawned by Fox “News” and talk radio and propagated by the Internet, taking care to avoid violating the First Amendment.
- The Federal Government would establish a national, user-friendly “fact-check”/reference site for purely factual information about government–a “one-stop shop” for information that is now scattered across multiple government websites.
- Reputable news organizations–perhaps the Society for Professional Journalists?– would establish a non-governmental, voluntary accreditation process; it would certify that accredited sources demonstrate compliance with practices characterizing ethical and responsible journalism. (It wouldn’t vouch for the accuracy of published information, only compliance with sound journalism practices.) That wouldn’t remove the click-bait, or suppress the conspiracy theories and propaganda, but it would provide a tool for use by citizens who care about the veracity of the information they are consuming.
We also considered measures that might improve civic competence and trust in government, like tightening ethics rules for legislators (in my utopia, they would be forbidden from joining or being paid by lobbying organizations for at least 2 years following their departure from the legislature); and requiring merit selection of judges.
And of course, my utopia would require vastly improved and increased civics education in the schools.
What would your civic utopia look like?