Go Big on U.S. Political Reform
Few Americans have confidence in our country’s institutions, and plenty of proposals to revamp our political system are on offer, yet little improvement takes place, and the prospects for reform look grim. But we can’t just throw up our hands; there’s too much at stake. We can use this moment to build momentum toward the serious overhaul our political system needs.
Public confidence in U.S. institutions is near all-time lows. A mere quarter of Americans have faith in the presidency, and confidence in Congress rates at an abysmal 8 percent. In poll after poll after poll, most Americans say they want major political reform.
Although three out of four Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed, our political system remains stacked in favor of wealthy elites and protects their concentration of economic and political power. Incremental efforts to make elections more fair and inclusive have failed to break their grip and are counteracted by a swath of new laws to restrict voter access.
Comprehensive political reform proposals have failed to gain traction or bipartisan support. The For the People Act, championed by Democrats in 2021, was popular but slammed by Republicans as a partisan power grab and died in the Senate.
While reform proponents can’t expect much today, we can start to lay the groundwork now for reforms that will come about later. Big reforms take significant time and massive effort, yet they do happen.
The examples of marriage equality and criminal justice reform are instructive. A single generation after the Defense of Marriage Act effectively banned gay marriage, and a decade after President George W. Bush campaigned against it, the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality. That decision reflected a huge shift in public attitudes, driven by activists and a backlash against the overreach by marriage equality’s opponents.
Criminal justice reform was previously a niche, progressive issue, but the First Step Act passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in 2018. This success was made possible by a broad coalition that included prominent conservative groups.
Like the proponents of marriage equality and criminal justice reform, political reform advocates shouldn’t let present circumstances curtail our vision for the future. We should believe in the imperative for political reform and pursue it with determination. The decisions made now—by leaders in our society, activists, experts, philanthropists, and common citizens—will set our trajectory going forward.
We need to figure out how to turn the widespread but latent support for reform into activism, mobilize citizens on a mass scale, build a broad, bipartisan coalition, and make institutional reform central to political debate. In short, we need to generate a groundswell of demand for major reform and pressure political parties and their leaders to meet this demand.
Incremental reform efforts won’t get us as far as we need to go. They won’t address the current depth of partisan polarization and government dysfunction nor inspire citizen engagement at a large scale. To get masses of citizens excited and reinvigorate American democracy, we need to go big on political reform.
Americans tend to praise visionary leaders in all walks of life—business, politics, higher education, non-profits, philanthropy, sports, and more. But when it comes to political reform, we settle for skepticism. That makes no sense. We should look for and raise up political reform leaders with the vision to bring about profound change.
A broad coalition can coalesce around an ambitious package of reforms with a simple aim: we want our political system to represent us. This package is all about making our political system more representative—about curbing the advantages for wealthy elites, reducing partisan control of elections, and giving equal weight to every citizen’s vote. The specific reforms are to (1) regulate campaign finance, (2) ensure non-partisan redistricting in all states, and (3) establish a national popular vote for president.
By design, this package is big and bold. It will require federal legislation on non-partisan redistricting and two constitutional amendments: to overturn Citizens United and do away with the Electoral College. While these reforms, particularly the two constitutional amendments, are a tall order, they are meant to inspire Americans to demand what our country needs, not settle for what we can currently get.
The demands are entirely reasonable: don’t let billionaires buy elections; stop partisan officials from selecting their own voters; and give all states, not just a handful, the power to pick the U.S. president. To achieve these demands, we need to focus on fundamental rather than comprehensive reform, articulate compelling narratives on how reform will improve American lives, and make intermediate gains to generate momentum toward our ultimate goals.
When respondents in a recent Pew survey were asked to describe the current state of U.S. politics, the words they used most frequently were “divisive” and “corrupt.” They pointed to the two greatest flaws in America’s democracy today—partisan polarization and moneyed interests’ undue influence. For reforms to make the greatest impact, they need to focus on curbing the power of partisan officials and wealthy donors over elections.
We have to stay focused on what is fundamental, despite the strong temptation to go for comprehensive reform. Americans should, as a matter of principle, continue to press for measures to expand voter participation, but these efforts can make only a marginal difference in constraining partisan and plutocratic influence, even as they consume significant energy and resources. The ease of casting a ballot—simpler voter registration, early voting, vote by mail, etc.—has little effect on voter turnout and thus can change electoral outcomes only when the margin of victory is razor thin (voter turnout is driven to a far greater extent by how competitive the election is). Yet, the bulk of reform efforts (see examples here and here and here) are directed at facilitating ballot access.
America boasts a range of revered civil rights groups, with storied histories, deep expertise, and significant support. They make persuasive cases for reform, but their initiatives aren’t enough. They often sound wonky, because they typically seek targeted, rather technocratic, legislative changes. Fundamental reform requires inspiring narratives that resonate in our daily lives, just as the push for marriage equality spoke to the dignity of our siblings, friends, community leaders, and others we admire.
Why go big on reform? Because we struggle to make ends meet, despite the long hours we work, and to start a business, buy a house, get our kids through college, and afford healthcare if a family member suffers a serious illness. And government makes our struggles worse by serving above all the interests of partisans fixed on holding power and plutocrats who shape policy to grow wealthier at our expense. We need government to serve our interests, so that we can build the lives and futures we want for ourselves and our families.
There are countless examples of policy decisions that redistribute wealth upward, such as the 2017 tax cuts, or put corporate profits ahead of health and safety—just look at the Boeing 737 MAX, Norfolk Southern rail derailment, and opioid crisis. A campaign for fundamental reform should provide a steady stream of these stories and repeat the same punchline: we want our political system to serve us!
Only 10 percent of respondents in the Pew survey are always or often hopeful when they think about politics. The campaign for fundamental reform should inspire hope. It needs to present a vision for America where political leaders understand our struggles, stand up to plutocrats, make our lives better, and thus merit our confidence.
With a focus on fundamental reform and inspiring narratives, we can forge a path through intermediate successes to our final goals.
To generate momentum toward overturning Citizens United by constitutional amendment, we should press Congress to enact full transparency for all campaign-related contributions and expenditures. More than $1 billion in dark money was spent in the 2020 federal elections. By exposing who is behind this dark money, we can draw further attention to the staggering sums that make elected officials beholden to wealthy donors, identify the policies dark money seeks to promote, and undercut the twisted notion that money is free speech rather than a blatant effort to buy influence.
In most states, the state legislature draws electoral districts; only nine states have independent redistricting commissions. Efforts to introduce independent redistricting commissions in more states might give greater impetus to pass a federal law to eliminate partisan control over electoral maps. While fights over electoral maps—in places like Alabama, North Carolina, and New Mexico—remind voters of how unfair gerrymandered districts are, promotion of independent redistricting commissions underscores how ridiculous it is to have these fights in the first place. When we stop partisan officials from selecting their own voters, we get a sensible process for drawing electoral districts and end up more consistently with fair electoral maps.
Public support for replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote is widespread—with about 2 to 1 in favor. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact seeks to get around the Electoral College by agreement among states to assign their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide, regardless of how that candidate performs in their state. This compact would go into effect when enacted by enough states with a majority—270 of 538—of electoral votes. If passed in 8 more states, the compact would introduce a national popular vote for U.S. president.
The compact provides the quickest route to a national popular vote, which would get us most of the way toward revoking the Electoral College by constitutional amendment. The Electoral College produces anomalous outcomes—five times in U.S. history, most recently in 2016, a presidential candidate has won election while losing the national popular vote—and incentivizes presidential candidates to devote almost all of their attention to a few battleground states. In 2020, for example, 96 percent of general election campaign events took place in only 12 states, and there were no such events in 33 states. A national popular vote would require presidential candidates to address the concerns of voters throughout the country and would give equal weight to all votes.
We face a long, tough road to fundamental reform, but it is where we need to go. Let’s get inspired to make our political system work for us!
Daniel Calingaert is Dean for Global Programs at Bard College. The views expressed here are his own.