No silver bullets
Penniman is the CEO of Issue One, a cross-partisan political reform group. (It is incubating, but journalistically independent from, The Fulcrum.)
I started Issue One five years ago to recruit more voices from inside and outside Washington into the movement fixing our ailing democracy. Since then, I've addressed large crowds; sat with members of Congress from both parties; moderated sessions with billionaires; debated professors; convened lawyers, think tanks and advocacy groups; advised political candidates and White House officials, and huddled late into the night with concerned citizens in bookstores and auditoriums in little red towns and big blue cities while on a book tour.
In nearly every setting, I'm almost always asked the same question. Actually, it's usually an assertion dressed up as a question: What's the silver bullet for fixing our democracy?
"Gerrymandering, right?" "We just need to get rid of 'big money' in politics, right?" "We need to amend the Constitution to get rid of Citizens United before we can do anything. How does that work?" "It's all about public financing of elections, yes?" "If we just elect enough good people to office — centrists, maybe veterans — then we can get political reform legislation done. Am I wrong?"
Others: "Let's get everyone to vote. Like Australia." "The most important thing is to secure the ballot box." "Ranked-choice voting changes everything." "How about open primaries?" "Why aren't you working on eliminating the Electoral College?" "Civic education. We need to get facts into people's hands." Or "Congress will never clean up its act, you should put your effort into the states."
And, others: "If we just had term limits, then most of these other structural problems would be irrelevant." "National service is the key. It'll create a new generation of people who are civically minded." "What about the filibuster? Shouldn't we get rid of that?"
The list goes on. It can be dizzying.
The honest answer is, it's all true: There is no silver bullet.
Gerrymandering is a form of political disenfranchisement that increases polarization. Money and lobbying too often dominate policymaking in Washington. Voting innovations, and improving voters' choices, would increase participation and competition. Elevating national service, while encouraging great public servants to run, would help improve the culture of governing. Reforming congressional rules and providing stronger support systems for members of Congress is also necessary.
Taken together, such reforms would put our republic back on track to being the envy of the world. Taken individually, none are enough to get the job done.
What's baffling is why philanthropists and concerned citizens demand a single fix for political reform when they don't in other realms. Education reform, climate change, reducing the prison population, rebuilding the middle class, tackling the federal debt, fighting terrorism: They all require dozens, sometimes hundreds, of both major and minor initiatives.
Imagine if the sole focus of political reform was electing more "problem solvers" to Congress. It's a valuable goal. But gerrymandering and binary voting systems stand in the way of such people ever making it onto the ballot in the first place, or winning if they do. Even if the right member of Congress is elected, they are pressed against their cell phones all day raising money for their campaign war chests — in part to fend off "dark money" and superPACs — often from wealthy, highly partisan, ideologically motivated donors.
They're additionally raising money to meet fundraising "quotas" imposed by the Republican and Democratic parties, with the hope of currying enough favor to get appointed to a committee chairmanship. Those who become chairmen, then have to raise even more money, when they should be spending more time overseeing their committee. Many members have told me they don't have time to solve problems, and their donors don't really want them to reach across the aisle. All of these factors pose additional hurdles for those who want to run for office in the first place.
As the saying goes: "Problems look simple when you leave out the details." American democracy is in crisis after several years of neglect, but fixing it is not so easy.
In the grand scheme of human history, democracy is still a germ of an idea. Of the roughly 5,000 years of recorded history, democratic government has been a mere blip on the radar screen that fades in and out of obscurity. Dictators and totalitarian regimes are the norm. Democracy is the exception. One of the early versions of it lasted for a few hundred years in ancient Greece, then was discarded in favor of emperors. For the next 1,200 years there were little experiments here and there, mostly at small scales in communes and towns across Europe. Parliaments begin cropping up in the 1200s, and spread across Western Europe, but mainly served as powerless advisory boards for kings.
Then the American Revolution took fire and its principles were codified into a modern democratic republic, underscored by a Bill of Rights, in 1788. Since then, democracy has had a raging run down the field. But we've also witnessed regressions in Turkey, Hungary and many other countries that once seemed like harbingers of a positive trend and now may be early markers of a larger collapse. We also see countries prop up the facade of democracy to cover up their autocratic regimes, like Russia, and then never go a step farther.
So as this new era of reform to save American democracy begins, let's remember that the search for a silver bullet is a distraction. We need to embrace the complexity of the system and the solutions. Although there is no silver bullet, Issue One (and other organizations like us) has a clear focus on certain areas: securing our elections, eliminating dark money, increasing accountability in Congress and building a bipartisan political coalition that can win game-changing reforms.
Now we need philanthropists and citizens to fuel the social movement fighting for democracy reform so it can pursue multiple solutions at once — and fight like hell to get them done.