Meyers is executive editor of The Fulcrum.
The ever-growing democracy reform movement is built around the idea that the American democracy is in trouble because the system is broken. Those with money have an outsized influence on politics. Ballot access is far from equal. Politicians get to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
That's why, in 2019, I helped launch The Fulcrum, a nonprofit news platform dedicated to coverage of efforts to fix the system. As my then boss, Issue One's Nick Penniman, preaches, government's policy dysfunction cannot be addressed until the political dysfunction is first resolved.
While I remain committed to the mission of informing more Americans about efforts to fix the system, there's a parallel and equally important issue to be addressed: the lack of civility in our collective discourse.
Anyone scrolling through Twitter or Facebook is bound to repeatedly land upon nasty exchanges about Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unfortunately, the dialogue is rarely a debate over ideas, but rather is full of nasty name-calling, sexism, bigotry and other forms of hate.
And it's not just on social media. Americans have a profound lack of trust in one another. Last summer, the nonprofit More in Common asked Americans whether "most people can be trusted." Only 39 percent said yes while a horrifying 61 percent said "you can't be too careful in dealing with people."
In fact, we can't even blame social media for making distrust more prevalent — just louder. The More in Common report cites data from the nonpartisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, which found this lack of trust to be a long-term problem. NORC's historic data shows the last time more than 40 percent of Americans said most people can be trusted was ... the mid-1980s.
And while the Pew Research Center has found that Americans generally trust one another to do the right thing in many situations, that trust does not extend to political decisions. At the end of 2018, just as the United States was gearing up for a second Trump campaign, Pew learned that only 43 percent of Americans were confident that others would cast informed votes and 42 percent were confident people could have a civil conversation with someone who has different political beliefs.
And that's why I'm supporting America Talks, a much-needed effort to foster civil dialogue — not by regulating social media or limiting speech, but by encouraging individual Americans to engage in one-on-one conversations. It's important we all recognize that just because someone has different beliefs, they aren't evil or unpatriotic.
Not only do we need to get people talking, we need to create some optimism that things can get better. That same More in Common study found that only 51 percent of Americans believe it's possible "for the country to come together in 2021" and just 39 percent say it's likely. While Democrats are more positive (68 percent possible, 52 percent likely), independents and Republicans are far more pessimistic (43 percent and 37 percent, respectively, said it's possible).
(Interestingly, racial minorities are more optimistic than white Americans: 63 percent of Black respondents said unity is possible in 2021, along with 58 percent of Hispanic people and 55 percent of Asian people. But only 47 percent of white people said so.)
We need to apply Isaac Newtons' first law of motion: An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by a stronger force. Our citizenry is only going to become more divided, more untrusting unless something stops that trend. America Talks could be that something.
There's no institutional fix to the pervasive lack of trust in the United States. But America Talks can help us start fixing things, one conversation at a time.
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When Sen. Joe Manchin's office told CNN this week that he opposes the For the People Act, the West Virginia Democrat struck a fatal blow to his party's signature legislation to overhaul the elections, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics rules.
From its debut in 2019, the legislation was considered a long shot at best and likely nothing more than a messaging platform for Democrats. That prediction -- the first article written by The Fulcrum -- has come to fruition two and a half years later as the parties avoided attempts at compromise and fought over congressional rules that stymied passage.
In March 2019, Democrats forced the bill through the House on a strictly party-line vote while knowing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was never going to allow a vote in the Republican-run Senate.
But after Joe Biden won the presidency and Democrats took control of a 50-50 Senate, the bill's backers thought they might have a real opportunity to enact the popular legislation (known to many as HR 1 and S 1). However, while the Democrats again won passage in the House (this time with one Democrat joining all Republicans in opposition), they still faced the daunting challenge of overcoming the Senate filibuster.
The chamber's rules allow senators to obstruct a vote by prolonging debate indefinitely. The only way to end the debate and move to a vote is to "invoke cloture," which requires 60 senators to vote in favor of ending debate and moving to a vote on the subject at hand. In recent years, cloture votes have become the norm for any partisan bill -- even without any senators actually engaging in a filibuster.
A number of Democrats have called for abolishing the legislative filibuster this year (the Senate previously ended the practice of filibustering presidential nominations) in order to pass the For the People Act. But two Democratic senators, Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, have said they oppose ending the Senate tradition. If both of them changed their minds, the filibuster could be abolished and only a bare majority would be needed to pass the For the People Act. (This last step could be achieved if all Democrats voted in favor and Vice President Harris broke the anticipated tie.)
With Manchin opposing the bill, there's no path forward.
So how did we get here?
First, the For the People Act has been a partisan play from the beginning. Democrats set it as a legislative priority and never invited Republicans to help craft or change the legislation. Of course, Republicans did not seek a meaningful role -- both sides dug into their deep-rooted positions with no room for compromise.
And then there's the filibuster, which for more than two centuries has been cited as a tool for preventing a majority from running roughshod over the political minority, helping the Senate cool any tempers flaring in the House of Representatives. In order to overcome opposition, senators were forced to reach a compromise accepted by both parties.
But opinions have shifted and some reformers have cited the filibuster as a leading cause of legislative dysfunction, saying one cranky lawmaker (or the minority as a whole) can gum up the works when a majority is trying to serve the people.
Your midweek reminder that the filibuster is a racist, ahistorical relic that undermines majority rule and is block… https://t.co/62Clar9w4g— Citizens for Ethics (@Citizens for Ethics)1620864049.0
While the massive bill, which has demonstrated bipartisan support in polling, has nowhere to go, perhaps it could be scrapped for parts. Republicans might be willing to accept some components that prove popular among their constituents, as long as they can still say they are preventing a federal takeover of elections. But don't hold your breath.
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More than 100 Republicans, including former federal and state officials, are prepared to launch a new political party if the GOP fails to make a series of unspecified changes, according to a report in The New York Times.
Whether such a new party comes to fruition, it's worth examining the changes needed to ensure the viability of a new force in American politics. After all, others have tried to end the two-party duopoly but rarely do they play more than the role of spoiler.
The 2019 Hidden Common Ground report produced by Public Agenda, USA Today and Ipsos found that 65 percent of Americans agree it should be easier for third-party and independent candidates to run for office, giving voters more than two choices. And in last year's report, 80 percent of respondents agreed that "Traditional parties and politicians don't care about people like me."
Voters had more options than ever before in 2018. According to Unite America, which supports nonpartisan reforms and candidates willing to work across the aisle, a record 431 independents ran for state legislative seats, governor or Congress in 2018, collectively earning more votes than independent candidates in previous cycles. However, only 14 of them won their races.
"The largest barrier facing new competition in America is not structural, it's psychological: a belief that an alternative can be viable and a new identity to align around," said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America (which has provided financial support for The Fulcrum). "Yes, we need ranked-choice voting to eliminate the spoiler effect. Yes, we need fair ballot access and debate rules. However, those things are necessary but not sufficient. What any third party really needs is a brand and a constituency that is powerful enough to transcend the tribalism on both the left and the right in order to win elections."
For disaffected Republicans, the appearance of big names in a new party might be enough to galvanize meaningful support. Miles Taylor, who served in the Department of Homeland Security under Donald Trump and authored an op-ed and book highly critical of that administration, is one of the organizers of the potential new party, according to the Times. Reuters has identified a number of other participants, including former members of Congress and two former governors (Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Christine Toddy Whitman of New Jersey).
But that may not be enough to give a new party the standing to win elections.
One structural change would be to allow more candidates into debates. Writing last fall about the presidential debate system, Christina Tobin of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and Eli Beckerman of Open the Debates argued that the system is designed to prevent candidates outside the Democratic and Republican parties from competing.
"At a time when voters are thirsting for more choices, it is absurd to keep Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen and Green nominee Howie Hawkins off the stage," they wrote. "Objectively speaking, there are four tickets on the ballots in enough states to win the election, and yet the debate commission has decided to appoint itself as gatekeeper standing between voters and their choices — and assuring just two of those tickets have a shot."
Unite America's post-election report on the candidates it supported in 2018 identified 10 other structural reforms that would allow third-party and independent candidates to compete with the major parties' nominees:
- In addition to more debate access, independents would stand a great chance at the national level if the Electoral College were replaced by a national popular vote.
- Use of ranked-choice voting could end the argument that independents serve only as "spoiler" candidates.
- Moving to multimember districts with proportional representation would ensure independents have their voices heard in legislative bodies.
- Top-two primaries or top-four RCV primaries would give more candidates an opportunity to earn a spot in a two-person general election, rather than appearing down-ballot as a third candidate.
- Nonpartisan ballots would create a more level playing field, because voters would not have preconceived notions based on political labels included on ballots. All candidates would have to spend resources to explain their position, rather than relying on partisan identification.
- While straight-party voting speeds up the process for voters, it hurts independents by allowing someone to vote for all candidates of one party across all races with one action rather than considering them race by race.
- Ballot access requirements vary by state and in some places can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Easing the rulings to get on the ballot would level the playing field for third-party and independent candidates who lack the resources possessed by the two major parties.
- Similarly, independents and third-party candidates face fundraising disparities when compared to their Democratic and Republican opponents, who can rely on their parties for significant financial support.
- Many states have "sore loser" laws, which prevent candidates from running in a general election as an independent after losing a primary. While the party base may not choose certain candidates, those people may have significant support among other voters.
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