As the president cuts taxes for billionaires and hobnobs at Davos, Americans should be turning inward to consider the state of our democracy. There can be no denying the overwhelming power of the rich in current American politics. As political scientists have repeatedly shown, Congress is systematically unresponsive to the opinions of ordinary Americans, reacting only to the views of the richest 10 percent.
The positions of the current Congress – tax cuts to the 1 percent, repealing net neutrality, refusing a vote on DACA, and rejecting Medicare for All – have led to a crisis of confidence about whether the body is capable of representing the democratic will of our nation.
Nothing matters more than reforming Congress so it is not beholden to the donor class. That’s why we are calling for a statutory proposal to reverse this slide into plutocracy.
The Citizen Sovereignty Act grants each registered voter a special credit card account that can be spent for only one purpose: to support favored candidates in federal elections. Citizens could sign up on the internet for the right to spend fifty “democracy dollars” during every election cycle on the contest for the presidency, the Senate, and the House.
Nearly 140 million Americans went to the polls in 2016. If the same number had been able to spend democracy dollars, they would have contributed the equivalent of $7 billion in campaign financing – compared to the $6.8 billion in green dollars provided by private interests. This is a small price to pay to restore real democracy in the United States.
The statute is designed to respect all Supreme Court decisions guaranteeing candidates the right to raise private money and would be constitutional even under the Roberts Court. While the holy grail remains to overturn Citizens United and the Supreme Court’s flawed doctrine that money is speech, this initiative will allow us to reform our democracy without waiting helplessly for the court to change.
Under the democracy dollars system, even plutocrats might pause before relying on their own money or donor money. They will have to make a choice: Either they opt into the democracy dollar system, or they rely on green dollars. If they choose the latter, that will allow their opponents to raise millions of democracy dollars that the plutocrats might have obtained if they had competed for the support of their fellow citizens.
The plutocrats would lose any significant financial advantage and would also incur a huge cost of bad publicity for refusing support from ordinary Americans.
The point of the initiative is to kick off a conversation among reformers so that we don’t waste the next few years backing half-hearted initiatives.
Among reforms, the current favorite is the “matching grant” system that prevails in New York City and other places. Under this alternative, “small” contributions of up to $1,050 are matched 6-to-1 with public funds. But in New York, these “small” donations overwhelmingly come from the top ten percent earning more than $180,000 a year.
The average family, with an income of $43,000, has a hard enough time providing a decent life for themselves and their kids. If they have anything left over, it is perfectly understandable when they give it to their church or little league instead of a candidate they admire. For a single mom at the 25th percentile earning $26,000, the smallest political contribution is a luxury she can’t afford.
In contrast, once voters gain control of democracy dollars, fundraising would become a community affair – a box lunch for 50 neighbors could gross 2,500 democracy dollars. These grass-roots efforts would provoke tens of millions of dinner-table conversations: Who should get our democracy dollars? Who is really concerned about America?
In 2015, Seattle voters became the first community to endorse a democracy dollars initiative for city elections. South Dakota followed in 2016 with a referendum of its own.
Our initiative brings the debate to the national level, and aims to put the progressive coalition in a position to act decisively if Americans repudiate the Republicans’ plutocratic politics in “wave elections” in 2018 and 2020.
Ro Khanna represents Silicon Valley in the U.S. Congress and is Vice Chair of the Progressive Caucus. Bruce Ackerman is a Professor of Law and Policitical Science at Yale University.