Our Democracy is Only Rigged if We Let it Be

Cass Sunstein has written an important rejoinder to the idea that our democracy is rigged.

Here’s the paradox: The U.S. is in a period of extraordinary reform, and many recent changes have been made to help those against whom the system is supposedly rigged.

Without mentioning the Obama administration specifically, he lists some of the reforms we’ve seen over the last seven years:

* Obamacare
* Dodd-Frank (including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)
* The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act
* The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act
* Repeal of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell”
* Aggressive fuel economy standards for cars and trucks
* EPA rules on mercury and greenhouse gas emissions
* Increased taxes on wealthy Americans
* American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

And then he concludes:

A rigged system couldn’t have produced such a range of reforms, many of them aggressively opposed by well-funded private interests.

On why so many people resonate with the idea that the system is rigged, here’s what he has to say:

One answer is that whenever you lose, it’s tempting to blame the system, and concentrated wealth, rather than to acknowledge the existence of disagreement and debate. People on the left want Congress to enact many other reforms, including a significant increase in the federal minimum wage, a far more progressive income tax, infrastructure improvements and national legislation to combat climate change.

But on these and other issues, rigging doesn’t adequately explain Congress’s inaction. The major obstacle is political polarization. Americans are divided, and so are their representatives. In a democracy with checks and balances, large-scale reforms are difficult to achieve without some consensus.

Neither Sunstein nor anyone else would ever deny that big money has too much influence in our democracy. But I think he makes a very important point. Assuming it is the only roadblock for further reforms becomes a kind of self-fulling prophecy. First of all, it makes the whole enterprise seem hopeless. If the system is rigged against us…why try? I believe that is the attitude of a lot of Americans who have said “a pox on both your houses” and given up on engagement. That simply ensures even more clout for big money.

But Sunstein gets to another way it undermines our political discourse. Rather than explore disagreements and debate our differences, we too often assume that our opponents are simply controlled by big money. The most obnoxious example of that I’ve seen is when immigrant rights groups accused Delores Huerta of corruption by financial interests when she urged patience about immigration reform. I suggest that you pay attention to how often that argument comes up. If you want to earn some cheap points in a debate, simply accuse your opponent of being beholden to big money. But if you have any interest in getting to the source of the disagreement and highlighting the issues, it requires a bit more curiosity and dialogue.

I believe that one of the great undercurrents happening in our politics right now is the one articulated by Marshall Ganz as the tension between private wealth and public voice. As ugly as it looks right now, that is exactly what we’re seeing on the right with the way the “base” is challenging the “establishment.”

On the left, the tension isn’t as great because we just witnessed Barack Obama lead two grassroots campaigns based predominantly on small donors. And now, Bernie Sanders is absolutely right when he says this:

The lesson to be learned is that when people stand together, and are prepared to fight back, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished.

That is exactly the same message we heard from a candidate in New Hampshire back in 2008.

Democrats, independents and Republicans who are tired of the division and distraction that has clouded Washington, who know that we can disagree without being disagreeable, who understand that, if we mobilize our voices to challenge the money and influence that stood in our way and challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there is no problem we cannot solve, there is no destiny that we cannot fulfill…

We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

The result is that list of reforms up above. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do. The only way that happens is if we believe we can…and if we are willing talk to each other (sometimes even disagree) about how to do it.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.