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Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Occupy the Constitution 2.0

Posted by Peter M. Shane on December 16, 2011

I cannot say that my earlier suggestions for a pro-democracy constitutional amendment have ignited a firestorm of grassroots activity. They have, however, elicited enough email responses to prompt my attempt at a yet better-drafter version.

Members of Congress have already proposed a constitutional amendment to deal, in particular, with the Citizens United problem, and the Supreme Court’s general hostility towards campaign finance regulation. As critical as these moves are — I wholeheartedly recommend Larry Lessig‘s Republic, Lost for a compelling analysis of how money has corrupted our political system — I do not believe they are sufficient to generate the kind of revitalization our political system needs if we are ever to replace our entrenched plutocracy with more genuinely democratic government.

Revamping our political landscape in the name of democracy requires, I believe, four critical changes: the legitimation of campaign finance regulation, authority for public financing to reduce the impact of disparate fund-raising among candidates, the constitutionalization of federal voting rights, and legal protection against gross gerrymandering. The following draft amendment embodies this four-part strategy — with thanks to readers who have offered friendly amendments to the amendment.

Draft Pro-Democracy Constitutional Amendment

Sec. 1. Congress may regulate political contributions and independent expenditures regarding elections for any federal office as may be reasonable to protect the fairness and integrity of such elections. Such regulations may include the prohibition of political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any federal office.

Sec. 2. States and the District of Columbia may regulate political contributions and independent expenditures regarding elections for any state or local office, or on behalf of any state or local referendum, within their jurisdiction, as may be reasonable to protect the fairness and integrity of such elections. States may delegate such regulatory authority for local offices, referenda and initiatives to the relevant local governments. District of Columbia, state and local regulations may include the prohibition of political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any office, or on behalf of any initiative or referendum, within the relevant jurisdiction.

Sec. 3. Regulations adopted pursuant to this Amendment may not have as their purpose the suppression of, or discrimination against, any particular political viewpoint.

Sec. 4. No citizen of the United States who has reached the age of 18 may be denied the right to vote in any election for state or federal office or any referendum, initiative or similar ballot contest conducted in the state of which he or she is a duly registered domiciliary. No citizen of the United States who has reached the age of 18 may be denied the right to vote in any election for local office or any referendum, initiative or similar ballot contest conducted in a local jurisdiction of which he or she is a duly registered domiciliary. Any election regulation that has the purpose or effect of denying the right to vote that is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling and legitimate government interest shall be unconstitutional. States shall adopt affirmative measures to ensure that citizens may conveniently exercise the rights guaranteed by this section.

Sec. 5. In districted elections for federal, state or local office, every citizen of the United States who has reached the age of 18 shall have the right to vote in a fairly apportioned district that implements the principle of one person, one vote and that has not been drawn substantially for the purpose of defeating political competition and preserving the majority status within that district of any political party.

Sec. 6. Congress may provide for the funding of elections in connection with any federal office. Should any candidate in a publicly funded federal election choose to decline public funding, Congress may permit adjustments to the subsidies provided other candidates according to the fundraising and spending of their privately financed opponents.

Sec. 7. States and the District of Columbia may provide for the funding of elections in connection with any state or local office. Should any candidate in a publicly funded state or local election choose to decline public funding, the state or relevant local jurisdiction may permit adjustments to the subsidies provided other candidates according to the fundraising and spending of their privately financed opponents.

Sec. 8. Congress may enforce the rights protected by this Amendment through appropriate legislation.

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Occupy the Constitution

Posted by Peter M. Shane on October 13, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement has brought a level of energy and inspiration to participatory Left politics unseen since the 2008 Obama campaign and with, perhaps, yet more enduring potential.

Among admirers who are unfazed by the pathetic attempts at trivialization voiced by Republican politicians and their media propagandists, the chief anxiety seems to be the absence of a specific policy agenda around which to rally the citizenry.

If OWS is to become a lasting force, however, in American policy, its objectives have to go beyond policy proposals that aim at ameliorating our short-term economic distress. The movement has to try to reshape the institutions through which we conduct our politics. Government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” will remain an unlikely prospect as our political institutions are now rigged.

And there is simply no hope of doing the work that needs doing unless significant changes are made to the Constitution of the United States.

Larry Lessig has made an overwhelming case that money is corrupting our democracy. Money has that power, in part because the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to protect plutocracy. But our Constitution, as interpreted by the Court, also lets transient majorities in state legislatures so finagle our legislative elections as to undermine genuine electoral competition. If our “representatives” don’t have to compete for our votes, their positions are quite unlikely to mirror our preferences.

Consider that, in the convulsive 2010 congressional mid-term elections, 87 percent of the incumbents who stood for election were re-elected — this, at a time when public approval of Congress was in the low 20s. If nearly nine out of ten incumbents get to keep their jobs even when the public hates their handiwork, what kind of democratic accountability do our elections actually provide?

It is commonly said that high rates of incumbent retention reflect a world in which voters despise Congress, but love their local representatives. There is, of course, another explanation: legislatures have stacked the deck in favor of protecting incumbents.

There are many ways in which our Constitution undermines democracy. The legislative disenfranchisement of the District of Columbia, the setup of presidential elections and the malapportionment of the Senate are all conspicuous examples. Yet, if recent history is a guide, changing any of these provisions — the makeup of the Senate could not be undone without a new constitutional convention — would be extremely difficult.

It should be less contentious, however, to rally around three ideas that ought to elicit widespread public support across a considerable political spectrum — undoing the constitutional protection for corporate spending, expanding the adult franchise so that all Americans can vote and authorizing the public funding of elections. Toward that end, I have appended below yet another draft of what a pro-democracy constitutional amendment could look like.

Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. wrote some years ago of his puzzlement that the American Right seemed always ready, willing and able to rally around proposed constitutional amendments, no matter how improbable — whether it’s a “Human Life” amendment, or a pro-school prayer amendment, or now an anti-gay-marriage amendment. Would it not seem more promising to organize the American people around a constitutional ideal in which people actually believe, namely, democracy?

To cement its role as a new anchor for the Left in American politics, OWS participants should endorse both policy proposals to increase economic fairness and prosperity in the short-term and constitutional changes that will restore government accountability as a meaningful aspiration in America.

DRAFT PRO-DEMOCRACY CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT
Sec. 1. The freedom of speech shall not be construed to deny Congress authority to prohibit or otherwise regulate political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any federal office.

Sec. 2. The freedom of speech shall not be construed to deny authority to the States to prohibit or otherwise regulate political contributions and expenditures by commercial, for-profit corporations for any state or local office, or for any state or local referendum or initiative, within their jurisdiction, and or to delegate such regulatory authority for local offices, referenda and initiatives to the relevant local governments.

Sec. 3. No citizen of the United States who has reached the age of 18 may be denied the right to vote in any election for state or federal office or any referendum, initiative or similar ballot contest conducted in the state of which he or she is a duly registered domiciliary. No citizen of the United States who has reached the age of 18 may be denied the right to vote in any election for local office or any referendum, initiative or similar ballot contest conducted in a local jurisdiction of which he or she is a duly registered domiciliary. Any election regulation that has the purpose or effect of denying the right to vote that is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling and legitimate government interest shall be unconstitutional. States shall adopt affirmative measures to ensure that citizens may conveniently exercise the rights guaranteed by this section.

Sec. 4. In districted elections for federal, state or local office, every citizen of the United States who has reached the age of 18 shall have the right to vote in a fairly apportioned district that implements the principle of one person, one vote and that has not been drawn substantially for the purpose of defeating political competition and preserving the majority status within that district of any political party.

Sec. 5. Congress may provide for the funding of elections in connection with any federal office. Should any candidate in a publicly funded federal election choose to decline public funding, Congress may permit adjustments to the subsidies provided other candidates according to the fundraising and spending of their privately financed opponents.

Sec. 6. States may provide for the funding of elections in connection with any state or local office. Should any candidate in a publicly funded state or local election choose to decline public funding, the state or relevant local jurisdiction may permit adjustments to the subsidies provided other candidates according to the fundraising and spending of their privately financed opponents.

Sec. 7. Congress may enforce the rights protected by this Amendment through appropriate legislation.

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Are the People of Egypt Available for Freelance Democracy Building?

Posted by Peter M. Shane on February 11, 2011

Now that the people of Egypt have successfully ended the Mubarak regime, I’m wondering if they are available for freelance work.

For example, I am thinking of a nation whose capital is home to over 600,000 people, none of whom are represented by a voting member of their national legislature.

It is a country where about 16 per cent of the population is given control over half the seats in the upper house of that legislature – and can effectively block what a majority of citizens want. (Actually, it’s worse than that because a single legislator in that House can block legislation, and not even a majority can insist on a vote.)

It’s a country where the right to vote is not even in the national constitution. Its Supreme Court actually said that no one in the country has a constitutional right to vote for its President.

Of course, there are other ways of catapulting democracy. You can invade, as we did in Iraq. But when I consider the price tag for that effort, in both money and human life, the Egyptian plan looks way better.

And the country I’m thinking of is not even a dictatorship. If the Egyptians have 18 days to work their democratic genius, they could probably institute democracy in half that time and grab a week for a well-deserved vacation.

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FCC Examination of the Future of Media and Information Needs of Communities in a Digital Age

Posted by Peter M. Shane on January 21, 2010

The FCC just released a public notice, FCC LAUNCHES EXAMINATION OF THE FUTURE OF MEDIA AND INFORMATION NEEDS OF COMMUNITIES IN A DIGITAL AGE. It quotes the conclusion of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy that “[t]he digital age is creating an information and communications renaissance. But it is not serving all Americans and their local communities equally. It is not yet serving democracy fully.” The notice goes on to state forty-two questions on which the project is conducting research and seeking public input through March 8, 2010. More information and opportunities to comment are available at the project web site.

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Knight Commission Recommends Universal Broadband, Urges National Dialogue to Improve “Information Health” of America’s Local Communities

Posted by Peter M. Shane on October 5, 2009

(I posted this originally on Huffington Post.)

Friday morning, October 2, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy debuted ts final report, Informing Communities:  Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.

The report marks the first time in the digital age that an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon  panel has sought to explain what exactly are the information needs of America’s communities and to determine if those needs are being well served.

The Commission, led by Co-Chairs Marissa Mayer and Theodore B. Olson, argues that effective information systems are as important to healthy communities as other fundamental infrastructures, such as roads and electric grids.

It warns that, for a variety of economic, social, and technological reasons, many Americans will fall into or remain in a kind of second-class citizenship if they lack access to or skills to use the new information and communication technologies that are now central to community information flow.

The Commission hopes its report will attract attention, in part, because of its identification of three key objectives that healthy community information systems must serve, and its articulation of 15 specific recommendations for improving the fulfillment of community information needs.  Perhaps paramount among them is the push for universal broadband access as a national imperative.

As executive director to the Commission, I also believe that the report is an exciting step forward because of three critical aspects of the Commission’s approach.

First, the Commission sought to look at information needs truly through the eyes of the individual citizen, not through the lens of any media or other institution.  Thus, although Informing Communities will be relevant to a variety of hot current debates on public policy and the future of media, it is not a report about “saving” the local newspaper.  It embeds its discussion of journalism in an analysis of what citizens and communities need – information – and makes recommendations with those needs taken as paramount.

Second, the report weaves together three discussions that currently occur often in largely siloed venues that take little account of one another.  These are discussions about maximizing the availability of reliable news and information, achieving universal access to significant information technologies and the skills necessary to use them effectively, and promoting public engagement among everyday citizens, both with information and with each other.  The Commission recognizes these as three strands of what ought to be a united, integrated approach to producing better informed communities.

Finally, the report focuses on geographically defined local communities.  Although the word “community” is properly used to describe any network of information and support with which people identify, such as “the community of science fiction fans” or “the African-American community,” our democracy is organized along geographic lines.  Where we live still determines much of our quality of life and the resources over which we share authority with our fellow citizens.  Inadequacies in information systems related to the communities in which we live, work and vote thus necessarily limit the quality of our democratic life, to the detriment also of our social and economic welfare.

The October 2 launch event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., featured prominent national leaders, including Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, Chief Technology Officer of the United States Aneesh Chopra, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Telecommunications and Information Lawrence E. Strickling, and Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board of Directors Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III.   Videos of the event may be viewed  at the Commission’s web site.

The web site provides links also to copies of the report in either English or Spanish.  The Commission ultimately seeks to foster a nationwide dialogue on the issues it raises.  Anyone may join the discussion at the Commission web site, and twitter users can tweet at hash tag #knightcomm.  Informing Communities also is available free on Amazon’s Kindle through December 2009.

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