To save America, we must repair and modernize our politics

To save America, we must repair and modernize our politics
© Getty Images

With a rising tide of systemic threats, the “idea that is America” is drowning and we must act now to save it. Our values, politics, economics, education and use of technology require attention — simultaneously and urgently. Americans have united in the past when faced with adversity.  Now it is up to us to confront the increasingly serious risks to our idea that a free and diverse people can successfully govern themselves. America’s future rests where it began, in the hands of “We the People.”

Our starting point must be an awakening of American values. Building awareness and consensus on what is important to us — what life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness really mean — is the essential first step.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Our political system is complex and interacts with others, such as our economic system, that profoundly influence life in our country. A lot of wisdom and understanding of human nature was built into it.

Today, it is failing. Many Americans seriously question government’s purpose, size and activities. An increasing number don’t trust it, and even question its legitimacy when the political party with whom they disagree is elected to lead. While there is no shortage of thoughtful analysis and recommendations for change, we are incapacitated by polarization, cynicism and a short attention span. It is clear that familiar approaches to reform will not work.

History teaches that success of the American system of governance is not guaranteed. Its strength and vulnerability always have been its reliance on us. At critical times in the past, citizens (a few extraordinary, but most ordinary) have taken actions large and small to preserve our system.  Ordinary citizens are who we must call upon today.

Repairing our politics starts with reestablishing trust, reversing the growth of cynicism and rebuilding confidence in how we hold our politicians accountable.

First, more of us must vote — many more.

Second, we have to reduce the influence of money, particularly big money, on politics. We should preferentially support candidates and parties who rely on small, individual campaign contributions.

Third, the process of redrawing congressional districts to disenfranchise citizens for partisan political advantage has gone too far. Through petitions, voting and peaceful protest we must demand that gerrymandering be curtailed.

Fourth, if we want to see our politicians and parties acting for the greater good more often, then we need to do so ourselves. “Win at any cost” political behavior thrives today because tribalism and extreme political partisanship feed each other. A change in national behavior is imperative.  More of us have got to treat all our fellow countrymen with acceptance and respect, not just those with whom we share interests and political views.

Substantial repairs have to start from the bottom up, at the state and local levels. Complex system problems with large numbers of diverse stakeholders defy top-down solutions.  

Washington cannot be fixed without a firm foundation of local and state governments to build from. State and local systems are where we develop our political leaders, and we need a lot of them to fix our economic and education systems, in addition to our politics. State and local governments engage ordinary citizens, providing them civic education and political experience.

We should create reform commissions at the state and local level and hold public meetings to inform and listen to Americans about issues such as these:

  • How our local, state and federal government evolved and how they relate to one another;
  • What the people in each locality and state want the government to do;
  • What government costs, and whether we’re willing to pay for the government we want;
  • What representative government means, and realistic expectations for the role citizens play in government decision-making;
  • The limits of government involvement; specifically, are we asking the courts to resolve differences on social issues and conflicts that aren’t really the purview of government?

These efforts could provide ideas for changing how we register, when, how often and for whom we vote. These commissions also might recommend changes to how we determine who wins an election, how we finance campaigns, choose candidates, and set term and tenure limits for elected and appointed officials.

National conventions of state and local government leaders could share reform ideas, as well as progress and barriers to implementation. A national commission must be created and participate in these conventions; this commission could inform and influence federal government reform efforts. Only sustained voter interest in these commissions, and the changes they identify, can drive real progress. It will, as it should, depend on ordinary citizens.

Once repairs are sufficient, real modernization can begin. States should consider constitutional conventions, if necessary. Experimenting with such choices before moving forward would be wise. The leaders of our federal government should consider doing the same.

There is more than a little evidence that we Americans are uninformed and irrational. At least at times, we vote by social group and assign political credit and blame inappropriately. Results of past reform efforts, such as those in campaign finance, have been mixed at best, with unintended negative consequences.  

To say that the path of political reform I propose is hard and success improbable is an understatement. It is a big gamble. Given the stakes — quite possibly, failure of our great American experiment in self-government — I believe we must try. Patriots participate. Now is the time for us all to be patriots and respond with acts of ordinary citizenship that can reform our politics and preserve the idea that is America.

John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy vice admiral and commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment and homeland security.