Make Voting Mandatory and Filibusters Extinct

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.

I have an instinctive reluctance to think about long-term plans. Too much uncertainty, too little flexibility in responding to unanticipated problems and opportunities. It would be tragic to fashion a grand strategy, this time on behalf of a very different set of values and objectives than those in the Powell Memo, that risks damaging our democracy as the new conservative (or, more appropriately, radical) strategy has done. 

The damage can be seen in the triumph of zealous ideology over serious governing ideas, disingenuous communication over persuasion, assertions over facts, nonnegotiable pledges and demands over deliberation and compromise, demonization of the political opposition over acceptance of the legitimacy of differences, individual and supermajority obstacles over majority rule, and a cynical strategic opposition to legislative initiatives of a new administration over a search for realistic solutions to problems. Underlying all of this is a crass partisan manipulation of legal and administrative systems to limit the size and composition of the electorate and to increase the private resources brought to bear on campaigning and governing.

Tit for tat can be an appropriate short-term strategy for inducing cooperation from a defecting participant in a negotiating situation. Confrontation and punishment are often necessary to rein in a party or set of actors bent on advancing interests and imposing policies antithetical to the animating values of our constitutional system. Political parties are essential instruments of a well-functioning democracy. Nonpartisanship, imagined bipartisanship, and the search for a golden mean between polar opposites often produce neither more--constructive politics nor good policy. 

But a strategy consumed with arming the left with sharper ideological spears and enhanced infrastructure with which to compete more effectively in the political marketplace could easily fall prey to the same pathologies as the conservatives. Better, in my view, is an approach that focuses on strengthening our democracy and building coalitions to create and sustain problem-solving public policies.

What are the strategic building blocks of such an approach? 

First, liberals need to develop a public philosophy, one accessible and potentially attractive to a wide audience, that heals what E.J. Dionne has called “our divided political heart.” The strength of our Republic from its beginning has been a healthy tension and constructive collaboration between individualism and community, liberty and the commonwealth, free markets and government. The conservative resurgence in recent years has embraced a hyper--individualism on a wide range of economic and domestic issues and a denigration of government. (Ironically and perversely, this libertarian purity is abandoned when conservatives embrace public authority to favor a religious fundamentalism.) This imbalance requires a full-throated advocacy of an adequately resourced and competent government. This advocacy need not be defensive. Government has in the past and continues to this day to provide the necessary ingredients for a free-market economy to prosper and a decent society to exist. It will be called upon to do more in the future. This advocacy should be rooted in our history, a respect for truth, and an appreciation for hardheaded analysis. It can make a strong moral case while guiding a pragmatic and problem-solving approach to public policy.

Second, the strategy should set a goal of the full participation of the citizenry in our democracy. That requires elevating the meaning of citizenship—including its rewards and responsibilities. Mandatory attendance at the polls, though embraced successfully by Australia and several other democracies, strikes many in the United States as illiberal. That is a criticism well worth taking on. Every citizen should be registered to vote and provided with the identification certifying that eligibility. Primary elections should be structured to encourage the largest possible turnout. Election officials should be nonpartisan. New electoral rules allowing preferential voting and more direct representation of interests should be considered. And a full-scale, frontal attack on the problems of money in politics must be launched: public matches for small donations and effective transparency requirements in the short run; a constitutional amendment enabling reasonable limits on the flow of money in elections over the long haul.

Third, liberals should affirm the belief of the framers that except for clearly specified exceptions, majorities rule in Congress. No more effective vetoes in the Senate for indulgent senators and obstructionist parties. The constitutional system provides ample opportunities for minorities to protect rights and test majority resolve without holds and filibusters. 

Other pieces in this series:


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