5 Lessons on How to Fix America's Broken Political System (from the Unrig Summit)
By Nada Zohdy, Director of the Open Gov Hub
I recently had the privilege to attend the 2nd Unrig the System Summit organized by Represent Us in Nashville, TN - an energizing and unique gathering bringing together America’s cross-partisan democracy reform movement.
Over 3 days, I joined 2,000 other attendees from every state in the Union who all came to learn about why America’s political system is fundamentally broken and corrupt, and how we can actually fix it.
Rather than becoming apathetic or cynical about a political system that is designed to make government beholden to big money and narrow party and special interests, I and my fellow Unrig attendees focused on what we can do to shift the paradigm back to one that matches our American ideals - a system where those in power are first and foremost accountable to We the People.
I was impressed by how diverse and effective a movement Represent Us has helped build in just a few years, and was encouraged to see them shining the spotlight on state and local level leaders who might not otherwise receive national attention, but who are on the frontlines leading the charge on everything from ending gerrymandering to campaign finance reform and more. By giving these local leaders a platform (and sharing the state with a literal celebrity, Jennifer Lawrence!), we can celebrate and model the changes that are still yet to come.
Wearing my Defending Democracy Program hat, I attended mainly to understand if, how, and when international examples can help motivate, inspire, and inform the efforts of this movement to change how our domestic politics are done.
So during the Unconference section of the Summit, I gave a rather impromptu 5-minute “Spark Talk” called 5 Lessons from Abroad on How to Defend Democracy. You can listen to it here.
5 Things We Learned at the 2019 Unrig Summit
Guess what? There is, in fact, a vibrant and growing movement with cross-partisan consensus in America today for fundamental reform of our democracy! The media may emphasize civic activism in this country that is increasingly polarized along partisan divides, but there is a quietly growing, broad-based movement that seeks to restore a political system where politicians are actually responsive to their constituents by default. For example, in 2018 alone, 22 new anti-corruption state laws were passed.
The problem is clear, and simple. Politicians can only get to power by raising huge (often absurd) amounts of money. This makes them beholden to the interests of the wealthy few rather than the many. How can we expect members of Congress to properly represent us when they have to fundraise an average of $45,000 every single day, 365 days a year in order to win re-election? Money talks in American politics. It is how people get elected, special interests and lobbyists move their agendas forward (often despite popular opinion), etc.
The solutions are clear and simple too! This 10-minute Unbreaking America video is the single most instructive and persuasive thing I’ve seen that breaks down why politics doesn’t work for everyday Americans and how we can respond (every American should watch it!) Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the many solutions explored at the Unrig Summit:
Rank choice voting (to make elections competitive and independents actually viable)
Revolving door restrictions - waiting period for former congressmen being hired
Public financing/citizen vouchers for campaigns, and matching public contributions
End gerrymandering where politicians draw ridiculous districts to prevent competition
Protect voting rights of marginalized groups from returning citizens, to immigrants, etc.
Congress may seem fundamentally gridlocked and ineffective, but there’s a proven political strategy for sweeping, national reform: it all starts with the states. Major changes in the history of our country - from women’s suffrage to same-sex marriage and more - have all come from several state-level reforms reaching a tipping point to support nation-wide change. We also know from research of social movements all around the world that it only takes getting 3.5% of the population involved in a movement to reach the tipping point. This means getting 11 million Americans onboard with this democracy reform movement. It may seem like a lot, but it’s a tangible target and we are well on our way.
We urgently need to fix America’s corrupt political system, if we hope to fix any other major issue. All major issues in our country are affected by our skewed political system that favors the opinions of the few over the many - from climate change to health care and more. If we can fix America’s basic political system, then we will have a real fighting chance to fix everything else our country urgently needs to address.