Fixing our Political System

The Problem

Our political system is based on the idea that we can elect good men who will do altruistic things to guide the country in a direction that is successful for the majority.

  • There will be an open debate, all issues will be discussed publicly, then an educated electorate will carefully consider the issues and come to an informed decision.
  • The electorate will ignore anything but objective, rational, factual arguments and vote for the person they feel best represents their views overall.
  • The person elected will always keep the Greater Good of his constituents in mind when passing legislation.


What makes that a pipe dream is the fact that Human Nature is Human Nature.  Yes, we can expect our legislators to be paying attention more to the “Better Angels of our Nature”, but they are – after all – just human.

The Framers of the Constitution understood this.  The real purpose of the Constitution – and the Bill of Rights – is to act as an inviolable brake on the normal human desire to acquire power.   Fortunately they built a mechanism into it to allow it to evolve into the future.  Unfortunately the world has evolved to the point where that mechanism is hard to use.


Our nation is based on the premise that we are a government “of the people, by the people”, with an expectation that our representatives will hold the interests of the people first and foremost.

The overriding principle has always been that the popular vote is the way we enforce the idea that our legislators will hold the majority of their constituent’s best interests in mind and act accordingly.

That has always been a challenge.   We are not a hive of bees, all in sync and agreeing on both the nature of our problems as well as the best solution.  We’re a community of independent-minded individuals.   Even on issues that seem very clear cut to the majority there are always those that disagree.  And issues that are not so clear cut are often split very close to the middle.

Our legislators represent us in that, not only in their variations and disagreements but in their own viewpoints, which may agree with their constituents most of the time but not all.

And of course a huge part of their attention is often focused not on the interests of the People, but on the special interests that fund their elections.

Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately), our legislators are also human.  Humans are far from perfect and often influenced in different ways by different incentives.  One person may hold to views they feel are “right” regardless of the impact that may have to their chances for re-election, another may change with the wind if he feels it will keep him in office.

Add to this immense pressure from the normal human tendency to do what rewards them the most.  Those rewards can take different forms, but in politics the most common reward is re-election.  Not only does this provide psychic rewards in that the legislator feels his constituents approve of the job he’s doing, but it also provides monetary rewards in that he continues to have a job and reap the benefits and perquisites that come with that job.

Often a long and successful career as a legislator may result in even greater financial rewards when out of office – being awarded a very well paying position with a private company, as a lobbyist, or perhaps as a media commentator or author.

The pressure to do what keeps you in office is huge and often somewhat irresistible.

Now, we throw in the money needed to do that.

As more money becomes available for campaigns, campaigning becomes more expensive.  Although of course the office-holder may want to squeeze the most bang out of each buck they get, there’s no incentive to not spend every dollar they’re given.  That creates a never-ending racheting up of the entire process, as one candidate spends more to keep up with the other, who then spends more to keep up with the first, etc.

This is a trend that has been in existence since the beginning, but recent developments have accelerated the process.   Particularly the Citizens United ruling and the effect massive infusions of cash as a result, have had disastrous impact on the cost of campaigning.

In an era when the only way to connect with the people was by riding the rails, holding debates, and publishing your views in newspapers, Abraham Lincoln spent the equivalent of $2.8 million dollars ($100,000 actual dollars)

In an era when there are more media outlets to buy time on than you can imagine, it required Barack Obama to spend $730 million in 2008, and the current 2012 election is on track to break $1 billion.

Obama will spend 357 times what Lincoln spent in equivalent dollars, or 1000 times as much in actual dollars.  That’s a lot of money.

Do you really think that’s being done just for the altruistic reason of “promoting good government”, or do you think the companies and people who fund that may expect something in return?

Getting that money has become the over-riding concern of our politicians.

A representative can take office with the most altruistic of goals, intending to hold his course and do the right thing regardless of outside forces, but if he does that at the expense of being re-elected then he may as well have never run.

Add to this the fact that it requires a consensus to pass laws, and the people he needs to build that consensus with are under the same pressures.

Unless we somehow put 535 of the most highly principled humans alive into the federal government,  and our own representative was able to get a majority to agree with him, and they were all willing to lose the next election if necessary to vote on what they felt was right, our representative would never pass anything.

If the legislation they were advancing had a majority of the moneyed interests aligned against them, even if this coalition held together for one election cycle, in the next election they would undoubtedly find their ranks reduced as special interests backed their opponents.

The current system cannot – by design – product an objective legislative body.  At least, not without completely re-engineering human beings or developing super robots and allowing them to govern us.  And I’m not down with either of those.

Proposed Solution(s)

As Dan Carlin has put it, our system is one where “bribery is legal, as long as you disclose it…”

Do you seriously think that if a congressman is given a million dollars for re-election by Company A and is then asked to vote on legislation that may negative impact Company A’s business, he’s going to vote in favor of it?  Seriously?

There is a “big picture” solution to this.  Vote third party.

Our political system is very much controlled by the two parties.  We are not “allowed” to see or hear anything significant in the process that they do not want us to see or hear.

Yes, there is plenty out there on the internet, but the major media consistently ignores any views that are not based on major party positions, and both parties control the biggest forum there is in national politics, the Presidential Debates.

For a great examination of how this duopoly uses established controlled-market techniques to keep control over the process, the guys at Freakonomics did an excellent in-depth look at this in “America’s Hidden Duopoly

It’s the AT&T vs. Verizon thing.  Both want you to think they’re competing viciously to provide customers with the lowest price service, but if you lived through the era when they were the ONLY games in town you know their pricing was identical.

Nothing much happened there until T-Mobile entered the fray.

It’s common economic theory.  Two parties control the market in ways that benefit themselves.  Sure, either would love to be the ONLY player, but that’s nearly impossible so they’re happy just making sure no one else can enter.

Add a third party (or more) and all bets are off.

Third Party Influence

Here’s how this works..

Imagine we have a Congress that is relatively evenly split (hmmm… does that sound familiar?)

Let’s suppose one  party has 51 votes, the other has 49.

The 51 vote party is always going to pass legislation that, deep within it’s thousands of pages, contains special clauses benefiting it’s own special interests.  Those special interests contributed to them and made their election possible, right?

The minority party may complain vociferously about this, but when they become the majority we will see them do the exact same thing.

We’ve seen it often in recent years.

The Democrats, when out of power, developed a plan for healthcare reform that would have actually had a huge impact on affordability.  Things like putting all insurers in competition with each other on a national exchange, providing a single payer option for people to choose, and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug pricing.

All things that would have actually “made healthcare more affordable”, rather than just papering over the problem with tax dollars.

The problem?  It would have decimated the profit margins of their special interests.

Oops.  We can’t do that.

And, as we saw in the end, even though Dems had filibuster-proof majorities in both houses AND the pen of the President, the legislation they passed included NOTHING that would seriously impact the profitability of special interests – which would have been a key to actually doing something for the people.

Partisans blame that on “Republican opposition!” but ignore the fact that the ACA passed without a single Republican vote in it’s favor.  Zero.

Now… what intelligent person is going to believe that Dems removed clauses from the ACA that they had ran on and been elected on so they could get…. ZERO…. Republican votes?

Only an idiot, or a partisan who can’t accept the truth.

And we see the same thing on the Republican side.

There, we saw 50+ votes to repeal and replace the ACA, often with outlines of plans that would have, again, truly reduced the cost of healthcare.  Again we saw “free market” ideas like allowing all ACA-compliant insurers to compete against each other on the national markeplace, letting Medicare negotiate drug pricing, or letting Americans buy cheaper drugs from other countries.

All that, of course, vanished completely when they actually found themselves with the power to do something about it.

Because the profits of their interests would have been decimated.

And of course you NEVER seen a single issue bill brought up that might at least solve some small part of the problem, because it might pass.

For instance, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is such a hugely common-sense thing that most Americans can actually see it makes sense.

What if a party introduced a bill that JUST did that.  Nothing else.  How could either party oppose that?

Without the thousand-page bill with lots of clauses buried in it that either side can use to latch onto as reasons not to vote for it, they would be doomed.  They’d have to either pass it or look like they don’t care about the People.

Which is, of course, true.

Now… Imagine this.

We often see legislation actually get passed when a small group of legislators somehow manage to be willing to compromise with the other side.  That “compromise” is almost always “we’ll let you feed pork to your interests if you allow us to feed pork to ours”, but it’s a prime example of what can happen when a small group controls the swing votes.

What if we had just a few third party legislators in Congress.

What if that group said – to either side – “We’ll support your key provisions here – like letting Medicare negotiate drug prices – but you’re going to have to eliminate all the “chaff” from this bill first.  Get rid of all the clauses that allow you to provide pork to your special interests, leave the core principals, and you’ve got our vote.”

Why would the do that?

Because it’s the contributions from those special interests that get the major parties elected.  Why would they want to support legislation that gives their opponents a leg up in the next election?

Third party power generally comes from The People.  Which is supposed to be a core tenant of our system.

Any third party candidate would take a huge win like that directly to the bank, with THEIR supporters, the People.

Now… how do we make that happen?

Critical is allowing third parties to participate to begin with.

Our duopoly has set the rules to prevent that as much as they can, without being overt about it (listen to the Freakonomics podcast for details…)

The only power We The People have right now is to leverage our support in ways that force our government to allow third party participation.

That starts with registering for a third party.  ANY third party.

Registering does two things.  First, it tells the majors you are NOT happy with them.  They follow those totals closely, and even if your only goal is to make YOUR party more responsive to the People (not to reduce it’s power), by registering third party you send them the clearest possible signal that they need to CHANGE.

Second, it contributes to qualifying for the ballot.  Ballot access is usually determined by registered voter totals.  If they didn’t have some kind of bar, the ballots would be 10 pages long, with all the fringe candidates out there.

So… even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, by registering third party you throw the fear of God into your party and you further the cause of true democracy.

You can still vote straight Democratic ticket if you want – nothing prevents that.  You can even (as I do) change your registration as needed if you, say, want to vote in a party-controlled primary.  I switch back and forth all the time to vote in whatever primary I think is important, then switch it back to a third party after.

Next up, the vote itself.

If you truly believe that the World As We Know It will end if “the other guy” wins, and so you have to force yourself to vote for someone you know will ignore you once elected (as always happens), you can do that.

On the other hand, you COULD vote for Democracy and for true change, and vote third party.

Makes no difference WHO you vote for.  They aren’t going to get elected – at least not now.  The point is, like re-registering, to send a signal to the others that you are not happy with their candidates.

I call it a vote for True Democracy, not a vote for “Jane Doe”.  I’m voting simply because I think more than two parties should be allowed on the ballot, and future ballot access is also determined by performance in elections.

I also need to point out that in states where the vote is a given, why not?

Where I live, in California, the Democratic Presidential nominee will win.  That’s a given.  Having me vote for them (if I wanted to) means nothing.

On the other hand, having me vote third party?  Means everything.

Imagine an election night where the Talking Heads were forced to announce “California goes to the Democrat, but amazingly enough we see the third party candidate getting ten percent of the vote!   Jim, the people are not happy, are they?”

That will, in turn, show The People that they CAN vote for someone other than the major party candidates, which may lead to more in the future. 

There are many out there that are not willing to lead, they want a bandwagon to come by they can join.  For those people, this does that.

So, as I always say…. “Register third party, vote third party.  It’s our only hope!”

Now, there is another issue, campaign finance.  Money….

There are two solutions I know of for this, and they both involve greatly reducing the influence of donated money in politics…

Ban paid political advertising

To follow this to the root, what causes that pressure to raise money?  The need to advertise.

What if we did one simple thing, and banned any paid political advertising?

Defined as “any advertising that mentions the name or uses the likeness of a candidate for office.

Yes, I know, I know – first amendment issues….  Maybe it would take a Constitutional Amendment.

If so, is there any issue that is more vital to keeping America “the America we want” than this?

The original Bill of Rights was put in place for the sole reason of restricting the power of our politicians, this seems just as important.

We’ve already established that paid advertising can be regulated.  When was the last time you saw an ad for cigarettes or liquor on TV?

It’s certainly a slippery slope, but if we used the rule above to limit the amount of advertising that can be done, we’d certainly limit the effectiveness of political donations.

We would not, of course, restrict the ability of politicians to express their views in any way – except that they can’t pay someone for publishing those views.

Remember an era when we got politicians like Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, JFK…?  They all “made their case” – in long form, in detail, to the people.  Certainly they advertised – slogans have been around forever – but the majority of their policies were put out in the form of speeches or quotes in newspaper articles, all of which provided far more detail than what the public sees today.

Speeches?  Nothing would restrict the candidates from making them.

Newspaper and magazine articles, websites, social media postings?   Nope, no restrictions.

Interviews with the press?  No restrictions at all.

Anything that involves the candidate themselves “making their case”, without paying anyone to publish that case, would be fine.

Just an idea….

Matching Funds

Now…. if we want to give up on reducing the cost of elections (via the advertising ban above) we could go the route that I first heard Dan Carlin propose, in his “Common Sense” podcast.

What if we said that politicians are welcome to raise as much money as they want, but for every dollar every politician raised, all opponents who qualify for the ballot (a separate issue, see my page on “Real Democracy”) would automatically receive an equal amount of matching funds from the government.

In other words, Jim Smith and Joe Jones are running.  Jim Smith raises $100M from donors.  Joe Jones raises $50M.

Joe is then automatically given another $50M from the government….

Now… this one would certainly greatly reduce the value of “working hard to get contributions”, since you’re effectively working for your competition.

And it would take some logical “thought through” legislation to make this work.  We’d have to revise the current Super PAC rules (otherwise every single campaign contribution would just go to a Super PAC, which would then disavow any connection to a specific candidate…)

Hmmmm… just an idea….


Because I’m a “100% solution” kind of guy, I have to point out neither of these are 100% solutions…

There are still many ways a politician can be influenced by money.

Some of those are already outright illegal – bribery, for instance.  But those are already illegal and we’ll never avoid having criminals out there.

Some of those are more tenuous connections that are harder to define.

For example, suppose a politician owns ABC Corp stock as part of a market index fund in their retirement account, and some vote on a bill might result in that stock going up?

Or, how about a politician’s brother works for ABC Corp?  To take that to an extreme, what if ABC Corp gave that employee a “merit raise” based on the fact that they got some new government contract…  And what if ‘bro was a generous guy and used some of his new money to buy a nice vacation home that he could share with his family…?

Or, how about when the politician leaves office, and finds a nice, cushy “spokesperson” job available at ABC Corp, for a nice half-mil a year….?

You can’t stop every form of influence, all these suggestions would do is stop the one that is currently responsible for the majority of our political spending.

You’ve got to start somewhere, right?