When President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address earlier this month, he noted that the times called not for a shopping list of proposed legislation and policy. Instead, he discussed the broad issues that the United States must address in the coming years. “ . . .what I offer tonight,” the President said, “is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.” The goals he went on to describe included:
· Building a sustainable economy. Opportunities for innovation in this area include closing tax loopholes for businesses, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, improving the connection between high tech businesses and research, supporting entrepreneurs, and building what he described as a “middle class economy.”
· Focusing on the Environment by ensuring American energy independence and dealing decisively with global climate change.
· Fixing the immigration system.
· Rebuilding the American educational system to be effective in the new global information society by reforming job training, guaranteeing access to education, and repositioning K-12 and higher education.
· Improving the economic position of America’s workforce, by ensuring equal pay for equal work for women, increasing wages, and improving retirement savings.
· Expanding civic engagement domestically and internationally through expanding voter rights, ending the “permanent war footing” and emphasizing intelligence and diplomacy, promoting international understanding, and improving veteran benefits.
It was pretty clear, even during the speech itself, that it would be difficult for the U.S. government to develop a successful legislative agenda around this—or any other—list of social goals. For the past six years, the Republican Party has clearly demonstrated that it has no intention of partnering with President Obama on legislative initiatives. Now that the Republicans control Congress, we can anticipate almost complete stalemate at the top of our government.
It has also become clear that our federal government is no longer in the hands of the people. In 1941, Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote this about the national government:
The state is not an end in itself, but a means to the virtue and intelligence, that is the happiness, of the citizens. It is held together by justice, through which it cares for the common good.
Today, however, many elected officials too often owe their allegiance not to the voters who they were elected to represent but to the corporations and other moneyed sources that fund their election campaigns. Robert Reich reports that, in 2012, a record $6.3 billion was spent on Congressional and Presidential campaigns. The 2016 election is likely to set an even higher record, with most of that money not coming from individual voter donations but from major investments by corporations, interest groups, and the very rich. The system, quite simply, has lost the moral high ground.
So, what can we do? If we cannot rely on top-down government to serve the needs of the American people, then we need to work from the bottom up. How can we crowd-source the development of a legislative and policy agenda to support the critical areas that President Obama laid before the federal government in the State of the Union?
Ideally, consideration of a legislative/policy agenda would begin at the neighborhood level. People—citizens, voters—would gather, identify one or more of the major areas identified in the State of the Union, and discuss what the government should do to realize the vision for that area. The results from neighborhood discussions could then be taken to a community discussion and then to a statewide discussion, etc. At each level, it would be important to have truly representative samplings of the population so that we get a true sense of what the real community believe. The sampling model of the General Social Survey might provide a good model. The goal would be to directly involve voters in the process of identifying legislative and policy priorities in specific areas of civic life and taking the results to elected officials who would then be asked to represent the voters wishes in Congress or to tell the voters why they are wrong.
Who would organize such a process? It would require an organization that can operate effectively at all levels—neighborhood, community, state, national. It could be managed by the political parties, perhaps, or by an existing civil society organization—the League of Women Voters, the Rotary, etc.—or by a foundation. The challenge would be to keep big moneyed interests out of the process entirely. It might take some time for a sustainable process to emerge, but it is worth the effort to re-empower American citizens to guide their democracy.
President Obama closed his speech with a call to action. “And finally,” he said, “let’s remember that our leadership is defined not just by our defense against threats but by the enormous opportunities to do good and promote understanding around the globe, to forge greater cooperation, to expand new markets, to free people from fear and want. And no one is better positioned to take advantage of those opportunities than America.” Perhaps one of the things we need to do in this era of innovation, is to find new ways to empower citizens to directly participate in their government.