Blueprints for Renovating Democracy

This week, the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity released findings from their State Integrity Investigation, a comprehensive analysis of government accountability and ethics across the U.S. The results of their study are disturbing: a mere three states earned grades higher than a D+.

Why? According to the study, "Across the country, state lawmakers and agency officials operate with glaring conflicts of interest and engage in brazenly cozy relationships with lobbyists. Ethics and open records laws are riddled with loopholes, while the watchdogs meant to enforce them face crippling shortages of cash and staff."

Our country faces a governing crisis of historic proportions. And we citizens can all feel it in our bones. In the 2015 Survey of American Fears, guess what ranked #1? Corruption of government officials. It beat out other profound threats like "economic collapse" and "terrorist attacks."

It's D-Day for American democracy. As Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote in the New York Times after last year's elections, "From the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them -- only for the rich and powerful."

Money's dominance of politics is fueling this decline more rapidly than ever; it's supplanting our hard-fought right to self governance with a system more akin to oligarchy. Yet, ask anyone what can be done to fix democracy and they often draw blanks.

Many of those who do respond might say that we need to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United. But the truth is that there's so much that can be done, despite Citizens United. We can fix 75 percent of the money-in-politics and influence-peddling problem regardless of the Supreme Court.

But for too long the models for reducing corruption in America have only been known by a small group of good-government reformers. It's like ancient medicine that you have to find a shaman in some remote part of the globe to be able to get.

That's why my organization, Issue One, along with our friends at the Campaign Legal Center, teamed up to launch what we're describing as a "Zagat guide" for reform. Our just-released "Blueprints for Democracy" initiative details a suite of specific solutions to reduce the influence of money in politics, increase transparency, rein in lobbying and restore faith in our public institutions. It also provides a comprehensive overview of how reform has been implemented across the country and best practices for legislators and citizens enacting change in their local communities.

Given how busted Washington is right now, states and cities -- the "laboratories of democracy" -- are where action must begin. They are also where effective systems already exist -- in blue and red states alike -- from Connecticut's Clean Elections program and California's public disclosure system to South Carolina's strict lobbying rules.

It's up to all of us to ensure these reforms proliferate more rapidly than ever. We can all be heartened by the recent victories in Maine and Seattle, which have now joined a growing list of states and municipalities taking matters into their own hands.

And there are so many potential hands to do the work of reform. In a New York Times/CBS News poll fielded a few months ago, 85 percent of Americans of all political stripes showed support "fundamentally changing" or "completely rebuilding" our campaign finance system. Whereas many causes can only field small battalions of supporters, that 85 percent represents an army of patriots waiting to be mobilized.

We need to eliminate the belief that getting rid of coin-operated governing is an impossible task. We need to correct the misperception that the fight to restore self-government is a liberals-only cause. And we need to empower all kinds of reformers to establish whatever new laws they think they can win, given the politics of their states or towns. Every victory -- transparency, lobbying reform, stronger enforcement of existing laws, new ways of financing campaigns -- is a step forward. Every victory is part of the larger renovation of our democratic republic.

For those seized by fear of government corruption, for those who see how the game is increasingly rigged, we hope "Blueprints for Democracy" provides inspiration and guidance for what's possible. Right now.