Cynics Be Damned, We Are Winning the Fight Against Political Corruption

Seattle residents celebrate the passage of their city's anti-corruption ballot initiative. Photo credit: Honest Elections Seattle.

When it comes to beliefs about government corruption, there are two types of people in the world. There are the cynics, a pessimistic bunch convinced that corruption is inevitable and that reform is a Sisyphean task. And then there are the rest of us.

Tuesday night, the rest of us won.

Given that only 1 in 5 people participate in local elections, chances are you didn't hear Tuesday's news - so here's what you need to know. People in Maine, Seattle, and San Francisco overwhelmingly voted for legislation that will make government more honest and accountable.

Mainers passed a statewide law that penalizes special interests who break election rules and ends the secret "dark money" plaguing politics.

Seattleites cracked down on special interest bribes, made it illegal for government workers to nab lobbying jobs immediately after leaving office, and ushered in citizen-funded elections so regular people can run for office without begging wealthy donors and super PACs for cash.

And San Franciscans ended secret lobbying in city politics. 3 in every 4 voters supported the measure - practically unheard-of levels of political support.

You may be wondering: why are local victories such a big deal? Don't we need to end corruption in Washington, DC?

The short answer is yes - of course we do. But you know all that "Washington gridlock" you've been hearing about for years? It turns out that very little gets done in Congress anymore - so special interests are refocusing their attention on state legislatures and city councils. If we want to hit corruption where it hurts, we need to start at home.

That's good news for us, because it's significantly easier to pass anti-corruption laws locally than at the federal level. Nearly half of all states allow for voter initiatives, which give ordinary folks the power to bring about political change instead of having to beg their representatives to do something. And let's face it: few legislators are eager to reform the very system they exploited to get elected in the first place.

To be sure, initiatives don't guarantee victory. Politically entrenched opponents tried their hardest to defeat Tuesday's reforms; Maine's governor, for example, called the clean elections initiative "a hoax" and "a blank check of welfare for politicians." But this hollow brand of attacks isn't what worries me.

The biggest obstacle to ending corruption and reclaiming our democracy isn't some lobbyist with a briefcase full of cash. It's the everyday American cynic.

One year ago, voters in Tallahassee, Florida, overwhelmingly passed an anti-corruption act that ended secret money, cracked down on lobbying, and helped all voters afford to make small political contributions to candidates they support. Yet despite this victory, cynics continued to argue, both online and in countless personal conversations with me and others, fighting corruption is an unwinnable battle. This sort of defeatist mentality isn't just annoying; it depress voter turnout, making it ever-harder for reformers to win at the ballot.

Tuesday night, three cities and states proved these pessimists wrong - again. Next November, Represent.Us members in at least two states will pass their own anti-corruption acts and, with any luck, put a proverbial nail in the cynicism coffin. But to do so, they will need the votes and vocal support of the rest of us - the optimists who believe that change is arduous but not absurd, that the status quo is ingrained but not immutable.

The cult of cynicism has enabled our corrupt political system to flourish for far too long. We now have undeniable proof that victory over corruption is possible. Let's act on it.