Restoring democracy and civic virtue in the United States will require major reforms that reduce the power of corporations, elites and special interests in the whole political process. Right now, there is a radical disconnect between the political and economic elites and the needs and interests of the ordinary voters. Most people today realize that the country is in its worse crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but government and the political system seem dysfunctional and incapable of dealing with it. Removing the power and control of big money from the political process forever would be the most important step in revitalizing American democracy and making the system more representative and accountable. So would eliminating the Electoral College and electing the president and vice president by a majority of the popular vote. Despite the protests of small states, only this type of reform might actually pressure presidential candidates to campaign more widely for votes instead of concentrating on a few large states, or visiting big cities where the wealthiest donors reside. In addition, the Senate seems particularly dysfunctional and more responsive to the needs of elites and corporate interests than the people. Its use of the filibuster was always an absurdity, especially when the South frequently united in a bloc to prevent blacks from obtaining civil and political rights, and the system today simply maintains a kind of status quo that concentrates all wealth and power at the upper levels of society.
Over the last thirty years, the civic virtues of equal citizenship rights for all, free public education, democracy and sovereignty of the people have been severely eroded and will require major reforms to be restored. Government is not serving the public interest as originally intended, and all opinion polls show considerable distrust and suspicion toward the president, Congress, both major political parties and the political process in general. Private power in the hands of wealthy donors, lobbyists and corporations in Washington has become almost unlimited today thanks to Citizens United and other recent Supreme Court decisions. Most of the public realizes that Wall Street banks and other large corporations were able to receive trillions of dollars in bailout money from Congress and the Federal Reserve while relatively little was done to deal with the problems of poverty and unemployment that the common people face in this Great Recession. No other reform is as urgent and imperative as passing a constitutional amendment to ban all private donations to politicians and political parties and making all elections publicly financed. If this does not happen, the future of American democracy is bleak, and the country will increasingly become an oligarchy or aristocracy and no political party will represent the common people. Other important reforms would include amending the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College, which is an archaic and obsolete institution that has not functioned in the way the Founders intended since the 19th Century. Finally, the Senate should also be abolished or reduced to a ceremonial role, which happened long ago with the upper houses of the legislatures in democracies like Britain and Canada. Only the people should be represented in a one-house national legislature, not states, especially in a Senate that gives equal representation to states regardless of population. Only changes like these will return the government to the hands of the people and enable it to deal with the problems of poverty, unemployment, inequality and racial discrimination that are destroying the country.
Of all the possible changes that would be necessary and beneficial in the United States the most important would be to remove the power of big money from the political process. In 2000, the presidential elections cost $3 billion, which increased to $4.1 billion in 2004 and $5.3 billion in 2008, while the off-year elections cost $1.6 billion in 1998, $2.2 billion in 2002, $2.8 billion in 2006 and $3.6 billion in 2010 (OpenSecrets.org, 2011). Almost all of this money came from large corporations and wealthy individuals, who can now give unlimited amounts of money because of Citizens United and other recent Supreme Court decisions. With the appointment of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, earlier decisions that placed limits on corporate financing of elections such as Buckley v. Valeo (1976), Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) and McConnell v. FEC (2003) were overturned. In the past, the Supreme Court had maintained that unlimited campaign donations gave rise to "corruption or the appearance of corruption," but the Roberts Court denied this (Hasen 583). Roberts, Alito and the other three Republican justices took "an expansive view of corporate free speech rights" when striking down all such limits (Hasen 587). They also overturned provisions in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold Act) of 2002 that put limits on expenditures for television and radio advertisements designed to influence elections. In the 2008 elections, John McCain actually accepted public financing for his campaign, as had Barack Obama before finally deciding to opt out. As McCain predicted, this would mean the end of public financing for any future presidential elections, while Citizens United simply opened the floodgates to unlimited donations and expenditures.
One useful amendment to the Constitution would be to abolish the Electoral College in favor of direct election of the president and vice president by a majority of the popular vote. After all, the Constitution has already been amended to give the vote to women and blacks, and to provide for the direct election of Senators, so the archaic and obsolete Electoral College should have disappeared long ago. As originally intended, the state legislatures appointed the electors who would choose the president and vice president among themselves, but almost all states were ignoring this provision by 1860. Even today, only small states still defend this institution on the mistaken assumption that presidential candidates would ignore them if it did not exist. In reality, they have long been ignored since they spend most of their time and money in large swing states like Ohio and Florida. In an era when political parties control the election process and each one has its own slate of pledged electors, the Electoral College has simply become a meaningless formality because of "the big states' winner-take-all method of distributing electors" (Raskin 62). In a system with direct popular election of the president, every single vote would count to the candidates and they would no longer divide the country up into Red and Blue States. Nor would there be any more controversial Supreme Court decisions like Bush v. Gore (2000), in which neither candidate won the majority of the Electoral College and the outcome depended solely on the recount in Florida. In that case, the five Republican justices voted to stop the recount and declared George W. Bush the winner, which further eroded public support for the Court or raised constitutional questions about why it completely usurped the role of Congress in deciding disputed elections. In fact, the five Republican justices offered no "constitutional principle" to justify their decision because none existed (Ackerman ix).
As James Madison explained during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the national legislature should represent the people, not states. Originally, though, the Senate was intended to be like the House of Lords that represented the landed gentry and mercantile interests, a tendency that was reinforced by the fact that Senators were originally appointed by the state legislatures rather than elected directly until the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. Far from being a democratic body, the Senate has often been dominated by "tyrannical minorities," and for much of its history Southern oligarchs had disproportionate control over its committees and the legislation it considered (Wawro and Schickler 9). Southern Senators often used the filibuster for blocking admission of new states that had banned slavery, and against civil rights and voting rights for blacks. This was always the most common reason for its use in the past, although in the past three years the Republicans have taken the filibuster and obstructionism to new levels, blocking more of President Obama's nominees and legislation than any other president in history. Perhaps the time has come to create a one-house legislature on the national level, elected every four years at the same time as the president.
Until fairly recent times, discrimination against blacks and other minorities in jobs, housing and public services was open and blatant, and the United States is still living with the legacy of racism today. Imagining that the civil rights movement of the 1960s some magically abolished it does not change the reality. Of all the failures of civic virtue in the United States and the inability to live up to the ideals of its founding documents, this has been by far the worst.
Civil rights did not lead to the end of poverty among blacks and other minorities, although it certainly helped create a black middle class fir the first time in U.S. history. Even today, though, many blacks still live in segregated…