The U.S. Constitution is uniquely stable–or rigid–among all the advanced democracies, and we are slower to change our political processes than almost anyone else. Yet we experience occasional periods in which the mass public focuses on political processes and culture (in addition to the standard issues, like the economy and foreign policy). The amendments enacted after the Civil War, reforms passed during the Progressive Era at the local, state, and federal levels, the reinterpretation of the Constitution by Franklin D. Roosevelt and its blessing by the Supreme Court, and the post-Watergate reforms are important examples.
The 2008 election was not about political reform. To an extraordinary extent, the insurgent Democrats seemed satisfied with the rules of the game and promised “change” as a direct consequence of winning the presidential election. Candidate Obama employed a somewhat new style of campaigning within the existing rules, and he endorsed modest ethics reforms and transparency, but those were minor themes in the election.
I don’t blame him, because issues like campaign finance reform, districting, and congressional procedures were hardly “ripe.” They were not in the public’s eye, nor were they major concerns of progressive interest groups. Ideas like strengthening the civic capacities of communities and promoting public deliberations were even further down the national priority list. To raise them to the top would have cost votes, and maybe the election.
By far the most significant change since the campaign was not a reform promoted by the new administration but the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which permits corporations to spend unlimited money on campaigns. It should now be obvious to progressives that the political system and culture blocks reform–in ways that are indefensible from most ideological perspectives. We deeply need political reform and innovation.
I will not predict a new wave of reform, as I did in my 2000 book, The New Progressive Era. Today, I am much more attuned to obstacles. But there is at least the potential that large numbers of people will turn their attention to processes and political culture. They might coalesce around the kinds of ideas, leaders, and topics on display at the Coffee Party Convention: Restoring American Democracy.