Tim Penny and Tom Horner: The parties have too much of the people's power
The parties have too much of the people's power
Whatever one thinks of the outcome of the 2016 elections, everyone should be dismayed by the political process. Americans were force-fed two of the most unpopular candidates ever to seek the presidency. What should concern people more than anything is that without major reforms, 2016 will be the rule, not the exception. The two-party system has become so dependent on money and sensationalist rhetoric garnering cheap headlines and social-media buzz that meaningful campaigns of substance are becoming a relic.
Campaigns today are only about winning, at any and all costs. It is easy to rail against the excesses of government — and certainly there is no shortage of fodder — but public policies tend to be rooted in some level of rationality that isn’t easily dismissed. And change is harder when so many of today’s campaigns build a case only for tearing down, not building up.
Despite the dismal campaigns in 2016 — at just about every level of government — Democrats and Republicans will focus their postmortems not on how better campaigns and better candidates can improve governance, but on how to further manipulate a flawed process so that they are able to maintain control.
Minnesota offers two recent examples of how partisan politics maintains control of the system. The Legislature this year voted to hold a presidential primary in 2020. While a primary opens the process to more people than the current caucuses, party bosses made sure they come out winners. In order to vote in the primary, a person will have to choose a Republican or Democratic ballot, and that choice will be made available to political operatives. This collection of names will come at taxpayer expense.
Also this year, the Legislature agreed to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot creating an independent panel to set legislators’ salaries. Voters approved the amendment Nov. 8, but it’s not quite the investment in citizen government that it may appear to be. As dictated by Republican and Democratic legislators, all 16 members must have ties to the two parties that control the Legislature. In what world is a commission of partisans an objective commission?
Today, it is our political systems that desperately need change. Some starting points include the following:
• Implementing ranked-choice voting. Allowing voters to rank their choices would encourage new candidates with new ideas. Election winners might not be everyone’s first choice, but they would at least take office with a positive mandate. It also would ensure that the country does not elect a president — or Minnesota elect a governor — with a minority share of the popular vote.
• The two major parties need to loosen their grip on the infrastructure of politics, starting with the way in which the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts are determined. It is an inherent conflict when the incumbent legislators most affected by how their districts are defined are the ones drawing the boundaries.
• Then, of course, there is the problem of money in politics. While the enormous flow of dollars to campaigns and candidates can’t easily be stopped, it can be more accountable and transparent with achievable reforms. Don’t allow a political candidate to spend any contribution until the contributor and the amount is disclosed through the campaign’s website; be rigorous in investigating the illegal collusion between campaigns and so-called independent expenditure groups, imposing stiff penalties on violators, and require all organizations seeking to influence elections to disclose all their contributors.
Beyond political reform, there also is a need for public passion to move beyond marches and protests. The state’s history teaches us that when government flounders, Minnesotans still create good public policy. They take policy into their own hands, create innovative solutions, then invite government to join as a partner in implementation. Much of what Minnesotans celebrate — a regional park system in an urban area, education innovation and high-quality health care systems, among many others — started with the passion and creativity of individuals, nonprofits (including foundations and communities of faith), business and labor organizations, and others.
The campaign proved again that politics is too important to leave to politicians. It’s up to Minnesotans — as individuals and through their organizations — to be agents of change.
Tim Penny represented Minnesota’s First District in the U.S. House from 1983 to 1995. He is co-chair of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Tom Horner is a public-relations consultant and was the Independence Party of Minnesota’s 2010 candidate for governor.