The Democratic Party has often been portrayed as the big-city machine, an engine of corruption abusing unfettered power in the city and endangering the good folks there and elsewhere. Republicans, at least certain kinds of Republicans, have often portrayed themselves as reformers, cleaning up government and correcting those problems.
Given the current corporate alignment of Republicans, it's well past time to reverse this commonly-told story, and take away a key piece of the Republican tale of why Americans should trust them rather than the Democrats. While reform is often the battle cry of parties out of power, in this case the overall situation is changing. I think the nature of those changes should make Democrats consider making clean government a permanent part of their platform, and something they should support even in, perhaps especially in, cases where they already hold power.
Both parties have often resorted to smoke-filled rooms to make things work. The Democratic Party has always been something of a messy coalition, needing constant and sometimes quiet coaxing to make its diverse wings work together. The Republicans have had similar problems over the years, and their broad affiliation with and fondness for the rich and powerful has often connected them with people much more used to having important conversations take place in private.
Many Democrats find it frustrating that people vote for Republicans even when those people disagree with them about most of the issues. We complain that people vote against their own interests, lured by Republican assaults on Democrats which somehow tarnish us while leaving their own dark character unexposed. We worry that Republicans, especially now that they control a large chunk of the media, can arrange events and the tellings of those events so that they are never exposed to difficult questions which betray motives beyond their rhetoric.
I think we can change that, in large part by insisting that government function as described in high school civics textbooks. This is sure to annoy people who think that government is difficult enough to run as it is. It definitely threatens people on all sides who would prefer not to have all of their work and the beneficiaries of that work made public. It also makes it difficult for people who want to maintain their party machine, as the carrots and sticks are brought out into the open for all to see, and the distance between principle and practice becomes clear.
While "clean government" doesn't automatically feed the poor, lower taxes, build better roads, and balance the budget, it has a lot of things going for it beyond talk about "process." Aside from its emotional appeal to people who are sick and tired of feeling that government has become its own tight-knit corporation, "clean government" makes it much more difficult to hide inefficiencies, preferential distortions, and battles fought sheerly out of personal animus.
Democrats especially have the potential to benefit from taking reform seriously in two ways.
First, it seems pretty clear at the moment that Republicans are the ones raking in contributions from big business, and the bonds between the party and its supporters appear to be growing ever closer if the last few years of news stories are believable. At both the national level and the state level (for New York State, at any rate) Republicans keep pushing to give as much back to their contributors as possible, through tax breaks, contracts, and an ever-expanding push for the notion that government needs to be "business-friendly."
Second, it's a needed chance for Democrats to enhance our own credibility. It's really difficult for me as a New York resident to criticize Tom DeLay's Texas for gerrymandering congressional districts. Why? Because I know that New York State districts are severely gerrymandered. (Even our congressional districts reflect compromises that aren't usually made with an interest in balance or coherence.) It doesn't make sense for Democrats to be pushing reform on the other party when we haven't cleaned up our own house - and cleaning up our own house is a crucial sign to voters that we take this seriously.
Democrats have worried for years about declining voter turnout, about voters who are only modestly interested in the issues, and about the alienation many voters seem to feel from government. We need to develop a stronger network of involved people who feel that their input makes a big difference, and not just at election time. Putting effort into making government both transparent and comprehensible makes it easier for people to get involved, to feel valued, and to think of government as their own rather than as an oppressor.
If we start by reforming our own institutions, municipalities, statehouses, and practices, we have a chance to help many more voters feel less cynical and more connected with the political process. By reforming ourselves, we can both reduce the level of cynicism our supporters feel when voting for us and give voters who wouldn't have considered us otherwise a strong reason to consider us as a positive alternative to the other party. While I don't expect any given set of reforms to be perfect, demonstrating through our actions that we think we can do better gives us a much stronger platform on which to ask for other kinds of change, and a real arena for discussing it.
I'm sure there are Democrats who are comfortable with the status quo, as well as Democrats who don't like it but are afraid to change it. It's time to step forward. Insisting on open and accountable government should help us, help the government, and help our citizens.
(I'm still thinking about this and may expand it at some point, but for now it seems like a good idea to get the basic ideas out there. I'm definitely not the only one having them.)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License by Simon St.Laurent, December 1, 2004.