In July, USA Today and Gallup asked Americans to name their top priorities for the next president of the United States. Of the 10 issues that Americans identified, there is one issue—and only one issue—that neither campaign even mentions. That issue is number two on the top 10 list—with 87 percent of America identifying it as “extremely” or “very” important.
Yet my researchers couldn’t find a single blog entry on either campaign’s website that even hints at how that candidate would deal with America’s second most important priority. It’s certainly not on the pages listing the issues that form either campaign platform.
So what is this invisible issue that almost 90 percent of us believe the next president must tackle? Corruption in the federal government.
It's more important than “reducing the federal deficit,” or “dealing with terrorism,” or “improving public schools.” And unlike many of the other issues on the list, it’s just as important to supporters of both candidates. America wants a president who will end the corruption of our government, but neither candidate asking America for the job has even the decency to address this, the second most important issue.
To answer that question, we should first be clear about what this corruption is, and is not. Unlike other times in American history when corruption jumped to the top of America’s priorities, there is no scandal today capturing public attention. There’s no Nixon, or Blagojevich, or Randy “Duke” Cunningham whose crimes have burdened billions of bits on the internet. Indeed, there has been no prominent prosecution of any major federal official for bribery for more than a year.
What there has been is an almost endless attention to the large dollar contributions flowing into America’s presidential campaigns. Sheldon Adelson is now famous. “Super PAC” has its own floor at Comedy Central. No American can hide from the endless public lament at the shameless way our leaders prostrate themselves not before us, but before their funders. Adding insult to injury, the candidates don’t even mention this outrage as an issue to be addressed.
It’s not hard to see why. I’m a partisan in this presidential campaign. Nader notwithstanding, there is a “dime's worth of difference” between these two candidates. Yet even I—who have made fighting this “corruption” a second job—find it difficult to imagine a candidate offering solutions that Americans would rally around. We all see the problem; too few see a solution. Even worse, almost none of us believe the government could be the source of that solution. Indeed, 80 percent of us believe that every time Congress has tried to address this corruption, it has instead just enacted reforms intended to protect Congress.
So what’s a candidate to do?
First, he must make the issue part of this campaign. Everyone must be on notice that this is an issue—and a core issue—if the next president is to have the right to say, “Hey, Congress, we love you (sort of), but now change.”
Second, he can’t lead with a set of specific reforms. We’re not ready for that yet, which means even the right reforms would be Kryptonite to any presidential campaign. Instead, he should advance a strategy that would 1) identify the right reforms and 2) do so in a way that could earn the confidence of the American people.
That strategy is not to ask Congress to draft a bill. No one trusts Congress. Nor is it a blue-ribbon commission of law professors or former politicians. Too few trust them either. The strategy is to find a way to let “the People” speak about the reforms this system needs, and then to force the politicians to listen.
The idea of asking “the People” sounds insane, right? “The people” are clueless. Most can’t even identify the Bill of Rights. So how could it possibly make sense to ask “idiots” (as one colleague described them) how best to fix the most important democracy in the world?
Americans are clueless about their democracy. But they’re not idiots. They’re clueless because it is rational to ignore a system that ignores you. But if given a reason and an opportunity, ordinary Americans could understand these issues well enough to offer ideas for meaningful change. This isn’t rocket science. But what it requires is an informed analyst—us—with the right incentives to think about all of us.
So here’s how that could work. Imagine Congress convened a series of “citizen conventions.” Think: large juries, with 300 randomly selected citizens drafted into service. These citizen jurors would be paid (and paid well). Their jobs at home would be protected. And there’d be special help for jurors who had others to care for. This is service—civic, not military—and we should stand for the idea that no public service should be bankrupting.
These citizen jurors would then be assembled in one place, sequestered, and given a chance to learn about the issues. The materials would come from both sides of the debate, crafted as Wikipedia is written: from a “neutral point of view.” The jurors would listen to evidence. They would have a chance to deliberate. At the end, they would give us their views—nonpartisan and representative, because that’s precisely what randomly selected Americans would be.
So then imagine four of these conventions, each chaired by a former president, each developing a consistent set of ideas about whether and how this corruption should be reformed. Finally, imagine that Congress was required to take a roll call vote on the proposals that emerged, directly responding to this intervention by “the People.”
It feels odd—I get it—to turn to a random selection of Americans—what’s called “sortition” —to propose ideas for America’s reform. Too much of American policy is already guided by a random selection of citizens—we call that “polling”—yet those citizens are uninformed, and given no chance to deliberate. By contrast, random selections of informed and deliberating citizens have been part of America’s history from the start. This is what juries and grand juries are to be. It is what Canada uses to propose issues the government must consider for reform.
We need this sort of smart sortition now. There is no institution in American government that Americans trust enough to craft the reform we believe it needs. Nor is there any institution outside the government that could take Congress’s place. Just at the point that we need guidance desperately, we’ve lost our guides, and there is no map.
What we need is not experts. We need a way to trust us. And that would begin by giving us a fair chance to think about these problems, and fix upon a set of solutions.
So let a candidate show us that confidence—let him acknowledge this, the second most important issue, and commit to a process to fix it. And then let this election be not just the most grotesque example of cash-corrupted politics in modern political history. Let it also be the last that looks anything like that.
This is the first in a series of essays provoking a conversation around the invisible issues of Election 2012—those crucial topics that will hide in plain sight as the two candidates square off during the presidential debates this month.