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Power to the people

BY SHAWN GUDE | APRIL 14, 2010 7:30 AM

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You wouldn’t know it from the spirited health-care debate or the increased turnout in last year’s presidential election. But the power of ordinary citizens — who should be the lifeblood of our democracy — is suffering.

While heartening, those events have only obscured the underlying lack of civic engagement and citizen empowerment. So how do we as citizens overcome this empowerment gap?

We need a drastic change both in the country’s political culture and the structure of campaign finance.

The American electorate seems to be rudderless without a grandiose communicator equipped with a stentorian voice. Or at least a strong, resolute figure à la Dwight Eisenhower.

And that’s where we, as a country, have gone astray.

In this regard, the Tea Party has it right: The government should be by the people, for the people, and of the people. While this agreement leads me to different ideological conclusions — the emaciated public sector that many Tea Partiers covet would hardly strengthen citizen power, for example — I can at least appreciate some of the amalgamated movement’s core grievances.

Their attitudes reflect a sense of disempowerment and inability to influence the political world around them. Instead of tearing down government, however, we must redouble our efforts to strengthen the power of citizens — rather than lionizing politicians or slavishly following their lead.

As political theorist Benjamin Barber has argued, a vibrant democracy requires not great leaders but great citizens. Our representative democratic system shouldn’t absolve us of all political responsibility. But too often it does.

In the words of Barber, “Civic responsibility has … ceased to mean self-government and come to mean electing governors to govern in the public stead.”

In addition to a political-culture shift, we need to fight for strong campaign-finance reforms.

Last week, Gov. Chet Culver signed into law a relatively minor, yet important step in that category. The legislation wasn’t the overarching systemic change that reform advocates such as me yearn for. It was simply a reaction to January’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court ruling.

In that decision, which supporters of campaign-finance reform quickly assailed, the Supreme Court overturned long-standing precedents and struck down limiting corporations and unions from directly influencing elections. The ban on direct donations to campaigns still stands.

The recently signed Iowa law aims to increase disclosure and accountability of these corporations. The legislation requires them to file expenditure reports and also mandates that the group’s board of directors (or comparable body) approve the election expenditure. For example, a corporation’s board would have to OK the airing of a commercial endorsing a given candidate. The ad would also be required to include a “paid for by” attribution statement.

Still, the new law is clearly insufficient. The ideal finance system, as many on both sides of the campaign-finance issue have highlighted, is President Obama’s model.

Sure, Obama set fundraising records in the presidential race (and, for the first time, opted out of the presidential public-financing system). But his largesse was also composed of millions of small donations.

The question is how to replicate that finance model in local, state, and federal elections, in which you’re more likely to find a coltish politician than a cult figure.

Post-Citizens United, it appears the most effective system would be one that matched ordinary citizens’ small-scale donations with public funds. However, that may prove difficult to pass in the near future given the poor economic climate, said Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City.

After the recession abates and state coffers are full, a grass-roots campaign must push the issue back onto the agenda. Success on this vital issue will require engaged citizens demanding robust campaign-finance reform, as Lensing noted.

“I think it has to be the public that demands it from legislators,” she said. “It’s obviously not something we have been able to get to on our own.”

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