Power to the public

Iowa legislation mounts a much-needed challenge to non public governance.

You wouldnâÄôt know it from the spirited health care debate or the increased turnout in last yearâÄôs presidential election, but the power of ordinary citizens âÄî who should be the lifeblood of our democracy âÄî is suffering. We need a drastic change, both in the countryâÄôs 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 thatâÄôs 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 âÄî the emaciated public sector that many Tea Partiers covet would hardly strengthen citizen power, for example âÄî I can at least appreciate some of the amalgamated movementâÄôs 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 lionize politicians or slavishly follow their lead. As political theorist Benjamin Barber has argued, a vibrant democracy requires not great leaders but great citizens. Our representative democratic system shouldnâÄôt absolve us of all political responsibility. But too often it does. In the words of Barber, âÄúCivic responsibility has âĦ ceased to mean self-government and come to mean electing governors to govern in the public stead.âÄù In addition to a political-culture shift, we need to fight for strong campaign finance reforms. Last week, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver signed into law a relatively minor, yet important step in that direction. The legislation wasnâÄôt the overarching systemic change that reform advocates such as me yearn for. It was simply a reaction to JanuaryâÄôs Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court ruling. In that decision, limits on corporations and unions from directly influencing elections were struck down. 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 groupâÄôs board of directors (or comparable body) approve the election expenditure. For example, a corporationâÄôs board would have to OK the airing of a commercial endorsing a given candidate. The ad would also be required to include a âÄúpaid for byâÄù 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 ObamaâÄôs model. Sure, President Barack Obama set fundraising records in the presidential race (and, for the first time, opted out of the presidential public-financing system). 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 youâÄôre 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 citizensâÄô 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 grassroots 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. âÄúI think it has to be the public that demands it from legislators,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs obviously not something we have been able to get to on our own.âÄù This column was written by Shawn Gude and was originally published by The Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa. Please send comments to [email protected]