Our Democracy Is Stronger With More Competition

Posted October 8, 2008 at 2:18pm

We are just days away from the end of one of the most exciting presidential races in a generation. It is the first open-seat race in more than 50 years, one with no presidential or vice presidential incumbent running, and one where the primaries mattered long past Super Tuesday. There is an unsettling sense of mystery, anxiety and urgency running across America.

This race is like a roller coaster, making us want to scream at the top of our lungs, yet thrilling us at the same time. At times, many of us, particularly in battleground states, have wanted it to end, but will we be sad when it’s over? Could the American people really take it if elections were always like this?

What is causing this nerve-wracking exhaustion — this fear, this rush?

It is something so rare in American politics that we may not even recognize it. It’s called competition. Real, adrenaline-charged competition. Don’t-know-the- outcome competition. Power-up-for-grabs competition. And it’s kinda fun for a change.

But why is real political competition so scarce in a democracy? How did competition — which is supposed to be the American way — become the exception and not the rule? Competition is supposed to be our democratic system’s way of holding our elected representatives accountable. Where did we go wrong and what can we do about it?

Instead of the usual 90 percent- plus re-election rate for incumbents, can we imagine actually having a sense of competition for Congressional races? Can we imagine, instead of the ever-growing spectacle of money grubbing, a competition of ideas? An incumbent’s biggest worry these days is often from the fringes of his or her own party in the primary election. The result has been increased polarization on Capitol Hill, where the aisle dividing Democrats from Republicans has become a veritable no man’s land to be crossed at one’s political peril.

It should not be this way, and our democracy is weaker because of it. Competition must be and can be re-injected into American politics without running afoul of the Constitution. The Supreme Court, at least to date, has rejected the notion that increasing competition is a constitutionally insufficient grounds for upholding some proposed reforms. But there are means by which we can rescue our system from the scorched-earth partisanship prevailing today without running afoul of the high court:

Update the presidential public financing system. Don’t let the 2008 presidential election fool you into believing the next elections will be as hard-fought and as unpredictable as this one. This open-seat race is indeed unique. The odds of non-incumbent challengers being able to raise sufficient funds to run a competitive race against an incumbent president or vice president are getting longer. And the bigger the budget, the more candidates end up beholden to their large contributors and especially their large bundlers. Election to the most powerful political office in the world should be determined by an individual’s character and ideas, not by an ability to raise the most money and thus become the most indebted to donors.

Implement redistricting reforms at the state and federal levels. Politicians should not be allowed to choose their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians. But that is the system we have for most state and federal races. Competitive races are the exception and not the rule. Even in the political perfect storm of the 2006 cycle, a mere 14 percent of House elections were decided by 10 points or less. Challenges are more likely to come from the fringes of one’s own party than from the other party, only feeding the polarization on Capitol Hill. Promoting reforms like independent redistricting commissions and increased transparency of the process are vital to easing the gridlock. But two bills to address the issue, introduced more than a year ago, can’t even get subcommittee hearings.

Use the publicly owned broadcast airwaves to promote political discourse. Most Americans don’t even realize that the airwaves used by television broadcasters are public property and that these broadcasters are given licenses for free to use those airwaves. Over the past 20-plus years, policy makers in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission have allowed the broadcasting industry to decide for themselves how to fulfill their public-interest obligations and “pay” the American people for the airwaves they are using to make billions of dollars. We need to create a system that allows viable candidates to earn access to the publicly owned broadcast airwaves so they can communicate with voters without undue dependence on big contributors.

Enact a new system of financing Congressional races. Even in the 2006 elections, which saw both chambers change hands, not even two dozen House incumbents were defeated in the general election and not a single one of them was a Democrat. Some districts have become so safe that even scandals and indictments cannot dislodge the incumbents. We need a system that at its core prevents corruption and the appearance of corruption, and that will also foster increased competition in order to increase accountability. A model that includes a mix of private and public money with voluntary participation is a good place to start.

Of course, passing any significant change to make Congressional elections more competitive will face a barrier even steeper than the Supreme Court: overcoming the resistance of the incumbents who like the current system and their own safe seat just fine.

But the stubborn resistance to change inside the Beltway should not be the death knell for reforms. American voters are getting a taste of competition in this election, and all indications are that we like the feeling that we have choices and that our voices matter. It is not too much to ask in a democracy that competition be the rule and not the exception.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and also heads McGehee Strategies, a public-interest consulting business.