Defending democracy against populist anger a challenge

In a world of secret offshore bank accounts, anonymous campaign donors and fake Facebook pages, transparency seems to be losing traction.

And then there is the no-holds-barred White House messaging campaign of disrespect, name-calling and reckless hyperbole (to be charitable). Civility apparently no longer figures into the art of the deal.

So it is refreshing to see three Arizona political figures come to the defense of these values in the name of democracy – even though they are in different political parties.


Democrat Terry Goddard, a former two-term attorney general, is launching a campaign against so-called “dark money” by calling for any amount over $10,000 spent in connection with a campaign to have its root source fully disclosed. Even the late Justice Antonin Scalia, no flaming liberal when it came to voting rights, coupled his support for the Citizens United case that allowed virtually unlimited corporate campaign spending with the understanding that voters are guaranteed a right to know who is behind the spending.

Republican Jeff Flake, on the other hand, sees democracy corrupted not just by big money secretly pushing self-interest over the common good but the values espoused at the top. Without naming President Trump, Sen. Flake, in his retirement speech, made it clear that the Republican Party, if not the entire country, will lose credibility with voters and the world through leadership that is “reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

DEGRADED DISCOURSE

Flake wasn’t honing in so much on White House policies on health care or tax reform as on the way the president and his underlings have degraded discourse that should recognize a pluralism of values and the right to be heard. He said that when we give in to our anger and resentment – however justified – by scapegoating and belittling others, we have given up a claim to a key article of democracy: the dignity and equality of those with whom we disagree.

Leave it to another Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, to tie Flake’s complaints on White House conduct and character to the inward-looking ethno-nationalism being advanced by the Trump wing of the Republican Party. A party that exploits ethnic and class conflict for short-term political advantage – quoting McCain, “a spurious nationalism” – has forgotten democracy’s promise of openness to the world and a confidence in the future that serves the common good.

The two senators have shown common ground in putting their pluralistic values to work by their past membership in the so-called “Gang of Eight.” This was the bipartisan group of senators that fashioned a comprehensive immigration reform bill that actually passed the Senate in 2013 by a vote of 68-32, only to be killed in the House. It said those in the country illegally must pay fines and leave the country before re-entering, but ultimately they could be put on a path to U.S. citizenship.

Four years and several million deportations later under the Obama administration, the populist right here and in Europe has seized on the refugee crisis and ISIS terrorism as a reason to move against Muslim migration and immigrants generally. There may indeed be economic limits to how many newcomers a nation can support, but those aren’t the points being debated by the ethno-nationalists.

CITIZENS UNITED WORKAROUND

McCain and Goddard also find common ground through McCain’s past sponsorship of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act of 2002, which limited national party spending (so-called “soft money”) and barred groups from running "issue ads" within 60 days of a general election if they refer to a federal candidate and aren't funded through a PAC subject to spending limits. It was the latter provision that was struck down under Citizens United, with the Supreme Court ruling 5-4 that such ads are legal and can be funded without limit by anyone, including unions and corporations.

Goddard has decided not to take on Citizens United directly in his constitutional amendment campaign – the state has no say over federal campaigns, anyway. Instead, the language of the initiative would force disclosure of all major sources of funding in state and local races, not only in reports filed with the Secretary of State's Office but also in advertising, mailers and other campaign materials.

Some might question whether such transparency would do any good – they say it’s the amount of money buying campaign ads that help turn voters for or against a candidate or issue. But forcing a company to take ownership of a spurious campaign message might moderate the message away from anonymous hyperbole and name-calling. In other words, the company would have to balance the worth of its reputation for, say, honesty and civility against any gain it sees in a victory by its candidate or issue. And this isn’t proprietary information being disseminated; it’s part of a public process –- informed voting -- at the heart of democracy.

LIVING LABORATORY

Such a system, if enacted at the state level, would provide a living laboratory for comparison with campaigns for Congress and the presidency. But for now, Goddard’s group must get enough signatures to make the 2018 ballot and surmount the usual ballot-access legal challenges, including from the Koch Brothers and their PAC, Americans for Prosperity. We urge voters to sign the Goddard ballot petitions and let the debate begin next year in earnest. With Flake and McCain sure to also be speaking out on other threats to democracy, it should be a lively Arizona campaign season indeed.

-Originally published in the Arizona Daily Sun on November 12, 2017

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