It’s great news that hundreds of millions of corporate dollars weren’t able to buy November’s election. But if you think we’ve dodged the Big Money bullet, I urge you to think again. This month, Congress reconvenes, which really means that the big lobbies reconvene and recommence basically running the place with all of their millions. Alas, these forces have their points of influence within the Obama Administration as well. The beat goes on.
As the Englishman said upon visiting Niagara Falls, whatever is to stop it? We dedicate this issue of Democracy to the hope that it can be stopped and that our politics can be changed—and we offer some original and specific ways to do it. With the generous support of the Foundation for Civic Leadership, and with valued input from its leader, Ian Simmons, and from our friend Nick Penniman of the Fund for the Republic, we have assembled “Everyone’s Fight: The New Plan to Defeat Big Money.”
The symposium makes the case for bringing the issue of political reform to the top of the progressive agenda. We argue that advocates for causes across a wide spectrum should be contributing money to it. Perhaps your cause is the environment, or civil rights, or poverty, or children’s welfare. Or maybe your cause isn’t even what we normally think of as progressive at all—there are dozens of nonprofits and other groups whose missions (cancer research, better nutrition, etc.) are entirely apolitical.
Our contention is this: Whatever your cause, if it falls into any of the broad categories above, it is being actively hampered, if not strangled, on a daily basis by the corrupting influence of money, both on campaigns and in Congress. We believe our symposium—bookended by a stirring open letter from the esteemed journalist Bill Moyers and the philanthropist Arnold Hiatt, both of whom have spent decades engaged in this fight, and an essay by former Senator Russ Feingold on how to build a permanent reform movement—connects these dots, and we hope that it starts a conversation in and beyond Washington about how everyone can band together and contribute in a tangible way to this desperately needed effort.
Elsewhere, we’re thrilled to have former Representative Barney Frank in our pages, assessing the election and the new mandate on defense spending it ushered in, and we’re grateful to him for accommodating our production schedule during what must have been a very busy and emotional time as he wrapped up his remarkable career. We’re also pleased that the distinguished Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution takes on the timely question of entitlement reform and prods liberals to consider accepting some compromises under the right conditions. Rounding out the feature well is a startling and deeply informative essay by George S. Hawkins, the head of Washington, D.C.’s water authority, praising the accomplishments of the Clean Water Act—but showing exactly why it’s badly outdated and why we need a new one.
In the book review section, Akhil Reed Amar, the celebrated Yale constitutionalist, lays bare the flawed logic at work in the new book by Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner. Scott McLemee reviews Andrew Delbanco’s study of higher education and its purpose. Mary Dudziak assesses the role of ideas in the history of international relations, via the new book by Mark Mazower, and Len Gutkin takes on a fascinating subject a little outside our normal purview: the role played by American literature—the mid-century novels of Updike, Styron, and others—in shaping and reflecting the Democratic Party’s stance on civil rights. Finally, Catherine Tumber responds to Ben Adler’s review of Alan Ehrenhalt from the previous issue, and reproves both men for ignoring what she sees as America’s most interesting incubator of innovation—our medium-sized cities.
The President begins his second term this month. We wish him and the country well. As I write in the Recounting column, we hope—and, optimistically perhaps, expect—that four years from now, the Winter 2017 issue of this journal will reflect on the progressive revival of the previous eight years.