Democracy is in retreat. Most of us have at least a vague sense that this is the case, as we see country after country veer towards authoritarianism.
The President of the United States has a clear disdain for democratic norms, and would plainly prefer to rule as an autocrat. He’s continually pushing the boundaries of institutional limits on his power, suggesting recently that he may try to eliminate birthright citizenship by executive order.
A little more than a decade after seeking membership in the European Union, Turkey is now ruled by a Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who has accumulated dictatorial powers over his time in office.
In Russia and many Eastern European countries, democracy is all but dead. Autocratic rulers in the style of Vladimir Putin are ascendant.
And in nearly all developed countries, authoritarian right-wing movements are gaining ground. There is little doubt that democracy will be one of the first things to go in places these parties come to power.
The data, such as it is, appears to confirm this analysis. Freedom House, a U.S. think tank, wrote in a 2017 study called “Democracy in Crisis” that the “quality of democracy” around the world is at its lowest point in 12 years.
There’s no shortage of suggestions as to what is behind this democratic erosion, but many of the proposed fixes depend on systemic or social changes that can only realistically be achieved over the long-term. Given the growing urgency of the problem, I’d like to propose a simple policy to revitalize democracy in the short-term: Democracy Dollars for campaign financing.
Democracy Dollars would be vouchers distributed equally each year to every eligible voter in a country. People could only use Democracy Dollars for political contributions, and they would expire at the end of the year. The sale, transfer, gifting, or accumulation of Democracy Dollars would be prohibited.
Voters could donate their Democracy Dollars to registered political candidates, parties, or third-party interest groups. These organizations would then exchange their Democracy Dollars for real dollars provided by the relevant elections commission. This would constitute the sole source of funding for political activities. Direct cash donations, in-kind contributions, corporate contributions, self-funding, and all other funding sources would be prohibited.
Implementing the Democracy Dollars proposal would have a number of effects.
First, and most importantly, it would give each citizen an equal ability to participate in the democratic process in a way that extends beyond voting. With a set amount of Democracy Dollars that must either be used or lost, citizens would have an incentive to consider their own priorities and research the best way to distribute those dollars. This ongoing process would encourage sustained democratic engagement beyond periodic election cycles, and give voters a larger stake in politics.
Second, Democracy Dollars would level the playing field between all citizens. In our current system of private political financing, influence is proportionate to one’s wealth. Those with more money can buy greater political power through campaign contributions. Democracy Dollars would sever this link between wealth and political power. This would make democracies more responsive to the demands of the broad public rather than just the economic elite.
Third, Democracy Dollars would force all political actors to constantly compete for public support rather than only seeking votes during election cycles. With Democracy Dollars being the only source of funding available, parties and interest groups would need to engage citizens on an ongoing basis and build real bases of popular support. Voters often complain that they only hear from parties during election periods. With the Democracy Dollars in place, this would no longer be possible.
Finally, Democracy Dollars would solve the problem of “dark money” and shady foreign actors influencing elections. It would no longer be possible for political agents abroad to funnel money into local campaigns through third-party organizations and networks. As Democracy Dollars from citizens would be the only legitimate source of political financing, it would be impossible for, say, Russian oligarchs to subvert the democratic process.
These are the main positive outcomes of the Democracy Dollars proposal, though there may be more that I have not mentioned. There may also be additional complexities which need to be considered, but the basics of the proposal are sound.
If we want to strengthen democracy against the growing threat of authoritarianism, ordinary citizens must feel that they can exercise power within the democratic system. Under the current system of private campaign finance, the rich exercise disproportionate political influence through money while most ordinary citizens are completely shut out of the game. It’s no wonder that as campaigns become more expensive and money more important, many voters feel disenfranchised. Democracy Dollars would solve this problem, returning power to ordinary citizens and giving all voters equal ability to influence the political process through financial contributions.