is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy
We now have a new president. Not the one most Philadelphians hoped for or expected on Nov. 8, but the one who graduated from the Electoral College thanks to the combined 77,000-vote total by which he won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
To quote Robert Redford's classic line from The Candidate: What do we do now?
Let's connect a few unlikely dots. The Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns - the two biggest sources of populist political energy of the last few years - actually shared a sense that our political process, if not rigged, was at least severely broken, and that it was time for "people" to take back their democracy from those who had co-opted it. From a different angle, and certainly in a different tone, President Obama, in his measured and thoughtful farewell address, also preached a similar conclusion when he said that "all of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions."
There is in this unlikely trio of voices a clarion Call for the Political Renewal (CPR - how apt!) of our democratic process. How can we, as citizens and civic leaders, answer the call? As we sail into the uncharted waters of what looks like a new political order, how should we respond? What will it take to defibrillate democracy?
First, let's begin with individual action. Again, Obama, in his farewell:
"So, you see, that's what our democracy demands. It needs you. . . . If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it."
You can start in our own backyard. This year, Philadelphia is holding elections to choose people who work at the polls. That's a great way to start. Also next year, elections for committee people - the foot soldiers of the political parties - are being held. Even if it perpetuates a tired two-party (one-party?) system, thus excluding the more than 100,000 voters not registered as either R's or D's, the committee system is still the best vehicle we have to represent local interests in the political process. If you're looking for advice, or moral support, groups like Philly 3.0, Philly Set Go, Young Involved Philadelphia, and even the political parties themselves sponsor sessions on how to run.
Second, recognize that the political system actively works to repel "outsiders," and elected officials, being practical and competitive, are rarely interested in changing the rules of the process that elected them. They're much more interested in winning the game, and ensuring their continued service in office. The system won't change unless and until We the People make it change. Start by asking why things are the way they are. For example, here are five questions the Committee of Seventy has been asking:
Why do we let legislators draw the boundaries for the districts that they themselves represent? And why do those districts look so contorted and misshapen? Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District is Exhibit A.
Why do Philadelphia and Pennsylvania exclude independent voters from primary elections, even though public tax dollars pay the cost of party elections?
Why does Philadelphia elect citywide officials like the district attorney in a way that - given one-party rule, many candidates, and low turnout - might require only 35,000 votes to win, in a city of 1.5 million people?
Why is Philadelphia the only county in the country that elects three commissioners to run the election process, pays them each more than the mayor of Pittsburgh, and allows one of them to stay in office even when he doesn't vote or come to work?
Why are so many local elections uncontested or uncompetitive?
Asking the same questions? Join with others who feel the same. Fair Districts PA is leading the fight to draw better legislative districts. Open Primaries and the Independent Voter Network are leading the charge nationally to open up elections to people turned off by the political parties. Fairvote is leading the effort to bring a better way of voting to elections, and a Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition has formed to demand professional leadership of the election process.
How remarkable it would be to see committed citizen leaders bring the same passion to making democracy work as they did to expanding pre-K and rebuilding parks, libraries, and rec centers. How encouraging it would be to see Philadelphians stand up, throw off the Philly shrug, and expect more - from themselves, from the process, from candidates, and from leaders.
Now's the time for action.