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Restoring the republic

Commentary | The seventh column of a twelve part series on "the next conservatism"

In my view, restoring the American republic needs to be a central part of the next conservatism. As the Founding Fathers understood, we cannot both seek empire and preserve liberty. Our liberties are only safe in the hands of a republic, a limited government with limited objectives, responsive to the American people, not just to the Washington Establishment and special interests with lots of money.

As someone who has specialized in the political process for forty years, I have to tell you that Washington today is not responsive to the American people. As Jerry Brown said, "Unless you have recently given a politician at least $1000, you don't count." I disagree with Jerry Brown on almost everything, but on that he is correct. Party makes no difference; regardless of which party is in power, it is the same story.

The next conservatism cannot content itself with calls for reform. It has to propose, and implement, specific reforms. Some of the reforms I think could open the political system back up to the people include:

  • Term limits. The push for term limits on public officeholders has faded, and I think that is unfortunate. A republic needs ordinary citizens in positions of public trust, people whose real lives are back home with the places they represent, not professional politicians who just become Washington lobbyists after they leave office. Along with term limits, we should prevent legislators (and their wives) from working as lobbyist, where too often they "cash in" for interests they helped while in Congress. And, we should limit the length of Congressional sessions, so Members of Congress spend most of the year back home, not in Washington.
  • We should put a new line on every ballot, "none of the above," and if it wins there should be a new election with new candidates. Voters in Russia have the power to reject all candidates, and they sometimes do so. Why should American voters all too often have to hold their nose and pick the lesser of two evils? NOTA would put pressure on all political parties to offer better candidates.
  • - At present, incumbents have a tremendous advantage over challengers, an imbalance made worse by McCain-Feingold, which was really an incumbents' protection act. We need to establish a more level playing field. One way to do that might be allow challengers to spend several times as much money on their campaigns as incumbents. It is much easier for incumbents to get free media attention, and the government subsidizes incumbents to the tune of $2 million for each Congressman with regional offices, staffs, mailings and so on. Allowing the challenger to spend more would reduce the incumbent's unfair advantage.
  • We also need to create a level playing field for third parties. Third parties have historically played important roles in advancing new ideas, something the next conservatism should keep in mind. The Republican and Democratic parties collude in keeping third party challengers out of the system. The next conservatism should insist on more options for the voters and fair play for all parties.
  • In my view, restoring the republic requires much more use of ballot initiatives and referenda. They should be legal in all states and I tend to think at the federal level as well. That is how Swiss voters have kept their federal government in check, and it could work here. We also need to find a way to prevent one member of the New Class, a judge, from overturning the people's will in the form of a referendum outcome just because he disagrees with it.
  • Finally, we need some effective checks on money politics. What we call "campaign contributions" the rest of the world rightly calls bribes. Yes, they sell their votes; I've seen it. I am not sure the best way to go about this, but we will never get our republic back so long as Jerry Brown remains correct. Republics do not have a "pay to play" political process.

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I am sure that as the next conservatism develops, other conservatives will come up with more ideas, possibly better than these. But the next conservatism must make restoring the republic a priority. I don't want to pass a tawdry, corrupt, oppressive empire on to my grandchildren as their heritage.

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