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A Healthy Diet for Democracy
By Damon Circosta
Published: Feb. 22, 2010
RALEIGH - It seems every other week there is a new fad diet that promises results. The grapefruit diet, the almond diet, the juice diet. If you are to believe the pages of health magazines, the road to perfection is to eat one food and lots of it.
Of course all these diets have their share of studies and science to back them up, and adding some almonds or grapefruit to our plates is probably a good idea. However, emerging research suggests that when it comes to healthy eating, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Nutritionists are starting to catch on to the idea that it is better to eat a wide variety of foods instead of looking for some “super food.”
Those who seek to improve government have been on a similar quest when it comes to election reform. For a while, the fad diet was increasing voter registration, then came measures to make voting easier and lately there has been a push for campaign finance reform. Each promised to be a panacea, and yet even today our democracy isn’t as strong as it could be.
The health of our democracy took another hit last month when the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Citizens United v. FEC that corporations have the same free speech rights as individual citizens.
In the wake of such a seismic shift in election regulation, a new crop of fixes will likely emerge. No doubt each one will promise to be the singular reform that keeps the promise of representative democracy alive.
Some are touting robust disclosure of all the corporate money soon to be making its way into elections as the next great fix to what ails our government. A better picture of who is spending money in elections may help, but a cure-all it is not.
Much like a human body, our body politic is extremely complex. The various tasks of government are carried out in different ways, by different structures. Government relies on the input of literally millions of people. It’s a messy way to organize a society, but out of all that chaos comes a shared voice. Our government is deliberately designed so that one idea, or one faction, cannot overtake the whole.
Like the diet of just one food, government reform won’t work if we do just one thing. Of course, we could benefit from campaign finance reform or increased voter participation. But neither of those alone, or any other singular effort, will make democracy work.
In order for our system to be responsive to our needs, we need a cornucopia of solutions. We need voters to not just register, but to get informed about the candidates and their proposals. We need elected officials not just to enact campaign finance reform, but also find a way to reach ordinary citizens without resorting to attack ads or petty tit-for-tat governance. We need to make sure we know who else is paying for our elections, but we also need to invest in elections ourselves.
There is much to do in order to make our system work, and unfortunately there aren’t any shortcuts. Even in these tough times it makes sense to have a conversation about improvements to our system, and the conversation should include a wide array of solutions.
If we are to have a healthy government, the dinner plate of democracy shouldn’t resemble a fad diet. It should look more like the well-balanced diet we remember from childhood: a little of this, a little of that, and not too much of anything.