In my six decades in public service, I’ve seen many changes in our nation and its institutions. Yet the most profound change I’ve witnessed is also the saddest. It is the complete collapse in respect for virtually every institution of government and an unprecedented cynicism about the nobility of public service itself.
These are not just the grumblings of an angry old man lamenting the loss of “the good old days.” In December 1958, almost exactly three years after I entered the House of Representatives, the first American National Election Study, initiated by the University of Michigan, found that 73 percent of Americans trusted the federal government “to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.” As of December 2017, the same study, now conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, found that this number had plummeted to just 18 percent.
There are many reasons for this dramatic decline: the Vietnam War, Watergate, Ronald Reagan’s folksy but popular message that government was not here to help, the Iraq War, and worst of all by far, the Trumpist mind-set. These jackasses who see “deep state” conspiracies in every part of government are a minority of a minority, yet they are now the weakest link in the chain of more than three centuries of our American republic. Ben Franklin was right. The Founders gave us a precious but fragile gift. If we do not protect it with constant vigilance, we will most certainly lose it.
As an armchair activist, I now have the luxury of saying what I believe should happen, not what I think can get voted out of committee. I’m still a pragmatist; I know that profound societal change happens incrementally, over a long period of time. The civil-rights fights of the 1950s and ’60s, of which I am proud to have been a part, are a great example of overcoming setbacks and institutional racism. But 155 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and less than two years after our first African American president left office, racism still remains a part of our national life.
Just for a moment, however, let’s imagine the American system we might have if the better angels of our nature were to prevail.
Here, then, are some specific suggestions—and they are only just that, suggestions—for a framework that might help restore confidence and trust in our precious system of government:
An electoral system based on full participation. At age 18, you are automatically registered to vote. No photo ID, no residency tests, no impediments of any kind. Advances in technology can make this happen effortlessly. Yes, voting should be restricted only to American citizens. Strict protections against foreign meddling are also necessary.
The elimination of money in campaigns. Period. Elections, like military service—each is an example of duty, honor, and service to country—should be publicly funded. Can you imagine if we needed to rely on wealthy donors to fund the military? I know there are those who genuinely believe in privatizing everything. They are called profiteers.
Public service should not be a commodity, and elected officials should not have to rent themselves out to the highest bidder in order to get into (or stay in) office. If you want to restore trust in government, remove the price tag. I am fully aware that the Supreme Court has declared that “money is speech.” That’s nonsense. The day my wallet starts talking to me, I might reconsider that view. Until then, I believe that the pernicious influence of money on our elections must be removed.
The end of minority rule in our legislative and executive branches. The Great Compromise, as it was called when it was adopted by the Constitution’s Framers, required that all states, big and small, have two senators. The idea that Rhode Island needed two U.S. senators to protect itself from being bullied by Massachusetts emerged under a system that governed only 4 million Americans.
Today, in a nation of more than 325 million and 37 additional states, not only is that structure antiquated, it’s downright dangerous. California has almost 40 million people, while the 20 smallest states have a combined population totaling less than that. Yet because of an 18th-century political deal, those 20 states have 40 senators, while California has just two. These sparsely populated, usually conservative states can block legislation supported by a majority of the American people. That’s just plain crazy.
The math is even starker when you look at places like Wyoming and Vermont, each of which has fewer people in the entire state (575,000 and 625,000, respectively) than does the Twelfth Congressional District of Michigan, which I last represented and whose more than 700,000 residents are now in the hands of my wife, Debbie. She fights her heart out for them every single day. Yet her efforts are often stymied simply because it is understood that even should a good bill make it through the hyper-partisan House, it will die a quiet death in the Senate because of the disproportionate influence of small states.
With my own eyes, I’ve watched in horror and increasing anger as that imbalance in power has become the primary cause of our national legislative paralysis. In primaries, the vocal rump of a minority of obnoxious asses can hold the entire country hostage to extremist views. This insanity has sent true public servants fleeing for the exits. The Electoral College has the same structural flaw. Along with 337 of my colleagues, I voted in 1969 to amend the Constitution to abolish it. Twice in the past 18 years, we’ve seen the loser of the popular vote become president through the Electoral College formula, which gives that same disproportionate weight to small states, each of which gets two automatic votes for its two senators.
My friend Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, sees a demographic shift coming that will effectively transform us into two countries. He tells me that “in 2050, 70 percent of Americans will be living in just 15 states. That 70 percent will then have 30 senators, and the remaining 30 percent of the people, mainly those living in the smallest and poorest states, will have 70 senators.”
How do we fix this? Practically speaking, it will be very difficult, given the specific constitutional protection granted these small states to veto any threat to their outsize influence.
There is a solution, however, that could gain immediate popular support: Abolish the Senate. At a minimum, combine the two chambers into one, and the problem will be solved. It will take a national movement, starting at the grassroots level, and will require massive organizing, strategic voting, and strong leadership over the course of a generation. But it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? “Abolish the Senate.” I’m having blue caps printed up with that slogan right now. They will be made in America.
The protection of an independent press. This is where the Founding Fathers got it exactly right. Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Trump has said of reporters, “I would never kill them, but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people.”
My father started out life as a cub reporter for the Detroit Free Press. He always believed that journalism was a tremendously honorable profession. We cannot restore respect to our institutions of government until we put an end to the systematic attacks on journalism that have become prevalent. The playbook is simple: Lie. Repeat the lie. Then attack the journalists who expose those lies as being liars themselves—or, in modern parlance, “promoters of fake news.” The Nazis’ propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, replaced journalism with state-run propaganda and created a political climate based on fear and falsehoods.
The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Fourth Estate is not a branch of government, but none of the branches of government can be trusted to function honestly without an unfettered free press vigilantly holding it accountable.
Thomas Jefferson had the first word and he should have the last word: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
As a young man, I served in the Army during World War II. My father was a member of Congress. I learned from him and, later, from my own experience that history always repeats itself unless we remember it with clarity and conscience.
Now I am an old man. My age bears with it a responsibility to share what I’ve witnessed so that future generations avoid making the same mistakes. My advice always begins with the truth, which is why would-be despots and demagogues try so hard to discredit it. They hate it like the devil hates holy water.
The conduct and outcome of the 2016 presidential election have put the future of our country in mortal peril. After a lifetime spent in public service, I never believed that day would come. Yet it has. And we now find ourselves on the precipice of a great cliff. Our next step is either into the abyss or toward a higher moral ground. Since before the Civil War, we’ve been told that “Providence watches over fools, drunkards, and the United States.” Yet the good Lord also granted us free will. The direction we choose to follow is ours alone to make. We ask only that he guide our choice with his wisdom and his grace.
It’s up to you, my dear friends.