Pledging for Democracy: How Bernie Can Win and Get the Congress He Needs

(Photo: Backbone Campaign/cc/flickr)

Pledging for Democracy: How Bernie Can Win and Get the Congress He Needs

Senator Sanders has started a national debate on democracy and income inequality in America. He has reintroduced ideas to curb the influence of corporations in American politics and to reverse the concentration of wealth that a handful of people have acquired over the past 35 years.

Many Americans, especially the young and the poor, have taken to this message. Yet as Hillary Clinton has, and will continue to repeatedly point out, his campaign is less than specific about how a Sanders presidency would accomplish these goals given the current climate on Capitol Hill. At issue is not so much the political composition of Congress, of which party controls the House and the Senate. The issue is rather a 'rigged political system' - to use Sanders' own words - wherein the vast majority of elected officials, both Republican and Democrat, are beholden to corporate interests.

This combination, of a political structure organized by and for corporations on the one hand, and Sanders' ambitious agenda on the other, has created the single greatest contradiction of the Sanders campaign. The very system he inveighs against stands at the same time as the largest obstacle to carrying out his stated goals. Below are the outlines of a specific proposal to resolve this contradiction.

The Take Back Democracy Pledge:

Simply put, the idea would be to have as many candidates for Congress, on both sides of the aisle, sign a binding pledge to:

1. Overturn Citizens United

2. Raise the federal minimum wage to $15/hour by 2020

The Sanders campaign would initiate and promote the pledge, urging constituents in all Congressional districts to demand that their candidates, whether Democrat or Republican, sign as a precondition of their vote. What might this look like? Phone call after phone call from thousands of constituents asking whether their Senator or Congressperson had signed the pledge, locally organized 'You Have Lost My Vote Unless' petitions, or hundreds of coordinated 'Take the Pledge' rallies across the United States. The tactics will differ from region to region, district to district. The pledge itself would not require signatories to support a Sanders presidency, but simply to commit to voting for legislation which Americans, by overwhelming majorities, endorse.

Both proposals of the pledge have, in poll after poll, proven to enjoy broad bi-partisan support. A poll by Hart Research Associates found that nationally, 87% of Democrats, 82 % of Independents, and 68% of Republicans support a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Similar numbers were reported by a separate ABC/Washington Post Poll which found that 85% of Democrats, 81% of independents, and 76% percent of Republicans opposed the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Regarding wages, a Hart Research Associates Poll shows that 75% of all Americans support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50, and that 63% support an even greater increase to $15.00/hour.

Overturning Citizens United could be achieved either via a constitutional amendment or as Rob Hager, James Marc Leas, and others have argued, congressional legislation restricting corporate money in elections which would include an Exclusion Clause under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution stating that "no federal court shall have jurisdiction to hear a case involving constitutional review of this act." Raising the federal minimum wage would require a working majority of both houses of Congress.

In all likelihood, the adoption of the pledge would be a gradual process, first by the so called "Sanders Democrats," followed by urban and liberal Democrats, later the Blue Dog Coalition, then finally, when and if it becomes unviable not to sign, moderate or vulnerable Republicans. The pledge itself would be fueled by, and in turn fuel, a Sanders candidacy.

Binding Mandates in American History:

The idea of a binding mandate is not new to American democracy. Its most recent invocation has come from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), founded in 1985 by Grover Norquist. In 2012 ATR publically launched its notorious Taxpayer Protection Pledge, by which the pledger promises to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and businesses." Prior to the November 2012 election, the pledge was signed by 95% of all Republican members of Congress and all but one of the candidates running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. While the Norquist Pledge has been rightly criticized for forcing candidates to conform to the dictates of an ultra-conservative lobbying organization, American history has experimented with more populist uses of the binding mandate.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, a massive credit crunch fueled a cascading string of bankruptcies throughout the former colonies. At issue was money - or more precisely the absence of it - within the newly independent states. In an effort to ease the economic crisis, a populist movement called for the states to issue their own currencies. By 1787 this movement had elected enough delegates to the lower house in one of these states, Maryland, to push through a series of bills sanctioning debt relief and the printing of paper money. The elite-dominated senate, beholden to wealthy Baltimore merchants who were benefiting immensely from the foreclosures, uniformly rejected these proposals.

Faced with this impasse, the lower house did something unprecedented. It explicitly appealed to the citizens of Maryland to resolve the deadlock between their two representative bodies by asking Marylanders to give a binding instruction to their delegates on the best course of action. The lower chamber argued that both houses of the legislature were simply agents of the people and were bound by their instructions whenever the people wished to give them. As Samuel Chase elegantly put it:

"The people's power is like a light of the sun: native, original, inherent, and unlimited by human authority. Power in the rulers of governors of people is like the reflected light of the moon, and is only borrowed, delegated, and limited by the grant of the people."

The ensuing controversy engulfed the two houses and set off a fierce public discussion which the historian Gordon Wood characterized as "the most significant constitutional debate of the entire Confederation period." Though the proponents of instruction ultimately failed in their aims, they offer a blueprint for the progressive application of binding instruction today.

Senator Sanders has repeatedly made calls for a political revolution in the United States. In an interview with the Nation in March of 2014, Sanders outlined his vision to "transform politics" which has since become a central refrain of his candidacy: "When I talk about a political revolution, what I am referring to is the need to do more than just win the next election. It's about creating a situation where we are involving millions of people in the process who are not now involved."

What such a revolution would actually consist of has been less clear. The Take Back Democracy Pledge, prompting millions of Americans to demand policy changes from their representatives, would give practical and material substance to this idea. As the Sanders campaign goes national, it offers a concrete proposal for ordinary people to begin to reclaim American democracy.

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