| Editor's Note|
Democracy is a simple ideal: it is about rule by the people, about free and equal citizens controlling the terms of their own cooperation. The hard part is the practical side. What does democratic self-government really mean when most of our time is accounted for by jobs, kids, and sleep, and not much is left for worrying about the latest political maneuvering?
It is a serious question, and democratic theorists have been debating the answer for a few hundred years. However the arguments in democratic theory come out, this much seems clear: democracy is not working well when citizens do not vote; when money dominates elections; and when day-to-day politics is a matter of bargaining among large -- typically corporate -- special interests.
The problem is that this more or less summarizes the current state of American politics. What, then, should be done? And how should we get started in doing it? These are the questions that Ellen Miller, Ralph Nader, and Cass Sunstein address in our fourth Democracy Project forum.
Ellen Miller's answer is that we need a pro-democracy, citizen's movement, and that the first job for that movement is to change the rules of the game on campaign finance: to get the private money out of politics, and in so doing to reaffirm the idea that citizens are political equals.
Ralph Nader agrees on the need for campaign finance reform. But his emphasis is on a sweeping ten-point program of "democratic revolution" -- a Jeffersonian rebellion aimed at con-structing new tools of political power for citizens, and thereby giving new life to the ideal of self-government.
Political reforms are complicated matters, and people are bound to disagree about whether Miller and Nader have identified the most effective way to advance the ideal of democracy. Butsome democracy reforms -- especially campaign finance reforms -- have been the target of a more fundamental, constitutional criticism. The complaint is that regulations of political spending are unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.
Is free speech really the enemy of democratic reform? The answer, according to Cass Sunstein, depends on your angle of vision on the First Amendment. If you think the aim is to establish an unregulated marketplace of ideas, then you will be moved by the constitutional objection. But if -- with Sunstein -- you think the aim is to empower equal citizens to deliberate about political affairs, you will be less likely to feel the force of this objection. (Here is one of those theoretical disagreements with powerful practical implications. Last November nearly two-thirds of the voters in Washington, D.C. supported a ballot initiative to control private campaign contributions. The local ACLU board -- over some heated internal opposition -- concluded that such restrictions violate the free speech rights of donors. As soon as it can find a plaintiff, it will file a legal challenge to the D.C. initiative.)
Whatever the First Amendment is about, democracy is about public discussion. We wish to acknowledge the commitment of the HKH Foundation to fostering such discussion by helping to make this forum possible.
for the editors