Bernie Sanders Should Embrace Political Reform

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who is ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls in New Hampshire, is popular because he is speaking out aggressively on issues such as income inequality and foreign policy, and thereby playing the Democratic party game, the author writes. Dominick Reuter/Reuters

You have to hand it to Bernie Sanders. He's defying expectations across the board. He's giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money that few expected. He's ahead of her in the polls in New Hampshire and showing no sign of losing momentum.

Senator Sanders is popular because he is speaking out aggressively about income inequality and a disastrous foreign policy. But his support actually grows out of a deeper discord, one that goes beyond specific issues.

He has tapped into roiling public anger at a corrupt and insulated political establishment that has acquiesced in war and greed without the consent of the governed. Sanders is popular because he is taking on a corrupt and insulated political establishment, not because he has the "correct" line on this or that issue.

You would think that Sanders's position as an anti-establishment lightning rod would make him more, not less, radical when it comes to freeing our democratic process from partisan control. Paradoxically, he has staked out a rather tame position on issues of political process and remaking our political culture.

When it comes to democracy reform, independents across the country are asking him, "Why are you protecting the establishment?"

Sanders is an independent. And he is not the only one. According to the most recent Gallup Poll, independents now make up 43 percent of the electorate. More 18-year-olds register as independents than Democrats and Republicans combined.

The issue that brings independents together is political reform, not ideology. Independents are critical of the partisan dominance of the electoral system and want sweeping changes to our system, including nonpartisan primaries, fair impartial redistricting, a nonpartisan Federal Election Commission (FEC), inclusionary presidential debates, an end to sore loser laws and more.

To date, Sanders has kept his distance from this nonpartisan political reform agenda in favor of a more traditional Democratic Party approach.

In early August, Sanders introduced the Democracy Day Act of 2015 to make Election Day a federal holiday. He declared at a rally that giving everyone the day off on Election Day "would indicate a national commitment to create a vibrant democracy." He also spoke out in favor of automatic voter registration.

Compare Sanders's timid approach with that of Representative John Delaney, who introduced the Open Our Democracy Act two months earlier. Unlike Sanders, Delaney is considered a moderate. A moderate with a radical approach to political reform.

Like Sanders's bill, the Open Our Democracy Act calls for making Election Day a federal holiday. But it does much more. It establishes a process for ending the gerrymandering of congressional districts, a contributing factor in creating the "safe seats" that limit competition (80 percent of members of Congress face little or no competition for their seats). And it ends the party control of primaries. Every member of Congress would be elected via a nonpartisan "top two" primary system open to all candidates and all voters.

On a recent national conference call with independent activists from 35 states, Delaney revealed his motivations for introducing the bill. "Politicians always make the mistake of underestimating the American people; 300 million smart Americans are not going to let some 500 members of Congress stand in their way forever."

This is nonpartisan, disruptive political reform. It challenges the control that both parties have on our electoral system. It is inclusive and potentially transformative.

But Sanders has kept his distance in favor of a "Democrats good, Republicans bad" posture on election reform. He opines against the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling but won't speak out against the partisan control of the FEC or the presidential debates.

He condemns voter suppression, but won't say a word about the systematic exclusion of his fellow independents from voting in primaries, including for him! His only statement about laws that exclude independents from the presidential primaries are emails that encourage independents to re-register into the Democratic Party so they can vote for him.

Sanders, the anti-establishment candidate, is being very careful not to upset the establishment on issues of democracy. Such conservatism will narrow his appeal.

In 1968, a sitting president was driven out of the Democratic Primary by a grassroots anti-war movement backing a long-shot candidate. If Sanders embraced the independents reform agenda, it would electrify the primary race and could set him up for a significant upset in New Hampshire, where independents make up the majority of voters (and are eligible to vote in the presidential primaries).

Senator Sanders, don't play it safe!

John Opdycke is the president and founder of Open Primaries, a national activist and strategy center for the primary reform movement. Dr. Jessie Fields is a founding member of the Independence Party in New York City, a Harlem-based primary care physician and on the board of Open Primaries.

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