My Civic Utopia

Before November’s election, I was collaborating with a young colleague from Political Science on a book that we’d decided we wanted to write about America’s democratic institutions, and whether and how those institutions function in a modern world that is very different from the world in which they were created.

It was going to be about “civic mechanics,” about how a democratic society should choose the people who make its policy decisions, not about the content of those policies.

Then we woke up on November 9th, and deep-sixed the project.

To be perfectly blunt–and politically incorrect–we realized that the problems with American democracy were far more profound than we had thought (and we weren’t very optimistic to begin with). An electorate and a system that could make someone like Donald Trump President was much farther gone than we had imagined.

The book project has been discarded, but before the election we had begun making a list of changes to our electoral system that we’d dubbed “utopia.” I found a copy the other day when I was cleaning out some files.

Here–for what it’s worth–is what we’d listed before we abandoned the project. Important details, caveats and justifications are missing, but you’ll get the idea.

In our democratic utopia:

  • A bipartisan national commission would administer elections under uniform standards, to minimize state-level game-playing, encourage (rather than discourage) turnout and standardize the voting process.
  • We’d get rid of the Electoral College, allowing my urban vote to count as much as the vote of rural inhabitants. (I didn’t say our list was realistic.)
  •  Gerrymandering would be illegal; Independent Commissions would draw state legislative and Congressional district lines.
  •  Numerous positions that are currently elected would be appointed (coroners, recorders, auditors, township trustees, etc.) The Governor would appoint the State Treasurer, Attorney General and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, increasing Gubernatorial accountability and avoiding unseemly and damaging turf battles like those Hoosiers saw when Governor Pence refused to work with Glenda Ritz.
  •  Election day would be a national holiday and voting would be mandatory, as it is in Australia, where non-voters are fined (it’s pretty nominal) and ballots have a “none of the above” option, or voting would be by mail, as they do now in Oregon, Colorado and Washington State, increasing turnout and saving lots of public money.
  • A Constitutional Amendment would overrule Citizens United.

Our utopia would also address the growth of propaganda that has been spawned by Fox “News” and talk radio and propagated by the Internet, taking care to avoid violating the First Amendment.

  • The Federal Government would establish a national, user-friendly “fact-check”/reference site for purely factual information about government–a “one-stop shop” for information that is now scattered across multiple government websites.
  • Reputable news organizations–perhaps the Society for Professional Journalists?– would establish a non-governmental, voluntary accreditation process; it would certify that accredited sources demonstrate compliance with practices characterizing ethical and responsible journalism. (It wouldn’t vouch for the accuracy of published information, only compliance with sound journalism practices.) That wouldn’t remove the click-bait, or suppress the conspiracy theories and propaganda, but it would provide a tool for use by citizens who care about the veracity of the information they are consuming.

We also considered measures that might improve civic competence and trust in government, like tightening ethics rules for legislators (in my utopia, they would be forbidden from joining or being paid by lobbying organizations for at least 2 years following their departure from the legislature); and requiring merit selection of judges.

And of course, my utopia would require vastly improved and increased civics education in the schools.

What would your civic utopia look like?


  1. I began working in Indianapolis City government in 1972, during the Mayor Richard Lugar administration, typical of all government offices at that time. Through the progressive and enlightening 16 years of Mayor Bill Hudnut who cleaned up racism, sexism, nepotism, political patronage and forced allegiance and cash donations to the Republican party. Then came the Nixonian microcosm administration of Goldsmith and I only lasted 2 years, 3 months and 11 days before becoming disabled to to the stress, anxiety and administrative abuses. I have hung onto those Mayor Bill Hudnut years as my touchstone; my utopian hope and belief that they could/would return and could/would be workable at the national level. That belief is gone and my hope is gasping it’s dying breath.

    Sheila, I understand your decision to deep-six the book; my civic utopia would look much like the Hudnut years here. Not perfect; but no political leader and no government will ever be. But; we saw progress and the building of a city to be proud of with a leader we could trust…and we could often approach directly with our problems. We will never see that on the national level; the current administration are like cockroaches, which have survived for millions of years to plague us. Not even extermination works…and that would be illegal to even attempt to rid us of the Trump gutter tactics we face 24/7. With the added fear of nuclear war coming closer and closer.

  2. All of those things you listed, plus requiring a disclaimer for talk radio that they tell listeners that they are expressing opinion not fact.

  3. BTW. Civics now a high school requirement in Illinois. You probably already know. More good new from that State.

  4. Don’t write the book, please. We don’t need another book, another blog, another column. We need people working to bring about utopia. What you and I do may be all that we can do, but our country needs people attending neighborhood meetings, city and county council meetings, legislative hearings. Politicians need to see people, hear their stories. And people need to see those who hold political office.

    The problem is less the institutions than the absence of human contact.

  5. Better hurry……

    Just came across this quote on Political Wire.

    “By 2040, 70 percent of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, which are also home to the overwhelming majority of the 30 largest cities in the country. By extension, 30 percent of Americans will live in the other 35 states. That means that the 70 percent of Americans get all of 30 Senators and 30 percent of Americans get 70 Senators.”

    — Political scientist David Birdsell, quoted by City Limits.

  6. I agree about talk radio, daleb. Maybe they should be required to say that what they are spewing is propaganda. Limbaugh’s daily rants have played a big part in getting us to this point, and far too many people take his word as gospel. I’m sure that vile excuse for a human being laughs all the way to the bank.

  7. Let me give everyone a glimmer of hope. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved an Amendment proposed by Barbara Lee to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF has been the tool used to send troops just about everywhere in the Middle East. It warmed the cockles of my heart to hear Republicans stand up and praise the amendment. After passage by voice vote, the committee gave a standing ovation to Congresswoman Lee, who has been proposing this amendment since 2004. Maybe we have seen the nadir of our civic life. Small steps, early days, but it keeps hope alive.

  8. Bringing back the “Fairness Doctrine” and applying it to all media would be a good thing as well. Strengthening reporters shield laws should be done as well.

  9. You can add to your list the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine for broadcasters. That would help police some of the outrageous behavior we’ve seen since it was scuttled

  10. @ Morton Marcus,

    The main problem in my county is that Council meetings are held during day time hours when most people are at work. This makes it impossible to attend.

  11. I agree with Steve Smith – dust off the files and write the book – add the Fairness Doctrine to the list of components as well. All of what you keyed would re-establish the rails we are off of right now and, hopefully, prevent even more damage to our system. It’s our system – the only one we have.

  12. I think it would be a great idea if you could publish a pamphlet that would include the points you just made – and probably many more for those of us who are civilly deprived.

  13. Nancy,

    The main problem with attending public meetings in Indianapolis at the State House or the City County Building is that to attend you would have to pay the exorbitant parking fees now in place thanks to the past Republican mayor. It’s that or take the bus if you are lucky enough to live close to the bus line.

    Republicans not only discourage voting… they also discourage the public’s participation in the government.

  14. While thinking about utopia is an interesting mental game the real question is, now that we have allowed democracy to break, have we destroyed its capacity to heal itself?

    Both democracy and oligarchy seem self sustaining. We have managed though to hamper democracy’s self healing powers to the point that it’s been displaced by oligarchy. Is there a way back using oligarchy to defeat oligarchy?

    It’s not apparent to me that there is.

  15. In addition to your suggestions, Shiela, I would extend the anti-lobbying edict to “forever”. Next, all elections should be publicly funded; no outside money allowed in campaigns. I used to be against term limits, but now I see what professional politicians do to a perfectly wonderful document like our Constitution. Four, 2-year terms for House Reps. and two 6-year terms for Senators. The season for campaigning at any level should be no more than six months long.

    These things plus your ideas should put us back on the road to real democracy.

  16. Theresa,

    Your post makes the valid point that one must have enough disposable income to afford to attend pulic meetings. That leaves out the financially struggling people who are unable to make their voices heard. Very sad indeed.

  17. Maybe we should put some minimum tax payments into our utopian constitution so as to keep at least some of the financing of government initiatives free from congressional toadies fronting for the rich and corporate classwhen tinkering with the Internal Revenue Code in return for campaign contributions, aka bribes. I agree with Sheila’s list and have so many more to add that I will pass indentifying them on this pre-holiday where I have already written and will shortly publish a piece entitled, “Independence Day for Whom,” in which I identify some of the evils of libertarians who have captured the Republican Party. Happy Fourth to all. . . .

  18. I don’t see how requiring people to vote advances the cause of freedom.

    As far as Election Day being a national holiday, that will certainly not improve turnout. In fact, it will undermine turnout. (Unless you make voting “mandatory” as you indicate you’d also do.) People would take Election Day off of work, as well as the Monday before ED, and enjoy a long 4 day weekend. If you think not, think about what is going on now with July 4th being a Tuesday this year. People are all talking about where they are going on their July 4th weekend. That’s going to happen every election year if you make ED a holiday.

  19. Taking into account that Utopia is an imagined community or an imagined society that possesses nearly perfect qualities, or at the least highly desirable qualities, for its citizens, I’ll tread lightly by mentioning a personal wish that falls directly under an enhanced level of public school nonpartisan civic education beginning early on in the elementary school years and advancing in intensity during the secondary years, meaning grades 7-12.

    There’s a real need to halt the anti-knowledge or anti-expertise movement that unfortunately is prevalent in both educated and noneducated demographics.

    After last evening’s completion of reading Tom Nichol’s “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters”, today’s topic seems particularly relevant for a massive call for civic education.

    Celebrity mom Kim Kardashian has been touting the benefits of consuming mother’s placenta or feeding mother’s placenta to newborns in her online presence, yet today I read a news article citing a hospital’s having to treat a recurring Streptococcus B infection in an infant that’s now been traced to the mother’s feeding dried placenta to her baby, simply because mom’s following Kim Kardashian, who is now considered as having equivalent, if not more medical expertise than clinical medical researchers.

    Raw-milk enthusiasts, largely a rather educated group, stand behind a popular chef’s unscientific verbiage that the inclusion of raw-milk in his signature recipes not only improves the quality of his culinary delights but also is totally ‘natural’, sans all the expertise of Louis Pasteur.

    There’s no need for a deep delving into the celebrity driven anti-vaccine crowd who choose to believe celebrity Jenny McCarthy’s anecdotal experience as the mother of a child with autism or the soundly discredited clinical research of Andrew Wakefield. They believe what makes them feel good, feel better, what supports their preconceived ideas.

    And, then this morning I read a Washington Post article that further illustrated the death of expertise, this time in Florida where thousands and thousands of students stand to be fed a diet of totally unscientific knowledge by a new law that basically states all opinions are equally important. No, all opinions are not equally important.

  20. I like your list, and many of the suggestions as well. I agree with write the book – but make it a pamphlet, a poster, a T-shirt, and a sharable post. Or write the book, plus a graphic synopsis. Don’t tag it as connecting with either party, because there are thoughtful people of all political stripes, and many young people, who would agree with many of these points, if they weren’t tagged as belonging to one party or another. You might be onto a unifying rallying cry.

  21. Some decent ideas. But one exquisitely horrible one: under NO circumstances can Attorneys General or Treasurers execute their function as a check on executive abuse of power if they are appointed by those same, politically motivated, Government executives. And any such executive who refused to perform his function and work with other elected officials needs to be immediately impeached.

  22. Cat; wise words except for one problem. ALL those who have the power to impeach are the ones who need to BE impeached. This is a Catch-22 situation, a qandry, a poser, a rock and a hard place…an effed-up situation with no current solution.

  23. Would love to see a multi-prong approach to campaign spending and election reform that inhibits all the outrageous spending and dominance of those with the fattest “war chests.”

    First, there would be a fixed and shorter time period for election campaigning (Canadaʻs longest was 10 weeks), which means candidates wonʻt need so much money anyway.

    Second, spending limits which would immediately level the playing field. Even if more was donated, the candidates cannot spend it. Hah.

    Third, super pacs and “friends” are eliminated. Period.

    Fourth, overturn Citizenʻs United, and no outside entities are allowed to donate, whether out-of-state or foreign businesses, individuals, etc.

    Fifth, besides being an American citizen, all candidates, especially those running for President and Vice Pres, must meet minimum criteria and qualifications (like any job candidate) and must also take a psychological exam as well as a physical exam, plus release 10 years of tax returns or they cannot run for office…by law, no exceptions. We could even mandate they must also take the American Citizenship course and pass the test to ensure they understand our history and the Constitution of the United States of America!

  24. Want to add a sixth part which Sheila already included…Eliminate the Electoral College – an antiquated institution that was put in place during another time under far different circumstances and no longer necessary.


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