U.S. Democracy is Failing, We Need a Systems-Based Solution

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision changed one of our nation’s founding principles—one person, one vote. The way to re-establish this core belief—which 80 percent of Americans believe in—is through citizen action, says business leader and American Promise Board Chair John Wass.


“I can’t be bought,” Donald Trump told Americans during his 2016 campaign for President. In a tweet, Trump wrote, “while I’m beating my opponents in the polls, I’m also beating lobbyists, special interests & donors that are supporting them with billions.” In a political system awash in special interest money, where the majority of Americans believe the system is tilted in favor of the wealthy, it was a compelling message—one compelling enough to win the Presidency.

Again and again, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, Americans have turned to leaders who promise to rescue an American democracy held hostage by lobbyists and special interests. And, again and again, our leaders, despite their best intentions or political alignment, have failed.

That’s because U.S. democracy isn’t a cat stuck in a tree. It’s a robust, complex and, now, unfortunately, failing system. When you have a systems problem, you don’t need a savior. You need a systems solution.

Defending a Fundamental Belief

The complex system, which is the U.S. government, evolved out of the basic principles set forth in the U.S. Constitution, such as the rule of law, due process, separation of powers, and political equality and the engagement of its citizens. Within this framework, the system is fluid and adaptable. Just like a flock of birds or school of fish that adapts to its changing environment, over time the U.S. government has adapted to changing geopolitical, cultural and economic shifts while adhering to its principle beliefs or basic rules.

But our government is breaking down because the Supreme Court, in the landmark case Citizens United v. FEC, changed one of the core beliefs at the foundation of our democracy when it said that ExxonMobil had the same Constitutional rights as a teacher in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. With this decision, which violated the fundamental belief in one human one vote, the core principles of our democracy have been altered and the country has diverged too far from our establishing framework

When the fundamental principles of the United States come under attack, the only sustainable response is to amend the Constitution, which is what we have done in the past to address these types of threats. Therefore, we must amend the U.S. Constitution to affirm that artificial entities [such as corporations or unions] do not possess the inalienable Constitutional rights of the People, and to affirm the principle of one vote – one person; not one vote – one dollar.

Systems Solutions

Nearly 80 percent of Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) agree that corporations and billionaires have too much influence in Washington. But when you talk about a system solution, such as a Constitutional amendment, the most common response is “that’s impossible.” That is because people tend to view politics and government through individual actors, not interactions.

From a systems perspective, it’s not the individual actor that matters, but the foundational principles and rules that drive the system that matter. Our democracy was not forged by a few great men and women, it grew out of commonly held beliefs and principles that guided the lives of everyday people.  The movement to win a Constitutional amendment will succeed based on these same simple principles and the support of everyday people and organizations like American Promise that exist to serve that purpose.

Progress Report

Since 2012, 19 states and more than 800 communities have formally called on Congress to propose a Constitutional amendment to end the influence of big money in politics. The success has been largely local and has not received a lot of national attention. But organizations such as American Promise are working to raise up these grassroots efforts to inspire others to join the battle to restore our democratic principles to the Constitution and undo the damage of the supreme court decision. These local and state changes create positive feedback loops that disrupt the status quo and inspire hope in neighboring communities that leads to more action. As neighbors near and far learn about their work through social media, press and word of mouth, the number of small organizations and associations multiply.

The local work of citizens on behalf of winning a Constitutional amendment is creating the culture necessary to build the demand and political will to win the amendment. In other words, the work is not about convincing Congress to pass an amendment, it’s about flexing our citizen muscles and inspiring others to create the social, cultural and political environment that will produce a cross-partisan Congress that will pass this amendment.

We live in a country with extraordinary wealth and freedom where cultural, social and economic innovations thrive. We owe our success, in large part, to our Constitutionally limited republican government and democratic institutions. If we let our government devolve into an oligarchy where the wealthy rule and regular citizens believe the government does not represent them, our democracy will cease to exist. We will be left with oligarchy, crony capitalism, and a political aristocracy that destroys the democratic way of life we have fought so hard to create and protect for the last 225 years. We need to take action to restore the fundamental principles in our Constitution before we lose what we hold most dear about our United States.


John Wass is a corporate executive and entrepreneur. He is the CEO of Profit Isle, Inc. and the Chair of the Board of American Promise.