Opinion polls tell us that 70%, 80% and even 90% of Americans believe our political system is broken and there's nothing we can do about it. People think that a few progressive states like California and Massachusetts may enact isolated reforms, but the rest of America is mostly hopeless because billionaires, corporations and special interests have gained too much of a lock on power.
This year, however, the supposedly impossible happened in South Dakota, a solidly red state where the political deck is heavily stacked against political reform. A grass-roots citizens movement scored an improbable victory to make South Dakota the first state in a decade to adopt public funding of future political campaigns.
It was a David versus Goliath fight that pitted a citizens group called TakeitBack.org against Americans for Prosperity, the richly financed political organ of conservative Kansas billionaires Charles and David Koch, as well as the state's Republican Party establishment.
The revolt was launched by Rick Weiland, who ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2014 and lost, and his friend, Drey Samuelson, a veteran of 28 years as Capitol Hill chief of staff for former Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. Samuelson gave up on Washington and came home to push for reform.
"It is not possible to change the system in Washington," Samuelson told me. "There's too much anger, there's too much hyper-partisanship. The only way we're going to change Congress, in my opinion, is by changing the states and forcing Congress to change."
Weiland and Samuelson are prairie populists whose campaign is a handbook for reformers. They spent 18 months carefully stitching together a coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans intent on "reengaging" South Dakotans in direct democracy. Local and national good government groups — including the South Dakota Farmers Union, Represent.us and the League of Women Voters —helped TakeItBack.org collect 100,000 signatures to put three reform measures on the ballot.
One initiative proposed a nonpartisan primary system to give voice to South Dakota's 115,000 political independents (22% of the voters). A second measure called for gerrymander reform to break the partisan, GOP Legislature's monopoly on mapping legislative districts. (Democrats do it too in other states.) TakeItBack proposed an independent commission — three Republicans, three Democrats, three independents.
The most sweeping proposal, Initiated Measure 22, proposed a package of reforms: establishing a South Dakota ethics commission, lowering limits on PAC contributions in state elections, increasing transparency on state campaign donations and empowering average voters by setting up a $12 million state fund to give voters $100 each in democracy vouchers to donate to candidates of their choice.
"You actually get to take your tax dollars back and invest them in candidates that you think are going to do your bidding in the state capital — make the person running for office less dependent on the $1,000 check writer," Weiland said. "It levels the playing field."
Inevitably, the reform package kicked up a storm. Americans for Prosperity, rallying political allies including the South Dakota Farm Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce, warned voters in waves of radio ads and direct mail that "scheming politicians want to use our tax dollars to pay for their political campaigns."
South Dakota's Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the state's two Republican senators, John Thune and Mike Rounds, derided the reformers as disgruntled Democrats trying to change the political rules because they kept losing elections.
But TakeItBack.org's traditional shoe-leather, retail politics gave it grass-roots appeal. It had its mailers and radio ads, but it also sent a team of college and graduate students door-to-door. Weiland visited small and medium-sized towns, stirring up local media coverage and endorsements as he worked small groups in Main Street cafes, diners and stores.
Social media was critical. One Facebook post that reached 68,000 viewers showed 28-year-old Army veteran Justin Otoski telling how he came back from duty in Afghanistan and was disgusted by the partisan warfare in U.S. politics.
"I feel like I came back from a combat war zone to a political war zone, and it's just frustrating," Otoski said. "Our politicians care more about winning for the party, winning for themselves, rather than winning for America, doing what's best for their constituents."
On election day, the two simpler proposals — for gerrymander reform and a nonpartisan primary — were defeated. But the big ticket item, IM 22 won a slim 52% majority. That put South Dakota into a special group with four other states that have robust systems of public funding for election campaigns — Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and Minnesota.
The next test is whether other states — especially the 26 that give citizens the power of ballot initiatives — learn South Dakota's lesson: Fundamental reform can be won, even in red states, if people organize well at the grass roots.
"I believe this victory sends a message to the rest of the country that they don't have to put up with the business-as-usual crowd," says Weiland.
What South Dakota shows is that politics is too precious to be left to the politicians.
Hedrick Smith is former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, author of "Who Stole the American Dream?" and executive editor of reclaimtheamericandream.org.