For a very long time, those of us committed to strengthening American democracy felt we were—if not voices crying in the wilderness—standing on the sidelines, stamping our feet for attention. Fights over the right to vote and other civil rights are as old as the Republic, as are efforts to restrain the influence of money in politics. But until lately, the health of democracy itself was not quite a first-tier public issue.
When the 2000 election showed just how important a few votes could be, we hoped this debacle would galvanize a broader movement for democracy. In March 2001, I wrote an article for this magazine entitled “Democracy’s Moment,” calling for a movement with the broad agenda of expanding voting and reining in runaway campaign spending. The closing sentence was “If the democracy movement is successful, America’s real and diverse majority will emerge and change our country for the better.” It was slightly wishful thinking, at the time.
Now, 14 years later, we are in even more danger, and yet there is a far greater possibility that such a movement can emerge.
For one thing, the electorate that was coming of age in 2000 is now a major force. My colleague, De¯mos President Heather McGhee, notes that “46 million young adults under 30 are eligible to vote, actually surpassing the 39 million eligible seniors who are.” Although young people are less likely than seniors to exercise their voting rights, polls show that the millennial generation is more averse than any other age group to the right-wing agenda, and more committed to inclusive democracy. McGhee sees mobilization of the youth vote as the democracy movement’s next great challenge.
On the voting rights front, we are holding our own in a pitched battle. While the right wing is determined to hold or acquire power by blocking access to the polls for millions of Americans and the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision, the movement to expand voter registration and strengthen voting rights has had its share of victories. Two examples:
- Since 2010, 22 states have passed restrictions on voting. Through ballot initiatives and vigorous advocacy in the courts, five of these burdensome state laws are being challenged. More importantly, since 2012, 16 states have expanded access to the polls.
- In 2001, only six states had Election Day voter registration; today, 11 states and the District of Columbia have adopted this reform. (A 12th state, North Carolina, recently moved to end Election Day registration; a court refused to intervene to restore it for the 2014 election, and a trial to settle the issue permanently is scheduled for next year.)
The issues surrounding money and politics are tougher terrain. The horrifying increase in economic inequality in America and the wealth amassed by a tiny sliver of American society are poisoning our political system. Some analysts have dubbed 2014 the “Year of Dark Money.” And the Supreme Court’s equation of unlimited money and free speech (What were they thinking?) makes it harder to enact commonsense reforms. Still, there have been some victories at the state level:
- Several states, including Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, have passed laws strengthening disclosure of political spending.
- Some states have adopted and protected voluntary small-donor public financing systems. Earlier this year in New York, advocates came within a whisker on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chin of winning passage of a statewide public financing system. This effort will continue.
- In Washington, D.C., real momentum has developed for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and restore the ability of Congress and the states to regulate campaign spending. A week-long debate in the Senate in early September produced a 54–42 majority for the amendment—impressive, but short of the 67 votes needed for passage. This effort will also continue.
- A petition urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to write new rules for disclosure to shareholders of corporate political spending has received more than one million comments, the most for any rulemaking in the commission’s history. The coalition backing the proposal includes major institutional investors, public advocates, and academics.
The key to winning these issues is a truly broad and grassroots movement for democracy. We’re building one. Two years ago, leaders of the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America, and Greenpeace created the Democracy Initiative. They concluded that they could not win on their issues—civil rights, saving our health and our planet, and protecting workers’ rights—unless a strengthened democracy began to work on everyone’s behalf. At Common Cause, we have an organization with a 44-year history of fighting for democracy and a membership base of 400,000 in 35 local chapters. We intend to give this effort our best work.
By attacking the right to vote and unleashing big money, democracy’s enemies have turned a series of fragmented projects into a movement. It’s time, finally, for democracy’s moment.