6 Things We Need To Do To Repair America's Crumbling Democracy
As the 2012 election crests with all its chaos— billionaire-driven TV ad wars, legal fights over voter suppression tactics, endless fundraising e-mails and worries about stealing the vote—progressives need to remember what’s been destroying our democracy and what solutions are needed to restore the balance of power in America.
Now is the time to note precisely what’s wrong, what’s gotten worse and what’s completely broken in key corners of the electoral process. That’s because once the dust settles after Election Day, the impetus to fix things will wane among the political victors, media and much of the public, as it does after every big election. The winners will say there is not a problem because they won. The press will start covering the new administration. And weary voters will want to look ahead to solutions, not back to old problems.
That’s how our dysfunctional democracy may limp along until the next major election (the 2016 midterms) or a national crisis. But the first year of a presidential term is the most likely time that Congress might do anything on a big enough scale to touch the underlying problems because it’s the ebb tide in the electoral cycle.
So let’s look at what’s breaking or broken as we experience the final weeks of the 2012 campaign, and note where the solutions lie.
1. What Are 21st-Century Voting Rights?
For decades, progressives have asked where democratic renewal is supposed to begin. Some have argued for curbing the latest campaign finance abuses, such as billionaires dumping millions into federal races. Others have looked at the fact that tens of millions of eligible Americans won’t bother to vote. It’s not an either-or proposition. At the heart of these concerns is how political power is distributed and balanced.
This year, we have heard more about big money abuses than what a higher voter turnout would mean. But it’s clear that today’s pro-corporatist establishment could not last in an America where tens of millions more people of modest means voted. Twenty years ago, I started covering campaign finance issues. But as every election has brought new ways to flout federal laws and death-by-a-thousand-cut Supreme Court rulings, I am convinced that the only path to restoring our democracy is through the voting booth. The political class fears a truly engaged citizenry. Over the years, it has been forced to act on public demands when people are engaged.
Everything starts with voting. But Americans were reminded by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore that there is no individual right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Since then, many depressing things have happened to voting rights—almost all initiated by Republicans who want to preserve their power. Most obvious is the trend among states to limit ballot access by passing tougher voter ID laws to create a barrier to otherwise eligible voters. These laws add a new qualification to get a ballot: having a specific state-issued photo ID card. Previously, voter eligibility depended on one’s age, residency, citizenship and mental fitness.
At the same time, there is a parallel move by the GOP, with the Texas Republicans in the lead, to limit the federal government’s ability to protect voting rights. Texas has sued to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which gives the Justice Department power to say no to regressive changes in voting laws that affect minorities. That case will be heard by the Supreme Court after the election. These two trends pose one of the biggest questions spurred by the 2012 campaign: do Americans need a 21st-century statement of their constitutional right to vote as individuals? The answer is yes.