“The system is rigged!” is now an angry, bipartisan cry, intensifying as Trump bows to big-donor interests and deepens distrust of government.
But here’s the worst part. Not only has big-donor influence blocked lifesaving public actions from worker safety to climate change, but in recent decades political donors have gotten savvier. They’ve been able not only to bend policy for their own benefit, but increasingly, to remake the rules of democracy itself to serve their interests.
Here’s a taste of what we mean.
Since 2010, when a big-money-empowered Tea Party swept Republicans into Congress and statehouses, 23 states have enacted laws making it harder to vote. To solidify gains, they’ve gerrymandered state and congressional districts so thoroughly that in many state and congressional races, competition for office—the heart of democracy—is effectively dead. Democracy shrinks further as those elected by relying on huge sums from the top 1 percent form a political class with little need to respond to the real concerns of most Americans.
Citizens, however, are not sitting idly watching our democracy go under. A citizens movement, what we call the Democracy Movement, is pursuing all angles to fight back and to take our democracy forward.
In Wisconsin, teacher-turned-lawyer Wendy Sue Johnson and 11 other Wisconsin citizens became plaintiffs in a case now before the Supreme Court that could spell the end of partisan gerrymandering. The practice, said Johnson, allows “elected officials to choose their voters instead of the other way around.” Legal challenges in other states are targeting voter identification laws, proven to lower voter participation in vulnerable communities.
Increasingly, it’s dawning on Americans that issues they once thought of as wonky or dry touch the heart of it all: whose voice can be heard on the biggest questions of our time.
The Democracy Movement is realizing real success—success that may have been missed by those shaken after Election Day 2016. On that day, unknown to most Americans, 14 of 17 state and local pro-democracy ballot initiatives passed, from public financing in South Dakota to ranked-choice voting in Maine. True, some face legal and legislative challenges, but they prove that citizens are stepping up for democracy with new vigor.
One of the most significant of the Democracy Movement’s legislative advances is automatic voter registration. Sound wonky? AVR just means that any time citizens interact with specific governmental agencies, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, they get registered. It’s simple, less error-prone, and saves a lot of money.
And if you think it is just small-potatoes reform, think again. In 2015, Oregon became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration, and in 2016, almost 272,000 Oregonians registered for the first time, two-thirds through the new automatic process. And of the newly registered, 33 percent voted—an incredible success. In all, between 2012 and 2016, turnout in Oregon grew more than in any other state.
Now 10 states plus the District of Columbia have jumped on board. Moreover, in Nevada, an AVR ballot initiative is underway and in Massachusetts a legislative campaign is gaining momentum.
The successes of a rising Democracy Movement are happening because more and more Americans get it: No matter what our specific issue passion, we now see that we can’t move it forward without fixing the rules of our democracy itself.
On this point, Josh Silver, founder of Represent.Us, an organization working to get big money out of politics, once chided us: “You don’t have to abandon your issue in order to work for democracy. You can, you know, love two children at once.” In other words, we can stay loyal to the issue closest to our heart—whether advancing racial justice, defending the environment, or ensuring a livable wage—while also acting on the underlying crisis weakening our democracy.
With this liberating insight, Silver, along with millions of Americans, is part of a bipartisan, multi-generational, and culturally diverse groundswell—the first such broad yet focused citizen movement in living memory.
The Democracy Movement broke new ground in 2013, when some of the biggest social-cause players in America, from the NAACP, Common Cause, and Sierra Club to the Communications Workers of America and Greenpeace, had their own “two-child” aha-moment. Together, they joined hands and took the leap, forming a unique organization-coalition blend, the Democracy Initiative, committed to a common democracy-reform agenda.
In uniting such diverse groups, Sierra Club president Mike Brune told us he saw the chance to “create a really powerful coalition and counter-balance all these billions of dollars coming from the Koch brothers and other oil and coal executives.”
Four short years later, the Democracy Initiative is now a full-blown organization-coalition of more than 60 organizations devoted to a vast array of causes, all pledging to engage also in democracy-reform campaigns. Led by former labor leader Wendy Fields, it now represents 30 million Americans.
Democracy Initiative creates a network of relationships so that groups know they’ve got each other’s back; confident they can count on each other to rally together in critical moments, regardless of each member’s central focus.
Two of its newest members highlight Democracy Initiative’s breadth. They are New York’s Working Families Party and Corporate Accountability International, a leading watchdog organization that has challenged corporate power for decades. A “lasting victory on issue areas like reining in corporate power, tackling climate change, and advancing racial justice depends on a thriving democracy,” Executive director Patti Lynn explained. “The cross-movement unity that the Democracy Initiative is building has the power to transform politics as we know it, restore the promise of democracy, and help us all win more, faster.”
Recently, our own Small Planet Institute joined the Democracy Initiative as well.
Another significant shift in this growing movement is that veterans in the democracy-reform trenches and newcomers alike are taking solidarity on democracy reforms to a deeper level. Some groups specialize in restoring and protecting voting rights, while others tackle money in politics. But both now increasingly see their unity: that getting big money out of politics means little if the right to vote is not guaranteed, and vice versa.
In all this ferment, we see the Democracy Movement becoming a true “movement of movements.” Under a common canopy of hope, groups are simultaneously tackling voting rights, money in politics, gerrymandering reform, ballot access, and election security.
From the April 2016 Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening mobilizations in which an historic 1,300 were arrested on the Capitol steps to the March on Harrisburg‘s valiant fight for a simple gift ban for Pennsylvania legislators, to countless new organizations such as the Franchise Project and Access Democracy—the momentum builds.
So in this moment of unprecedented threat to our democracy, a rising Democracy Movement embodies hope in action, rewarding all those jumping in with the thrill of knowing their action is upholding the most noble of American values, democracy itself.
Frances Moore Lappé is the co-founder of Food First and the author of the three-million copy Diet For a Small Planet. Her latest book is EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want (Nation Books, 2013).
Adam Eichen is a member of the Democracy Matters Board of Directors and a Maguire Fellow at the French research institute Sciences Po, doing research on comparative campaign finance policy. He is also a Democracy Fellow at the Small Planet Institute.