Democracy is under an ominous assault from two directions and the way to protect your own rights and freedoms is to protect the rights and freedom of others.
Democracy is under serious assault, and all of us – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – should be concerned because our future is at stake. Democracy is strengthened by diversity and expansion; it is equally weakened by elitism and exclusion. And both elitism and exclusion are threatening to erode our freedoms.
Looking Back Provides Lessons for the Future
Since the formation of the United States, the consistent extension of democratic participation to more and more citizens has been at the core of this country’s growth, strength and enduring freedom. At the birth of what was to become our great Republic, only free, white, male property owners were enfranchised to vote. Members of the House of Representatives were elected by this group, but even they could not cast a direct vote for senators and the president.
We take it for granted now, but less than 100 years ago senators were still being elected by state legislatures, not directly by the people. (It was the Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, that established the direct election of senators.) The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, “guaranteed” the right of all to vote regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude” (slavery), but still excluded women. This action technically gave all males (black and white) the right to vote, but it was an illusion of democracy, because it did not prohibit states from instituting poll taxes and literacy tests designed to inhibit the ability of poor whites and blacks to vote. It was not until 1920, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, that women were guaranteed the right to vote. Finally, when the Twenty-fourth Amendment outlawing poll taxes (1964) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came together, universal suffrage was codified as the law of the land.
The purpose of this short history lesson is to illustrate that for over 200 years, there has been a steady, abiding effort to expand and guarantee the basic right of all citizens to participate in the democratic process. It was the expansion of the most basic right of democracy – the right to vote – that increased and protected freedom for all of us. Now, there is an explicit effort to rollback this fundamental right. For the first time in our history, there are organized efforts to reverse the tide of expanding democracy. If allowed to succeed they will not only threaten everyone’s individual rights and freedom, but the survival of democracy itself.
Hijacking the Right to Vote
Does that strike you as apocalyptic? It is not. Under cover of a hypocritical “preventing voter fraud” smokescreen, there are those pushing for state voting laws – requiring proof of citizenship and/or picture IDs – that have no purpose other than to make it more difficult for minorities and the poor to vote. The supporters of these efforts cite the deterrence of “voter fraud” as their motivation, but it is a “boogeyman” argument. The truth is that the efforts of those who seek to limit the ability of minorities and the poor to vote is the real voter fraud.
There is no question that there has been voter fraud in the past – and some of it has been massive – but the irony is that these frauds have been perpetrated by powerful white men, not minorities and the poor. (Ask Nixon about Illinois in 1960 and Gore about Florida in 2000.) Real voter fraud has taken the form of ballot tampering by election officials, erroneous vote tallying, vote buying and intimidation at the polling site; but every objective study has concluded that the incidence of individual voter fraud – as sought to be eliminated by proof of citizenship or offering a photo ID – is about as rare as lightning in the Sahara.
One study of voting in Indiana, for example, concluded that out of over 200 million votes cast since 2000, there were only nine incidents of individual voting fraud that would have been prevented by requiring a voter ID. In court proceedings regarding a proposed voter ID law in Pennsylvania, lawyers representing the state said, “There have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania . . ..” The lawyers for the state also admitted they had no “evidence or argument that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in absence of the Photo ID law.” In Florida, a state awash with illegal immigrants, the Department of Law Enforcement reported there have been a total of 178 complaints of individual voter fraud since 2000.
Certainly there have been rare instances of individual voter fraud, but the damage caused by this is infinitesimal when compared to the immeasurable damage that could be done to our democracy and freedom by laws that would disenfranchise the multitudes in an effort to solve a problem that is not a problem. To suggest that individual voter fraud is justification to take action that eliminates the voting rights of many is nothing but “crying wolf” with an emotional (racial) appeal. (It is telling that many of those who call for more restrictive voting rights, because of the abuse of a few, are the same ones who believe that restricting access to guns, just because a few abuse their use, is a threat to freedom.)
Money is the Root of All Kinds of Evil
The other area of risk for democracy in America comes from the very real abuse inherent in campaign financing. Both Republicans and Democrats have long recognized the potential for corruption and exploitation in campaign financing; and the risk it poses to democracy. The Federal Election Campaign Act, the creation of the Federal Election Commission and the McCain-Feingold Act were all bipartisan efforts to control the corrupting influence of money in politics. However, all these efforts were washed away in 2010 when, under the guise of protecting free speech, the Supreme Court (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) ruled all such efforts to be unconstitutional.
By declaring it legal for individuals, corporations and unions to contribute unlimited amounts of funds to finance independent political campaign expenditures, the Citizens United decision wiped out virtually all barriers to the corrupting influence of money in politics. Certainly it was not the intent of the Supreme Court to further sully an already corrupted political campaign system. Rather, the Justices acted out of what they felt to be an even greater responsibility to protect free speech granted under the Constitution. Free speech has always been sanctified as the bedrock of American liberties; and indeed it is.
It is altogether right and proper to be pure and vigilant in the protection of the right of free speech, but what if the result of such vigilance leads to actions that compromise free speech for all but a few? In a world where individuals are limited to contributing $2,800 directly to a political campaign (and most lack the resources to contribute even that much), while corporations and the ultra-wealthy – through Super PACS – can now legally contribute untold millions, just who speaks with the loudest voice? We all know, “When money talks, politicians listen and freedom walks.” By allowing the virtually unfettered flow of money from special interest groups into political campaigns and other special interest efforts, with no required accountability, disclosure or transparency, all in the name of protecting free speech, then the very spirit of free speech and democracy itself is endangered.
In a dissenting opinion on Citizens United, Justice Stevens wrote, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said, “Our democracy depends on free speech, not just for some, but for all.” A recent poll showed that more than 80 percent of Americans believe Citizens United should be overturned. But until it is radically changed or overturned, the future of real democracy in America will be at risk.
Fixing Citizens United
There is no need for a constitutional amendment or even a limit on the amount of money that can be spent by individuals, corporations or unions. What is needed and what is constitutional is for Congress to pass laws requiring immediate, full disclosure, transparency and accountability when it comes to individuals, corporations, unions and special interest groups that spend their money in political activity; this is especially true for Super PACs.’
The Super PACs (and groups like them) should be required to clearly disclose their objective, i.e. to seek the election of a specific candidate. Under current law a Super PAC can sponsor negative attack ads against any candidate with no transparency or accountability. Super PACs should be required to list the names of individuals and corporations, along with the amount and date of the contribution. All of those associated with and/or working for a Super PAC should be required to disclose any and all past or present relationships with the candidate the PAC is supporting. And maybe most important, politicians who benefit from the Super PAC activities – even if they did not participate in the strategy or development of the material used – should be clearly identified and announce their knowledge, approval and acceptance of the activity.
Such disclosure requirements for Super PACs would neither prohibit their activity or the amount of money they collect and spend. On the contrary, it would preserve their right of free speech while protecting the democracy we cherish.
And The Moral of the Story …
Democracy is the staunchest defender of individual rights and freedom, but it is, in and of itself, inherently fragile and cannot survive without vigilant support and protection from individuals. Democracy is the essence of a symbiotic parallel relationship between a government and its citizens; one cannot be successful without the other. And as American educator Robert Hutchins has warned, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
Those who believe that limiting the participation of others in the practice of democracy will inure to their benefit fail to understand the essence of democracy. Unlike other forms of government such as a monarchy, dictatorship, authoritarian, and totalitarianism, under democracy the suppression of rights and freedoms for some, leads to the loss of freedom for all. In a democracy, the extent of our rights and freedoms depends upon our desire for the rights and freedoms of all. When we sign on to restrict the rights of others, we sign the death warrant for democracy and our own freedom. The way for all of us to defend democracy and protect our own rights is to demand the same rights for others. It’s what democracy is all about.