In the popular American imagination democracy is primarily a system of government that enables the people to vote every few years for their elected representatives. President Bush and the Congress reaffirmed this core concept of representative government this month when they moved to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for 25 more years. In important ways, however, it was little more than a hollow gesture.
Back when President Johnson first signed the landmark civil rights legislation into law, he committed the nation to eliminating race-based voting discrimination. The Act gave the Department of Justice the authority to oversee election practices in nine states where such discrimination was rampant, and often acutely violent.
Yet the commitment that Johnson and Congress pledged the country to was effectively reversed in 2000, when state and federal officials allowed the disenfranchisement of thousands of black voters in Florida, where Bush supporters stripped them from registration roles, ensuring his election. Instead of the brutal beatings that haunted Americans on the nightly news back in the 1960s, the disenfranchisement of minority voters has shifted to more obscure means, including technology- and data-based fraud.
Thus, forty years after enacting a comprehensive Voting Rights Act, we have been unable to secure a fundamental right to vote for all Americans and we cannot ensure fair and inclusive elections for our highest political offices. We all know that there is something fundamentally flawed and impoverished in the state of American democracy, something that cannot simply be attributed to the imperial personalities of Bush and Cheney. The renewal of the Voting Rights Act should force us to take stock, to perform a much deeper reassessment of the state of American democracy, now weakened on so many fronts.
Take the June decision in Randall v. Sorrell, in which the Supreme Court struck down Vermont’s cap on state electoral campaign expenditures. The Vermont laws were enacted to ensure that ordinary Vermonters could run for elective office and participate in meaningful debates on public issues in state elections without being required to have enormous personal wealth or corporate support. The active participation by a greater part of the citizenry in election campaigns is as fundamental to the integrity of democratic institutions as securing everyone’s right to vote. Those who don’t vote often say they don’t see any reason to bother voting since there aren’t any candidates who even remotely represent their interests. Beating up on a few swing-district incumbents over the war in Iraq or the rising cost of gas may be important to this year’s close congressional race, but in the long run it could just be another chapter in the annals of popular apathy.
When there are few candidates willing to represent the “will of the people” on key issues like Iraq, it suggests that something must be done to open up the process to the people themselves. But when campaign finance reform laws that level the playing field are struck down by the federal courts, democracy is just as weakened as it is when significant numbers of voters are disenfranchised because of the color of their skin.
The right to vote is unquestionably at the heart of democracy. But beyond securing this fundamental right, we need to restore our appetite for taking our concerns to the broader community.
Key to limiting the influence of corporate money in politics is our ability to challenge corporate speech and corporate squashing of independent speech. Campaign finance reform is just one facet of a concern that we can ill afford to leave to the lawyers to settle. There are many key places in the public sphere where corporate speech rights have been used to constrict and even dumb down the political discourse, undermining the cultural basis of our political democracy. A few examples:
Cable companies have been aggressive in using state laws to challenge community wi-fi zones in cities and towns across the country;
The FCC’s proposal to allow further media consolidation a few years ago was framed around the First Amendment rights of corporate broadcasters;
Conservatives and liberals have joined together in challenging the pervasive spread of commercial “speech” (advertising) – especially in places like schools, where parents say the message conveyed by Channel One programs is about selfish consumption rather than civic engagement and other core American, community, and family values.
The movements fighting on these and other fronts may each start from a different place, but at some point all confront the corporations’ illegitimate claims to speech rights. That’s why policy advocates, community organizers, parents, and ordinary people without any particular political aspirations must begin to understand and resist the extension of illegitimate rights to corporations, especially when they are being used to undermine our own rights. We have to become just as conscious of how corporate speech rights have been used to fundamentally disenfranchise us all – as a community – as we are scrambling to respond to the insidious and impenetrable means used to disenfranchise voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Every once in a while popular opposition to the threat of corporate speech erupts into mainstream political debates, but without a strong contextual analysis, the issue fades into the background as a lost opportunity. A few years ago, when corporate telemarketers were poised to launch a new marketing blitz over the phones, 50 million people signed up for the Do-Not-Call Registry. When the telemarketers threatened to sue using their First Amendment rights, i.e. go to the courts and argue that their right to “speak” is more important than our right to privacy, Congressional leaders who are normally at the beck and call of corporations responded by passing a law that preempted the telemarketers and enforced the people’s will.
As activists and concerned citizens, we need to begin to use opportune conflicts like this as wedges into a broader set of questions that will only be resolved through long-term struggle, while developing strategies where we are strongest – at the local level. A good precedent was recently established in Humboldt County, California where a majority of voters chose to prohibit non-local corporations from contributing money to Humboldt County elections, asserting at the same time that they will not recognize any suggestion that corporations have a “right” to overturn the popular will. Local efforts like this are potential flashpoints in the new democratic populist backlash against corporate rule.
Out of threads of community-based activism like this and other organized efforts like those mentioned before, we can eventually weave a movement grounded in universal demands for participatory democracy. By emphasizing that “speech rights” of the people embedded in these diverse movements are more important than those of corporations, we can shift the political discourse in profoundly important ways. Our aspirations for renewing democracy not only need to be inclusive of the most devastated communities, but our tactics must expand outwards from a fetishistic emphasis on the right to vote to an animated and dynamic vision of participatory democracy.
Maud Schaafsma is a lawyer and sociologist who lives in Evanston, IL. She works on policy analysis for The Center for Corporate Policy. Charlie Cray is the co-author of "The People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy," and director of the Center for Corporate Policy in Washington, DC.