A Pro-Democracy Movement

With the nation's first billion dollar presidential campaign, pay-to-play scandals occurring at breakneck speed (think Jack Abramoff and Norman Hsu), results in elections that are flawed by suppressed votes and machine error (and a War that Stays the Course despite the millions who went to the polls in November 2006 with a demand to end it), the public has had it with politicians who don't listen to them, care about them, or respond to their concerns. This climate of discontent has led to a rethinking among champions of public financing and clean elections about how to channel their efforts into a larger, more holistic pro-democracy movement. The key question for these reformers is this: how do we fashion a movement that taps into voters' frustrations and captures the imagination for a cleaner, more democratic way?

Certainly there is good momentum in this direction. In Congress - where, for example, the entire Alaskan delegation is either under indictment or soon will be and the pressure for constant fundraising is unsustainable - there is a convergence of democratic values and ideals and more pragmatic considerations wrought by fundraising fatigue. ("The result of this nonsense is that almost one-third of a senator's time is spent fundraising," former Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings wrote in a Washington Post op-ed lat year.) There are two excellent bills with impressive co-sponsorship, the Durbin-Specter Fair Elections Now Act (S 1285) and in the House, the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act of 2007 (HR 1614). Both bills would allow candidates who show a qualifying level of support and opt-out of further private contributions to receive public funding. According to Senator Durbin, "Support is increasing for the idea of public financing in fair elections: seventy-four percent of all voters support public financing... 80 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans, and 78 percent of Independents."

There are also important state battles being waged and won in this arena. The Congressional legislation was modeled on successful public financing systems in Maine, Arizona and North Carolina. Connecticut has a new Clean Elections program and this week a Republican became the first candidate in the state to qualify for public financing in an upcoming special election. Maryland recently passed a public funding bill through its House of Delegates and fell just one vote short in the Senate. In all, seven states and two municipalities currently have publicly financed elections in which large private contributions are replaced by public grants and small donations.

"The environment for public financing is strong," says Nick Nyhart, President and CEO of Public Campaign, "due to both the continuing political scandals and the steady, inexorable rise in the cost of campaigns. There are new state victories ahead and the federal work is moving forward, though we are really only at the beginning of the Congressional fight.... It really seems to me that the key thinking needs to move from policy to strategy and organizing."

Which is why Nyhart and many of his colleagues are working to knit these democracy issues into a larger whole. Nyhart says that focus groups reveal that Americans of diverse economic, racial, and geographic backgrounds share a common, core complaint about politics today: that their representatives don't listen to them and aren't accountable to them. Pro-democracy proponents are finding new ways to frame issues - ranging from the racket of protecting incumbents through gerrymandered redistricting, to unreliable and easily hacked voting machines, to getting people to the polls with Election Day registration rather than suppressing votes through bogus allegations of voter fraud - in a manner that makes those standing in the way of reform pay a political price.

Nyhart likes to draw an analogy with the environmental movement. "In 1964, saying 'I'm an environmentalist' had no meaning," he says. "Ten years later saying that made a candidate more electable. Right now, saying 'I'm a pro-democracy' candidate' doesn't mean much. There is no set of issues for the public to relate that statement to. And you can't establish it with a single issue. So organizations are working to find a politically salient group of issues to achieve that kind of impact."

Returning to the example of the environmental movement, one modest proposal is to take a page from the League of Environmental Voters' invention of the "Dirty Dozen." This was an extremely powerful and effective way to identify politicians who stood in the way of bipartisan environmental progress. Many of them were defeated in their re-election bids in the 70's. So how about an Anti-Democracy Eight? Or a Democracy Day a la Earth Day devoted to maximizing voter turnout, making campaigns affordable for ordinary citizens, and producing reliable election results?

Perhaps Democracy Enemy #1 would be Senator Mitch McConnell. (Please offer your nominees for the Anti-Democracy 8 below!) Recently, an ad by Public Campaign Action Fund highlighting Sen. McConnell's favors to political donors was pulled by Insight Communications, a cable system owner. NBC, CBS, ABC and two other cable systems ran the ad after thorough fact-checking. But Insight pulled it without explanation in the 11th hour. Turns out Insight Communications executives - including the corporation's CEO and chief lobbyist - are allies of McConnell. After receiving 6,000 petitions in one day questioning Insight's motivations and demanding the ad run, the company reversed its decision. In trying to squash free speech, Insight proved the very point the ad raised about the cozy relationship between McConnell and his donors. Adding to the irony is that the ad concerns an $8.3 million McConnell earmark to a firm with ties to the senator. The contract paid the firm to provide MP-3 players to tribesmen in Afghanistan that played - of all things - pre-recorded messages promoting democracy!

There are plenty of good activists and groups who have crafted a broad pro-democracy agenda in recent years. In March, the New Democracy Project, Demos, The Nation, and the Brennan Center for Justice released The Democracy Protection Act - 40 Ways Toward a More Perfect Union. The measures suggested in the report - building on the policies crafted by a score of good groups - challenged a system we described this way: "We have too much money and too few voters in our electoral process. Too much corruption. Too high barriers blocking access to civil justice. Too much contempt for the Rule of Law." We looked at things like national voting standards, paper trails, secure voting machines, Election Day registration, voter suppression and intimidation, lobbying laws, public campaign funding, and free air time for qualifying candidates.

But the challenge now - at this moment when democracy's image has been so tarnished by scandal, big bucks, and a shameful war falsely waged in its name - is to move beyond the policy suggestions to build something greater than the sum of its parts. Such a movement will go a long way toward retrieving democracy and restoring its promise.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

(c) 2007 The Nation