April 2016 was a turning point for democracy in the United States.
Under the banner of Democracy Spring, thousands of Americans decided to fight back against a broken democratic system that represents only the wealthiest in society. They gathered in Washington, D.C. to march, rally, and risk arrest (over 1300 people were arrested on the Capitol steps) to get big money out of politics and ensure that every American has the right to vote.
These protestors had clear demands, endorsing four pieces of legislation already introduced in Congress.
If adopted, these laws would create: (1) a system of public financing for Congressional elections; (2) a more robust Voting Rights Act; (3) a modernized voter registration system with stronger voting safeguards; and (4) the initiation of the process to overturn Citizens United.
While the vast majority of Americans remain politically powerless due to continued Congressional inaction, Democracy Spring advanced the struggle for a better democracy in five significant ways.
1) Democracy Spring Drastically Expanded the Democracy Coalition
To fix democracy, reformers must build a coalition large enough to counteract the corporate and billionaire opposition. Since big money in politics affects all areas of public policy, the potential for this broad alliance exists. And, fortunately, it has started to become a reality in the past few years.
Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening (a parallel democracy campaign) accelerated this coalition building. Over 300 organizations participated in the April mobilizations—many of these groups were new to the democracy movement.
In preparing for and during the protests, countless staff and members of these new groups were integrated into the fields of money in politics and voter disenfranchisement. They learned about the issues and built strong working relationships with other organizations, laying the foundation for future projects. Moreover, many of these groups have expressed a desire for continued collaboration with Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening as they transition into their next stages of organizing.
2) Democracy Spring Cultivated New Activists
Democracy Spring attracted Americans, ranging from ages 13 to early 80s, who had never before been politically active. During the course of the two-week protest, veteran activists taught these new activists valuable organizing skills, such as how to talk to media, convince people to join a movement, and properly engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.
This knowledge sharing led many newer participants—especially the younger, previously disengaged attendees—to feel attached to the democracy movement and political activism more broadly.
These newly inspired participants, along with their veteran colleagues, are already in the process of organizing local events and actions, honing their skills and political knowledge, and establishing their own networks of communication.
3) Democracy Spring Created Pressure for Legislative Reform
Although Congress has not yet taken action as a result of this movement, Democracy Spring’s message was heard. Shortly after the protests ended, Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) sent a letter (cosigned by almost 100 fellow Congress members) to the Committee on House Administration and to the House Judiciary Committee asking for a Congressional hearing on all four of Democracy Spring’s demanded bills.
While this letter may not translate into actual hearings, it does create internal pressure within the seemingly impenetrable Congressional subcommittees. And, in the eyes of many participants, even such a small act of internal recognition is enough encouragement to continue fighting—further deepening their ties to activism and the democracy movement.
4) Democracy Spring Caused a National Conversation about Money in Politics
Democracy Spring brought unprecedented attention to the problems in the American democratic system—despite the fact that the traditional cable networks failed to cover the protests.
Media networks, such as NPR, Democracy Now, and The Young Turks, widely reported on the protest, airing numerous featured segments. Online journals reported on Democracy Spring, as well, with articles appearing in Rolling Stone, The Hill, CBS News, The Washington Post, and USA Today. Even local news stations covered the protest.
The movement also had exceptional success on social media, trending nationally on Facebook and Twitter for multiple days. According to the Digital Director of Democracy Spring, Justin Smith, the movement got over six million views on its social media pages.
Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Tea Party have shown the power of creating and shaping public dialogue about an issue (regarding economic inequality, police brutality, government spending, respectively). Although Democracy Spring has not yet achieved the same paradigmatic discourse shift of the aforementioned movements, it nonetheless sparked conversation about democracy reform—and will continue to do so as the movement expands.
5) Democracy Spring Altered the Complexion of the Money in Politics Movement
Campaign finance has long been perceived as an “insider” issue, mostly concerning “older, white public interest lawyers”. Democracy Spring changed this perception—with people of all gender, racial, socioeconomic, educational, and geographic backgrounds mobilizing to have their voices heard on the subject.
As the "money in politics" movement becomes more inclusive, better reflecting the overwhelming majority of people wanting reform, members of Congress are suddenly more aware that campaign finance reform is a top priority for a broad, diverse base of voters (not just insiders). And even if they won’t admit it, this will be in the back of their minds when money in politics is discussed in their reelection campaigns.
Ultimately, social movements are a long-term phenomenon, usually comprising a messy mix of successes, failures, and missed expectations. And while many pundits conduct movement autopsies as soon as people leave the streets, most effects of mass mobilizations become clear only after significant time has passed. In the direct aftermath of Occupy Wall Street, for example, no one saw the seeds for the Bernie Sanders campaign half a decade later.
It is, therefore, too soon to fully analyze Democracy Spring—especially as newly mobilized activists continue to define its legacy.
Yet, one, thus far unspecified, consequence remains clear even within this opaque future: Democracy Spring gave participants fresh optimism and a newfound belief that a better, more equal America is within our collective grasp. And given how forlorn and discouraging U.S. politics has become, this hope alone is enough to make Democracy Spring a remarkable moment for American democracy.