If you had to describe the state of American democracy today in three words, you could do a lot worse than: "Not great, Bob!"
Because whether we're looking at voting rates, campaign donations, congressional approval, legislative initiative, or something as simple as paving roads and fixing bridges, American democracy's health — and its ability to maintain its own legitimacy in the eyes of Americans — is, well, not great.
Treating all of these issues one-by-one, however, can make the problem seem both worse and better than it is. Worse, because so many disparate sources of failure suggest that no fixes are possible, and make sentiments like "this is just the way the world is" — or other such fatalist pablum — increasingly hard to resist. Better, because it undersells how expansive, well-funded and coordinated is the attempt to place American plutocracy on an unshakable foundation.
And this is where "Democracy at a Crossroads: How the One Percent Is Silencing Our Voices," the new report from the Democracy Initiative Education Fund, a populist coalition of mostly left-leaning reform groups as well as organized labor, comes in. By taking a holistic, comprehensive look at where American democracy is most under threat, the report attempts to clarify the picture, underline the seriousness of the present moment, and offer a framework for an equally concerted defense of representative government.
Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with two of the primary forces behind the report: Tova Wang, director of democracy programs at Communications Workers of America, and contributing editor Nick Nyhart. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.
You touch on a lot of issues here that are often treated in isolation — voting rights, public financing of elections, dark money, etc. Why did you feel it was necessary to take a step back and look at how it all hangs together?
Tova Wang (TW): Most of my career has been working on voting rights and election reform. Starting in 2010, both Nick and I started to realize that there were more things that were happening around our democracy than just the issue of voting rights alone; that there was a greater attack on our democracy that was coming from different angles.
[These attacks] were all happening at the same time, being backed by a lot of the same people and happening at every level of government. These were all ways in which power is being shifted from the many to the few. [We felt that] we needed to explain the bigger picture of what was happening in democracy that went beyond the different kinds of issues that different groups and different individuals tend to focus on.
Nick Nyhart (NN): I'd just add two things.
One is that people often look at the set of issues and think of it as the right versus the left; Republicans versus Democrats; management versus employees. But it's really, at its essence, an attack of people's ability to have their voice heard within our society and in impacting the public policies that get passed. That's the thing that unites them. That is probably the single most important thing. It's not simply a partisan game. It is our democracy that's being challenged here. So we think it makes a more compelling case to step back and look at all these elements.
The second is, if you want to plan a coordinated, smart pushback against these things, you need a clear analysis of what's going on. We think analyzing these [issues] in silos — voting rights, workers' rights, money in politics — prevents you from having the full analysis of what's going on. So what is key to reversing what we're seeing is understanding it really well.
Why do you say these are not partisan issues?
NN: I'll speak to the area I know most: money in politics. The voters are all agreed on this. Everyday citizens want their voice heard in politics. Whether they're on the right or the left, they want elected officials who are responsive to them and not the billionaires and elite special interests that contribute. You see that, certainly on the Republican side, in the revolt against the traditional establishment-oriented candidates. So we see again and again that at the level of ordinary everyday citizens, people are united about what they want. As soon as you look at this through a partisan lens, you forget that this is actually people who can't afford to make big donations against a system that empowers people who make the biggest donations. So you give that [idea] short shrift if you think of it in partisan terms.
TW: I don't think it actually is partisan at all. I think it's about wealthy corporate elites trying to continue to amass power for themselves, both in an economic sense, but more importantly from our perspective, in the sense of having a bigger say in what happens in our country. That affects basically all of us - the 99 percent - which is not just Republicans and Democrats. They're doing this through laws that restrict voting. For example, the cutbacks to early voting that legislatures have passed recently affect working people; those are the ordinary Americans that we're talking about.
At the same time, [you see] state legislatures passing "right-to-work" laws, which is a misnomer - they actually tremendously weaken the ability of people to act collectively and have a voice within their workplace and in the public sphere as well. And of course you also have state legislatures trying to even further lift the cap on the amount of contributions that the wealthy can make to political campaigns, all at the same time. All of these things are not about the balance between one party or another, but really [about] the balance between the voices of the massive majority of the American people and the rich and corporate elites, [and who] can have a bigger say in what happens.
OK, so who are we talking about here? Who are the most influential individuals and organizations?
NN: The clearest example, and the one that has gotten the most attention, is the Koch brothers, who are bundling huge amounts of money. They set out as a goal nearly a billion dollars from their network; it's probably going to be a little less, but you're talking about a couple hundred people putting together nearly a billion dollars. Then that money goes out not just to influence elections but to build a local infrastructure that can move these policies to the state level. Their money ends up everywhere.
I don't think there's some secret cabal of three people that gets in a room and plans everything out, but there's certainly a network that aligns. For instance, take North Carolina, which had some very strong campaign finance laws, including small-donor-based public financing laws, and very good voting rights laws. Art Pope — who is not a Koch brother, but an ally of theirs — first bankrolls a conservative shift in the Republican Party through primaries, and then bankrolls independent expenditures that help sweep a new crew of legislators into power in the legislature, who then attacks the voting rights laws and the campaign finance laws. The coup de grâce was then electing a governor who had those values. So there's an example where someone is going after these laws that shape the rules of power. [Pope did it] with his money and by putting himself inside that infrastructure. You can see parallels to that in other states, as well.
TW: I also want to make clear that a big part of this report is that it's not just state legislatures. It's the influence that they have over Congress, the different federal agencies that Congress has a lot of control over, and the Supreme Court. The Friedrichs case that was just argued earlier this week could be decided in a way to disempower the rights of unions to maybe, possibly exist. The court has also consistently been hostile to voting rights, including in the Shelby case, where they basically ripped the heart out of the Voting Rights Act. Also, obviously, Citizens United and that whole line of cases that have completely led to the flooding of our politics with corporate and billionaire money. It's really something that goes beyond just the states.
Also, I would note that a number of the cases that have been brought in all of these areas have been bankrolled by the same people who have been doing some of the work in the states through different types of organizations. For example, the same group of funders, to some degree, who bankrolled the Shelby case also bankrolled the Friedrichs case. So there are a lot of interconnections there as well.
So how do you explain the disconnect between what the polls show (that people are almost overwhelmingly in favor of major reform) and what comes out of the political system (nothing)?
NN: One problem is that the rules are stacked against people. When ... there were grass-roots efforts in a number of states and cities to win small-donor-based public financing laws, the courts came in and said here's a whole bunch of things you cannot do to regulate money in politics, which stalled that effort. So part of the disconnect is that the power against you makes it so difficult. And yet we've seen a resurgence on the campaign finance front at the local level. In Maine there was a landslide victory by more than 10 points to fix the law and undo the damage done by the Supreme Court. And in Seattle, they put forward a whole new way of empowering small donors in elections and won by a 2-to-1 margin. So there is pushback going on. We think there will be more of that as people wake up and see what's happening.
TW: We don't want want to forget to emphasize that there is actually a lot of positive movement happening in a lot of these areas that we need to build on. Nick mentioned [campaign finance], but we also have a great many more states over the last few years enacting laws that allow people to register and vote on the same day. We've just seen automatic voter registration passed in Oregon and California. There are a number of areas where we're succeeding in passing legislation and advocating ideas that are inclusive and will improve our democracy. I think the key here is for people to understand that this is something that matters for all of us, not just one particular group. Collectively, the people have the capacity to make our democracy what an overwhelming majority of Americans want it to be.
But are we seeing that cooperation and progress outside of the grass roots?
NN: In a lot of these efforts in the state and municipal arenas, there are coalitions to push back that are forming that go beyond just the reform community or the voting rights community. Tova and I were both part of a rally in Roanoke, Virginia pushing the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, to have a hearing on the new Voting Rights Act. That was a coalition of people not just from the voting rights community, but [members of] the campaign finance community, the labor community and the environmental community were there as well.
We're seeing a pushback that goes beyond the silos of these issues, and we think that will grow and broaden when people realize that this attack on democracy — whether it's in the workplace, at the polls or the way money flows in politics — all of those affect people's ability to have their views represented in the public policy that gets created. We all have a stake in these three fights. We think that analysis and a broadening coalition movement to win victories, first at the state and local level and the federally, is the way forward. We're seeing more and more people wanting to head in that direction.