Democracy Initiative Values and Vision Statement
Our democracy is under siege on multiple fronts. Money is not speech and corporations are not people. Yet the power of corporations over the legal and regulatory system and the influence of corrupting corporate money in politics is unprecedented.
At the same time, the fundamental democratic value of “one person, one vote” is under attack by a barrage of aggressive attempts to restrict access to the ballot box and undermine voting rights.
Simultaneously, the leading institutions of our democracy including the U.S. Senate have been thrown into gridlock by a minority who serve special interests and not the public interest.
As a result of all this, citizen belief and engagement in the system is at an all-time low.
The Democracy Initiative, launched in 2013, seeks to restore the core principle of political equality. Labor, civil rights, voting rights, environmental, good government and other like-minded organizations with broad memberships are committed to building a movement to halt the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, prevent the systemic manipulation and suppression of voters, and address other obstacles to significant reform, including the abuse of U.S. Senate rules that allow a small minority to obstruct deliberation and block action on legislation addressing the critical challenges facing our nation.
Progressive people-powered movements have routinely faced opposition from those who benefit from social inequality. These opposing forces have devoted vast resources to influence policy makers, markets, the media and the public to protect the status quo. In the past few years, however, these same forces, not content with their already outsized influence, have taken aim at the foundations of our democratic tradition itself, seeking to undermine the principles of equal representation and civic participation in American democracy.
Three recent developments exemplify and underscore this disturbing trend:
- A Rise in Voter Suppression and Disenfranchisement: Under the pretext of preventing nearly nonexistent ‘voter fraud’, the voting rights of Americans are under attack by moneyed interests and their ideological allies. In state after state, legislators are introducing laws that would introduce barriers to voting that would effectively prevent would-be voters from casting ballots. The proposed changes include restrictions on the types of identification required to obtain a ballot, making it harder for people with felony convictions to vote, limits on early voting and absentee voting, and restrictions on registering to vote. In 2011 alone, more than 180 bills of this type were introduced in 41 states. The Brennan Center estimates that up to 5 million eligible American voters – particularly students, people of color, people with prior felony convictions, people in the military, the elderly and the poor – could be significantly impacted or disenfranchised by these new laws. It’s no accident that the groups targeted by these laws are groups that support stronger public health safeguards, workers rights, social and economic justice, women’s rights and environmental protection. Conservative interests -- worried that demographic trends are bound to create a shift towards a more progressive political and social culture – are doing what they can to have a disempowering effect on these groups.
- An Influx of Big Money in Politics: In the wake of Citizens United, our elections have been inundated by a new wave of billions of dollars in increased campaign spending by corporations and the super-wealthy. The 2012 election was the most expensive election in U.S. history– over $7 billion dollars was spent at the federal level alone. More than half of all disclosed campaign spending came from less than one tenth of one percent (<0.1%) of all Americans. The 25 largest donors collectively contributed $261 million in disclosed contributions and tens of millions more in undisclosed contributions as well. This sea change in political spending has made the chronic problems we face due to the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics more acute, and threatens to drown out the voices of everyday Americans in our political process.
- Chronic Obstruction of Democracy in the U.S. Senate: While our country is facing unparalleled challenges—a languid economic recovery, crushing debt, and threats at home and abroad, a minority in the U.S. Senate blocks debate on the most important issues. The Senate’s constitutional role of advice and consent in confirming executive and judicial nominations has also broken down. The result has been the debilitation of vital federal courts and many important regulatory bodies. We are now faced with the unprecedented procedural hurdle of requiring 60 votes for virtually every nominee submitted by the President and piece of legislation. During Senator Harry Reid’s six-year tenure as majority leader, the filibuster was used 381 times. To give a comparison, during President Lyndon Johnson’s six-year- term as majority leader the filibuster was used once. If the Senate had always operated this way, landmark legislation - such as the Civil Rights Act, which brought social and economic justice to millions of Americans – would never have been enacted.
Ultimately these three factors – outsized political spending, voter suppression and obstruction of legislative debate and action – diminish the fairness and effectiveness of the political process and discourage robust civic participation essential to the American democratic ideal. Consequently, our democracy is in distress. This intentional suppression of the voices of the many is affecting every element of our democracy. Corporate influence is at an all-time high and citizen belief and engagement in the system is at an all-time low.
Historically, good government and voting rights reform organizations have done their work independently, while labor, civil rights and environmental organizations have traditionally worked outside the ‘democracy space’ but have offered sincere but limited support from the sidelines. All of our organizations have been unable to achieve major victories on issues core to our organizations and at the same time have suffered losses in well-funded attacks.
We seek a vibrant democracy, free of the corrupting influence of corporate money, where everyone can participate fully and freely in our democratic process, where every voter has a voice, and where our policymakers are accountable to the people and the public interest. Achieving success in civil rights, climate change, women’s rights and worker’s rights, is inextricably linked to the victories on these core issues of our democracy.
Therefore, we propose to create a new network of key organizations and leaders from labor, community, civil rights, environmental, faith, women’s rights, LGBT and other sectors that share a common commitment to this shared vision.
This network will serve to amplify the impact of existing voting rights, campaign finance and democratic reform and support the leadership of those that already work in the field, in the following ways:
- Create a Vision for a People-Centered Democracy: We will build this democracy through long term and short term goals aimed at opening democracy and shifting the center of political engagement from moneyed interest to the people. We will build a power network aimed at achieving universal access to the ballot box, shifting the burden of voter registration to states, passing Senate rules reform, and curbing the influence of money in our electoral system. Believing that the fight for democracy must be a 50 state strategy, we ultimately seek to build a 50 state strategy for democracy fueled by grassroots communities. This vision will require a long-term sustained effort, fueled by a movement broad enough and powerful enough to overcome the barriers that have kept us from achieving and maintaining victories over the last few decades.
- Public Education and Communication: We will develop a shared narrative that links our work to restore our democracy and empower all Americans to other key issues of the day, making it possible for a variety of groups to show support for this work within the frames of their existing missions. We’ll also use our organizations’ voices in the media and with our own members to educate people on the importance of these issues, for their own sake as well as for their strategic value for our own communities.
- New Voices: Leading organizations in the good government and voting rights communities would greatly benefit from having new voices join the chorus. Our organizations represent a wide range of constituencies and communities bringing a mixture of expertise in technical assistance, organizing and engagement of our membership to the voices championing a pro-Democracy agenda. By taking on a key role as new messengers on these issues, we can reach media, donors, grassroots leaders, and our own members, who might not otherwise hear and embrace our call for democracy reform.
- Grassroots Mobilization: We believe shared strategies, added capacity, and deeper alignment across issue areas are essential to combat the well-funded and well-coordinated opposition pushing to suppress the vote, obstruct the democratic process and gut limits to money in our political process. We will mobilize our membership – and help facilitate the same action by other groups – to call for expansion of access to the polls, to push back against voter suppression, and the undue influence of money in politics. Combined, our four organizations (NAACP, Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, and CWA) represent nearly 3.5 million Americans committed to advocating for social change. When you include the membership of the dozens of organizations who have already expressed interest in collaborating with the Democracy Initiative, we have the potential to bring 50 million new people to this fight. We will convene allies at the state and federal level, build partnerships, identify allies, facilitate collaboration and develop a shared strategy for the long-term to build a movement powerful enough to sustain and create the long term change our democracy requires.