Why democracy matters to the environment

By Jon Fox, senior democracy campaigner

What do GMO labeling, restricting the use of toxic pesticides and banning secret outside political contributions all have in common? They are all incredibly popular measures that are being blocked by deep-pocketed corporate interests empowered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

The corporations involved are the same big polluters who harm our environment and are now leveraging their coffers to push policies and candidates that boost their profits at the expense of a clean, safe and sustainable planet. As such, the twin problem of money in politics and systematic voter suppression challenges key democratic principles of equality, representation and fairness. These permeate every issue area including those of the environmental movement. Combined, these ensure that our political institutions are neither responsive nor representative to the needs and desires of millions of Americans who care about the world around us. We’ve seen first hand that when our political institutions stop working for us, it’s harder to pass the rules and regulations necessary to keep our planet safe.

As a community, Friends of the Earth cares deeply about broader social justice questions, including strengthening and expanding our democratic
institutions. We realize that in order to win on our number one issue — be it carbon reduction, environmental protection or food safety — we must first reduce the noxious influence of powerful anti-environmental interests on our political system.

During our 46 years, we never shied away from a hard fight. This year Friends of the Earth launched a new Democracy program pushing for the reforms that are needed, not merely the ones that are politically easy. We recognize that for the environmental movement to win on the political front, we need to ensure that all Americans have an equal voice in our political system. Our plan includes short-term measures to minimize the most egregious anti-democratic manifestations, and also long-term systemic changes fundamentally changing how Americans fund and conduct elections.

The program will allow Friends of the Earth to expand into new constituencies and build its power as a leader in the Democracy movement.
By increasing the involvement of our community, other environmental
groups and environmentally concerned voters, we will drive the democracy reforms needed to protect our planet.


In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) and in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commision (2014), limits on financial contributions corporations and people can give directly to candidates, parties and party committees has all but disappeared.

Powerful moneyed interests, both corporate and individual, have happily stepped into the regulatory void left by these two rulings, and are actively using their deep pockets to influence our government and shape its policies. If money = free speech, then Citizens United led us down a path where some Americans have more free speech than others. We think that equation is wrong.

When 158 families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, they have a greater say than you and I in elections. This handful of elites runs the first primary — the money primary — deciding behind closed doors who are the viable political candidates. Political candidates naturally lean to the green (and not the environmental kind) letting influential donors decide the tone and boundaries of our political discourse. Not surprisingly, megadonors like the Koch brothers are pouring in unprecedented amounts of money to ensure that pro-carbon candidates win elections.

With today’s incentives, polluters like Exxon who spent over $12 million on political lobbying and the Koch industries that made $9.5 million in political contributions (in 2014 alone) have more influence over candidates and politicians than everyday citizens. Dependent on their continued financial support, politicians work harder representing the needs of their donors than of their voting constituents. This distortion has changed the political mechanisms through which Friends of the Earth drives positive environmental and social justice change, blocking popular environmental policy solutions supported by the majority of Americans.


Billions of unaccountable outside dollars aren’t the only thing damaging our democracy. In recent years, restricting voting rights and gerrymandered
districts have allowed politicians to choose voters that best suit their needs, instead of the other way around.

Voter suppression happens to varying degrees throughout the United States. In 2015, 22 states have voting restrictions in place; 30 states enacted some form of voter identification laws; and in the past four years every state but one considered legislation to make it harder for eligible citizens to vote. Voter suppression impacts everyone who cares for the planet by creating powerful conservative voting blocks in Congress that prevent progressive and environmental reform efforts.

Conservative politicians today are implementing a range of subtle changes to make sure progressive environmental voices have limited impact through the ballot — ranging from Texas-style voter picture ID requirements to partisan purging of voter roles. All are heavy-handed policies designed to purposefully limit the number of Americans who participate in elections and influence their outcomes. For example, a study in Wisconsin found just seven cases of fraud out of three million votes cast during the 2004 election, none of which were the kind of in-person voter fraud that voter ID laws seek to prevent. Yet laws put in place to curb the nearly non-existent problem of voter impersonation, potentially deny the vote to 11 percent of U.S. voters, or roughly 21 million citizens.

New restrictions on voting are neither neutral nor accidental. Statistics show that young people, minorities and urban populations are more likely to support progressive and environmental causes. Across the country conservative legislative majorities are weakening voting rights and erecting new barriers to the ballot directly impacting the economic and racial classes more likely to support progressive and environmental policies. In fact, 18 of the 22 states restricting voter rights passed them through entirely Republican controlled state legislatures. And in every case, it’s our constituencies that are most affected.

The American public is primed and ready for this conversation. The close relationship between corporate power, social and political inequality and money in politics has moved to the center of public consciousness and media coverage. Whether through blocking access to the vote or by buying out the political process, Friends of the Earth believes weakening our democracy is wrong. City by city, state by state, we are fighting to restore a government of the many and not the money so that our voice for the environment is heard.

Learn more here.

Like what you read? Give Friends of the Earth a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.