Code Pink activists at the Citizen’s United rally in Washington D.C., January 21, 2015.

The long struggle for democracy

by Jon Fox, senior democracy campaigner

A week after President Obama’s final State of the Union address, we mark both MLK Day and the six-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United ruling. These events draw our attention back to the state of American democracy, to who holds power and who gets to participate. These urgent questions are not new, and go back to the beginnings of American history.

When the Founding Fathers implemented an innovative form of participatory democracy, they consciously selected who would have a voice in our political system, and who would not. Blacks, Indigenous peoples, the poor and women were obviously excluded. But so were Catholics, Quakers and Jews. It took nearly five more decades until property and religious requirements were removed to provide nearly all white males in the U.S. the vote. Black men had to wait 82 years and all women had to wait 133 years until they enjoyed their right to vote. Fast forward to 2016, and we are still debating who gets to participate in our democracy and how.

Whether it’s Big Oil spending millions of dollars to elect politicians who enact policies that protect their bottom line while putting our planet at risk, or big box retailers lobbying against a living wage, we all pay a heavy price for a government of, by and for wealthy special interests.

Activist at the Citizen’s United rally in Washington D.C., January 21, 2015.

Since Citizen’s United, our political institutions fall increasingly short of the vision set forth in the Declaration of Independence for governments “…deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Today a minority of corporations and wealthy donors spend billions of dollars to determine who runs for office and who wins elections. Powerful moneyed interests drown out the people’s voice in our democratic institutions through two parallel efforts: the unbridled flood of secret money influencing politicians and driving public policy, and escalating efforts to disenfranchise voters across the United States.

Many in the environmental movement care deeply about social justice issues, including strengthening and expanding our democracy to be more representative and responsive the desires of all Americans — not just those of rich white men. Whether our primary environmental issue is climate change, protecting our food system or what have you, first we must reduce the poisonous influence of powerful private interests on our political system. We understand that the challenges facing our planet call for more than half measures, and demand democratic reforms that are needed, not merely the ones that are politically easy.

So what can we do?

Activists at the Citizen’s United rally in Washington D.C., January 21, 2015.

More than one million Americans and a coalition of 50 diverse groups, have called on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring all federal contractors to fully disclose their political spending. This executive order would be a significant first step to shine a public spotlight on the corruption that thrives in the shadows of our current political system and break the corrosive cycle of “who gives, gets.” And all it takes is a stroke of President Obama’s pen.

Americans from all walks of life are currently organizing to ensure a democracy of, by and for the people. Click here to learn how you can be part of the historic rallies, concerts, teach-ins and workshops in April 2016 to show the intensity of the democracy movement across the country.

We will raise our voices to demand upholding voting rights, getting money out of politics, and stopping the broader attacks on our democracy by powerful elites. Together, we will realize our generation’s duty to put an end to a political system that serves the money and not the many.

See Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech from today about what Congress can do to protect American democracy: