This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.
Making our democracy vibrant, inclusive, and effective has to be a critical part of the progressive project for the next 40 years. Progressives need to take two leaps of understanding. The first is that the groups already working on individual democracy issues must embrace a multi-faceted democracy agenda that includes voting rights, campaign-finance reform, and consistent civic engagement. The second is that progressives working on other issues need to recognize that the distortions and failures of our democracy are a constant and daunting impediment to better outcomes in every issue arena. Democracy is not a side issue; it cannot just belong to “money and politics activists” or “voting-rights activists.” It is core to our success in the future.
Here’s what must be done.
- Let everyone in. The number of roadblocks our system places in front of citizens who want to vote is shocking. Removing those roadblocks is possible and necessary. In the short term, states where Democrats hold the governorship and have legislative majorities should adopt a comprehensive system of access that combines mail-in voting, full implementation of the National Voter Registration Act (the “Motor Voter Act”), early voting, same-day registration, restoration of voting rights to all citizens with felony convictions once they leave prison, and pre-registration of young people at 17 in every high school. At the federal level, the Voter Empowerment Act, crafted by the Congressional Black and Congressional Progressive caucuses, embodies many of these components. If the Supreme Court restricts or guts Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, an immediate and energetic response will be required. In the long term, a national system of universal and automatic voter registration, complete with a national identification card (and a reformed immigration system) should be our goal. In their role as laboratories, some states should adopt mandatory voting with an opt-out (those aghast should think about our jury-service system). As we consider doing all this, we should work to nationalize election standards that guarantee uniform access and to create a federal agency with the funding, technical resources, and authority to enforce those standards.
- Keep money at bay. Bringing every citizen into the electoral process may be the strongest antidote to the flood of money in the system. But we cannot accept the political and judicial activism that has eviscerated almost every effort to manage the role of money in our politics, despite clear evidence that people all along the political spectrum believe money is running amok. Short term, at the state level, public-financing regimes need to be passed and then defended, expanding the jurisprudence on their behalf as steadfastly as the right has attacked them. Nationally, congressional passage of the Fair Elections Now Act, along with restoring the presidential public-financing system to functionality, must be high priorities.
- Promote engagement. This is a softer, less quantifiable strategy, but engagement of citizens in decision-making all year long is critical to a progressive agenda. Disengagement from government leads to distrust and alienation from politics, and it’s been one of the most potent tools in the right-wing arsenal. Continuous and constructive engagement can animate democracy and increase support for the robust role of government. Engagement can take many forms: participatory budgeting, community and national service, civic education, issue-based organizing, large and small community--based deliberation projects. But in whatever form, engagement builds on the kind of communitarian spirit intrinsic to American cultural history.
We won’t win a liberal agenda unless we make democracy thrive. That the right understands this is evident in its assault on voting rights and campaign-finance regulations. We need to be equally aggressive in fighting for a democracy that represents everyone.