How to Defend American Democracy

AP Photo/Todd Richmond

Wisconsin state Senator Chris Larson leads demonstrators outside the Senate chambers in the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Despite vital gains in the midterm election, democracy in the United States remains under assault from within and without. Dark money influences elections, policy, media, academia and the judiciary. Voter suppression by Republicans disenfranchises large numbers of voters and affected the outcome of key races in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere. An authoritarian reigns in the White House, elected with Russian assistance. 

We need to take a fresh look at what’s needed to defend democracy in America.

To that end, many citizens are already energizing existing organizations and forming new ones. Recognizing that the challenges are beyond the scope of any one organization, a number of groups have come together to form the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of 68 organizations dedicated to making sure that every citizen’s voice is heard and every vote counted accurately. 

In November’s elections, Democracy Initiative members won some impressive victories, including restoring voting rights to 1.4 million people with felony convictions in Florida, winning public financing to match small donor contributions in Maryland, and reforming gerrymandering in Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado. Where democracy was on the ballot, it won, sometimes with big margins.

In 2019, the Democracy Initiative aims to strengthen grassroots infrastructure by mobilizing hubs to improve communication and coordination of democracy advocates at the state and local level. Hubs can provide a way to convene existing groups, build capacity, share strategies and resources, conduct research, advocate for policies, train organizers, raise funds and more. The first state democracy hub was formed recently in Washington state. Other states have formed coalitions or “tables” that serve as state Hubs, some convened by State Voices, others by groups of community organizations.

But while the grassroots are beginning to develop state hubs, we urgently need a national hub as well.

A national hub would track and counter the comprehensive assault on our democracy. It could focus on the war on democracy in many sectors—government (state and federal), academia, media (including social media), and the judiciary. The national hub could respond at the scale and scope of the attack on our democracy. It could be housed at an existing institution with a proven commitment to democracy, or it could take the form of an entirely new organization. 

A national democracy hub would be closely connected to and informed by related work already happening in every state, including the state level democracy hubs already forming.State hubs could provide invaluable information to a national hub on what’s happening and what’s needed on the ground, while a national hub can provide comprehensive strategic direction, more media coverage, and resources to the states such as training, messaging and funding.

A national democracy hub could develop strategies for each of the four key sectors—government, academia, media, and the judiciary. It could analyze current dynamics, threats, and opportunities in each sector, then design a strategy and action plan for each. The first step would be to map the existing pro-democracy organizations. It could improve communication and coordination among existing institutions in each sector, and increase funding for effective action already underway. It could identify gaps that need to be filled with a new program or activity.

Here are two areas that demand an immediate, strategic, comprehensive response:

-Stopping Voter Suppression. The move by the Republican secretary of state-running-for-governor to knock 53,000 people off the voting rolls in Georgia was the most prominent recent outrage in the widespread push to remove voters from the voting rolls. Organizations like the New Georgia Project, established to register new voters, are doing vital work in Georgia and elsewhere, and more such groups are needed. A national democracy hub could assess which groups are doing the most effective work and fund them. It could also determine the terrains in which such groups need to be established, and help fund those efforts.   

-Stopping a Constitutional Convention. Charles Koch and his dark money cohorts want to change our Constitution through a state-initiated constitutional conventionthe most serious, if little known, threat to our democracy. Such a convention can be called by two-thirds of the states under Article V of the Constitution. Once convened, there are no rules on how it would be run, and no limits on its scope: It could rewrite the Constitution. Changes that its right-wing supporters have discussed include reverting back to state legislators (not voters) to select U.S. senators, requiring a balanced budget, and restricting voting rights. It would be free to make abortion illegal, overturn gay marriage, remove any restrictions on guns, eliminate the Bill of Rights, and much more.

  • Convening such a convention requires calls from the legislatures of 34 states. As of now, 28 states have passed such calls; the assent of only six more is required. In recent years, Common Cause organized and helped four states to rescind their call for a constitutional convention: If it hadn’t, we’d just be two states away. With Democrats now in control of legislative bodies in five more states in the wake of the midterm elections, getting more states to rescind their calls should be a priority.
  • The right-wing push for a constitutional convention is well-funded and organized. In fact, they already held a practice constitutional convention in 2016. Democracy advocates must put more strategic thinking, muscle and money into beating it back.

In addition to developing comprehensive strategies, a national democracy hub could also train thinkers and communicatorsto expose the war on democracy and bring key information and perspectives to leaders in politics, academia, media and business. It could pursue the following action steps:

  • Form and train a cadre, as the Kochs called their core team, a small core group totally dedicated to defending democracy.
  • Launch a communications initiative—an ideological counter-offensive—to expose dark money and the stealth plan to undermine democracy itself. Relatedly, expose the dangers of market fundamentalism and why the erosion of democracy to which it’s led (such as relegating climate policy to the fossil fuel industry and the destruction of unions) must be stopped.
  • Educate and mobilize surrogates to write, speak and act strategically. Have a speakers’ bureau that provides experts who can speak to government, media, academic and popular audiences, and writers on call to address these issues all across the media.
  • Develop and coordinate messaging. 

For example, wage a campaign to reclaim the word “freedom.” The Koch network uses it to mean freedom for capitalists to do whatever they want, with no taxes and no protections for workers, consumers or the environment. Expose that, and reclaim freedom as a core American value for all of us.

Shift the “takers” label from laid-off workers, stay-at-home moms, seniors, and students, to big business, big banks, and the top 1 percent who have rigged the rules to get huge tax bonanzas and subsidies. Likewise, shift the “makers” label from high-paid executives to workers who produce things and who, like teachers and nurses, provide essential services.

  • Form a Society of Democracy Fellows with political leaders, donors and scholars. The network would support people actively working for democracy.
  • Offer educational weekend and summer camps for emerging leaders and youth. Cultivate their leadership and speaking ability.
  • Run conferences to inform and connect youth, professionals, union activists and seniors. Retired folks have untapped passion, time and resources to put to work.

Meeting the scale and scope of all these challenges requires an effective structure and serious funding—millions of dollars sustained over many years. 

If you think that’s expensive, consider the cost of losing our democracy.

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