By Mark Patro
January 1, 2018
The Future of Democracy depends on where we go from this moment in time. Many of us rarely ask the question: “What is democracy?” We have many documents that define our form of government, starting with the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers and the U. S. Constitution including its 27 Amendments. So, most of us go with the flow of what democracy means. The concept of democracy has been universalized for most of us.
Most Americans who vote believe that voting on Primary Election Day and then again on General Election Day is how citizens should participate. We do have a democratic-republic form of government, so we elect our representatives and they vote for our best interest. Right? Until recently most of us were content with that status quo.
Today, in 2018, lobbyists have a considerable amount of influence on how laws are written, which laws get passed and then on how policy is written to implement them (unknown to many of us this is where the real influence comes into play.) I knew nothing of lobbyists when I first registered to vote in 1974, I was 18 years old. Voting at 18 was still a new phenomenon in 1974. The U.S. Senate voted unanimously, on March 10, 1971, to ratify the 26th Amendment giving 18 to 20-year-olds the right to vote. So, while I was distracted with celebrating the Constitutional process which allowed me to participate in democracy, I was totally oblivious to the Public Disclosure of Lobbying Act (H.R. 16013 of the 93rd Congress)[i], a bill to regulate lobbying and related activities. The bill was introduced in the previous Congress, but died without enactment. Insidious forces have been working against our means of democratic participation for a long time.
Recently learning that half of all retiring Senators today become lobbyists alarmed me enough to spend some time looking in to that truth. It doesn’t matter where you look, Breitbart News, The Washington Post, Politico.com, or the conservative Free Beacon, they all reference this 50% fact. With a little more effort, I found that in 1974 only 3% of retiring Senators became lobbyists.[ii]
My interest in democracy didn’t just happen overnight. It didn’t come to me in a dream. It has been an interest of mine since the Fall of 1973 when I first saw an “Impeach Nixon” bumper sticker while walking home from high school. Since then I have learned that a citizen must be interested in all of the functions of government. I had doors slammed in my seventeen-year-old face when I knocked on doors in my conservative neighborhood asking people to sign a petition which in turn asked the House of Representatives to look into impeachment charges follow the revelation of the Watergate break in. To be honest, I had very little hope that my petition would have any effect. More than half the people I asked declined to sign.
The point of this discussion, however, is not the long history I have with political participation. The point is about: Where we, as an involved group of citizens, go from this moment forward? Many of us are saddened and some of us have been down right depressed by the election of a billionaire to the presidency of the United States. We have awakened. And we are likely to “Stay Woke” from now until something changes. Many of us now buy into the idea that we have to do more than simply vote on Primary Election Day and then again on General Election Day. We now know that this is really only the first requirement in how citizens should participate in our American democracy. Many of us have recently decided that they want to become an activist or an organizer.
The first step I took many years ago was to join an organization of like-minded people seeking a policy change that we all believed was necessary. Many people did this between the 1950's period and the election of the Billionaire. There was the Freedom Movement which evolved into the Civil Rights Movement (the first civil rights law regarding race in the United States was The Civil Rights Act of 1866). There was the Voting Rights movement. There was the Anti-War (Peace) Movement. There was the Poor People's movement. There was the continuing effort to liberate women and pass the Equal Rights Amendment (the first effort to liberate women actually occurred in 1869). There was the Environmental Movement. There was the Gay Liberation Movement (now more equitably referred to as the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement). There was the Aids Action Movement. And more recently there has been the Marriage Equality Movement, the Immigrant Movement and the struggle to keep abortion legal has been a constant struggle since the Roe v. Wade decision came down from the United States Supreme Court. And now we have the erosion of voting rights and the absolutely necessary repeal of the United States Supreme Court decision regarding Citizens United and the issue of money and corruption in political campaigns. There is the ever-present issue of guns and gun violence in our society. There is the ever-present issue of racism and racial bias and the Black Lives Matter Movement, #BLM. There is Muslim-phobia and Trans-phobia. There is also now the a greater interest in the Anti-Mass Incarceration Movement, and the sexual misconduct #MeToo movement
During this 1950 to 2016 period of time many of us who worked on some or several of these issues worked on one issue at a time. One issue was enough because, after all, we had jobs and family to attend to. We could not spend all of our time on one political issue. There were, however, some who did. And, I for one, am very grateful to those people. You know who you are.
My gratitude also extends to those who have recently taught me that those days of “silo activism” need to come to an end. We no longer have the privilege of working on one issue at a time. Not because those issues have been successfully dealt with, but because we need to gather them all together under the progressive umbrella and take a hard look at Charles Derber's idea that we “Universalize our Resistance” to the forces that would take all of those gains from us. There really are more of us. Derber's ideas may be found in his book Welcome to the Revolution (published by Routledge of the Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2017).
The future of democracy may very well depend on our coming together in these perilous times. Maybe it’s time to understand that if we wait any longer we, as citizens, will no longer retain the capacity to create and build independent political power. We need to regain the power to write our laws and implement policy that reflects OUR values.
Lobbyists and financial backers of elected officials are stealing our right to participate in our democracy.
Consider this: If only 3% of Senators were becoming lobbyists in 1974, (when the Powell Memo initiated conservative progress toward the Citizen's United and related decisions) and 50% are doing so today. Think about how much room there is for this situation to get tremendously worse. Can you imagine the possibility?