“There cannot be daily Democracy without daily citizenship.” -Ralph Nader

It is a truism that a real measure of a country is how it treats its least fortunate. It also reveals a Democracy’s real commitment to staying one by its measures to protect and nurture its foundation.

Notwithstanding two recent crisis-induced changes, real democratic reforms have generally only happened when the public either initiates them or forces its elected leaders to increase transparency, disclosure, and access – despite their inherent reluctance. 

As a result of the recent insurrection in our nation’s capital, a number of large corporate funders have said they won’t donate to those in Congress (for now) who voted to overturn the election. Any reduction of corporate money in our electoral process is, in and of itself, a much-needed cleansing that helps to level the playing fields. In Washington state, the pandemic has forced an all -virtual legislature theoretically democratizing the process by equalizing the ability to influence the legislature and allowing Mary Q. Public the same access as the $330k/yr lobbyist in Olympia.

That which makes the U.S. a democracy- equal and proportional representation, free and fair elections, the franchise for all those eligible, equality of voice in our ability to both choose who our representatives are and then to attempt to impact their decision making– are, today and to varying degrees, a distorted perversion of what the most aspirational of our Founders had envisioned.

At the federal level, the reduction in corporate largesse could really hurt Republicans: Two House Republican leaders McCarthy and Steve Scalise, both of whom objected to the election results, took more than $23.4 million in corporate donations over their careers. The Center for Responsive Politics shows that other House Republicans who objected to the Electoral College certification brought in $12.2 million combined to their campaign and leadership committees in the 2020 campaign cycle, thanks to $10,000 checks from corporate PACs. An analysis conducted by End Citizens Unitedshows that during the 2018 midterm elections, corporate PACs gave $185 million to congressional candidates, accounting for 40 percent of all PACs giving to candidates.

But, these very same corporations have very important interests before Congress virtually every day. Are they really about to abandon these policymakers and risk legislation that cost them millions? Now that the Democrats are in charge, and although they get taken care of pretty well by them too, many of these corporations are nervous about tax policy, employee protections, and environmental regulations they view as a threat to their profits and view Republicans as much more inclined to support their positions.

The Washington Post reports that “experts on corporate disclosures are skeptical that the recent round of statements amounts to significant changes on the part of companies. PAC donations represent a small portion of candidates’ overall political fundraisingand don’t account for other ways corporations can give to candidates, including through trade associations, issue-based groups, and the donations of individual executives.”

While the U.S. House has passed the For The People Act and the Senate says they will consider it the most fundamentally important legislation in 50 years to truly strengthen our Democracy, which would restore and bolster campaign finance, ethics, and voting laws, recent history does not bode well for its passage. If history is any indication, and there is a lot of history there to draw from, real reform, which actually enhances the foundation of a healthy democracy, happens very infrequently in Congress, and when it does, it is almost always after a crisis.

Here in Washington state the “inconvenience” (read: obstacles to influence) lobbyists might experience in a virtual session is potentially democratizing in that without the “lobby,” and the lunches, and the office visits, theoretically all people have the same opportunities to be heard. Of course, we will see, and journalists are especially watching certain legislators, who, let’s just say especially relish being taken out to lunch to see how professional advocates ply their trade.

If history is any guide, and it usually is, true democratic reform occurs from the bottom up, not the other way around. It was the civil rights protests which created the Voting Rights Act. This Watergate scandal gave rise to transparency and disclosure reform, and here in Washington state, it was a citizen initiative in 1972 which created our framework for public disclosure. While both Congress and the Washington state legislature have surely taken some steps to bolster citizens’ democratic rights, their efforts have really been tinkering at the edges. In fact, they have just as often tried to limit the public’s rights, like when the legislature tried to exempt themselves from disclosure. 

At his inauguration, I didn’t hear President Biden talk about citizens’ responsibilities in our representative Democracy. Still, when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech in Chicago in 2008, he specifically said “you have to make us” when referring to the unlikelihood, or even the possibility that our elected representatives would do the right thing on their own.

As Ezra Klein recently wrote in the N.Y. Times: “Democracy is worth fighting for, not least because it’s the fight that will decide all the others. One of the things a Trump administration has shown is that Democracy is inextricably linked to the things that matter to Americans. The rules are not separate from the issues. If you want effective Covid response, if you want robust gun violence prevention, if you want a strong economy, then you need a true American democracy.”

By Russ Lehman

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