The New York Times ran a front page article this morning titled "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge around Globe." Nicholas Kulish writes that across the globe, from Spain and Greece to Israel and India, political protests are being motivated not just by rising economic inequality but by a growing feeling that democratic institutions are failing. As Kulish states, “They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.”
In the United States, new examples emerge daily that demonstrate how private money and access— rather than voting or citizen involvement—produce political outcomes. Perhaps more troubling, however, are the recent outbreak of laws and advocacy efforts aimed at weakening already ailing democratic institutions.
Pro Publica, for instance, recently reported on a flurry of corporate spending directed at the next round of Congressional redistricting, a practice that can “help create Republican or Democratic districts” and “also grace incumbents with virtually guaranteed re-election.” Pennsylvania Republicans are seeking to change how the state’s electoral votes are allocated in order to give the GOP an edge in the upcoming Presidential elections. And a number of republican-led states, invoking the myth of voter fraud, have passed Voter ID laws that make voting more difficult, particularly for African Americans, Latinos, students, and the poor.
These are not conventional policy disputes. These are attempts to, quite literally, change the game and to prevent people from holding their elected officials accountable at the ballot box. The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating voter ID laws in both Texas under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But in many states, these new barriers to voting are going unchallenged and are likely to depress registration and turnout, especially among the groups who turned out in record numbers in 2008.
The brazenness of these efforts to weaken representative democracy is rather astounding given the popular unrest spreading around the globe, which recently found its way to America’s own Wall Street. At the same time citizens are calling for more accountable governments, many U.S. politicians have buckled down, as if trying to prove true the cynical old saw that “if voting made a difference it would be illegal”—a saw that any believer in democracy should resist.
The responsiveness of a democratic government to its citizens is the primary source of its political legitimacy. Institutions that allow for broad public participation are vital to our system of government, and to think that they can be dismantled without consequence is not only dangerous, it’s delusional.