Sharing the Vision of a Stronger, More Inclusive Democracy

“What’s at stake today is the very shape and structure of our democracy: the way we make decisions about everything from who gets health care to whether a family with a full-time worker will live in poverty; and whose voices are heard in that process.”

—Heather McGhee, president of Demos384
 

Americans overwhelmingly agree that our democracy is out of balance and needs fundamental change; they are more united on this than perhaps any other issue.385 While our intuitive sense that our democracy is not working for all of us can make us cynical, the truth is there are solutions to create more access to democratic participation and fair representation, and these solutions are both popular and energizing.

 

Honing Public Support of Solutions for a Stronger Democracy

  • Vision. Begin and end with a vision for a more inclusive, representative democracy. Root the vision in shared values like freedom and equality.
  • Problem. Demonstrate that you, like so many of Americans, understand that our democracy and our economy are not working for all of us. Tie the problems in our democracy with people’s everyday lives and the issues they care about and point to special interests backed by big money as “villains,” using specific examples.
  • Solutions. Most importantly, focus on solutions and how they lead to a shared vision and values. Talking about solutions for a stronger democracy can help turn people’s cynicism into action. 

Together, we can build an inclusive democracy that is of, by, and for the people.

Source: ReThink Media, Moving Americans to Action: A Message Guide For Democracy Advocates, here.

 

A VISION ROOTED IN SHARED VALUES

To build an economy that works for all of us, and not just the wealthy few, we must build a democracy in which we all truly have an equal say in the decisions affecting our lives, and elections are free, fair, and accessible. We can build an inclusive democracy that represents we the people, not just the wealthy special interests; in which people of all walks of life can run for office—and win; where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s freedom to vote is respected, and “one person, one vote” is a reality. Building a more representative democracy will help us build power to advance and accelerate economic, racial, and environmental justice.

 

THE PROBLEM: DEMOCRACY OUT OF BALANCE

Right now, our democracy is out of balance, and we all pay the price. A powerful donor class comprised of wealthy individuals and corporations has more say than everyday Americans. Individuals in this donor class are much wealthier, whiter, and more likely to be male than Americans as a whole. And, they have staunchly different political views, particularly on how to structure our economy or how to prioritize issues facing communities of color.386 When an unrepresentative donor class drives public policy based on their interests, people of color, women, immigrants, and working and poor people bear the brunt of the costs. While wealthy donors from the financial, pharmaceutical, fossil fuel, and private prison industries reap the benefits of policies designed to maximize their profits, marginalized communities experience the consequences—in the form of evictions and foreclosures, poor health and environmental injuries due to pollution and carbon emissions, and overflowing prisons that are packed disproportionately with people of color.

Communities of color are often harmed in policy and politics. Political parties and other civic institutions disinvest from black and brown voters. As Michelle Tremillo, Executive Director of Texas Organizing Project has described, “You can walk through our neighborhoods and never know it was an election year.” With elections dominated by big money, people who do not have access to wealthy donor networks struggle to run for office and win. Centuries of race-based exclusion in our democracy and our economy make it even harder for candidates of color: 90 percent of elected officials in America, from the county level up to Congress, are white, although more than 37 percent of Americans are people of color; and state legislative candidates of color raise significantly less money than white candidates when they run for office.387

Once elected, politicians backed by wealthy special interests change the rules of the game to try to stay in power. Politicians manipulate voting maps and draw district lines in ways that will keep themselves, their parties, and their predominantly white, male donors in power. States remove eligible Americans from voter lists when they have not voted in a few elections or cannot be reached by mail. From the beginning of our democracy until today, wealthy special interests have backed state efforts to restrict people’s freedom to vote, especially for black Americans and communities of color.388 Consistently—and with “almost surgical precision,” in the words of one federal court—these attacks on the freedom to vote disproportionately hurt people of color.389 So despite game-changing advances in technology that could make voting more convenient, exercising our fundamental freedom to vote has become even harder in some states. 

The result is a democracy fundamentally out of balance, which an overwhelming majority of Americans recognize. The imbalance and inequalities in our democracy play out in an economy that does not work for all of us.

 

SOLUTION: BUILD AN INCLUSIVE, REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY

We can bring our democracy into balance. As this section of this briefing book discusses, we can:

  • Shift power from a wealthy, disproportionately white donor class to the people, by empowering small-dollar donors and the candidates they support and reining in the outsized influence of wealthy donors and corporations. 
  • Advance and expand the freedom to vote, by modernizing our voting and election systems and making them more accessible, and by abolishing laws that disenfranchise people convicted of felonies and restoring the right to vote to people who have been disenfranchised by these laws.
  • Make our democracy more representative by creating fair voting maps, honoring the popular vote, and taking other steps to make elected officials more responsive and accountable to a broader range of people.

Together, we can build an inclusive democracy that is of, by, and for the people.

 

STAYING GROUNDED IN THE VISION

People who want to keep democratic power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few have long framed democracy issues in ways that stoke people’s fears, drive misinformation, and leverage racialized dog-whistles. One need only consider the false claims of illegal voting in the last presidential election for an example. Therefore, proponents of a robust and inclusive democracy must be wary of talking about these issues in ways that can trigger these responses and inadvertently move the public toward restrictions that make it harder to vote (and especially harder for communities of color).390 For this set of issues, messaging guidance based upon available polling suggests it is best to avoid these framings altogether.391 Focusing on shared values, and on solutions that will strengthen our democracy, is the best way to hone public support for democracy reforms.

 

Cautionary Note
Polling on democracy issues has historically surveyed respondents who have voted or who are registered to vote. By focusing on voters, many polls exclude the nearly 40% of Americans who did not vote in the most recent presidential election. And, because of a long history of racialized advantages and disadvantages in voting and voter registration, focusing on voters and people who are registered to vote also has racial equity implications, since communities of color face more structural barriers to participating. For these reasons, more inclusive opinion research is needed, and advocates should approach democracy messaging guidance critically—especially when working to mobilize populations that are underrepresented on the voter rolls. 

  • Avoid discussing problems facing our democracy in a way that is too partisan or academic. It can be alienating to everyday people. Terms like “voter suppression” are unclear and sound partisan, which can make people cynical.392 In this area, pointing to studies or empirical evidence can actually make people less likely to agree with you. For example, pointing to studies showing that voter fraud is incredibly rare makes people even less likely to believe that voter fraud is incredibly rare. However, pointing to court cases protecting the freedom to vote can be an effective way to validate your message.
  • Instead, tap into shared values like fairness and equal access, and connect the problems facing our democracy with issues that are important to everyday people.
  • Avoid framings that make people cynical or afraid, including:

Corruption. Corruption has been at the center of many conversations about money in politics, and Americans overwhelmingly agree that our government is corrupt. However, over-emphasizing the corrupting influence of money in politics leads people into a “vortex of despair”: when people become so cynical they believe the problems facing our democracy are not solvable.393 Here, we can learn a lot from Organization for Black Struggle (OBS), whose work includes canvassing in resource-poor wards in St. Louis. When OBS organizers meet community members with empathy and shared values, it creates pathways for talking about measurable solutions, like raising the minimum wage. The same is true when talking about our democracy. Centering shared values and solutions can move people from cynicism into action.

  • Instead, focus on solutions that will help us create a democracy where we all have an equal say over the decisions that affect our lives.

“Fraud.” Unfortunately, there is widespread misinformation about the prevalence of voting errors in the United States. Most Americans believe that voter fraud is a growing problem. Polling also indicates that majorities support voter ID and documentary proof of citizenship requirements, even though these restrictions hurt people of color, trans and queer people, elderly people, low-income people, and people with disabilities most. The specter of fraud is rooted in fear of the “other,” and it’s best to avoid engaging about “fraud” at all.

  • Instead, express our shared desire for elections that are free, accessible, and secure, and pivot to solutions to bring our democracy into balance (which move people to action, not fear).

 

  • Use caution when talking about the real need to make our elections more secure.
    Most Americans are rightly concerned about hostile regimes exerting influence on our elections. This may present opportunities to pass election security measures or bans on campaign spending by foreign corporations. But we must bear in mind that nearly 50 percent of Americans falsely believe that “millions” of individuals “voted illegally” in 2016. Public fear around election “security” and “foreign interference” can also corner us into talking about “fraud,” which is damaging for reasons noted above. This rhetoric can also fuel state attacks on the freedom to vote and undermine long-term efforts to build a more inclusive democracy through measures like expanding the franchise to people who have been criminalized by our justice and immigration systems.
  • Cite specific threats (such as attempts by the authoritarian Russian regime to sow discord and influence the 2016 election) rather than vilifying “foreigners” generally.
  • Focus on solutions to advance election and voting protections and technologies, without vilifying outsiders—and emphasize a vision of a stronger and more inclusive democracy. In the long run, we want to build a democracy rooted in shared values, not in fear of outsiders.

 

MORE RESOURCES



384. Testimony of Heather C. McGhee before the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate, March 23, 2017, http://www.demos.org/publication/testimony-heather-c-mcghee-committee-judiciary-united-states-senate.

385. See, e.g., The New York Times & CBS polling, Americans’ Views on Money in Politics, June 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/02/us/politics/money-in-politics-poll.html; Pew Research Center, Perceptions of elected officials and the role of money in politics, Nov. 23, 2015, http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/6-perceptions-of-elected-officials-and-the-role-of-money-in-politics/.

386. See David Callahan & J. Mijin Cha, Stacked Deck: How the Dominance of Politics by the Affluent & Business Undermines Economic Mobility in America, Demos, Feb. 2013. http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/imce/StackedDeck_1.pdf; Adam Lioz, How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, Demos, July 23, 2015. http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf; Sean McElwee, Whose Voice, Whose Choice? The Distorting Influence Of The Political Donor Class In Our Big-Money Elections, Demos, Dec. 8, 2016, http://www.demos.org/publication/whose-voice-whose-choice-distorting-influence-political-donor-class-our-big-money-electi.

387. Women’s Donor Network, Who Leads Us?, https://wholeads.us/electedofficials/ (last visited Feb. 1, 2018); Adam Lioz, How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy, Demos, July 23, 2015.  http://www.demos.org/sites/default/files/publications/StackedDeck2_1.pdf.

388. See generally, Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2009 ed.); Ari Berman, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (2016).

389. See, e.g., Ari Berman, “The Country’s Worst Anti-Voting Law Was Just Struck Down in North Carolina,” The Nation, July 29, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-countrys-worst-anti-voting-law-was-just-struck-down-in-north-carolina/; North Carolina State Conf. of the NAACP et al. v. Mccrory, Case No. 16-1468, at *11 (4th Cir., July 29, 2016), http://electionlawblog.org/wp-content/uploads/nc-4th.pdf; see also The Brennan Center for Justice, New Voting Restrictions in America, http://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america (last visited Feb. 1, 2018). 

390. “Resist and Overhaul Measures that Make It Harder to Vote,” in this briefing book provides an overview of some of these restrictions, and how to talk about them when they are happening in your state.

391. See, e.g., ReThink Media, Moving Americans to Action, A Message Guide for Democracy Advocates, June 13, 2016, at 8, https://rethinkmedia.org/content/moving-americans-action-messaging-guide-democracy-advocates (discussing the limitations of the corruption frame); ReThink Media, Voting Rights Messaging, Nov. 2017, https://rethinkmedia.org/sites/default/files/vr-messaging-one-pager-171103.pdf (discussing other challenges in messaging around voting rights).

392. See generally ReThink Media, Voting Rights Messaging.

393. ReThink Media, Moving Americans to Action, 8.