Putting the Puzzle Together —by Jinny Batterson
This past weekend I traveled from my home in central North Carolina to Washington, D.C. with a bus full of college students and a couple of other “gray hairs” to participate in parts of a “Democracy Awakening” weekend. Early Sunday afternoon, we gathered on the National Mall for a voting rights demonstration co-sponsored by over 200 civic and religious groups. People stood, sat, or sprawled under budding trees to listen as a series of speakers from a wide diversity of environmental, labor, human rights, and faith organizations described the need to restore voting rights and democracy to our increasingly dysfunctional political system.
Once the speeches were over, we formed a loose phalanx to march around the U.S. Capitol. For a while, I walked near a guy on stilts who’d crafted an Uncle Sam parody costume, decorated front and back with corporate logos. While marching, we sang, chanted, and waved banners. Among my favorites were several protesting recent U.S. Supreme court decisions that give corporations and wealthy individuals unfettered funding access during political campaigns: “Money’s not speech, corporations aren’t people,” or “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” or, more generally, “The system isn’t broken—it’s fixed.”
My guess is that most members of Congress were not at the Capitol, which had scaffolding surrounding its dome due to a much-delayed infrastructure repair project. They may have been off fundraising somewhere.
On the bus rides back and forth, I eavesdropped a bit on the students’ conversations. I was impressed—they were more politically savvy and engaged than I had been at a similar age. They wanted to be sure they would have a chance to vote in this year’s upcoming elections, despite photo ID requirements that did not recognize North Carolina student IDs, and decreases in early voting times and places that make it less convenient for college students to vote. Several students had participated in more local protests at the North Carolina state capitol, where our most recent, highly gerrymandered legislature seems intent on bringing back the worst excesses of earlier eras.
At the end of the bus ride, my husband picked me up and gave me and a neighbor a ride the rest of the way home. Our neighbor, a retired lawyer, commiserated that she’d thought the speeches varied too much in their focus.
“Why didn’t they just add arguments for political reform in a logical, cumulative way? Why talk about labor, environment, health, LGBT rights, immigration?” she wanted to know. “Isn’t that too broad an agenda to make any headway?”
It took a while for me to process what she’d said, which didn’t match my experience of the rally. Later we had another chance to talk.
“I’ve been pretty involved in voting rights work for a while now,” I told her. “I’ve internalized that many other issues—labor fairness, living wages, environmental stewardship, good health care, human rights for LGBTs, immigrant rights, reducing and adapting to climate change—are all connected to a fair and free election process, something we’re losing and need to help restore. All of the speakers were promoting better election practices and voting rights as necessary means for achieving their other goals.”
“Ah,” she said, “that makes sense. I guess I just wasn’t seeing the entire puzzle.”
My neighbor’s responses got me to thinking. Often, I do a poor job of articulating why I believe diminished voting rights and funds-distorted elections make progress on other issues so difficult. Full voting rights and broad funding sources are not guarantees of good government, but poor rights and highly concentrated campaign funding diminish us all. They:
1) Discourage those without deep pockets or powerful backers from running for office
2) Distort the focus of campaigns away from issues and toward fundraising
3) Thin the pipeline of candidates who move from local to state to national office, having picked up compromise and consensus-building skills along the way
4) Help create a “political class” with little experience or empathy for the problems of the disadvantaged
5) Promote single-issue lobby groups such as the NRA whose influence far
surpasses their membership
6) Reduce the time that elected officials spend on governing because of the
near-constant emphasis on fundraising for the next election cycle.
As I mulled through this list, I discovered a more basic puzzle piece for my own involvement. My most permanent takeaway from the rally is condensed in a small button I purchased just as the rally ended:
“Fear sells, until you stop buying it.”
Perhaps the most basic problem with our dysfunctional funding and election system is how often it runs on fear—be it an incumbent’s fear of losing the next election to a well-funded candidate with even more extreme views, or minority voters’ fear of intimidation during voter registration or at the polls, or trumped up fears of Mexicans, Muslims, gender misfits, or even of “monolithic” corporations. Such fears blind us to the vibrant diversity that makes and keeps our democracy strong.