“We’ve found through our experience that timid supplications for justice will not solve the problem,” declared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 as he announced the civil rights movement’s pivot toward the economic justice message of the Poor People’s Campaign. “We’ve got to massively confront the power structure.”
With those words, King spoke a language every bit as American as his “I Have a Dream” message of four years earlier. There are times for optimism and hope, and there are times for acknowledgment of an overwhelming challenge and the radical demand that it be addressed. Often they merge, and in these moments, great movements fundamentally redirect the nation. Tom Paine knew that. So did Frederick Douglass, and Jane Addams, and A. Philip Randolph. There is a rich American tradition of recognizing that some crises cannot be answered by tinkering at the edges of the problem. At such times, the people have responded with a boldness that ushered in new political parties or a New Deal, new understandings of the rights of citizens and the responsibilities of governments. And they have amended the Constitution, not once or twice but twenty-seven times.
After the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, we began what would become a three-year survey of the state of American democracy, using the 2010 and 2012 election cycles as touchstones but focusing on a range of electoral, governmental and journalistic measures of democratic decay. The experience forced us to recognize the futility of timid supplications in pursuit of reforming politics and the media. We did this not as critics of the reform impulse, but as co-founders of a media reform organization who have maintained a long-term faith in the power of organizing and the potential of electoral politics to achieve consequential change. We retain that faith, along with a deep understanding of the value of continual prodding at the local, state and national levels. But we concluded that mild reforms are no longer sufficient to address a political crisis as far-reaching as any the nation has known.
The United States has experienced fundamental changes that are dramatically detrimental to democracy. Voters’ ability to define political discourse has been so diminished that even decisive election results like Barack Obama’s in 2012 have little impact. That’s because powerful interests—freed to, in effect, buy elections, unhindered by downsized and diffused media that must rely on revenue from campaign ads—now set the rules of engagement. Those interests so dominate politics that the squabbling of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, is a sideshow to the great theater of plutocracy and plunder. This is not democracy. This is dollarocracy.
Tens of millions of Americans recognize the crisis. Congress is held in ridiculously low esteem. Almost two-thirds of the public say their government is controlled by a handful of powerful interests. At the same time, confidence in the media as a check on abuses of power is collapsing almost as quickly as the circulation figures of daily newspapers.