Today, less than two months into a new administration, we are now facing the biggest crisis of legitimacy of our democracy in a generation or more. But the crisis has been building for years.
Normally, our democracy is considered the most legitimate form of government because the power rests with the people. But when this power dynamic is altered and citizens lose their influence, the legitimacy of the system is threatened. And that’s what we now face: a system in which money speaks louder than voters, voting is increasingly difficult, and the votes that are cast may not matter because of an archaic system known as the Electoral College. As a result, we, as citizens, are governed by representatives who do not reflect or respect the values and priorities of the majority, and our democratic legitimacy is in grave danger as a consequence.
To understand the roots of our current crisis, we must first look to the orchestrated attack on the pillars of our democracy that began seven years ago, starting with the lawless Citizens United decision. In the years that followed, the attack continued with the recent wave of racially targeted voter-suppression laws and last year’s hijacking of the Supreme Court by the GOP, capped off by a president who lost the popular-vote margin by nearly 3 million votes. Yet we cannot treat these issues as one-off concerns. Instead, we must respond as a citizenry, as a movement, to the broader threat, taking action from the local level on up, and refusing anything less than the restoration of the power of the people—and our democratic legitimacy.
First, our democracy is built on the pillar that elections are determined by the voters—not by money. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United has turned political campaigns into proxy wars between billionaires and giant, multinational corporations who don’t seek to buy just election results but the legislative and policy decisions of the government itself. The result has been a Gilded Age on steroids, with about $6.8 billion spent on the 2016 election alone. In my recent race for the US Senate, I saw personally how much influence these dark-money groups now enjoy, and how normalized their influence over down-ballot elections has become. In fact, the press now treats the strategy and plans of these groups as near-definitive indicators of whether a candidate can win. In the eyes of pundits, support from a billionaire now means a candidate on the rise. Only seven years after Citizens United, activity from the groups it created is assigned as much predictive power as any credible poll. This era of massive institutional corruption must end, and the only way to end it is by returning elections to the voters with a system that puts power back into their hands.
Second, the fundamental right to vote must not, once again, be restricted for cynical, political purposes. Voter-ID requirements may be the latest tactic, but we’ve seen this evil before, in the form of the literacy tests and poll taxes of Jim Crow, which unconstitutionally suppressed the voting rights of African Americans. In today’s version, Republicans, despite no evidence, have invented charges of voter fraud in a deliberate attempt to justify voter-suppression laws that disproportionately—and intentionally—suppress minority and low-income voting. We must fight back, both by using litigation to overturn these laws and by working directly with the communities these laws disenfranchise. We cannot allow a new generation of black voters to face exclusion from our most sacred right.
Third, protecting the vote means protecting the power of the popular vote. Two of the last three presidents have been elected by the Electoral College in defiance of the national popular vote. The Electoral College is a historical relic designed to balance power between slave-owning and non-slave-owning states. Our democracy has come a long way since then, yet we have stuck with this electoral relic. It is time to leave it to the history books and ensure that the popular vote decides national elections. The best solution is a constitutional amendment that removes the Electoral College. But states also have the power to at least nullify the College by joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact; 11 states have already done so and more should join.
Finally, the legitimacy crisis facing our system of government has also extended to the judicial branch, when, last year, GOP senators decided to abandon their constitutional responsibilities by blocking Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. They offered no legal justification for their actions, fully admitting that their sole intention was to sacrifice the legitimacy of the Court on a bet that a Republican would win the White House and they could secure their own nominee. I have never seen a politics more cynical than this strategy, crafted by majority leader Mitch McConnell. The severity of this action and what it means for the country cannot be overstated, because the legitimacy of the Court will be questioned for a generation. The difference between Garland and Donald Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, could be the difference between overturning or cementing voter-suppression laws, with future elections in the balance.
Dark money and voter suppression would be severe problems even in isolation, but combined they are devastating threat to the standing of voters in our democracy. This is the crisis of our lifetime, and must be met with a call to action—to restore our democratic legitimacy. As citizens, as voters, we have work to do. And it starts at the local level: ensuring that we have a democratic governor in Virginia to prevent hyper-partisan gerrymandering; increasing the number of states that enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact; overturning Citizens United. We may not have another national election for four years, but there are nationally relevant laws being debated and issues being addressed right now. What happens in four years depends on what we do today. And nothing less than the legitimacy of our democracy is at stake.