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.