The United States of America is a beacon of opportunity, freedom, and democracy, values long enshrined in the hallowed document of the U.S. Constitution. Or so the story goes. The truth, on the other hand, is a good deal more complicated. As is often the case, the crucial qualifier is found in the question: Opportunity, freedom, and democracy for whom?
On the heels of the Bush v. Gore ruling that “the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote;” on the heels of Citizens United, which gave free reign to corporations to buy elections; on the heels of dozens of recent attempts, big and small, to chip away at and undermine the Voting Rights Act of 1965, key achievement of the Civil Rights Movement for racial equality: we may sadly surmise that U.S. democracy—and by extension the American Dream—is in a state of dysfunction and decay.
We live in a land of plutocrats and dollarocracy, where billionaire activists like the Koch brothers and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch wield unprecedented influence over the electoral process. Their preference? An ugly political process that discourages popular engagement and even actively disenfranchises those who might vote for meaningful change. Opportunity, freedom, and democracy for the rich; diminishing returns for the rest of us. It would be one thing if these attacks on democracy came only from our familiar foes on the right, but, as socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has said: “While, obviously, the Democratic Party is far preferable to the right-wing extremist Republican Party, one would be very naïve not to know that the Democratic Party is also heavily influenced by corporate interests and big-money interests.”
What is to be done? A host of left-wing movements—think fast-food strikes, immigrant rights marches, “Moral Mondays,” the campaign for a $15 minimum wage—are coming up with responses. For the most part this activism tends toward the non-electoral political realm. While of great value, at some juncture this energy must also engage and support a broad renewed effort to take back our democracy, to take back the vote.
In this essay, political journalist John Nichols traces the historical ebbs and flows of U.S. democracy and explains how we arrived at this current low point. Perhaps more importantly, he suggests how we might revitalize our electoral process. John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation and the author of a number of books, including “The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism” (Verso 2011). He is also the author of “To Begin the World Over Again,” a study on the Wisconsin uprising of 2011 and 2012, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung—New York Office.