The original Constitution of the United States laid the foundation of a document, as flawed as it was with regard to voting rights, that – after having been amended a couple of times – ended up ensuring and protecting the right to vote by all legal citizens of the country. This core value of our Federal government speaks to the original vision of America as a country governed by We the People.
Fast-forward to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For many reasons the power of the vote has been seriously eroded:
- Voter participation is at an all-time low, among both registered and all eligible voters.
- Ignorance of the facts: The lack of political and civic literacy of the huge majority of Americans is staggering. Election cycles are keyword-driven: Parties and candidates use abstract words like “debt,” “entitlement,” “personal responsibility,” “patriotism,” “war on terror,” “big government,” “family values” … and, sadly, much of the public votes in response to this sort of rhetoric without knowing the facts or seeking a deeper understanding of complex issues.
- An overwhelmed public: The working public is now holding down two, three, four jobs per family to compensate for rising costs and flat wages. Americans have less and less time to be watching or reading in-depth news programs that cover the issues, the goings on in legislatures, and candidate platforms. They have less time to gather, share information and deliberate the issues.
- “WMD”: The impact of campaign ads and corporate-controlled media coverage on the concerns of the public and their understanding of the issues has been heavily researched and well documented. James Fiskin, director of Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, terms this influence “Weapons of Mass Distraction” wielded by “the persuasion industry.”
- The influence of special interests on legislation: While regulation of the lobbying industry was greatly strengthened in 2007 with the “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act,” there are always loopholes and back-door routes (ALEC comes to mind) to the purse and ear of legislators.
- The influence of private capital during campaign season: The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the Supreme Court in 2010 opened the doors to millions of corporate dollars fueling media blitzes designed to influence the outcome of elections.
- The war on voting rights, much escalated since the 2010 midterm elections: Since the midterm elections of 2010, there has been a continuous and widespread push among states whose legislatures introduced or passed legislation making it harder to vote. States are requiring photo IDs, limiting the voting rights of ex-convicts, establishing harsh rules governing people and organizations who wish to register new voters, and limiting early-, absentee- and same-day-voting. (ALEC once again comes to mind.) The Brennan Center for Justice published a report in 2011 in which it was estimated that five million voters may be affected by the changes in election rules.
The vote is supposed to be the key tool given the citizens in our Democracy to affect the status quo and bring about change. Given the state of affairs, though, those in power, and those whose money controls those in power, will not be reformed any time soon via citizen awareness and electoral politics. There will be no massive shift in the American power structure this year, or next. Even were all citizens to absorb and process facts and issues, and then exercise their vote accordingly, the platforms being offered by politicians of both major parties are not far-sighted and bold enough to enact the changes that are needed.
Given our impending arrival at “the environmental tipping point,” the economic mess that has been stirred up around the world, the post-peak-oil era we live in, the trending droughts occurring in places all over the globe, the tumbling down of that house of cards called “unfettered capitalism,” the future we are headed for (especially considering as many as 30 percent of children in our major cities are growing up in households with income below the poverty line), and the gross disparities along racial lines in income, incarceration rates, health, and employment … our country and planet are nearing crisis, a crisis that can only be stayed by means of swift and powerful change in our fundamental philosophy and lifestyle.
We need to achieve a radical shift in the way individuals and communities live, in our priorities, in our sense of debt to the future – a shift away from our consumption and desecration of finite resources, our war-mongering, the devaluing of labor, and the gross inequities that have led to widespread poverty, homelessness, mass incarceration and cuts in education and critical services.
As much as the rights of, and services to, the People granted by government must be protected and strengthened, the People themselves must wake up and quickly shift into high gear. It remains important to vote, to be an informed voter, and to hold our government accountable. It remains important to have a government, the rapid toppling of which would send us, suffering, into a tailspin. But we must acknowledge that amending, repairing and cleaning up government will be a gradual process, too gradual to stave off what ought to be preventable disasters. We must acknowledge that as much as our government should and could do better to ensure the common good, governments will not be able to fix our problems fast enough to save our society and the planet from the drastic consequences of our present course.
It is up to the People to save the world. That’s where “bubble-up change” comes in.