It’s all about power. The power to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. The power to exercise the franchise at the ballot box. The power that comes with politicians listening to you, and not just to big-money donors and special interests. In recent years, that power — which should belong to each and every American — is being systematically and intentionally stripped away from far too many for the benefit of a tiny few.
A new report from the Democracy Initiative Education Fund, “Democracy at a Crossroads: How the One Percent Is Silencing Our Voices,” examines how the attacks on workers and their right to organize, assaults on the right to vote, and the laws and court decisions allowing billions of dollars pouring into our political system are not isolated incidents. Instead, these events should be seen as a systematic effort to shift power from the broad majority of Americans to a tiny minority of the very rich who have different priorities from the rest of us.
At least 22 states have imposed laws that make it harder to vote – especially for working Americans, communities of color, and young people. Campaign finance laws have come under assault at the state and federal levels allowing wealthy special interests to have more of a say in our elections. And state legislatures have passed laws severely compromising workers’ abilities to organize and to bargain collectively, while Congress has been hostile to pro-worker legislation and has made federal enforcement of labor laws more difficult.
We can find examples of those things happening right here in Minnesota. There has been opposition to increasing campaign finance disclosure – which allows large donors to funnel dark money into legislative races while remaining anonymous because of a loophole in campaign finance law. With regard to labor laws, there have been attempts in recent years to make Minnesota a right-to-work state.
The coordinated attacks on democracy – funded by many of the same wealthy interests who’ll benefit – are turning us into a top-down society that favors the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of regular folks who are just trying to provide a good life for themselves and their families. At the negotiating table, at the polling place, and in our ability to influence who runs for office and wins elections, the wealthy few are seeking more sway, and in too many places getting it. But we can’t just throw our arms in the air and accept that these anti-democratic attacks and their consequences are the new normal.
Those of us who believe in a government of, by, and for the people are fighting back. Across the country, citizens have fought to block restrictive labor and voting bills, to expand access to the ballot box, and to pass laws making small campaign donations more important than big money.
Last November, voters in Maine and Seattle overwhelmingly approved ballot initiatives to give everyday people a stronger voice in politics and to reduce the influence of big donors. In cities and states all over the country, legislators and citizens are standing up for better wages and winning, with minimum wage increases passing at the ballot in Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota, and paid leave legislation becoming law in Massachusetts; Trenton, New Jersey; Montclair, New Jersey; and Oakland, California. And efforts are being made to make voting easier in many places by allowing online registration and Election Day registration, proven ways to increase participation in our elections.
Here in Minnesota, we’ve passed legislation that supports Minnesota workers and families. These include raising the minimum wage; expanding the ability for workers to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits; and passing the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA). These efforts to fight back against the power grab by a small and wealthy few are critical in having a government that is truly of, by, and for the people.
Enhance voices of ordinary citizens
Millions of Americans are standing up to fight for solutions. And we’ve heard their call. That’s why many of us in the Minnesota Legislature are working to pass laws here that will continue to raise up our ordinary citizens, enhance their voices, and adopt policies that will further this fight. In the 2016 Legislative Session, the Senate DFL plans to advocate for paid family leave, universal preschool, and a retirement savings plan for low wage workers. We also intend to support reinstating a campaign contribution refund program, which encourages small donations.
Wealthy donors may have the money and connections, and in too many cases, the politicians in their back pocket to carry out their mission for yet more power (and wealth), but we have the people behind us. The recognition that all of these anti-democratic efforts are intertwined and intentional has shown us that fighting back against them requires us to come together in new ways and fight for solutions that benefit all of us, not just that tiny portion at the top. And that’s just what many of us are doing here in Minnesota.
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, is president of the Minnesota Senate and vice president of the Women Legislators’ Lobby (WiLL), a program of Women’s Action for New Directions.
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