It was an astounding idea, imagined by an extraordinary man.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, with Americans arguably more divided than at any time since the North and South struggled at Gettysburg, John Gardner launched a movement “for those Americans who want to help in the rebuilding of the nation."
A lifelong Republican whose commitment to public service led him to accept a post in the Cabinet of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, Gardner was dismayed by government’s increasing unresponsiveness to the citizens it was supposed to serve. “Everyone’s organized but the people,” he complained.
Common Cause, Gardner’s ambitious project, was launched 45 years ago today. In an open letter to the nation, he described it as a “citizens’ lobby,” composed of Democrats, Republicans and independent-minded Americans who shared his concern with the country’s direction and his determination to address it.
"We want public officials to have literally millions of American citizens looking over their shoulders at every move they make. We want phones to ring in Washington and state capitols and town halls. We want people watching and influencing every move that government makes."
"We want weak public officials to know they will be subject to criticism. We want strong and concerned representatives to know their efforts are appreciated."
Common Cause has won some battles and fought others to a draw since then but Gardner’s vision and our commitment to pursue it are as strong as ever. With 400,000 members and supporters nationwide and active chapters in 35 states, we’re working every day to hold power accountable and to build a build a more vibrant democracy.
It’s a challenging mission, one made more daunting by the increased partisanship and decline of civility in our politics and by the growing gap between the relative handful of Americans at the top of the economic pyramid and the millions struggling for a foothold at the bottom or in the middle.
This anniversary falls as Common Cause activists across the South join with friends from a variety of civic, religious and other groups in supporting the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, a six-week, 860-mile march from the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, to the National Mall in Washington D.C. It also comes amid our collective mourning at the passing on Sunday of Julian Bond, whose courageous and eloquent advocacy on behalf of civil rights and civic decency enriched and inspired millions of Americans.
A major focus of the journey, and of Mr. Bond’s life, is the continuing struggle to ensure that every American can participate in our democracy at the voting booth. I’m proud to say that struggle also is among the central missions of Common Cause and a major focus of one of our current projects, the 21st Century Democracy Agenda.
Developed by a coalition of 12 national organizations, the agenda demands that the next president act zealously to protect and strengthen voting rights. Ill-advised court rulings and short-sighted, self-interested public officials have combined in many of our states to make voting more difficult, particularly for students, the elderly and infirm and Americans of color. The agenda calls on presidential candidates to offer specific plans for halting and reversing that trend.
You’ll be hearing and reading more from us about the agenda in the months ahead. Along with emphasizing the right to vote, it envisions a reshaping of American politics so that:
- Everyone participates;
- Everyone’s voice is heard;
- Everyone knows who is trying to influence our views and our representatives;
- Everyone plays by fair, common-sense rules;
- Everyone is held accountable, with enforceable penalties to deter bad behavior.
To make these things happen, we intend to insist that candidates for the presidency next year commit to specific and comprehensive plans to implement a system of public funding for qualified federal candidates, meaningful contribution limits, and strong requirements for the disclosure of political contributions and spending.
The agenda also calls for candidates to make passage of the Democracy for All constitutional amendment among their first orders of business. The amendment would overturn Supreme Court rulings like Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United that have given wealthy individuals, large corporations, and trade, labor and other groups license to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections.
Common Cause has never endorsed candidates and we’re not about to start now. But we believe every American should insist that every candidate for president and offices all the way down the ballot embrace this agenda.
That would make our 46th birthday the best ever.
Office: Common Cause National