Connecting the Challenges to Our Democracy

There are many reasons why one-issue politics are bad politics. They fuel polarization, they doom the possibility of democratic consensus, and they slam the brakes on across-the-board social and political progress. Most of all they blind us to the complexity of the world we live in. Each issue we care about is connected in some way and relies on a healthy and strong democracy.

So it is that the media issues I have discussed these many years should not be seen in a solitary light. True, I don’t see a solution to the many challenges our country confronts today—health, education, environment, equal opportunity for all, wealth inequality, workers’ rights, and voter suppression, to name but a few—without media doing a much better job presenting those  issues to the public. Citizens deserve, indeed require, ample access to facts so we can make informed decisions about our future. Infotainment and reality shows masquerading as “news” are not the stuff of a vibrant democracy.

But media does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within a larger context that molds and fashions how it looks and what it does. Media develops amid the push and pull of powerful forces affecting our democracy, even as it helps shape them. It is both author and victim of its current sad predicament.

At the apex of our politics now is money. The outrageous influence of unlimited cash has poisoned our political bloodstream. Politics has been taken over as never before by special interests, millionaires, and billionaires. We all know that Presidential campaigns cost billions, but nowadays city council races, and even judgeship elections, can soar beyond the hundreds of thousands of dollars. What a travesty of democracy that even our courts and our system of justice often go to the highest bidders—bidders for whom justice is the last thing on their minds. Money always has and always will be present in the body politic, but today its influence extends beyond anything in our history, including the notorious Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. Money elects our leaders, disciplines our leaders, and too often controls our leaders. When legislation is crafted behind closed Congressional and statehouse doors by special interests intent on having their way, the common good cannot prevail. When government regulatory agencies respond only to the wishes of well-heeled lobbyists, the public interest cannot be protected. Make no mistake: this is corrupting our democracy and imperiling the very future of the nation.  “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” the great Justice Brandeis said, “but we cannot have both.”

I saw this happen. When I worked in the U.S. Senate in the ‘70s and’80s, the power of money (already too great) was far short of what it has become today. Senators and Congressman used to go home to talk with their constituents on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis. Today they are more likely to fly to New York or Los Angeles to solicit donations from the fat-cat crowd. Most days at lunchtime back then they would go to the Senate Dining Room to talk with their colleagues of both parties; today they go across the street to a political party office or a special interest townhouse to dial for dollars while they eat their sandwiches. I remember when a group of Senators from both parties would meet at least once a month for dinner and cordial discussions at one of their homes. It fostered good will and bipartisanship. Fancy that now—more likely it would turn into a fist fight. Until we learn to limit the democracy-destroying power of money in our politics, we cannot begin to cure the many other problems bedeviling us. The Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizens United to allow even more special interest money in our elections ranks up there among the worst-ever decisions of the highest court in the land. It will take united citizens to undo Citizens United.

Big media is both cause and effect of money’s political supremacy. Its titans are an important part of the cash-and-carry crowd. They are some of the most influential creators of our money-dominated politics. As I’ve written many times before, we would have strong net neutrality rules absent the money big cable and telecom companies pour into lobbying and political campaigns. Media conglomerates are also the ones whose ox would be gored by letting people really understand the money chase…so they don’t much talk about it on their outlets. There’s a reason the media’s coverage of the Presidential campaigns has so far failed to discuss net neutrality, the shrinking free press, or the influence money wields in our political system. And every time these media monopolists gobble up another once-independent newspaper or radio or television station, they only rip further the fabric of our democratic discourse.

So how do we chase the money-changers and chasers from the temple? We need laws to reclaim the temple, which means lawmakers to pass them—lawmakers not beholden to the current barons. But most seats are locked in for the incumbents who hold them, gerrymandered into safe seats that know no real competition.The present system of drawing electoral district maps has almost completely removed competition from Congressional campaigns. Cook Political Report tells us that only 40 of 435 House of Representative seats will be competitive in 2020.  Election districts are generally drawn up by state legislatures following every census. The majority party in the legislature configures the maps, drawing them, often crazily and without regard to common sense, to favor itself. Politically-driven and designed to favor incumbents over challengers, this gerrymandering denies democracy the fresh air it needs to breathe. The Supreme Court claims it has inadequate jurisdiction to fix the problem, so it becomes an issue for the states. While a few are stepping up, most have not; ditto the state courts. California found its way to non-partisan redistricting by taking the power of line-drawing away from politicians and giving it to an expert commission. Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah have passed similar initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions that do not give one party an unfair advantage. Common Cause and others are fighting, and sometimes actually winning, uphill legislative and court battles over gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering and the influence of big money discussed above are joined at the hip, one reinforcing the other. Neither exists in a vacuum. Truly representative districts, allowing the people’s voice to be heard, would encourage real campaign finance reform. And curbing big money’s power would encourage more states to enact congressional districting reform. But, like the old song says, you can’t have one without the other.

We don’t need to rank in importance the issues of special interest money, ludicrous redistricting, and big media. They are each part of a linked democratic challenge.  There can be no real democracy without curbing big money. There can be no real democracy without making Congressional districts representative of the areas they encompass. There can be no real democracy without an electorate informed by media that digs for the facts citizens need to help chart the future of our country. Bring these three abuses under control and democracy can flourish again.

Only We the People can make it happen. It’s no spectator sport; it is a democratic imperative—for each and every one of us.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC’s Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of “the public interest”; outreach to what he calls “non-traditional stakeholders” in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Learn more about Commissioner Copps in The Media Democracy Agenda: The Strategy and Legacy of FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps

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