The nation’s first Republican president explained what democracy ought to be: a government of the people, by the people and for the people. But Abraham Lincoln’s vision will remain a distant mirage if a money-drenched elections system devalues individual Americans’ votes by auctioning off legislative seats, governorships and judgeships to the highest bidder.
As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose bold crusade with an army of determined citizens won the 1965 Voting Right Act and is dramatized in the current film “Selma,” it’s an ideal time to reflect on threats to our democratic republic’s core principles.
The vote is the great equalizer in our society, a tool for self-respect and community empowerment. “Give us the ballot,” Dr. King said in 1957, “and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.”
But the gains achieved since adoption of the 1965 Voting Rights Act are now under attack by a new kind of “hooded perpetrator” of “dastardly acts.” Billions of dollars spent on deceptive political ads, much of it from mystery donors, are undermining honest debate and fostering a new type of extremism and intolerance benefiting only the super wealthy.
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That brings us to another event this week: the fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court effectively said the super rich could use corporations and front groups to spend unlimited money on political ads. Purchased speech became free speech and corporations became people.
In another 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling further strengthened the power of big money by nullifying key sections of the Voting Rights Act and opening the door to new forms of voter suppression affecting people of color and the poor.
Because of these court decisions, we are in a new phase of the longstanding struggle between political participation for the many versus rule by the wealthy elite.
That struggle is playing out in North Carolina today. A new brand of extremists came to power soon after the Citizens United decision, thanks largely to an avalanche of nasty political ads financed by a handful of wealthy ultra-conservatives and their corporations.
The new majority in the N.C. General Assembly hijacked Lincoln’s Republican Party and immediately began enacting an agenda that helped the greedy at the expense of the needy. They slashed unemployment benefits, killed the earned income-tax credit for the working poor, refused Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands, cut corporate income taxes, repealed the estate tax, gutted health and safety protections, cut per-pupil spending for education and shifted public money to private academies.
They also redrew legislative district lines to isolate and minimize the power of black voters. Then, in the weeks immediately following the Shelby decision, they jammed a host of voter restrictions into one bill that also cut restrictions on political donations. We call it the “Monster Law” because of its sweeping scope and because it is the reincarnation of the Jim Crow monster.
Opposing these reactionary shifts are tens of thousands of North Carolinians who have joined the Moral Monday movement, led by the N.C. NAACP and a broad coalition of organizations. We are in court challenging the Monster Law and race-based redistricting plan. We’re organizing grassroots voter engagement projects across the state to promote public policies that serve “the good of the whole,” as our state constitution mandates. We welcome everyone to join us in Raleigh on Valentine’s Day for the Moral March for Love and Justice.
Rather than the politics of big money, we seek policies anchored in the moral and constitutional authority of our best traditions. Pope Francis recently said, “Money has to serve, not rule,” and money cannot be allowed to “deny the right of control to the states, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.”
Like President Lincoln, Dr. King and Pope Francis, we believe government must serve all the people, not just the rich and powerful. Selling political office to the highest bidder is the road to absolute corruption. Together, we must fight such obscenity and promote real democracy of, by and for the people.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina NAACP and architect of the Moral Monday Movement. Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina.