I’ve written often about my conviction that getting big money out of politics is the necessary precursor to anything like a meaningful democracy in the United States. Most recently, it was in “The Impasse”:
I continue to believe that purging the electoral system of private money is the key to everything. If big business and entrenched privilege are deprived of the power to pressure and influence officials with money, the political playing field becomes far more level. I endorse Move to Amend and The Occupied/Saving American Democracy Amendments offered by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ted Deutch, for instance, and others working for that end.
The issue just hasn’t grabbed the popular imagination yet. The fault must be the way it’s being framed, in not yet being able to tell the story with enough force, clarity, and depth to bring it home. It feels like there’s an answer on the tip of my tongue, as if I were reaching for a forgotten name in the instant before it bubbles to the surface of memory. But what is it?
Live and learn. I pursued this line of questioning with my friend Ludovic Blain III, who is one of the smartest people I know, and whose work with political strategies and campaigns equips him with ample data to back up his observations.
Ludovic told me that getting the money out of politics doesn’t poll that well with voters of color. They support the aim, but to resonate, it needs to be placed in full context: one of the things that makes the electoral impact of entrenched wealth so reactionary is the wealth gap. It’s not just about money, but who has it. If more women and people of color had big money in elections, the impact would be more evenly distributed across the political spectrum, instead of concentrating on the right of both parties. It’s not that people of color want to see wealth determine elections, but that they recognize money as just one of the formidable obstacles to true democracy, not the only one.
To reach the full spectrum of voters, the frame must be expanded to making democracy real, ensuring that elections are fair and truly free: not only lifting the heavy thumb of organized money off the the scales of democracy, but removing the many barriers to full democratic participation placed in the path of low-income voters, many of whom are voters of color.
Republicans have pushed through laws ostensibly designed to fix voter fraud (which is so minuscule as to be a non-problem), but which are actually intended to disenfranchise low-income voters, disproportionately people of color. The tactics are various: Sunday voting gets eliminated; ID requirements are amped up; outrageous restrictions are imposed on voter registration drives. Many states restrict people with felony convictions from voting (including nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession), and some restrict those with misdemeanors.
Just in case this isn’t enough to scare voters away, dirty tricks are deployed. In the recent Wisconsin recall election, for instance, signers of the recall petition got robocalls saying they needn’t vote, as their signatures would count in the election.
The authors of these measures are targeting groups that generally vote Democratic; their objective is to discourage these voters, especially in close elections. Their actions are also deeply racist, as the links above illustrate. African American and Latino voter pools are growing, and in a polarized time, are more and more likely to be pivotal to elections. Each of these voter restriction initiatives disproportionately targets voters of color, who are more likely to have convictions, less likely to have photo i.d.s, less able to get time off to vote on a workday, and so on.
This is a critical point for liberals and progressives, because increasingly, voters of color have decided key races. Look at the 2010 Senate election in California. Barbara Boxer won with 52 percent of the vote, but according to CNN exit polls, if it had been up to white voters, she would have lost: 40 percent of white men and 45 percent of white women voted for her, in contrast top 78 percent of African American men and 83 percent of African American women, plus 62 percent of Latino men and 68 percent of Latino women. Without winning decisively with the nearly 40 percent of voters who are not white (and who are likely to make up an even larger percentage of voters in the 2012 election), Boxer would have lost to Carly Fiorina.
In addition, the younger voters were, the higher percentage of votes they cast for Boxer: 63 percent of 18-24 year-old voters, versus only 43 percent of those 65 and over. Young people voted in much smaller numbers, so the impact wasn’t as large as it might have been, but when races are close, every little bit matters. Within the youngest voting demographic, given population trends, a higher proportion of voters are people of color, and that will grow as the population changes.
People of color saved the seat of even so longstanding a senator as Barbara Boxer, just as their votes decided close races in other states and elections. So why aren’t the smart people devising progressive election strategy bundling all the obstacles to free and fair elections into one frame that speaks to the full spectrum of Democratic voters?
I usually resist explanations that depend on racial generalizations, knowing that there is more varation within groups than between them. (After all, one out of five African American men and one out of three Latino men voted for Fiorina. Although the numbers do reveal some significant tendencies, neither race nor gender overdetermines behavior: you can’t look at someone and know how that person voted.) But it is hard to resist the explanation that most of these influential wonks and liberal think-tankers are white men, who—if they are stuck seeing the world through the lens of their own experience—may fail to give sufficient weight to the way things are changing.
If so, that failure squanders a much-needed opportunity to shift the culture of politics. Demographics will ultimately trump perception, of course. When they do, I hope we still have the chance to make democracy real: I really don’t want to be a witness to what a Romney administration could do to voting rights in this country.
A different side of Norah Jones, with the Peter Malick Group, speaking for the electorate. “All Your Love”:
All your love,
Baby, can it be mine?
I hate to be the one,
the one that you left behind.