Is our representative democracy under threat, as some say? If so, who or what is the source of that threat? What is democracy anyway? And what must we do to secure it?
Eight in 10 Americans believe our democracy is indeed at risk, according to a 2022 NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist Poll. Democrats and Republicans blame each other.
To understand what democracy is (or should be), it helps to explore the origin of the concept. Democracy comes from the Greek word demokratia, which means “rule by the people.” If we’re honest, we’ll admit that in the United States the people do not rule. Yes, we cast votes in elections, promote ballot initiatives and attempt referendums, but the will of the people has become increasingly subordinate to the ultra wealthy and large corporations thanks to two misguided doctrines: money is equivalent to free speech and corporate entities (e.g., corporations, associations, unions, nonprofits) have constitutional rights. Neither doctrine is in the U.S. Constitution. Both were adopted through U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Together, they pose the greatest threat to democracy.
The anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Jan. 21, 2010, decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission provides an opportunity for us to think about democracy. In its decision, the Supreme Court upheld the notion that a corporate entity has First Amendment free speech rights and, having such rights, can spend as much money as it likes on campaign materials for or against a candidate for office as long as the favored candidate has no role in the production of those materials. The decision opened the floodgates of big money into elections, gave rise to independent outside groups known as super PACs (Political Action Committees), and allowed so-called social welfare nonprofits (e.g., Generation Now, the epicenter of Ohio’s largest public corruption scandal) to funnel money into campaign messaging without having to disclose their donors.
A PBS Frontline report indicated that in the four-year span following the Citizens United decision, spending on Senate races by outside groups more than doubled, from $220 million in 2010 to $486 million in 2014. Here in Ohio, the 2022 U.S. Senate race broke records. The cleveland.com/Plain Dealer reported that approximately $197.6 million was spent on last year’s race — just 6% less than money spent in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 Ohio U.S. Senate races combined. Of the amount spent in 2022, roughly 52% came from outside groups.
While candidates who raise the most, spend the most, or enjoy the most outside support don’t always win, the excessive spending and negative, misleading and less-than-factual messaging should give us pause. Why? Because voters don’t really know who’s behind the advertising or understand which hidden agendas will ultimately influence public policies that keep power in the hands of a few.
Big money in politics is an obvious threat to democracy. Equating money with speech means political speech is not really free. But the greater threat is the idea that state-chartered entities, created on paper, have constitutional rights at all — and that they can use these rights to tilt the balance of power in their direction, away from the needs of citizens and local communities. For example, First Amendment rights permit corporate entities to lobby for state legislation that trumps local laws such as bans on single-use plastic. In response to worker safety complaints, 4th Amendment rights grant them time to hide evidence of wrongdoing since regulators would be required to give prior notice before conducting inspections. And 14th Amendment rights give them grounds to sue a municipality that may want to restrict the number of big-box retailers in its community. Corporations warrant statutory protections from government overreach, but they aren’t natural persons with inalienable rights — and they don’t need constitutional rights.
The first step in securing a democracy where the people rule — not the ultra wealthy and powerful corporate entities—is to amend the U.S. Constitution.
Since 2013, support has been growing for the proposed We the People Amendment, which makes clear constitutional rights belong to natural persons only and money spent on political campaigns is not protected speech and shall be regulated. It will be reintroduced this spring in the 118th Congress.
What you can do to help secure our democracy is to get involved. Sign the petition at movetoamend.org/motion; encourage neighbors and local leaders to pass public resolutions supporting this proposed amendment, joining hundreds of communities across the nation that have already done so, including 27 in Ohio; and encourage Reps. Warren Davidson (District 8) and Mike Carey (District 15) to become cosponsors.
Troy resident Deb Hogshead is a volunteer with Move to Amend Miami County, Ohio and Greater Dayton Move to Amend.