Who controls American democracy? Voters or a tiny band of “wealth hoarders” determined to hang on to power?
That’s the question at the heart of America’s ongoing social and political unrest, according to electoral accountability expert Daniel G. Newman.
“It is such a tumultuous time we continue to live through. Many people I’ve talked to [ask] ‘Why are things so crazy, so seemingly out of control, so intense?’ It’s because there’s this fight going on about who gets to control the country,” Newman told over 20 people at the final session of Atlanta Civic Circle’s virtual book club to discuss his recent book, Unrig: How to Fix our Broken Democracy.
Newman is president and co-founder of MapLight, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks the influence of money in politics. Atlanta Civic Circle’s Democracy Book Club is funded by Georgia Humanities.
Newman started by reading from a chapter of Unrig, a nonfiction graphic novel, that addresses what he called “wealth hoarders.” These are a “small group of extremist billionaires who’ve been working for more than a half-century to change our country to their liking, in a way that will hollow out democracy,” Newman said. “A small group of billionaires has organized and funded a comprehensive, lon- term assault on American democracy that continues today
“They want to turn the United States into a fiefdom for the very wealthy to make the laws and control the government,” he added. “They want to eliminate public schools, minimum wage laws, Social Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, all income taxes, and all forms of government assistance to those who need help.”
The wealth hoarders want to get the government out of their lives. They’ve devoted billions of dollars to hundreds of organizations and thousands of candidates to further their agenda. Their motto: “Tear government out at the root.”
“For every paid wealth hoarder minion, there’s someone out there standing up to them,” Newman said.
Unrig spotlights solutions that ordinary Americans have devised to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems in American democracy, such as the inordinate influence of big donor money.
Newman cited a citizen-led initiative in Seattle that led to the creation of democracy vouchers – public money disbursed to ordinary citizens to contribute to campaigns – as a way of counteracting big donors, or dark money, in campaigns.
The book, which was illustrated by George O’Connor, also explains how numerous states and municipalities are using ranked-choice voting, enabling voters to rank candidates in order of preference without worrying about “wasting” their votes. Georgia just started using ranked-choice voting this year for residents who live or serve in the military overseas. It highlights a case in which George Mason University students successfully sued the university and learned that wealthy donors – the Koch brothers – were instrumental in choosing the faculty at the school. The case drew national attention and led to the university having to be more forthcoming about gifts it received from donors.
Newman said he wrote Unrig “to help people see how the rules that are set up – how our country works – determine so much of what happens. I felt the need for something that would inspire people and be positive.”
The message he hopes people will take away from Unrig is “how much of a difference you personally can have.”
We must “put democracy issues front and center,” he said. “If you care about climate change, if you care about racial justice, reproductive rights–whatever the issue is–it’s going to be hard for you to get what you want unless we make progress in our democracy. And it’s going to be much easier to get what you want if we do make progress in that area.”
To do that, he urged people to become civically active. “It could be at your town, at the city level in Atlanta. It could be at the state level,” he said. “Focus on the city and state. One person could have a huge difference.”
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