Not so Strange Bedfellows: Reflections on the Democracy Convention

by Caitlin Zera

The Annual Democracy Convention, hosted by Move to Amend and some other thirty convening/sponsoring organizations, represents a dedicated group of stakeholders who acknowledge that a main catalyst for social change in our country is the need to restore our democratic process.

In recent years, social and economic unrest has brought to the forefront of our collective lexicon phrases like, “We are the 99%” and “Get big money out of politics.” Terms like Super PACs and “dark money” appeared frequently in coverage of the last presidential election. It is no secret that our democracy has been co-opted by special interests and that all too often elected officials do not adequately stand up for the people they represent.

The organizations in attendance at the Democracy Convention covered a wide range of interests, tactics, and constituencies, and participants varied from veteran peace advocates to young family farmers, civil rights activists to intersectional feminists. What draws these groups together? How do all these issues (Economy, Media, Peace, Justice, Education, Environment) fit together to solve growing inequality in our country? This was the seminal question of the four-day convention. While there is no definitive answer, it is clear that the community of nonprofits working on the issue is growing to be ever more inclusive and that the movement is backed by a growing public awareness of and discontent with corporate control of our government.

In MCE’s presentation at the Convention, we connected democracy and ecology by citing corporate personhood as a direct threat to our abilities to live in a clean environment and advocate for ecosystem health. Our presentation was categorized as part of the Democratizing the Constitution Conference rather than the Earth Rights & Global Democracy Conference.

What happens all too often when environmental issues are folded into broader discussions or conferences, is that they become silo-ed or hyper-focused. The conversations develop around a single issue (i.e. fracking, tar sands, pesticides, water pollution, climate change) or become isolated to one community’s experience. While these conversations are valuable and a have a place in our revolution, they can lack context and ingenuity. It can become easy to ignore underlying issues of systematic oppression, like racism and classism, and the topic of the environmentalism can continue to carry the stigma that the movement is championed only by tree-huggers and hardcore preservationists. The work of protecting our environment often falls to short-term fixes of individual concerns like the direct improvement of specific habitats, enhancement of water quality in a certain areas, management of particular land uses, and regulation of pollution sources, and how to address these problems legislatively. As detailed in our presentation, these concerns are actually symptoms of flaws within our basic economic development philosophy, and our common legislative solutions can be short-sighted rather than lasting and holistic.

We sought to present the environmental issues MCE works on from a perspective that acknowledged the need to focus on actual root causes instead of symptoms. We identified corporate control of democracy and natural resources as a main obstacle to achieving environmental sustainability.

As an advocacy organization, we know that policy has the power to protect our human and nonhuman communities from direct environmental threats, like pollution and flooding, and equitably provide access to resources like state parks, clean energy, and local, healthy food. As a grassroots organization, we know that public engagement and an informed citizenry are key to applying political pressure to make real and meaningful change. But we also know that these strategies only, truly work in a functioning democracy, one that prioritizes the public interest over special interests and honors the electoral process.

Our presentation focused on why we as a statewide environmental organization we find it essential to work on democracy issues (like challenging Corporate Personhood and the local CLEAN ballot Initiative). By allowing corporations to influence and co-opt politics through campaign donations and political activism committees, corporate personhood creates an atmosphere in which corporate profit takes priority over the interests of these communities and the protection of our shared natural resources. By influencing government regulations, corporations can create unjust working conditions and industry-friendly standards that allow polluters to discharge more toxins and wastes all in the interest of increased profit.

Other practices like regulatory capture, revolving door hiring procedures, and influence over allocations committees create lax environmental regulations and undermine existing standards for toxic exposure and environmental pollutants.  When corporations use political spending to manipulate and/or completely evade environmental regulations, they harm ecosystems and both the human and nonhuman communities that share them.

Fundamentally, corporate personhood is a direct threat to democracy. It threatens voters’ ability to make government work in their interest, the interest of a clean, healthy environment that is accessible to all. Our multiple policy successes over the past fifty years must be sustained by a government system that disallows corporations to prioritize profit above people and the environment.

Though attendees at our presentation were from across the country, we referenced the example of the Clean Water Commission in Missouri to illustrate the corporate takeover of clean water regulations. We also provided a nuts-and-bolts outline for how we built our democracy internship program, encouraging other organizations to adopt and modify our model. The key tenets of the internship program include an emphasis on personal growth and skill-building for interns, self-direction in the projects chosen to draw upon individual interest and passion, and elimination of specific grant-funding to help maintain autonomy in the program.

At the conclusion of the presentation, we described our project, The People’s Guide to Environmental Action, and how we see this as a point of departure for individuals to get involved in the struggle for the restoration of our democracy. By providing individuals with “the Civics You Didn’t Get in School” we hope to increase citizen knowledge of our government and political processes. We want to integrate The People’s Guide with our overall democracy message of system change, building credibility through knowledge of systems to assist in challenging them and dismantling them.

We were happy to represent a grassroots environmental advocacy organization working on democracy issues. We seemed to fill a gap in the programming and stood to be one of the only organizations incorporating system change into our overall communications.  Now more than ever, when we face significant rollbacks in the protection of our environment at the federal, state and local levels, we can herald the anthem of the Democracy Convention – “Universalize resistance, democratize power” – and connect the fundamental struggle for democracy to our right to a healthy environment.