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Expert Voices

Beyond the Environment, America's Representative Democracy at Risk (Op-Ed)

Tenaya Lake
Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park. (Image credit: M. Floyd, DOT)

Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. This Op-Ed was adapted from one Brune wrote for his blog Coming Clean. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

America's best idea is in trouble — but I don't mean our national parks. Yes, the parks were closed for more than two weeks, which is inexcusable. That was not only a crushing disappointment for millions of would-be visitors but also an economic gut-punch for neighboring communities — to the tune of $76 million dollars a day. But what remains under attack is something even older than our national park system: our representative democracy.

How did the United States reach a point where a small fraction of one party in one branch of government believes it was entitled to demand everything it wants, or else it would drive the entire government into the ground? It's like a firefighter standing on the hose to stop the rest of the company from putting out a blaze until he gets a million-dollar raise — all while the building burns around him.

The nation didn't reach this nadir of democracy by accident. It was the result of a systematic attack on the basic democratic principles of justice and equality by a handful of people who have no interest in a healthy, functioning republic. While there is no excuse, there is an explanation — with three major elements.

It starts with the money that has corrupted the U.S. Congress. The Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision opened the floodgates that have allowed a tidal wave of corrupting corporate money into the American political system. But where is the money coming from and where is it going?

Not surprisingly, huge amounts are coming from polluter-backed groups, which promoted a dirty fuels agenda by spending more than $270 million on television ads in the last two months of the 2012 election cycle, according to Environment News Service — compared to $14 million, across the election cycle, from environmentally affiliated groups. The politically conservative Koch brothers alone reportedly spent $400 million on their political operations in the 2012 election — that's two people spending more in 2012 than the entire McCain campaign did in 2008.

That influx of cash explains why this Congress has taken more than 300 votes attacking clean air and clean water. The same people who are poisoning democracy in the United States are also determined to poison our air and our water. I know, because the Sierra Club is on the ground fighting them every day.

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Not only are members of Congress churning out a steady stream of bad legislation, but they are also making it impossible to pass solid, bipartisan bills — such as the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency measure (which would encourage the use of energy efficient technologies in residential, commercial and industrial sectors) — that would benefit everyone. Somehow, some members of Congress have concluded that if everyone wins, they lose. And all this is happening at a time when 80 percent of Americans agree that political money is preventing the nation's most important challenges from being addressed.

Which brings me to the second cause of this dysfunction. Obstructionists don't need to worry about what those 80 percent of Americans think, because gerrymandering — the process of redrawing congressional districts to favor a particular political party — has given them "safe" seats. That's why even though more Americans voted to send Democratic candidates to the House of Representatives in 2012, the Republicans won their second-biggest majority in 60 years. And redistricting happens only every 10 years.

Finally, big polluters and other special interests are spending millions to keep anyone who disagrees with them away from the polls and out of office. No sooner did the Supreme Court gut a key part of the Voting Rights Act, than state houses across the country with Republican legislatures pushed through suppressive legislation to keep young people, seniors, students and people of color away from the polls. It's no coincidence that those are the same citizens who have voted against them in the past.

These direct challenges to our democracy have led the Sierra Club to team up with the NAACP, Communications Workers of America, and Greenpeace to form The Democracy Initiative. The goal is bring together labor, civil rights, voting rights, environmental, good government and other like-minded organizations with broad memberships to build a movement to halt the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, prevent the systemic manipulation and suppression of voters and address other obstacles to significant reform.

Challenges to the nation's democratic principles might get even worse. Right now, the Sierra Club and many of our allies are fighting a frightening Supreme Court challenge to campaign finance limits on individual contributions to candidates. And who was it that brought this Supreme Court case on behalf of those who would like to write million dollar checks to buy influence? Shaun McCutcheon — the climate-change-denying CEO of a coal company in Alabama. [Medical Journals Refuse to Publish Tobacco-Funded Research (Op-Ed ) ]

To be clear — only about 1,200 people in America last year even came close to reaching the spending limits that McCutcheon wants to see overturned. We're talking about the one percent of the one percent of the one percent. These campaign-donation limits apply to an amount of people that couldn't even fill a high school gym. And a good number of them are oil, gas and coal executives. Those sectors directly contributed $40 million to candidates in 2012. Give them free rein to write whatever size of check they want, and Americans will see that number double, triple, or quadruple.

The faster that money pours in, the quicker the voices of ordinary Americans will be drowned out. Our nation can't let that happen. And we won't. Those wealthy individuals may have millions of dollars, but we have millions of people. And, thanks to efforts like the Democracy Initiative, concerned citizens are organizing and coming together to make sure our voices are heard. We already know we have common foes — the way to beat them is to recognize that we have common goals.

If Americans want to see more shutdowns, then we should maintain the status quo. If we want to see more debt crises, then we'd better not rock the boat. If we want more attacks on our air, our water and our climate, then all we need to do is roll our eyes and turn away in disgust at the political posturing on Capitol Hill. But if we want to restore a government that works for Americans and will preserve a healthy planet for future generations, it's time to stand up and fight back. For our people, for our parks and for our democracy.

This Op-Ed was adapted from "Steal This Democracy" which appeared on Brune's blog Coming Clean. Brune's most recent Op-Ed was "Five Things You Must Know About the IPCC Report."The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.