On a drizzly Saturday morning in early April, a few hundred citizens gathered outside Philadelphia's Independence Hall—the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. They were about to set forth, on foot, toward Washington, D.C., as part of a ten-day, 140-mile march in support of voting rights and campaign finance reform. Called Democracy Spring, the march was the first phase of a much larger gathering that has taken place the past three days, as thousands of activists representing more than 250 organizations have descended on D.C. for an event called Democracy Awakening. Today, its leaders have planned a “Congress of Conscience” that promises to be the largest act of nonviolent civil disobedience in a generation.
November’s presidential election will be the first in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, which was effectively gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Seventeen states will have new voting restrictions in place, while 33 states will have implemented some form of voter I.D. law. Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening represent a kind of urgent civic uprising, led by an increasingly diverse array of organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P., Greenpeace, Public Citizen, and Common Cause, which have realized that their interests align in addressing this assault on democracy.
The two events come on the heels of a similar effort last summer, when the N.A.A.C.P. led a 1,000-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to D.C., traversing states where voting restrictions were hitting especially hard. In North Carolina, for instance, immediately after the Shelby decision, the G.O.P. legislature rushed through the most restrictive voting bill since the Jim Crow era, full of measures known to disproportionately affect minorities and young people. “If the voters were playing checkers, the [North Carolina] legislators were engaged in a game of three-dimensional chess,” Cornell Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., told me. Similar laws have spread from the South throughout the country and constitute, he said, “an unprecedented experiment in undemocratic democracy."
North Carolina had also taken gerrymandering to extreme levels following the 2010 census—which helps explain how the state, despite splitting its votes evenly between the two parties, has recently stunned the nation by passing a range of socially regressive bills. (The state was until a recent court decision also home to the most gerrymandered district in the nation, N.C.-12, which wound its way southwest from Greensboro to Charlotte and resembled, somewhat unnervingly, a kind of anorexic scorpion.)
Yet the erosion of democracy has been oddly neglected; in the first 21 presidential debates, not a single question concerned voting rights. The people behind this month’s events are doing their best to change that.
Outside Independence Hall, a couple of hours before the Democracy Spring march began, a group of young musicians was performing Foo Fighters’s “My Hero” on a small stage. The storied Liberty Bell loomed in the background. A man dressed cartoonishly as a corporate lobbyist—he wore a giant, angry-looking head made of papier-mâché and a suit fashioned from fake money—hoisted money bags in the air and danced a silly jig, taunting the spectators. The crowd was notably diverse, racially and generationally, and, despite the weather, utterly jubilant.
Before long, a rabbinical student named Michael Pollack stepped onstage. “The first Democracy Spring—the first summit on voter suppression and institutionalized corruption—happened over 3,000 years ago, when Moses and the Israelites went to see Pharaoh,” he told the crowd. “And Moses said, ‘By what right do you rob us of our right to self-determination?’ And Pharaoh replied, ‘I make the sun rise, and I make the Nile flood; I grow the economy, and I create jobs.’” Laughter rippled through the audience. He went on:
And it was just as unlikely then that Moses and the Israelites would one day walk across the Red Sea toward freedom, as it is today that one day an average citizen will be able to walk into Washington, D.C. and be meaningfully represented. But before the Israelites could earn their right to self-governance, they needed to believe that they could. And the courage to inspire was sparked at the burning bush, where, for Moses, the dejected castaway, despair turned to hope. Indifference became passion. And the stale, swampy levies of inaction shattered before the flowing waters of righteous action. This march, this rally—this is our burning bush!
Lawrence Lessig soon took to the stage, wearing tiny eye-glasses and a bulky orange raincoat. A Harvard law professor and political activist, Lessig ran for President last year on a platform of campaign finance reform, but failed to qualify for the Democratic debates. He reminded the crowd of James Madison’s words regarding who, under the Constitution, would have the power to choose the nation’s representatives: “Not the rich, more than the poor.” For the past 20 years, Lessig said, the country had allowed its ideal of equality to become “radically corrupted, so that we have today nothing like the representative democracy that they promised us.” So, he said, it was time to walk.
The bell atop Independence Hall tolled noon; the sun was poking out from the clouds. About 200 people began making their way toward Chestnut Street for the initial, 12-mile leg of the journey. Lessig was in an exuberant mood; he saw in Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening an unprecedented kind of collective action. “This has never happened before,” he told me. “For the first time, organizations have realized they’ve got to think beyond their own membership lists, and they’ve got to think about what the bigger movement is about. And that’s really extraordinarily exciting.”
Among the bills that Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening are supporting is the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the Voting Rights Act and guarantee the right to vote nationwide, and a Constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. Others include the Government By the People Act, which would include a tax credit for small campaign contributions and establish a fund whereby contributions of 150 dollars or less would be matched if given to Congressional candidates who forego PAC money. Altogether, the bills would constitute radical reform.
“We have a Congress that spends 30 to 70 percent of its time raising money,” Lessig told me. “And they raise money from a tiny fraction of the one percent. So who’s surprised that we’ve produced a politics where the base of the Republican and Democratic parties both say, ‘You guys aren’t listening to us’?”
The march proceeded past historic old townhouses, past the grave of the man whose ship carried the Liberty Bell from England to America. It made its way across the Delaware river. The actress Gaby Hoffman of HBO’s “Girls” was walking with her partner and young daughter, and helping carry a sign for the women-led grassroots organization CODEPINK. Nearby was Crystal Burgoyne, a 35-year-old reverend from Salem, Oregon who had raised 1,000 dollars to pay for her trip, because she could not bear to watch her fellow citizens being disenfranchised. “It harkens back to those history classes, when you learned about the marches and you saw social change, because the people showed up,” she said. “And if peaceful people don’t organize and show up, as King said, you can’t change things.”
Cornell Brooks sees in Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening the potential to become a self-sustaining movement, not unlike the Civil Rights Movement did six decades ago. Coalitions are coming together, he told me, in “a generationally unprecedented level of civic activism.” But youth are still not voting in sufficient numbers, he said. “We’re trying to say to young people in particular: ‘If you’re willing to tweet online and protest in the streets, show up at the polls! Hold these people accountable.’”
Ten days after the marchers set out from Philadelphia, sleeping at night in churches, they reached our nation’s capital. Over the next few days they engaged in sit-ins in which almost 1,000 people were arrested. The events led into this past weekend’s Democracy Awakening, which has included more sit-ins, rallies, musical performances, and, today, a “Congress of Conscience,” for which more than 3,000 people have signed up to be arrested.
The hope of the thousands who are gathered is that the nation will hear their message—that the apathy, or even disdain, that often greets such movements will yield to the realization that excessive money in politics and the ongoing, systematic disenfranchisement of certain parts of the population are at the heart of our nation’s dysfunction.
American politics is increasingly riven. But behind the intransigence, behind the madness, behind the debates on what exactly Donald Trump was saying about Megyn Kelly, is a dynamic that is not hard to parse. As polarization grows, we find ourselves cast back into a kind of cold Civil War, with a revanchist political movement attempting to disenfranchise core segments of the population whose votes it cannot win by means of persuasion. A furious passion burns on both sides. Democracy Awakening is not waiting for the better angels of our nature to bring the country together. It is not waiting for Congress to heed the warnings of the world’s top climate scientists, who warn of catastrophe unless we take more concerted action. It is not arguing for a political party or an ideology. It is betting, instead, that what America needs most urgently is for its citizens to engage, and to revitalize the ideal of equality that the imperfect, bewigged men in Independence Hall bequeathed us.