Photographer is Jason Wilson, hive at [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

August 5, 2018; Wisconsin Watch

At NPQ, our guiding philosophy has long been that “an active, engaged, and sometimes disruptive civil sector is critical to a healthy democracy.” Yet we recognize that American democracy is none-too-healthy these days. As NPQ’s Chelsea Reichert —quoting Andrea Fraser, author of 2016 in Money, Museums and Politics—noted a few months ago:

Social scientists and other observers of politics…conclude that our system of government is no longer a democracy—government by the people through elected representatives. Instead, the United States has become a plutocracy—government by the wealthy.

This view informs a recent series from Wisconsin Watch, titled “Undemocratic: Secrecy and Power vs. The People.” Belief that the quality of US democracy is declining is widespread; as Nicole Ki writes for Wisconsin Watch, a poll by the Democracy Project found that 55 percent of Americans see democracy as being challenged, and a full 68 percent believe that things are getting worse.

Using Wisconsin as a case study, Ki highlights ways that economic power by the wealthy is eroding public democratic accountability:

  • Three laws recently voted on by the legislature will impact the state’s elections—changing the Government Accountability Board, exempting politicians from some legal probes, and overhauling campaign finance laws. Comments to legislators on both sides of the aisle were overwhelmingly against all of them, to the tune of 6,215 against and 312 in favor. All three passed. Clearly, legislators are not listening to their constituents in these cases.
  • The Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin has had a history of listening to the public and to environmentalists before any legislation is recommended. Recently, however, a bill was passed in 2017 that would allow the resumption of a practice called “baiting and feeding” of white-tailed deer despite a host of warnings that this would cause an increase in chronic wasting disease.
  • As highlighted in an earlier article in the series, 39 of 72 Wisconsin counties passed resolutions in support of a nonpartisan redistricting process. Last June, the US Supreme Court remanded the plaintiffs’ gerrymandering claims back to Wisconsin state courts to give the plaintiffs “an opportunity” to provide better evidence about whether they had the right to bring the suit at all. In the meantime, of course, partisan gerrymandering continues unabated.

A former legislator, Tim Cullen, is quoted as saying that legislators in the state are now more focused on getting reelected than in passing legislation that might require reaching across the aisle to join with the other party. Sheila Plotkin fears that as this increasing partisanship affects which laws are passed, people no longer feel that their voice or their vote has any meaning. She believes that leads to indifference, and that indifference is the killer of democracy.

Plotkin is doing something about that with a nonprofit organization she has created, and there are indicators that other nonprofits are rising to the challenge as well. Plotkin’s nonprofit is called We, the Irrelevant and is the source of the statistics about the number of comments against and in favor of legislation quoted above. Plotkin and other volunteers are using open-records requests to gain access to legislators’ email accounts and are sharing the results on their website.

It could be argued, too, that the demise of local journalism contributes to the broader sense among Americans that the quality of democratic practice is in decline. As we have been told many times, traditional print journalism is dying. NPQ has covered many examples of alternative journalism, and in Milwaukee, a new source of information has arisen in the form of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, which covers local stories in an intentionally street-level voice. Now that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has been bought by Gannett and is gradually losing its local reporting team, that local voice could be a very important source of information.—Rob Meiksins