It has occurred to me recently that the Tea Party folks missed the point somewhat when they chose their name. The Boston Tea Party was not a protest about taxes. It was a protest about being taxed without representation. The Bostonians were complaining that the British oligarchs had imposed a tea tax on the colonies without colonists having any valid representation in Parliament, so that their needs would be considered in the process of making laws that affected them.
I was reminded of this important distinction as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. These remarkable laws enfranchised millions of Americans to fully participate in our society by allowing them to fully participate in the election process. Half a century later, I fear we have already taken big steps backward to disenfranchise our citizens. In the process, we run the risk of creating a new oligarchy at a scale and rate that will destroy American democracy. Three examples illustrate the problem:
1. Gerrymandering. I live in Central Pennsylvania, where my university town has been divided up so that it is part of several conservative, rural state assembly districts, essentially nullifying any liberal tendencies of the university community. This idea—of re-engineering district borders in order to ensure conservative majorities—has been a national conservative strategy for years.
2. Voter Disenfranchisement. Throughout the Obama administration, we have seen states attempting to limit access to the poor and racial minorities by requiring visual ID, limiting voting hours, etc. The impact here is to disenfranchise specific classes of individual voters entirely. This year, for instance, the Huffington Post reported that Ohio reduced early voting and decided that voting places will close at 5 p.m. on Election Day. The result is to effectively block access for many working-class citizens, minorities, and seniors.
3. The Influence of Special Interests. The Citizens United and, most recently, McCutcheon rulings give corporations and other “associations of individuals” the ability to give huge amounts of money to political candidates. The impact is to essentially compromise our elected officials, leaving individual citizens with no real power as citizens and no real representation in government. This is today’s equivalent of the tea tax that led to the Boston tea party.
The result is that, 50 years after the passage of the Voter Rights Act, many American citizens no longer have full access to representation. Some have been denied the opportunity through redistricting that puts them in a permanent minority position; others have been denied access to the voting booth. And, regardless of who wins, many candidates are compromised by the huge amounts of money invested in their elections by corporations and other special interests, leaving individual citizens with no practical representation.
What we need is not a Tea Party focused on eliminating government services for citizens, but a new Civil Rights movement that is committed to ensuring that all Citizens have equal and effective access to representation at the State and Federal levels.