In a break-the-glass moment for the nation, we need far more than empty rhetoric
Just four months ago, a mob, inspired by a sitting president, ransacked the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent a peaceful transition of power. While the insurrectionists failed, we would be deluding ourselves to think the danger has passed. So far this year, the GOP has introduced 389 bills with restrictive voting provisions in 48 states, 22 of which have already been enacted.
The Big Lie that fueled an attempted coup now forms the basis of an entire political party’s strategy for holding on to power: make it hard for people who are likely to vote the “wrong way” to cast a ballot, label any election they lose as fraudulent, and slowly give themselves the power to overturn elections they disagree with. As over 100 scholars recently noted in an open letter, our democracy is teetering on the edge. And yet too many of us in the nonprofit sector seem focused on a return to “normalcy”–with the election behind us and the pandemic nearing its end, it is tempting to get back to our work in the community.
But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there is no return to normalcy. Absent drastic action, 2020 may turn out to be America’s last free and fair election. Meanwhile, much of corporate America has emerged from the turbulence of the Trump era and the horror of the pandemic with their reputations intact and their coffers full of record profits. It is laudable that so many businesses, in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, tweeted their support, hired DEI consultants, and made donations to Black-led nonprofits. And yet, as the most fundamental rights of communities of color are systematically stripped, how many of these same firms have spoken out or used their considerable sway to save democracy?
The number is, sadly, small. What’s worse, many companies have continued to make contributions to the campaigns of elected officials that voted to overturn the election on January 6 and are now voting to disenfranchise marginalized Americans. Population Information, a political blog, has identified a multitude of examples, such as AT&T, which “says it believes ‘the right to vote is sacred’” but which “refused to weigh in on SB 7, the voter suppression law introduced by Texas Republicans.” While that law failed to pass, AT&T is “among the very largest corporate contributors to the sponsors of SB 7.”
This is not to single out one company, but rather to illustrate a dangerous trend. Big business is using charitable giving, press releases, and social media posts to avoid a reckoning. For when a major political party abandons democratic principles, one can either stand for democracy or continue donating to that party. The two are, for now, wholly incompatible, and there is little to indicate that corporations are ready to face up to this fact.
Unfortunately, these same companies fund a sizable percentage of the budgets of the nonprofit sector. While there has always been an inherent contradiction to the nonprofit model–in general, people become fabulously wealthy in ways that are harmful to people and the planet, and then donate a small percentage of those ill-gotten gains to put a bandaid on the damage they’ve done–we are now at a breaking point. It is incumbent on every nonprofit, regardless of our mission, to not only raise our moral voice but to also advocate for specific policies that can protect voting rights–and demand that our funders do the same.
At Capital Good Fund, we have chosen to make the For the People Act our main legislative focus this year (check out our campaign here). On the face of it, this may seem unrelated to our mission to create pathways out of poverty and advance a green economy through inclusive financial services. Indeed, in normal times, we would spend our limited lobbying energy on issues such as usury limits and the Community Reinvestment Act.
But again, these are not normal times. Unless we safeguard our clients’ access to the voting booth and a political system untainted by the corrupting influence of wealthy donors, fighting for their access to affordable loans is a fool’s errand. In fact, the two are closely linked. The reason why states like Rhode Island still allow payday lenders to charge a 260% APR is because of the power of the industry’s lobby; despite the fact that a 36% rate cap enjoys broad bipartisan support among the electorate. Only a broken system can allow for popular legislation to be blocked, year after year, by well-connected interests, be they payday lenders, billionaires, or Big Oil. The For the People Act can empower the marginalized communities we serve to overcome the payday lobby by reining in partisan gerrymandering; making it easier for them to exercise their right to vote; and strengthening “campaign finance rules to curb dark money.”
Pick any nonprofit–a museum, job training provider, domestic violence shelter, after school program–and I can demonstrate one degree of separation between its mission and the imperative to pass the For the People Act. Running a successful cultural center or youth development program in a failed democracy is a contradiction-in-terms. Good luck working on income inequality, mass incarceration, or poverty when both mobs and partisan officials threaten our most basic rights as citizens.
The good news is that the passage of legislation like the For the People Act can help secure those rights for generations to come. The bad news is that the bill’s future is uncertain at best, especially with Senator Manchin having come out against it. It is therefore more important than ever that America’s robust nonprofit sector apply the full weight of its moral voice, creating a groundswell of support so strong that every elected official must take notice. More importantly, we must force our funders to put up or shut up when it comes to democracy, even if in so doing we risk losing grant dollars: I would rather have a smaller budget than live in a banana republic.
There is no guarantee of victory, but inaction is inexcusable and incompatible with all that we do to make America a better place for all. I will be spending the next few weeks lobbying our funders, which include some of the largest banks in the world, to demand that they get behind the For the People Act. The time for radical, sustained, nonviolent action on the part of everyone–nonprofits, grantmakers, corporations, and the general public–is now.