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15 Years Later, the Long Walk for American Democracy Continues

06/03/2015 12:56 GMT | Updated 05/05/2015 10:59 BST

Fifteen years ago this week, a ninety year-old woman with arthritis and emphysema completed an historic march on Washington, DC. Her cause was as old, and as bold, as the republic she loved: restoring American self-governance so that people of every age, race, class, and creed could have their voices heard in Washington. Her name was Granny D.

Doris "Granny D" Haddock (1910-2010) stood less than five feet tall but she was a giant of a citizen. With neither cash nor connections, position nor political power, the former shoe factory worker and great-grandmother of sixteen set out to right a gaping moral wrong in the life of her nation. That wrong, she surmised, was nothing less than the systematic "selling of our government from under us" until the promise of American democracy had devolved into "government of, by, and for the wealthy elite."

A wrong of extraordinary proportions required an extraordinary response. For fourteen tiresome months, Granny D trudged 3,200 miles through sun, rain, and snow from California to Washington, DC to rouse the American public to the cause of campaign finance reform. By her efforts, and those of countless others who followed in her stead, she helped persuade a recalcitrant Congress to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, banning unlimited contributions and special interest spending on elections - until the Roberts Court.

Today, her struggle continues. Five years after the Supreme Court eviscerated decades worth of campaign finance regulations in Citizens United v FEC, American democracy is awash in special interest money. A tiny fraction of the wealthiest one percent now provides the lion's share of campaign contributions, spending billions of dollars to influence who can run for public office and what they stand for once they are elected. The effects of Citizens United are keenly felt at every level of government, from city hall to the president of the United States.

Indeed, nearly two years before Americans go to the polls to elect the next president and Congress, the candidates are already engrossed in a "money election" that has little to do with the needs of the American people and everything to do with the interests of the donor elite. For well-meaning presidential candidates and members of Congress, the pursuit of campaign cash has become an all-consuming occupation with little hope of escape under the current system. As one Congressman recently confessed, between fifty and seventy-five percent of a Member's time is devoted to raising money for reelection.

The money has strings attached. In return for the millions of dollars that wealthy individuals and industries invest in political campaigns, the donors expect - and too often receive - billions of dollars in special subsidies, tax breaks, and government contracts at the public's expense. Empirical studies find that political influence may in fact be the best investment money can buy - for those who have the means. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans who are unable to fund campaigns exert a near-zero, statistically insignificant impact on policymaking whenever their preferences diverge from the monied elite.

Put differently, ordinary Americans seeking livable wages, affordable prescriptions, high-quality education, or an end to catastrophic climate change are consigned to second-class status in Washington, DC. Their voices are going unheard, their issues unresolved in the halls of power.

But the story does not end there. Taking their cue from Granny D, a bipartisan band of citizens here in Granny D's home state of New Hampshire is taking to the streets in a peaceful NH Rebellion against big money in politics. In January, they walked over 300 miles - 12,041 miles combined - from all four corners of the state, converging on Concord to emphatically declare that democracy is not for sale.

Through ice and snow, the "Granny D walkers" made their way down city streets and mountain passes, sleeping in churches, libraries, home-stays, and motels and educating their fellow citizens along the way about how we can end the corrupting influence of money in politics. They marched as Democrats and Republicans disillusioned with American politics but not with America's promise of an equal voice for all. Some 500 Granite Staters, ranging in age from 15 to 85, joined the frigid walk. The state and national media took note.

In the months ahead, citizens across the New Hampshire and beyond will continue to walk the talk in the footsteps of Granny D. With the presidential primaries already underway in New Hampshire and Iowa, the NH Rebellion and allied groups are challenging every presidential candidate to commit to bipartisan campaign finance reform, beginning with a small donor system of citizen-funded elections. Their goal is nothing less than the election of a president and Congress in 2016 who will make ending systemic corruption their highest priority on day one.

The success of their movement will depend less on the candidates themselves than on the American people. Never before in our country's storied past have we overcome the moral challenges of the day - from slavery to women's suffrage to civil rights - because politicians inside Washington led the way. Rather, change has always come when the citizens themselves stepped forward out of love for their country and the ideals that make it great.

If there is one enduring lesson we should take from Granny D, it is that nothing is more powerful than human sacrifice in pursuit of a just end. Arriving at the U.S. Capitol fifteen years ago, the pilgrim for democracy began her remarks by addressing the numberless men and women who came before her in the struggle. The question she asked of them may be asked of her today: "Did you, brave spirits, give your lives for a government where we might stand together as free and equal citizens, or did you give your lives so that laws might be sold to the highest bidder, turning this temple of our fair republic into a bawdy house, where anything and everything is done for a price?"

We know their answer then. We know her answer now. Let us walk the talk and restore our democratic republic together.

Daniel Weeks is executive director of Open Democracy, the nonpartisan organization founded by Granny D whose NH Rebellion campaign is marching for reform across the Granite State. He was inspired to join the democracy movement by Granny D as a New Hampshire high school student in 1999.