Naming the thing turned out to be much more fraught than setting its course.
The prospectus dubbed us The Democracy Dispatch, straightforward and with catchy alliteration. But we quickly ditched that, heeding warnings that the right hears "democracy" as a dog whistle of allegiance to the left — meaning we might fatally undermine our plan to chronicle with nonpartisan rigor both the dysfunctions and potential fixes for American, well, democracy.
Fevered brainstorming led to our unveiling at the end of 2018 as The Firewall, because good journalism helps protect the republic and decode the fight for better government. But the word's association with computer network security, and its defensive connotation, prompted us to abandon that name within weeks.
Fortunately, the muse arrived in time for the launch. Our reporting, opinion essays and public engagement efforts were all about "supplying the capability for action" to citizens wanting to fix the system, paraphrasing Webster's definition. Our goal was encapsulated by the Archimedes aphorism, "Give me a fulcrum and a place to stand, and I can move the world." Plus, the tagline we'd settled on was to provide news coverage, an opinion forum and community-building that would be levers for achieving a better democracy.
That process generated the first big lesson among the many packed into the past 30 months: While tussling with all the variables of a new venture, stick with your mission and your audience will stick by you.
So thank you, dear readers, for embracing in steadily growing numbers what our small but dedicated newsroom has sought to do: Impartially cover the sprawling and disjointed movement to restore faith in our government by making it more equitable and productive for more people.
We've kept our focus on the most important impediments: suppressed voting rights and confounding election laws, special-interest money and partisan gerrymandering, shoddy civic education and slipshod government ethics, the dysfunctions of Congress and the imbalance of federal powers. We've explained dozens of serious proposals for solving those problems — more and more of them the ideas of everyday citizens, not politicians — then reported dispassionately when and why some have gained steam while others have run aground.
Starting next week, The Fulcrum will have a new owner in the Bridge Alliance, which has made clear it plans to use this digital platform in alternate ways. A new focus will be working to "reach people where they are and help them connect to the reforming democracy movement," where the organization already acts as an umbrella over 90 good-government groups.
That's a worthy if very different aim, to be sure, so there's no reason not to root for success. And it's great that our nearly 2,500 original news stories, and several hundred smartly argued opinion pieces, will still be accessible in The Fulcrum's digital archive.
What won't live on, at least on this site, are the stories not yet written. There's more than ever to tackle on the democracy reform beat, which is only going to get more fascinating and vitally important in the years ahead.
Groups committed to fixing the political system's problems have proliferated rapidly in the past decade, and at first blush that's hopeful news. But their ability to achieve their goals is threatened by overlapping missions and narrowly targeted views about the best prescription.
Like a parable from the Indian subcontinent, about blind men allowed to learn what an elephant is by touching just one part, many groups assert their idea alone holds transformational promise. And these organizations often dismiss or denigrate those with an even subtly different priority. (Disputes among proponents of various alternative election systems, such as ranked-choice and approval voting, have been particularly intense.)
A head-spinning collection of similar names doesn't help.
The Civic Health Project, Civic Nation, Civic Spirit and Civics Unplugged are all vying for notice in the better-democracy-through-education niche. Then there's Civic Genius, formerly Common Ground Solutions, which like Common Good, Common Ground Committee and Common Power are all pushing the idea that talk therapy can make the system function again. Open Debates is not to be confused with Open the Debates, or with Open Primaries or the Open Government Hub. The missions of End Citizens United and Unite America are different. And Bridge Alliance gets confused often with Bridge the Divide and Bridge USA.
Their breakout opportunities are hardly made easier — and their rivalries tend to be fueled — by the modest number of activists for any democracy reform and the meager amounts getting donated to the cause.
Only a few groups have budgets above $3 million. Almost all are stretched financially thin, reliant on small-dollar gifts from their fans while competing to tap a pool of foundation money that isn't growing fast. Billionaires have not taken up the cause. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, notably, never followed through on his promise to spend $100 million fixing the system instead of running for president in 2020.
Mailing lists and social media data, meanwhile, suggest the number actively engaged in the democracy reform movement is still well below 12 million, or 3.5 percent of the population. Though surprisingly small, that's the magic number almost ensuring success for any nonviolent movement for political change, according to Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth's research into dozens of such crusades worldwide.
The heartening news, though, is that as many as 25 million Americans have participated in protests over racial injustice in the past year. That's a strong signal the campaign to protect and then enhance voting rights, the beating heart of a true democracy, has a solid shot at prevailing.
Not only that, but much of the credit for such a victory would go to advocates who are Black or young — an overdue breakthrough for the good-government world, which continues to be dominated by older white men.
Finally, there's the legacy of Donald Trump, who has single-handedly intensified democracy's precarious state. Rather than making it healthier by "draining the swamp," the previous president metastasized the system's problems with constant attacks on the rule of law, civil discourse, fact-based policymaking, government ethical standards, the independent judiciary, the free press — and, climatically, on the ultimate democratic norms of trustworthy elections and peaceful transfers of power.
A sitting president fomenting insurrection at the Capitol will be remembered forever as one of the darkest hours in American history. But there may be a silver lining. By illustrating how democracy is in an "existential crisis," as President Biden put it just this week, Trump has done a profound service:
His four years in power amounted to a final-chance warning for the country to repair its brokenness, fast, or else succumb soon enough to another autocrat taking dispositive advantage of the republic's fragility.
Chronicling what happens will be one of the great challenges for reporters in the next decade. Whatever the names of their news organizations, here's hoping their journalism is a fulcrum that leverages democracy away from the precipice.
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President Biden is spending Thursday in Georgia, the symbolic center of the voting rights debate, hours after making an impassioned call for reforming and sustaining democracy the finale for his first address to Congress.
The main reason for the trip is to pitch his ambitious $4 trillion plans to refashion the economy, rebuild its physical underpinnings and expand the government's social services system. But he's also visiting Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency on a promise to revive democratic norms after Watergate, and holding a rally in a place that's long been central to the voting rights fight.
"We have to prove democracy still works," Biden said at the wrapped up his nationally televised speech Wednesday night. He urged quick passage of the sweeping remake of federal election, campaign finance and government ethics rules known as HR 1 along with separate legislation to revive federal oversight in places with histories of voter suppression.
"Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America's adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can't," the president told the lawmakers. "We have to prove them wrong."
His words underscored a fundamental change in where the government's systemic dysfunctions rate on the roster of national challenges. When Biden started running for president three years ago, neither he nor any of the other top-tier candidates spent much time talking about the threats to the nation's well-being posed by that polarized partisanship and distrust in governance. A pandemic that threatened the nation's ability to hold an election, a president fermenting conspiracy theories about massive vote fraud and a violent insurrection at the Capitol have now prompted the new president to proclaim the survivability of democracy an "existential crisis."
Restoring faith in the system, he said, would be aided the most by a season of legislative productivity — a convenient truism, to be sure, given that would result in Biden's sprawling plans for expanded government getting through a narrowly Democratic Congress where almost every Republican opposes almost everything he's asking for. To overcome that resistance, Biden also appealed to every American's sense of responsibility to enhance democracy with civic engagement — confident that many more GOP-leaning voters than GOP lawmakers support his agenda.
The president also made an explicit appeal for enactment of a remade Voting Rights Act, which seeks to combat racial discrimination in election systems, and what sponsors call the For the People Act, which would set federal standards for registration, early voting and absentee ballot access that could not be undercut by the wave of more restrictive legislation now moving through Republican-run state legislatures across the country.
"More people voted in the last presidential election than any time in American history, in the middle of the worst pandemic ever," Biden said. " It should be celebrated. Instead, it's being attacked."
The comprehensive bill to countermand that attack has passed the House and will soon move through committee in the Senate. But after that the measure has no future unless it's scaled back dramatically, which most major democracy reform groups ardently oppose, or it becomes the vehicle for an unprecedented weakening of the legislative filibuster — which for now means the Republicans can stop the bill in its tracks. The showdown now looks likely in July or August.
The voting rights legislation, named for the late civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, has not started to move but is on a similar trajectory as HR 1: smooth sailing through the House but dead-on-arrival in the Senate while the filibuster remains.
In a signal that Biden has elevated the issue near the top of his agenda, a voting rights campaign will soon be unveiled by Building Back Together, a nonprofit advocacy group recently created by the president's allies to promote his to-do list. The group will lobby for the two pieces of legislation in Congress while also working to overcome — or thwart the enactment of — restrictive GOP legislation in nine states: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
Biden was the first Democrat to carry Georgia in 28 years, in part because he ran up significant margins in such fast-growing and racially diverse places as Gwinnett County, suburbs northeast of Atlanta where the legacies of the Jim Crow past still resound. That is where Thursday evening's drive-in rally will take place.
That will be preceded by his visit to the Carter home in Plains. Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter back in 1976. Now 96, he is the longest-living former president but remains vocal on many issues, most recently deriding the newly restrictive voting law of his home state. Biden has called the measure written by the Republican General Assembly a "sick" and "un-American" response to former President Donald Trump's fact-free allegations of massive election cheating last year.
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The sprawling Republican effort to make voting more difficult has been derailed for the first time by a Democratic governor.
Laura Kelly of Kansas has vetoed two bills, one curbing the number of ballots third parties may collect and deliver and the other giving the Legislature total control over election rules. Both were drafted in response to developments in other states last year — decisions by courts and governors to ease access to the ballot during the pandemic, and Donald Trump's baseless claims that widespread fraud had robbed him of a second presidential term.
The measures now return to the capital, where both have more than enough support for a veto override in the Senate but appear to be a handful of votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. Kansas' 2021 legislative session lasts three more weeks.
While Georgia has been the focus of this year's intense nationwide fight over election legislation, in part because it was one of the purple states key to President Biden's win, the battle is also being fought in plenty of states Trump carried — with new curbs already enacted in Iowa and Montana and steadily advancing in Texas and Florida.
But the GOP holds all the levers of lawmaking power in all of them. Kansas is one of eight states with Democratic governors and Republican statehouses. Biden took 42 percent there last fall, only the sixth time since World War II when the Democratic nominee got more than two of every five votes.
This got the state's GOP agitated and fueled conspiracy theories — many about cheating at the hands of so-called "ballot harvesters" — that Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has labored to tamp down. He says voting in 2020 was "free and fair."
One of the vetoed measures would take Kansas off the roster of 26 states that permit voters to entrust anyone they like to deliver their completed absentee ballot. Both political parties and various campaign organizations use such laws to collect envelopes from sympathetic voters — mainly the elderly, poor and disabled as well as people living in remote areas such as Indian reservations.
But Republicans, fueled by Trump, have turned against the practice with a vengeance in recent years, arguing without much evidence that it encourages fraud. (The biggest such case of cheating, by far, involved a 2018 GOP congressional campaign in North Carolina.) The Supreme Court is now deliberating whether Arizona's curbs on third-party collection amounts of racially discriminatory voter suppression.
The Kansas bill would limit to 10 the number of ballots anyone could deliver, and also stiffen signature-match requirements on mail-in forms.
"Although Kansans have cast millions of ballots over the last decade, there remains no evidence of significant voter fraud," the governor said in a statement on Friday. "This bill is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. It is designed to disenfranchise Kansans, making it difficult for them to participate in the democratic process, not to stop voter fraud."
The other bill she vetoed would prevent her from changing election laws or procedures by executive order, and would bar the secretary of state from negotiating any settlements of election-related lawsuits without approval from the Legislature. But Kelly decreed no such alterations to voting procedures in 2020 and none were mandated in the state by the courts — putting Kansas in a distinct minority of just 16 states where neither thing happened in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
In her veto message, Kelly warned such a law could imperil the business climate in the state, as more and more companies have spoken out this spring against legislation that would curb ballot access.
The bill would respond, however, to the most prominent recent case of election malfeasance in Kansas, by requiring a brick-and-mortar residential address for all registered voters. The congressional career of Republican Steve Watkins came to an abrupt end after one term in 2020, partly after it was revealed he'd listed his home as a UPS store so he could vote illegally for a friend running for the city council in Topeka.
Kelly is running for a second term but is seen as one of the most electorally vulnerable governors in 2022.
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