Social progress depends on diverse voices; some in Congress want to silence them

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Democracy dies in silence. It thrives when all voices can be heard. This month, Congress will consider legislation that would make it harder for ordinary Americans to make their voices heard, and easier for politicians to silence them.

Proponents tout the measure as the For the People Act. But in reality, HR 1 is a self-contradiction that ought to be called the For the Politicians Act.

{mosads}Its supporters espouse the importance of a diverse public square. But it would disenfranchise the very people it claims to champion. They market it as the right medicine to restore health to our democracy. But it would inflict grievous wounds on civil society by eroding privacy for everyday citizens, placing restrictions on online speech, and insulating politicians from the voters they are supposed to serve.

The bill’s restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies is a worthy goal. That provision should be broken out and considered on its own merits. And there are other provisions that deserve a fair hearing.

But taken as a whole, the legislation offers more contradiction than cure. We support the type of expanded voting rights included in the measure and have united with a broad group of partners to protect civic engagement and the voting rights of all citizens in Florida, Iowa and other states. But, at the same time the legislation is expanding voting rights, it is disenfranchising Americans by taking away their voice and ability to speak truth to power.

How does it do that? By stripping individuals of their choice to keep their beliefs private from government, the measure would discourage people from giving to charitable and civic organizations that contribute to our communities and help move society forward.

Social progress depends on diverse voices and on those willing to raise dissenting views. Early advocates for women’s suffrage, marriage equality and other civil liberty movements were viewed by many as the rebels of their times. Encountering divergent ideas might make politicians uncomfortable, but it makes us more thoughtful as a people. To nurture that kind of public discourse, we need transparency for government and privacy for citizens.

The U.S. Supreme Court understood this problem when Alabama in the 1950s tried to force the NAACP to reveal its member list to the segregationist state government. In a landmark case, the court held that the First Amendment protects private associations from being exposed to threats, intimidation and violence – by the government and others. 

Such protections must be viewpoint neutral if they are to have any practical meaning. It takes courage to challenge the status quo, whether it be the NAACP, the Communist Party, Black Lives Matter, conservative nonprofits, religious groups, the LGBTQ community or any of a host of others who have at one time or another been targeted by the police, prosecutors or tax auditors. Consider what was necessary for the gay rights movement to advance only a few decades ago. The single largest contributor to LGBTQ causes from 1970 to 2010 was “Anonymous Funders.”

Standing up for what’s right should not mean you must fear reprisal because you criticized those in power.

And make no mistake, HR 1 is designed to make it harder to critique those in power. It is an Incumbent Protection Act that shields the political class from the voices of everyday citizens who want to make their viewpoints known to their elected officials. While the lobbyists and the well-connected will still be playing their inside game, everyday citizens who want to make their voices heard on immigration, education, criminal justice reform and a host of other issues would have their voices taken away.

The ability to choose when and how to engage in the public square is especially critical in today’s culture of intimidation. Twitter mobs and Facebook shaming are bad enough. We cannot let the government disenfranchise millions of Americans by pre-empting their ability to engage in the policy debates that affect their lives. That’s what HR 1 would do.

Mark Holden is chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.


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