I am not one who sees a conspiracy at every turn. While I have seen a fair share of greed and collusion and even corruption in observing the workings in our nation’s capital, I do have a fundamental faith in our government systems and the integrity of the people in this country.
The major social and economic issues in our society—education, poverty, health care, civil rights, environment, and animal protection, to name a few—are matters that can be addressed only in a civil society. Democratic elections, a zero tolerance policy for corruption, transparency in government, and fair application of the law are the bulwarks of a civil society.
When I see corrosion in these processes in any nation, I know that these societies will not be able to address important social issues in a fundamental way—in fact, when the rule of law is disregarded, it often translates into havoc for people and the environment. To take a recent example, the autocratic actions of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are doing irreparable harm to what was once a beautiful and promising nation. His suppression of his political opponents and his disregard for the recent election result is a prescription for impoverishment of the people of that nation, the despoiling of the environment, and the destruction of animals there, particularly the remarkable wildlife populations that inhabit this southern African nation.
We must be vigilant about people and corporations that tamper with the levers of democracy and civil society in our nation. It’s no Zimbabwe for sure, but I have nonetheless been disgusted by what I’ve been witnessing in Florida in recent years in the realm of voting rights. Today, Damien Cave of The New York Times has a front-page story about efforts by the state legislature to impede voter registration efforts and citizen participation in elections.
For me, this information is disturbing on its face. But I’ve been watching this same state legislature, conspiring with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, dismantling the ballot initiative process in the state over the last few years. They have passed a series of laws to weaken the process of citizen lawmaking and make it unusable by the people, as a way of consolidating their own power and shielding corporations from the perceived whims of the electorate (the same electorate that puts these lawmakers in office). State lawmakers have passed measures to shorten the signature gathering period to make it more difficult to qualify an initiative petition. They have pushed a supermajority (60 percent) passage requirement for citizen ballot measures, even though lawmakers themselves only need a plurality or majority to win. They have attempted to impose criminal penalties for people who do not turn in petitions in a timely manner. Seen collectively, their actions amount to a brazen attempt to destroy the initiative process and concentrate state lawmaking power in Tallahassee.
While The HSUS is first and foremost concerned about protecting animals, we cannot separate our social reform work from the larger political context. We can only succeed if we operate within a civil society. We will raise our voice against political corruption, collusion, secrecy, and the erosion of voting rights. I hope you, too, pay attention to these issues because they are the substrate on which all social reform is built.