Czars are not your typical civil rights icons. But, by another name, the next Administration should establish a Cabinet-level National Director of Civil Rights and Democracy (NDCRD) to advance two bedrock principles — equal justice for all and one person one vote.
The Justice Department enforces federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin, but that too narrowly defines the issues our nation currently confronts.
The Federal Election Commission protects the integrity of the federal campaign finance process by providing transparency and fairly enforcing and administering federal campaign finance laws, but that falls well short of the challenges confronting our democracy.
The Department of State and U.S. AID have programs dedicated to democracy and human rights abroad, but not at home. Perhaps we always assumed America was the beacon of hope for democracy and liberty, but that beacon is broken and in need of repair. We cannot lead abroad, if we fail at home.
The mandate of the NDCRD could mirror what we promote overseas — free and fair elections; a strong civil society and a free and independent media; civil and human rights; and accountability and transparency.
The NDCRD could marshal a whole of government response and partner with civil society to address these issues at home, and work with Congress to establish legislation where needed.
The House of Representatives has already passed legislation that would address critical gaps, but the bills have been left to die in the Republican graveyard in the Senate. As Congress revisits these bills in 2021, there may be opportunities to strengthen them.
For example, in 2019, the House of Representatives passed the For The People Act. The bill would create a national voter-registration program, make election day a federal holiday, replace partisan gerrymandering with non-partisan commissions to draw electoral districts, and limit efforts to purge voting rolls. The bill also includes campaign finance reform provisions that would impose stricter limitations on foreign lobbying and require organizations to disclose their donors.
Congress should consider additional democracy reforms, such as making voting mandatory, replacing nonrepresentative caucuses with primaries, limiting corporate campaign and dark money contributions as it does for individuals, and establishing three Super Tuesday elections rather than the current six month haphazard calendar. The National Director of Civil Rights and Democracy could bring together leading thinkers to ensure that election reform is robust and addresses the multitude of issues we currently face.
Congress must also tackle the massive disinformation campaign by Russia and other malign actors that have sown needless confusion, distrust and dissent. Addressing misinformation on social media platforms as well as networks that conflate news with “entertainment” is crucial to establishing sources of information that are reliable. Congress should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine that requires media companies that air opinions to provide equal airtime to opposing points of view. The FEC should also step up its enforcement of laws that allow it to suspend or revoke licenses when media lobby for political candidates, engage in serial lying, or other breaches of public trust. On the flip side, the government must help reestablish support for freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The attacks of the press and the anemic response to the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi undermine one of America’s core First Amendment strengths, in sharp contrast to autocratic regimes that do not subscribe to a free press.
The House also passed the Justice in Policing Act this year in response to the murder of George Floyd and the abysmal response to police brutality. The Senate has failed to vote on the sister bill. While important, the bill fails to address accountability for federal law enforcement that engages in misconduct and a whole range of needed criminal justice reform. The Justice in Policing Act is also one sliver of a more comprehensive racial justice reform agenda needed to address the inequities facing Americans in all facets of life. Racial justice is but one aspect of civil rights that continue to lag for women, LGBT Americans, religious minorities and others. Rather than treating equality as a matter of constituency management in the Office of Public Engagement, a National Director of Civil Rights and Democracy could partner with civil society to advance equality for all Americans.
Lastly, a National Director of Civil Rights and Democracy, could elevate the priority for tackling corruption and ensuring transparency. It is within the Department of Justice’s purview to bring anti-corruption cases and a new Administration could signal that as a priority. There are, however, additional legal hurdles to accountability and transparency that should be addressed. Reforming the Freedom of Information Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the State Secrets Act could help shift the course of federal governance from protect the officials toward we the people. Accountability is key to democracy. These legislative initiatives will need the weight of a new Administration to move forward. Establishing a National Director of Civil Rights and Democracy at the Cabinet level would give those reforms the priority they deserve, ensure that future Administrations always prioritize civil rights and democracy, and help relight the beacon of hope that is our American ideal.