We embrace democracy as a system that depends on the ability of all of us to participate, debate, and have real ownership in the public dialogue. This means not only the right to vote and freedom from censorship, but also affirmative opportunities to communicate, to participate in the decisions that affect us, and to be part of the social and cultural life of the nation.
The chance to contribute our views and perspectives, and to have them heard and respected, is essential to our ability to achieve our full potential—as individuals, and as a nation. A democracy loses its legitimacy when it is responsive to just a few powerful interests. And its members cannot be expected to shoulder the full share of their responsibilities without a respected role in the governance of their society.
Today, the means for having a voice in our society include the town hall, newspaper and voting booth, and also the broadcast media, Internet, and other vehicles of which the founders of our nation never dreamed. Ensuring a diverse, inclusive, and vibrant American voice, moreover, requires attention and involvement by government, as well as vigilance and responsible stewardship by corporations, organizations, and others in the society. Government, for example, must work to create and preserve forums for public discourse, as well as access to those forums. It must prevent restriction or monopolization of communication channels by public or private parties, and actively promote the ability of diverse voices to be heard. It must understand the cultures and languages of newcomers, as well as long-established communities and indigenous peoples, and invest in democratizing technologies and spheres that we once considered wholly private.
It is tempting to think of our voice in the national discourse solely in terms of individual choice—that is, did a person choose to vote, to run for office, or to speak her mind, and did anyone directly stand in her way. But the choices that we make as a society profoundly affect our people’s opportunity to be heard. A person’s opportunity to vote, for example, is affected by factors like the ease or difficulty of registering, by the availability of well-functioning and well-staffed voting places in all communities, by whether Election Day is a work day or a holiday, by the extent to which monied interests are allowed to dominate politics, and by whether a youthful criminal conviction is a permanent bar to voting. A worker’s ability to advocate for better working conditions depends on protecting her right to band together with others in a union and her freedom from retaliation for doing so. A child’s access to arts education will affect her potential for creative expression throughout her life. And a society’s ability to debate the issues of the day depends on diverse perspectives and experiences reflected in the media.
These principles are reflected in our nation’s seminal documents, from the 1st Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and assembly, to the 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments’ enfranchisement of American adults irrespective race, gender, or age. They have been concretized in laws like the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which promote meaningful participation in our electoral process, and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Public Broadcasting System to promote a diverse and inclusive public voice in the affairs of the nation.
These same principles are embodied in a range of human rights documents: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 27 provides: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Article 21 provides that “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives,” and that “Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.” And Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
Building a true land of opportunity in which voice is a crucial element requires understanding the changing demographics of our nation, the changing technologies that help and hamper communication, and the practical barriers to full electoral and civic participation. It requires innovative policies that throw open doors and harness the best of what technology has to offer. And it requires listening to the ideas, hopes and dreams of all Americans.