To Protect Our Environment, We Must Also Protect Our Democracy

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NRDC stands in unity with the NAACP to advance a shared vision of a more just and equitable society.

Since its beginnings four and a half decades ago, NRDC has looked to the NAACP for guidance and inspiration, and seldom more so than now. The Flint water tragedy has reminded both organizations how closely our missions are tied to the common vision of a more just and equitable society.

When a child can’t drink from the kitchen tap without fear that the water is poisoned, that’s an environmental and health crisis. When it happens because low-income communities and people of color have no voice in decisions that affect their lives, it’s a breach of civil rights. And it’s an affront to our national commitment to equality and justice.

Both the NAACP and NRDC exist to stand up to that kind of affront and to rally the voices of all our people around the need for change. To prevail in the face of powerful and determined opposition, our groups have a single tool: a sound democracy that reflects the will of the people. Anything that threatens to compromise or undermine that is a threat to our common agenda. It’s a threat to the soul of the nation.

Today, we face such threats on multiple fronts. Legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act so many Americans struggled to secure. A tsunami of corporate campaign cash in the wake of a Citizens United decision that threatens to drown out the voices of citizens. Efforts to deter or block low-income communities and people of color from participating in an act every true democracy holds sacrosanct: casting a vote.

These and other threats have brought our democracy to the brink of a credibility crisis, “a moment of democratic self-doubt and self-questioning,” NAACP President Cornell Brooks said the other night. “The legitimacy and moral credibility of the franchise is imperiled,” Brooks said at a Washington dinner of NRDC supporters this week. “Our movements cannot, will not, succeed unless we sustain the legitimacy of the franchise. We have to make sure that the levers of our democracy work, and that starts first with the right to vote.”

Every American has a stake in pushing back, and pushing back hard, against anything that threatens a sound democracy. And those of us pressing for progress must push back all the more.

A system in which entire groups of people can be denied their right to vote is a system whose quality is threatened. A system in which multinational and even foreign corporations can wield their campaign cash and lobbying muscle like weapons against our people is a system whose integrity is impaired. A system in which the voices of the many can be muted by the actions of a privileged few is a system whose legitimacy is compromised. And a people who allow this solemn trust to be turned into a mockery of the ideals that spawned it invite a kind of tyranny into their lives.

NRDC was founded on the premise that the environment needed legal protection. We took a page out of the playbook of the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, using judicial decisions and court actions to forge the basis of a legal challenge to environmental threats, even as we worked to put new, effective laws into place.

Putting legal tools in the hands of everyday citizens and empowering them to help ensure that those laws are enforced was a unifying premise for NRDC and every other group in the progressive movement, and we have seen the fruits of its success in better lives for all people.

I stand in unity, once again, with Cornell Brooks in his mission to sustain this franchise, this product of American pragmatism, this tribute to universal ideals. I look forward to the day when I can sit in a meeting and no longer be asked why we in the environmental movement are fighting back against attacks on basic voting rights, standing up for commonsense campaign finance reform, or supporting automatic voter registration.

I look to the day when it is understood, by our friends as well as our foes, that we and our allies consider an attack on any part of our democracy to be an attack on democracy’s whole. That is something no American anywhere should accept. It is something this movement will not abide.

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