Metro, Politics, Newton

Leadership Now Project Says Threats to Democracy Endanger Local Governments at Newton Presentation

The 2020 presidential election had lasting effects on voting efforts in state and local governments, according to Sarah Rahman, a member of the Leadership Now Project.

The League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) and the Charles River Regional Chamber co-sponsored a presentation on the state of American democracy and its effects on the local legislatures of Massachusetts.

“We are in a place that nearly one third of Americans still believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and state legislatures are capitalizing on that belief to restrict voting in different ways,” Rahman said at the presentation.

Rahman and LWVN Board of Directors member Marcia Johnson hosted the event alongside Zak Smith, the strategy and program manager of the Leadership Now Project, a group that looks for business strategies to defend democracy, according to its website

To start the presentation, Rahman said the United States downgraded from a full democracy to a flawed democracy in 2019. She said the U.S. ranked 26th in the world for the health of its democracy that year, placing the U.S. behind countries including Spain, Israel, and Costa Rica.  

“I think this really shakes up the ideal that many of us have that America is a beacon for democracy around the world,” Rahman said.

Smith’s presentation focused on how businesses and their contributions to politics affect democracy. 

“Business is a fulcrum in our political system,” he said. “The preferences of economic beliefs in donors really drive policy, so we feel like by capturing this audience and getting them to care more about our democracy, we can really drive significant progress legislatively and with elections.”

Smith said Leadership Now plans to connect business leaders with tools, analysis, and opportunities to bring progressive ideas to politics. 

The Leadership Now Project identified what it called key areas of dysfunction that have contributed to problems with American democracy, according to Rahman. Along with the prevalence of large donations in elections that do not represent the makeup of constituents, Rahman said the media perpetuates false information, which she said led to the Jan. 6 riot. 

“A big catalyst for that was that big lie,” Rahman said. “So much information was tweeted out leading up to January 6 that the elections were rigged and that there were voter fraud.”

Rahman said discrepancies in the media are a threat to voter turnout, as they often lack transparency and lead politicians to restrict voting access, especially among Black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC) communities.

Along with speaking about how businesses engage with politics, Smith talked about plans to create changes within businesses themselves. Smith said that while Leadership Now aims to create leaders concerned with the sake of democracy, the organization also seeks to reveal the threat that undemocratic policies pose to businesses.

“The U.S. is at risk of a contested election in 2024, which poses a threat to our democracy but also the stability of the business environment,” Smith said. “What we try to do here is create this frame of a self-interested argument to businesses that can really hopefully help drive action on that issue.”

Rahman said it’s important for Newtonians to stay aware of what’s happening locally. She said residents can find information about politics and voting efforts right on the LWVN’s website.

Newton business leaders can evaluate their political spending to help improve democracy, according to Smith. 

“I think the next thing that we’re really advocating for companies to do is actually look at their own spending behavior if they are making political contributions at the national level or the state level,” Smith said. “You know, looking at who they are contributing to and whether those candidates are really actively trying to subvert democracy.”

In closing, Rahman reiterated the importance of voting, while Smith explained the importance of business leaders using their platforms to raise awareness about threats to democracy.

“I’m confident that folks here listening in this evening found this program to be quite informative and hopefully spark their thought process [for] what they can do to defend our democracy,” Johnson said.

March 2, 2022 10:20 a.m. correction: The article has been updated to reflect that Sarah Rahman is a member of the Leadership Now Project. She is not a spokeswoman for the Charles River Chamber. 

Featured Image by Nicole Vagra / Heights Editor

February 25, 2022