The Rainbow Election

While the pundits will devour months dissecting and divining all the implications of last Tuesday’s vote, one result trumps all others. It is totally historic. No, I’m not speaking about the egregious infusions of unaccounted cash into the electoral bloodstream (although you’ll be hearing more from me on that). I’m speaking about the huge, positive, and transformative impact of diversity on so many electoral outcomes, from the Presidential through Congressional, state and local contests. When the history of the 2012 elections is written, this will be its finding—a story of America turning a corner toward future elections that will be unlike any in our past.

Diversity is African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, a multitude of other ethnic and cultural groups, disability communities, gays and lesbians—the list goes on. Their impact on this election was overwhelming, at all levels of government. Just as clearly, their role will only grow as minorities trend rapidly toward being the American majority by mid-century. Every election will see their growing influence in charting our nation’s course. That course will be different—and I believe better—because of it.

Diversity spoke on November 6. It spoke clearly and convincingly:

Diversity said: “From now on, I will have a lot more to say about how elections turn out.”

Diversity said: “Candidates aren’t going to win without me.”

Diversity said: “But remember this—no one earns my votes by just talking about diversity. After the obvious impact I had on the 2012 results, everyone will be talking diversity because they think it’s good politics. From now on, successful candidates (and parties) will have to walk diversity’s walk. I’m looking for results now. I’ve raised the bar.”

Diversity said: “Don’t take me for granted. No one party commands my support. I will support those who deliver. I don’t have permanent friends; I have permanent interests. Ignore me at your peril.”

Diversity covers a wide waterfront of issues. My beat has been communications. Minorities haven’t fared well in telecommunications and media. They are behind in accessing the opportunity-creating tools of broadband. That means they have less access to jobs, education and healthcare. They are behind in owning media outlets that could help so much to spread knowledge of diversity issues and to inform our nation’s flagging civic dialogue. They are behind in holding top managerial jobs in media and telecommunications. They continue to suffer discrimination both blatant and subtle as their issues and voices are pushed to the side by the huge consolidated media behemoths that increasingly control our nation’s airwaves. At those times when minorities are covered, it is all too often in stereotype and caricature.

They are behind through no fault of their own. They are behind because business models in the private sector and bad policy decisions in the public sector have failed them. Huge consolidated media, for example, shut out small minority entrepreneurs. Government, for its part, has blessed and encouraged industry concentration and, to make matters worse, it has walked away from its statutory obligations to protect the public interest and to encourage a communications ecosystem that includes everyone who is part of the great tapestry that is the United States of America.

Those tasked with government oversight—and regulation—of the people’s airwaves must finally take heed. I speak particularly of the place where I spent the last decade—the Federal Communications Commission. Its record is not good when it comes to encouraging diversity. Dozens of recommendations have been submitted, for years, by outside groups and by the Commission’s own Diversity Advisory Committee—workable incentives to increase minority (and female) participation in communications. Somewhere along the line these proposals go astray, seldom making it to a full Commission up-or-down vote. I don’t believe this kind of disregard can continue much longer. Can’t the Commission at least vote on one of those recommendations every month for the next year? That’s not asking very much; but it is asking for more than we are getting.

Fortunately there is a strong voice for diversity at the Commission in the person of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Since arriving there in 2009, she has pushed to implement programs to encourage diversity in our communications businesses and in our news and information ecosystem. She has support in the Commission—but she needs a majority for anything to happen. She needs it now. The Commission, for its own credibility, needs a majority. It needs it now. In this Age of American Diversity, sins of omission are as bad as sins of commission. Neither can be tolerated when it comes to diversity justice. Diversity demands justice.

Minorities-becoming-the-majority stepped up to the plate in 2012. They must do so again in 2014. Following President Obama’s 2008 victory, diversity voting fell off in the Congressional contests two years later. That was costly to minorities and costly to the country. I don’t think that will happen again, but it’s up to all of us to exercise our franchise at every opportunity to make sure it doesn’t .

It is also up to us to demand repair of our broken electoral machinery. Efforts to exclude minority participation must be promptly and rigorously eliminated. So must state legislation that restricts voting by making registration and casting a ballot burdensome and ridiculously time-consuming. Voting procedures should be easy, expeditious, and consistent throughout the land. Building and maintaining democracy is challenge enough without short-circuiting it at the polling place.

Some among us seem to think that diversity is a challenge to be overcome. It is not. Diversity is an opportunity to be exploited. It is America’s strength and our ultimate advantage. Goodness knows we have frittered away enough of our country’s strength in recent years. Can’t we wake up to the advantages we still have and put them to work for the future? That Rainbow I mentioned isn’t just the magnificent diversity of our population. It is the bright portent of our democracy’s future—if we are smart enough to read the election returns.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.

By Michael Copps.