Founded in 2001, Democracy Matters (DM) is a student activist organization that seeks to “strengthen democracy” by training college and high-school students in the techniques of leftwing political activism, thereby creating a “new generation of reform-minded leaders.” DM's mission is to “prepar[e] students for political involvement and leadership in a wide range of movements -- from campaign finance reform, to social justice, civil rights, workers' rights, and environmental reform.” Focused heavily on removing private money from politics, DM is a proponent of “Voter-Owned Clean Elections,” a system of public campaign financing designed to reduce the political influence of lobbyist groups and wealthy donors.
Democracy Matters is one of the fastest-growing student groups in the United States today. As of May 2007, there were nearly 80 DM campus chapters in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Its rapid growth is due partly to the fact that DM offers paid internships to students willing to start chapters on their own campuses. Given a stipend of $750 per semester, these interns, called “Campus Coordinators,” must go through a four-phase training program that teaches them how to be effective activists.
In one recent year, ten DM chapters worked with the group New York Citizen Action “on strategies to encourage gubernatorial candidates to support the public financing of campaigns.” New York Citizen Action is a holdover chapter of the national umbrella Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy organization largely destroyed by its role in the Teamsters Union money-laundering scandal of the late 1990s.
The DM website suggests a number of activities that Campus Coordinators can implement at their respective schools. One of these is “Agit-Prop Theater” (a term coined by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), where students write and perform a skits dramatizing the exploits of "Fat Cat Billionaires (with funny names like Iona Senator or Hal E. Burton), Lobbyists, Politicians on the take, or Students and Homeless people trying to influence legislation.”
DM also urges students to engage in “guerrilla activism,” of which the organization provides the following examples:
DM further recommends that its Campus Coordinators organize teach-ins and movie nights that focus on issues of public import. The list of recommended films includes: Bowling for Columbine and "other Michael Moore movies"; Wag the Dog; Who Killed the Electric Car?; John Q; Votes for Sale?; Syriana; Supersize Me; Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price; The Party's Over; Thanks for Smoking; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; The Education of Shelby Knox; The Corporation; The Insider; and The Big Buy: How Tom Delay Stole Congress.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2000 presidential election controversy, DM co-sponsored Democracy Institute, a youth-oriented training program guided by the belief that “citizens are disenfranchised by electoral systems that entrench injustice and inequality.” Fellow organizational sponsors of Democracy Institute included Global Exchange, the Independent Progressive Politics Network, the Institute for Policy Studies/Progressive Challenge, and the NAACP Youth and College Division.
In the 2006 election cycle, DM endorsed Proposition 89, a defeated California ballot initiative calling for campaign contribution limits and equal funding for all political candidates. Fellow endorsers of this Proposition included the California National Organization for Women PAC, CalPIRG, Code Pink, Feminist Majority, Global Exchange, Greenpeace, the League of Women Voters of California, Public Citizen, the Rainforest Action Network, the SEIU California State Council, the Sierra Club of California, and Working Assets.
The founder and President of DM is Adonal Foyle, best known as a member of the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors. Foyle says he created DM to help students “fight for progressive change” and “fight the corrupting effect of private money in politics.”
Foyle’s adoptive mother, Joan Mandle, serves as DM’s Executive Director. She was previously an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Colgate University, where she directed the Women’s Studies Program and founded a Center for Women’s Studies. The League of Women Voters of Oakland presented Mandle with its “Civic Contribution Award,” and Sociologists for Women in Society honored her with a “Feminist Activism Award.” Foyle also worked on Barbara Boxer’s successful senatorial campaign in 1998.
Foyle’s adoptive father, Jay Mandle, is also a member of the DM staff. A former professor of economics at Colgate University, Mr. Mandle writes a regular column on the DM website called “Money on My Mind.” In October 2001 he opined that a military response to the 9/11 attacks would backfire against the United States: “… there is a real danger of handing an undeserved victory to the terrorists. They triumph to the extent that they move our country away from the best of its values and traditions. Restricting civil liberties and engaging in a vengeful military response, added to the retreat on campaign finance reform, does precisely that.”
DM is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the East Bay Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the General Service Foundation, the Proteus Fund, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
DM has received a strong endorsement from Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, who says: "What could do more to revive the enthusiasm of the American people for political life than the work that Democracy Matters is doing on college campuses? Student activism can wash away the cynicism and apathy that develop when people believe that wealth buys political power."