When I was a little boy, my parents would take me to downtown Chicago, and I would gaze awe-struck at the skyline, the river, the marble towers, the swarm of busy people. To see the city lit up at night, especially during the holidays, it seemed like a magical place that its residents must be so thankful for.
Growing up, though, it seemed like I saw nothing but bad news come out about this same beautiful city. Words like “alderman,” “city council,” and “the machine” became synonymous with words like “indictments,” “pay offs,” and “convicted.”
I remember my mom teaching Sunday School, and asking all of us little kids to raise our hands if we liked one thing versus another. Noting that one child had raised their hand to vote both times, my mom joked, “Are you from Chicago?” Even as a little kid, I began to understand that Chicago’s reputation for corruption was unrivaled.
I grew up resenting that. This beautiful city, that had been built by so many people from so many places over time, that had survived a fire, that had improv comedy, great parades, and the always-optimistic Cubs fanbase—this sprawling city with so many different types of people were not just being embarrassed by their leaders, they were being ripped off by them as well. I didn’t yet understand what corruption was or why it happened, but it seemed to have something to do with accepting money and swinging elections, and doing so with the belief that you won’t get caught. That was a thing that stood out to me as a little kid, the idea that this kind of crime wasn’t robbing a bank or a thief holding people up, this was apparently a crime people were doing in their own offices against their own businesses. Why would you rob the people you work with, and then not even run away? Who does that? The outrage at leaders betraying who they represented stayed with me in everything I would end up pursuing. To me, corruption was the opposite of democracy, something we as humans will always be policing.
I confronted corruption how Chicago itself seemed to—through journalism and comedy. My senior year of high school, I was awarded my own column in the school paper, The Evanstonian, where I cherished my Royko-esque role chastising school administrators and President George H.W. Bush alike. That same year, I co-wrote our school’s annual student comedy musical revue, YAMO, and strove to put in the same biting satire I had seen at sketch shows downtown that would stick it to Mayor Daley. Even though I seemed to be confronting corruption in ‘The Chicago Way,’ school officials were not amused.
At NYU, I wrote my first full-length script, The Whole World is Watching!, about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, when riots in the streets overshadowed a shoe-horned party process, and reporters were gleefully beaten by police. Out of college, I created a stunt comedy cable access show in Manhattan, Toolz of the New School, which began as a fun outlet for me and my friends, but grew into an ongoing critical platform of Mayor Giuliani’s repressive “Quality of Life” campaign. As Giuliani’s crackdowns worsened, a wider audience embraced out show for its dissent, and we were soon in newspapers, magazines, and on the Mayor’s radar.
After moving to Los Angeles, I embarked on directing my first feature film, an improvised comedy with the Upright Citizen Brigade, Wild Girls Gone. While ostensibly a parody of the “Girls Gone Wild” franchise, the storyline centered on an opportunistic candidate espousing conservative values to cynically get into office. In our film, the fictitious town of White Sandworld-famous ass contests. The town sheriff (Matt Walsh) is running for mayor, and to win the support of elderly voters, he bans spring break and outlaws the ass contests. His alcoholic housewife (Amy Poehler), who used to be the town’s ass contest queen, has mixed feelings about her husband’s betrayal of what they used to enjoy together, and goes about trying to subvert her husband’s campaign by drunkenly starting ass contests around town. Even in a bawdy parody of spring break movies, I was able to work in an anti-corruption theme.
After learning how much work went into making a movie, I realized that if I was going to go through all that work to make a film, it should be about the most important thing I could possibly think of. So I set out to Ohio to explore what happened in the 2004 election, where thousands of voters were disenfranchised in a state that decided the election for George W. Bush. Through interviewing journalists, professors, lawyers, elected officials, local activists, and average Ohioans, I uncovered numerous schemes to suppress voters and defraud vote counts. I became so consumed with voting issues in this decisive state that I co-founded Video the Vote: a volunteer corps of videographers on election day to document polling problems or voter intimidation and report it using a new website called YouTube.com. We created a recruitment video for Video the Vote as a call to arms about two weeks before the 2006 elections.
Miraculously, our recruitment video took off, becoming national news, and I was suddenly seeing the video I edited on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, and doing double-takes while checking into some rural Ohio motel at the front page of USA Today, which reported on our efforts. We had tapped into a nerve, a deep concern for our democracy, and as we watched our local effort become a national team of thousands of volunteers, it felt deeply gratifying to see that there were so many out there who felt so strongly about defending the vote.
The resulting documentary, FREE FOR ALL! One Dude’s Quest to Save Democracy was released in 2008, in an election year with plenty of voter suppression at play. My producer Holly Mosher insisted on putting the film online for free, at a time when streaming video was not easy. Our film received good coverage considering election fraud was a topic many were in denial about at the time. Roger Ebert wrote that the film was “engrossing, even enraging...Ennis has a lot to say.” For all of its explosive allegations, nothing in the film was disproved; in fact, subsequent depositions confirmed some of the most alarming revelations.
My journeys through Ohio had produced an abundance of footage, and Holly had the foresight to see that we had a companion documentary to complete: the other major disenfranchisement in our elections, besides voter suppression, was money in politics. So we made another documentary about the challenges of running for office and how money played too big a role in elections, entitled PAY 2 PLAY: Democracy’s High Stakes.
No sooner had we started a documentary on campaign finance reform, there was the biggest campaign finance upheaval in a generation: 2010‘s Citizens United vs. F.E.C., wherein the Supreme Court decided that corporations had the same rights as people to spend money in elections. The issue of campaign finance reform came to the forefront over the next few years, while we worked on our film and tried to keep up with current events, like Occupy Wall Street or the uncovering of ALEC.
Released in the fall of 2014, PAY 2 PLAY had extended theatrical runs in New York, D.C., and Los Angeles, was hosted at the U.S. Capitol by Rep. Ted Lieu, and received hundreds of grassroots screenings in almost all 50 states. It is still presented in college classes and by democracy advocacy groups. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Going in to 2016, it felt like we had the wind to our backs. Democratic candidates ran on overturning Citizens United, the main message from our film. Meaningful reform felt within reach for myself and the movement we had cobbled together with dozens of other democracy reform groups.
And then somewhere along the way in 2016—perhaps when the first violence occurred at a Trump campaign rally—there began a sinking feeling, a pit in my stomach, which is still there.
Much more will emerge about the truth of the 2016 elections, but as I write this, the DHS has confirmed that Russia hacked U.S. voting systems in numerous states. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says Russia is just going to keep trying to meddle in our elections and there’s nothing we can do about it. The NRA has apparently laundered tens of millions dollars from Russia into the Trump campaign. Even George W. Bush—elected president only through widespread voter suppression in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004—announced that it’s clear Russia interfered with our elections.
Through most of 2017, I wanted to lie in bed. Sure, I marched, I put up street art, I use my social media to lend my voice to #TheResistance. But I kept thinking, what’s next? Maybe this crisis will have stress-tested our democratic institutions, and they can someday be reformed; perhaps opportunists have already noted our institutions are really more like social norms.
Here’s hoping we can someday pick up where we left off. My intention with this book was to preserve the writings and attitudes of an era when democracy itself was not being burned down, American sovereignty was not in question, and we asked how we could improve our electoral process instead of how to save it from Russian hackers and a complicit GOP. The Obama years certainly seem quite hagiographic for American democracy now.
Upon reviewing these essays about the Obama years, however, I came to remember an important truth: democracy kind of sucked, then, too. While we will always have eight years of a beautiful, scandal-free First Family to look back on, the reality was, our country was as fractious as ever. Republicans competed for the most openly disrespectful behavior toward the first African-American president. That Donald Trump’s insulting demand that President Obama produce his birth certificate was even reported on by the U.S. media portended how much racist indulgence journalists would gleefully confront the president with. An entire movement popped up at once, calling themselves the Tea Party, predicated on a conservative course of government and reducing the deficit, which had not been a priority until there was a black president (nor has it been a priority since). This well-funded and coordinated right-wing backlash to Obama won Congress in 2010 and has held on since, sabotaging every effort at governance, from Speaker of the House John Boehner’s forced government shutdowns to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denying Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice. In this time, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act and demolished campaign finance law.
So while President’s Obama entire tenure may be recalled with less drama than a single week under Trump, it belies how much battling was really going on. In fact, the Obama majority was cut down even before it voted, when the Supreme Court supported Indiana’s strict photo ID requirements in a 2008 decision, Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board, that would not go into effect until after the 2008 election. That law became the model for other states’ laws aimed at making access to the ballot box more difficult, laws which cropped up like crabgrass.
America’s arduous progress from a separatist slave state to its first black president was fraught with bad blood and spiteful decisions, much like we face today. I can wonder what it would be like to go back in time and convince the founding fathers to enshrine women and black people as equals, but the reality is, society wasn’t ready. Each social movement needs its time to change society. American democracy was revolutionary at the time, even though it only included white male property owners. American democracy is a work in progress. While Trump’s boorish racism is in many ways the logical backlash to a well-educated, self-made African-American in the White House, foreign interference to affect the outcome of our elections is a whole new level of assault on American democracy.
Now more than ever, we need to keep the dream of democracy alive. The Obama years may not have been a perfect democracy, but it was a high water mark for inclusiveness in American history. In normal times, calling out corruption is not enough—we need to proselytize democracy as a value, as a way of life. It’s not enough to observe democracy at that time of year when elections come around, like another holiday season we yawn through. We need to instill in ourselves and others that democracy is sacrosanct. We need to preach in support of inclusiveness while condemning the corrupt. We need to raise the expectations of what it means to be a good citizen, we have to glorify the good politicians, no matter how banal they are.
As idealized as the Obama years may seem, it wasn’t that our democracy was healthy because the popular vote winner was in power. In fact, the backlash was swift and vengeful, but the glow of victory on Obama’s election night kept us convinced that America was ours from now on. But it is on certain days that democracy gets a win—automatic voter registration going into effect in California, Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered maps being struck down in court, a first-time transgender candidate replacing the Assembly member that wrote North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom bill.
Democracy is something you have to fight for every day.