We've been at the protests in the last few days in both Washington and New York, and while reliable crowd size estimates are scarce, they are clearly growing from the thousands to the tens of thousands, and quickly replicating across the country.
Amidst this remarkable uprising we continue to hear a constant refrain from the pundits: "The protesters don't know what they're for. They only seem to know what they're against." However, our conversations on the ground don't reflect these claims.
Surely, there are many grievances and hand-held signs. But listen beyond the melodies, and the harmony is that an elite few are calling the shots in the halls of power, and ordinary people are suffering as a result. It's 1% vs. the other 99% -- an American theme as timeless as Thomas Paine's broadside against the English Crown.
Protesters are asserting that we, the people, should own our government -- not those who have the money to buy access and favors. It's stated right there in the third sentence of The Declaration of the Occupation of New York City: "That a democratic government derives its just power from the people."
So what changes are the protesters actually advocating? What does "democracy reform" look like? We've been working on this question for the past year, and offer two answers:
1) Reduce the undue influence of Big Money in politics, and,
2) Get more people voting and participating in governing the country.
Simply put, we need to stop politicians from being bribed while we get more people involved in our democracy. If we do this, we will see a profound shift in policy outcomes in every issue we care about: from taxation to spending; from consumer protections to financial reform.
The great challenge of course is that we have to get politicians to pass laws that overhaul the very system that affords them power; it's like getting the fox to put a lock on the henhouse.
History shows that doing that will require massive political heat that forces reform: a citizen-led tidal wave of liberals and conservatives galvanized around the goal of fundamentally changing how our democracy works.
It will require that we force a bold reform agenda onto the 2012 political stage by unseating politicians who are unwilling to put ordinary Americans ahead of special interest lobbyists. It will require that we aggressively expose corruption, and create scandal, rather than wait for one to come along. It will require more protests, and more activism amongst millions of Americans who don't currently think of themselves as activists.
It is not just the work of blue-haired college kids or grey-haired good-government wonks. It's the work of environmentalists who want the government to finally address global warming, and fiscal conservatives who are worried about wasteful spending, and unions who want to revive the "Made In America" label and business people who believe in competition over cronyism.
It's the work of patriotic revolutionaries who believe in the fundamental project of America: that power is generated from the people, on behalf of the common good. And while we're creating political heat, we will also need to promote a vision of a functional, responsive system of government.
There are many bullet points that flow from a democracy overhaul agenda -- from ballot integrity to redistricting to campaign financing to constitutional amendments. Enumerating them isn't the point now, though. Creating an actual political force and holding politicians feet to the fire is.
As Henry David Thoreau said, "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." The protests are remarkable because they show in real time how those who have been hacking at the branches are finally moving to the root of the problem. A real reason, finally, for hope and change that we desperately want and need.