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Saving Our Democracy

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Below is the welcoming address I gave yesterday, January 21, to the "Saving our Democracy" colloquium at Cooper Union's Great Hall. 500 attendees heard me and 24 others throughout the day - John Conyers, Katrina vanden Heuval, Bill Greider, Wade Henderson - speak behind the actual podium that Lincoln used to launch his fateful 1860 presidential campaign:

18 months ago, Demos, the Nation Magazine, People for the American Way and the New Democracy Project together saw the irony of the administration and its cheerleaders rhetorically talking about exporting democracy while systematically subverting it at home.

THEN came irrefutable evidence of torture and rendition by our country in our name...then came case after case when religion pushed aside science in health and environmental decisions...then came a 5th tax cut transferring a cool trillion dollars from middle class families to the Paris Hiltons...then came about the biggest congressional scandal in American history showing how Congress Inc. was the real west wing of this white house...then we saw a president systematically, unapologetically and illegally spying on American citizens in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act...and this is the same President with the chutzpah to lecture the world that HE would bring his brand of democracy everywhere.

Is he kidding?

But when I realized that 42% of Americans believed in satanic possession, I stopped assuming that no one could buy what he was selling and we began organizing "Saving our Democracy" in earnest.

Can we really brag that we are a model of exportable democracy:

*when 1% give more money to candidates than the other 99% -- and have a bigger say,
*when Brazil has an 80% voter turnout and nearly all vote online - while we hit 35% in congressional elections, miscount butterfly ballots and deny hundreds of thousands of black voters their franchise after they've paid their debt to society for crimes,
*when legislatures draw lines that enable 99% of incumbents to win their "elections";
*when tens of thousands of the working poor can no longer afford to go bankrupt or get access to justice;
*when there are 66 lobbyists per member in Washington DC - which helps explain a drug bill that enriches drug companies more than it helps seniors and an energy bill that contains more corporate subsidies than ways to decrease our reliance on foreign oil;

*and when a government lies us into a war that drains us of lives, funds and allies for a real war on terrorism.

You know, if that Korean scientist who DIDN'T clone a live person had to confess to his fabrications and is now shunned - why is Cheney still vice president?

America has always been a brain with two parts -- a left sphere where the voice of democracy is located and a right sphere where the commerce of capitalism is located. Both were needed in a complex balance for our great experiment to prosper. But recently, the right sphere has been subsuming the left, as companies buy not just other companies but congressmen themselves - and the values of the market come to dominate not just the private sector but the public sector as well. Think Tom Paine vs. Robinson Crusoe - we're all in this together vs. we're all in this alone.

But democracy means literally rule by the people - and is grounded in the values of participation, transparency and accountability. It means that decisions are made from the bottom up. But that is exactly what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and James Dobson and Ken Lay and Jack Abramoff dont believe in.

So where's the media as our democracy is in a long, slow descent? The disappearance of poor Natalie Hallway and the decline of poor Terry Schiavo each got perhaps 100 times the attention of our disappearing and declining democracy.

But the goods news is that, just as its darkest just before the dawn, there are now thousands of activists, advocates and authors who won't let the new autocrats and plutocrats posing as populists steal our democracy.

For we need nothing less than our own pro-democracy movement in America. Recall how in other countries in the late 80s people went from jail to leadership - like a Mandela, a Walensa, a Havel - today in Washington officials are more likely to go instead from leadership to jail.

In an effort to help inspire and flesh out what a pro-democracy movement can look like then, 25 speakers over nine panels will cover such issues as official lawlessness, voter suppression, a Congress for Sale, Religious McCarthyism, and grass roots organizing. They will also discuss the new pro-democracy efforts and ideas that are taking hold, largely out of the sight of the national media. Then Demos, The Nation, People for the American Way and The New Democracy Project will stitch together the best reforms into a Democracy Agenda - a Contract with Democracy, if you will - and send them in a brochure to each of you and others...and then publish a book grounded in these proceedings on August 1.

So if you're tired of phony patriots waving the flag and then violating her principles daily, get ready for authentic patriots embodying our oldest value of self-governance. If content is your nutrition, get ready to gorge.

To conclude, the perils to our democracy are not as great as faced Lincoln when, in 1860 behind this very podium, he faced a rapidly and racially dividing America. But the anti-democracy values of Bush & Co. and the religious far right and big business are challenge enough to us today.

And as Congress appears ready to confirm Sam Alito and Bush argues that illegal spying is legal and he'll ignore a ban on torture if he chooses, let us keep in mind today the spirit of Tom Paine, when he wrote that "There is too much common sense and independence in America to be long the dupe of any fiction, foreign or domestic." And let us keep in mind the sign I actually saw in a store window near our home on 19th street: "Democracy", it said, "is like sex - it works best when you participate."