01/11/2006 04:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A New American Democracy

This past weekend, the Oregon Bus Project -- one of the most exciting, innovative, and energetic progressive organizations in the country -- had its annual Engage Oregon conference. There was a huge turnout and a great exchange of ideas. I was one of the keynoters, along with Oregon's courageous former governor, John Kitzhaber, Dave Sirota, and Jim Hightower. Here is what I said. Let me know what you think...

Remarks at Re-Booting Democracy Conference
Welches, Oregon
Saturday, January 7, 2006

We live in a moment of enormous change: in our communities, in our country, in our world. The old rules and the old truths are being swept away and it's only natural we feel the tug to think in new and different ways to achieve progress and move forward. Our challenge is to use this moment to build on the achievements of the past and reach even higher.

I don't think you could have picked a better title for this year's conference than "Rebooting Democracy" because today American democracy is endangered.

I worked for Al Gore and John Kerry, but I'm not talking about Florida and I'm not talking about Diebold. I am a big believer in the kind of election reform initiatives you're talking about this weekend, but I'm not talking about our campaigns or elections or money in politics.

In America we've always had a deeper definition of democracy than just showing up at the ballot box once every couple of years.

America is a nation built upon a notion: that we're all created equal and all endowed with equal rights. That we each have an inalienable right to choose our own course, blaze our own path, rise as far as our talents can take us, walk shoulder to shoulder with anyone and be able to look them square in the eye. That's what we mean when we talk about democracy.

This was the faith of our founders. It is a faith they never wholly lived up to, a faith that we have always struggled to live by, and a faith that is today under attack.

That faith was forged in the America of the agricultural age. When Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800, America was a nation of farms and small towns. On the cold March morning he was inaugurated as president, he awoke at Mrs. Conrad's boarding house in Washington DC. He got dressed, went downstairs for breakfast and took his usual seat at the long table where all the boarders ate - the seat farthest from the warm fire. Someone got up and offered him a better seat. He smiled and refused.

Then he walked up the hill to the half-finished Capitol building and made his way up the steps. If he paused at the top, this would have been his view: seven or eight boarding houses, a tailor's, a shoemaker's, a printer's, an oyster market, a grocery shop, a stationery store, a dry goods store, a washwoman's home. And that was it. Nothing else. Just an endless expanse of dense forests and fertile fields. America was an undiscovered country, an untrammeled wilderness where every step forward was an exploration, where a young man could set out in a New World with the confidence that no one was coming up behind him and no one stood in his way.

So Jefferson put forward a radically democratic vision that fit the times. He said, the purpose of government was "to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." And to do that we needed to expand the right to vote to the poor as well as the rich. That we had to give everyone land so they could farm and build their own opportunity and create strong communities. He bought the Louisiana Territory so that more people could get a piece of that opportunity. And he sent Lewis and Clark west on a voyage of discovery.

Throughout the century, Jefferson's heirs continued to create a democracy defined by equality and opportunity - with the Oregon Trail and the Homestead Act and the land grant colleges.

That made sense for the time. The word "boss" - someone we have to obey at work - didn't even exist until the 1830's: 75 percent of free Americans were independent, self-sufficient farmers, most of rest worked for themselves as blacksmiths or tailors or butchers or bakers or candlestick makers.

It was a time when everyone had a chance of success through hard work. What made slavery so disgusting was that it flew in the face of an America that so honored equality and was without permanent divisions.

When Charles Dickens visited here in the 1840s, he was appalled at the sight of American trains: unlike the elegant railcars of Europe, these ones had no first, second, or third-class carriages. It was as if Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit sat side-by-side - and it didn't occur to either one of them that things should ever be any other way.

It was a country animated by the spirit of an old immigrant saying: in America, "the President is Mister and I am Mister, too."

But that America began to slip away. Where the word "boss" didn't exist in Jefferson's day, by the 1860's 40 percent of Americans worked for someone else. And by 1920, 87 percent of wage earners not only worked for a boss but for a new thing called a corporation.

Why? Because the world had changed and the rules of American life had changed with it.

A century ago, people were moving from farms to factories, from the country to the city, from independence to interdependence.

And, in the turmoil, the old America of equality and opportunity and democracy was disappearing. Partly it was because those that felt they should rule over others were able to take advantage of the situation. Robber barons dominated new industries like the railroad that destroyed the old ways of farm life and they captured governments and used them to protect their power and for their own selfish purposes.

Political leaders allied themselves with these powerful interests and did the bidding of these well-connected few - replacing democracy with plutocracy.

Political machines rose up - run by a "boss" - and they made decisions that once were made by free citizens, building up a hierarchy of leaders and followers.

But the comfortable democracy of the agricultural age was also whisked away by the simple wave of change. In the new factories, workers simply couldn't each choose their own course. Things only worked on an assembly line if everyone did what they were told to do over and over again like Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz wrapping the chocolates on TV.

It wasn't anyone's evil plan, just the nature of change. But it meant that Jefferson's America was disappearing. When workers in Pittsburgh saw Charlie Chaplin's silent comedy "Modern Times," with its image of a man imprisoned in a monstrous machine, they sat in stony silence. No one laughed.

So Jefferson's heirs - the people who believed in progress and equality and opportunity for all - the defenders of American democracy - watched as a new economy and the people twisting it for their own purposes undermined all their achievements of the previous century. As all their progress and work was threatened.

And they had a choice. They could rail against change and defend to the death what had come before. Or they could build on the past and achieve their goals in new ways in a new century.

And those who believed in democracy were split. Some chose the first path: they attacked as criminals all those who were undermining the Jefferson's ways of thinking. They sought to preserve yesterday's America at any cost. In his famous Cross of Gold speech accepting the Democratic nomination, William Jennings Bryan spoke directly to his detractors and contrasted "our farms" with "your cities."

They looked only to the solutions of the past. A Populist leader, James "Cyclone" Davis, barnstormed the country, giving speeches while he kept a volume of Jefferson's complete works with him at the podium. When someone asked him a question, about regulating corporations or government ownership of railroads - he would open the book and page through it, looking for the answer. The answer wasn't there.

Jefferson's vision of a democratic, equal America was being threatened because those who believed in it were just defending his methods, instead of coming up with new ways to reach his goal.

But then another group did just that. They were the progressives. Here in Oregon, they developed the "Oregon system" to take power from political machines and give it back to the people. Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt thought of - and then Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and others put in place - a new vision of government to bring American democracy into a new century.

They weren't anxious about the new industrial, national scale economy - they were excited to its power and wealth and scope to advance their goals. So they created public schools and Social Security and the GI Bill and home loans and the interstate highway program - the building blocks of a more democratic America.

But now we all know that America is changing yet again. We're moving from cities to suburbs and exurbs, from a national economy to a global economy, from the top-down hierarchies of the industrial age to the bottom-up workplaces of the information age, from assembly lines to iPods.

Not everyone is part of that shift, but with each passing day more and more are. And again, American democracy is at risk.

We once again have a corrupt bargain between powerful interests and pliant politicians. Energy policy is set not by citizens or their elected representatives, but behind closed doors by lobbyists and industry. Congress prohibits Medicare from negotiating for lower drug prices. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has doubled since 2000 and the amount these lobbyists charge their clients has increased 100 percent - and those clients are getting every cent of their money's worth. You don't have to look much further than this week's headlines to see that the voice of everyday people in our government is getting drowned out by the desires of a few.

Social equality is disappearing once again, in ways unseen since the last time our economy changed, back in the Gilded Age. Thirty years ago the top 100 CEOs made 39 times the wage of the average worker. Now it is more than 1,000 times higher. And the top 1% holds a third of the country's net worth. The days of "the President is Mister and I am Mister, too" are disappearing. And yet, Congress is clamoring to eliminate the estate tax with what might as well be called "the American Aristocrats Protection Act of 2006." Right now the fight is whether or not to cut off the estate tax at seven million dollars or higher.

Opportunity - the idea that in a democracy each person should have an equal chance at success - is also at risk. A 1978 study showed that 23% of the adult men born in the bottom fifth made it to the top fifth. When they did the study over again a few years ago, that number had dropped to 10%.

Class lines are becoming hardened and the avenues of democracy are being closed off. At the country's top 146 colleges, 75% of the students come from the top 1/4th and only 3% from the bottom 1/4th. You are 25 times as likely to sit next to a rich student as you are a poor one. The days of Bob Crachit and Ebenezer Scrooge sitting down together are vanishing before our eyes.

And where the richest in our country can choose their children's schools and their family doctor and how to save for their retirement, most middle class and poor Americans have little to no say on most aspects of their lives, little ability to make decisions for themselves.

Those of us who believe in American democracy now have a choice to make - and it is just like the choice a hundred years ago. We can try to hold back change: say no to globalization or no to technology replacing manufacturing jobs and bank tellers being replaced by ATMs.

We can spend all our energy on criticizing right wingers for their failures and their mistakes and the errors of their vision.

We can spend all our time defending what came before: saying that social security is all we can do when it comes to retirement instead of adding to it, that our public school system is just fine the way it is.

We can rail against change and defend all that came before, but that won't save American democracy.

Because we will end up like James "Cyclone" Davis looking through Jefferson's works to find answers to questions Jefferson couldn't imagine.

We can search the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt to find an answer for what we tell an unemployed steel worker about how we get his job back from China - but it won't be there.

We can page through the writings of John F. Kennedy to try to find out how we get our economy moving again in an age when capital from tax cuts and spending can end up in Australia just as easily as it ends up in Astoria - but we won't find it there.

Or we can do in our time what they did in theirs: offer new thinking to expand American democracy. We can build on what came before us instead of letting that progress get washed away. We can reimagine a bold vision of democracy for our own time.

Woodrow Wilson said that in America, democracy was "always a-making;" a process of progress, a goal we never quite reach. Its our job to push that progress along.

Democracy can be so much more than it is today. The Information Age is fundamentally about democratization - about power to the people. Workers have more ability to make their own decisions on the job. Consumers have more choices and more ability to shape what they buy. Our challenge now is to make American democracy come alive. To use government to give power to our people. To truly tap the talents of all. To actively break down the barriers that keep people from choosing their own path. To make equality come alive again. To make democracy mean more than elections, but real self-rule.

So let's find ways to make college universal. Let's stop running our schools on a calendar set by harvest time and let's end one-size-fits-every-kid education. Let's not be anxious about globalization but excited and use America's economic strength not just to enrich a few but to lift billions out of persistent poverty. Let's open up our decision-making process so individual people and communities make decisions instead of the elected few and distant bureaucracies. This can be a moment where we make democracy not just a form of government, but a way of life.

You see, there have always been two views of American democracy. One is that the wealthy and powerful and the educated experts are better suited to making decisions for all of us and to having control. That's the view that now drives this country's policies.

Then there's the other view that power and authority and a voice should be given to the people themselves; that prosperity flows from their efforts and that they should be given government's help in taking control of their own lives.

Let's put our faith back in people.

Let's defend our progress but never be satisfied with it.

Let's re-boot our democracy - and put it in sneakers and sandals and pumps and Tevas and ballet slippers and whatever else you want to wear as long as you get out their and put our democracy back on the march.

"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past," said Jefferson. Let's go out there and dream again.