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A People's Democratic Platform | The Nation

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A People's Democratic Platform

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Lani Guinier

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Read all the pieces in The Nation’s special issue on the new wave of racial justice organizing.

“We are in the classic fog of war,” says Stephen Cohen.


Lani Guinier is Bennett Boskey Professor, Harvard Law School. She is co-author, with Gerald Torres, of The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy.

Never has it been clearer that Democrats must promote a national conversation about what it means to be a multiracial democracy. Republicans' right-wing turn, Democrats' ongoing tendency to take their base for granted and the sharp decline in competitive Congressional districts create an urgent need to rebuild democracy at home. The United States maintains a whole host of antidemocratic practices, from disenfranchising nearly 5 million citizens because of felony convictions to voter registration procedures that leave a third of adults unregistered. But winner-take-all elections play a particular role in the steady decline in voter participation among core Democratic constituencies, underrepresentation of women and people of color and the general failure of politics to mobilize, inform and inspire.

Anti-Bush forces have raised tens of millions to mobilize voters--but only for competitive states. People of color are poised for a historically high vote against the President--but mostly where a white conservative majority will trump their votes. With a battle for the House occurring in a couple dozen white-majority, mostly suburban districts, the Congressional Black Caucus is largely a spectator in any effort to gain real Congressional clout. Voter turnout rates once again will be wildly unequal between low-income and high-income voters. It will be a struggle for women to win even 15 percent of House seats. Third-party options will remain constricted because of "spoiler" dynamics.

A real democracy cannot look this way--certainly not a multiracial one. Nearly all significant democracies have adopted systems of proportional representation or debate it seriously--even Iraq and Afghanistan have rejected winner-take-all. In South Africa, for example, voters cast their ballots for the political party they feel most represents their interests, and the party gets seats in the legislature in proportion to their number of votes. Each vote counts to enhance the political power of the party of the voters' choice.

Because voters in South Africa essentially "district" themselves by how they mark their ballots, proportional representation eliminates the problem of political gerrymandering--in a much more sweeping, empowering way than so-called neutral districting commissions or other modest reforms to control the power of incumbents to cherry-pick their voters. Proportional representation creates new incentives for local multiparty organizing to generate citizen engagement and meaningful participation, not merely on Election Day but between elections. Coalitions that start with narrowly focused issues can grow and use their aggregated power again and again at the intersection of race, class and geography--getting organized labor to join fights that help Latino immigrants and poor urban blacks to partner with rural whites who are also living in isolated pockets of distress, and so forth. These coalitions can aspire to an electoral strategy while nurturing leaders and innovative ideas to help us think creatively and act collectively.

Nothing in the Constitution says that we have to use winner-take-all, single-member districts. Indeed, Black Caucus members like Jim Clyburn and Mel Watt have repeatedly introduced legislation allowing states to choose proportional representation. It's a goal that should have great appeal not just for African-Americans but also for every group that has ever felt disenfranchised--and today that covers most of us.


Studs Terkel


Studs Terkel is the author, most recently, of Hope Dies Last.

Necrophilia should be the subtext of all the issues discussed at the forthcoming Democratic convention. Are we a life-affirming society or one that perversely courts death? We are the only industrialized country that does not have national health insurance (my small bottle of prescription tablets and my tube of nasal spray set me back $114.35), as well as the only such nation that insists on the death penalty.

Of course, the matters of our loony Iraq maladventure, environmental rape, outsourcing and mass firings, the USA Patriot Act and the Enronism of Dubya's buddy boys should be brought forth. However, what must be made most clear is the overarching assault upon our native intelligence and our innate sense of decency, all adding up to an unprecedented menace to our general well-being.

Oh, one more thing: the perversion of the American language. The word "liberal" has assumed a dark meaning, thanks in no small part to the kept boys and girls of the mainstream media. I suggest that the chair of the gathering should immediately read to the delegates the dictionary definition of "liberal": (1) expressing social and political policies that favor progress and reform; (2) following policies that favor the freedom of individuals to act or express themselves in a manner of their own choosing--in short, a reaffirmation of FDR's New Deal.

The assemblage should impel the presumptive nominee for the presidency to abandon his mummyesque role and, instead of denying that he is a liberal, proudly affirm it.

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