On a glorious Saturday in New York, a spirited crowd of close to eight hundred people gathered inside the cavernous, subterranean Great Hall at New York’s Cooper Union to hear Representative John Conyers–and a dozen other eloquent speakers–address the gravest issue of our time: How do we save our imperiled democracy?
The daylong conference, “Saving Our Democracy,” planned before recent revelations of illegal domestic spying and metastasizing corruption scandals, was substantive and forward-looking. Panels were devoted to laying out ideas and strategies to fulfill the democratic promise of a government by, of, and for the people.
Organized by the New Democracy Project, The Nation, Demos and People for the American Way, the conference was animated by an abiding (and bipartisan) belief that this is a moment of crisis for our republic. And throughout the course of the day, panelists grappled with the most important questions and issues of our times: How do we ensure that every vote is counted? How do we confront religious McCarthyism in the public square? What do we do to resist legislative tyranny? How do we combat the lies and secrets polluting our democracy? Is there a countervailing power to “corpocracy”? How do unions regain power? How do we nurture a media that serves the public interest, at a time of unprecedented consolidation and rightwing drift? And how do we restore democracy from the ground up?
Here is one measure of the crisis of our democratic system: the night before Representative Conyers spoke in Cooper Union’s subterranean space, he had been consigned, along with eight Democratic lawmakers, to holding hearings on the gravest matter in a democracy–illegal wiretapping of its citizens–in another subterranean space: the basement on Capitol Hill. Conyers held this unofficial (and shamefully under-reported) hearing in a basement because Republicans have refused to hold hearings on the matter. (Kudos to CSPAN for carrying the hearings.)
At the New York conference, Conyers–who was greeted with a standing ovation–spoke at the iron cast podium from which Lincoln addressed the nation 146 years ago. (It was from the Great Hall, in February 1860 that the President–in a rousing peroration–argued that slavery was a moral wrong that must be ended. “Let us have faith that right makes might,” Lincoln told the assembled crowd.) Conyers echoed Lincoln’s words, reflecting on the darkness of our times and the necessity of saving the republic from constitutional crisis.
The nineteen-term Congressman who has courageously led the challenges against the White House on issues from Ohio election fraud to the Downing Street Memo, spoke clearly about the importance of struggle. We must stay strong, Conyers said, if we are to emerge from this interregnum of fear and stay true to the principles which make us just and secure. He challenged the Administration–as well as his own party–to uphold principles of peace, rule of law, civil liberties and economic and political justice. (“Three things, in these last decades, have been my mantra: Jobs, Justice and Peace.”) And he spoke passionately of his work to hold the Administration accountable–especially through introduction of House Resolution 635, which calls for establishment of a select committee with subpoena authority to investigate possible impeachable offenses with regard to the Iraq war. (It was gratifying to hear Conyers commend The Nation for our recent decision to support only candidates who seek a speedy end to the Iraq war and occupation.)