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Saving Our Democracy | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Saving Our Democracy

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.)

The other keynoter, Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, drawing on his recently published, magisterial book The Rise of American Democracy, spoke compellingly about the history of our nation's imperfect democracy. When Lincoln spoke in the Great Hall, Wilentz reminded us, those were also very dark days--in some ways, darker than our own. (He also quipped that standing in the heart of Village had made him think about what Allen Ginsberg might have done to describe our times. "He'd have written a poem called 'Howl'.")

Out of the basement of Cooper Union, emerged many powerful statements, insights, ideas and proposals. Here is a small sampling of highlights from this well-conceived, transpartisan effort to reclaim and rebuild our democracy:

Miles Rapoport, President of Demos and Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights argued for the need for national voting standards, open source codes for electronic voting machines, paper trails, non-partisan administration of elections, federal standards and, in a prescient comment--considering Monday's front page Washington Post story about the Department of Justice's Voting Rights Division--both pro-democracy leaders lamented the dangerous politicization of critical departments in Justice, particularly in the Voting Rights area.

Dr. Robert Franklin, Professor of Social Ethics at Emory and president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, appealed to conservative religious figures to "come back to your roots and to the American way, to your own best traditions...support the wisdom of the founding fathers" who respected the separation of church and state. Franklin's proposal of a "Religious Extremist Reentry Program" elicited some laughter--but he was serious in suggesting that true conservatives should cease imposing religious tests on potential office-holders.

Esther Kaplan, a frequent contributor to The Nation and author of With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right, spoke passionately of the need for a progressive vision of the role of religion in a secular society.

David Cole, The Nation's legal affairs correspondent and Professor at Georgetown University's Law School, spoke of how he'd recently been on a talk show with a Bush Administration offficial. The discussion centered on the legality of the NSA's domestic wiretapping program. "Anytime we get your side talking about the law," the official told Cole, "and we talk security, we win and you lose." In a cogent ten minute presentation, Cole laid out "why talking about the law is talking about security." The rule of law, he argued, is an asset, not an obstacle, in fighting terrorism.

Jerry Nadler, one of eight lawmakers who joined with Conyers to hold those "basement" hearings last Friday, was impassioned in describing the legislative tyranny at work in a GOP-dominated Congress. "Most major votes are held after midnight..there is routine subversion of procedural rules...routine to have phony committees...last minute earmarks have reached unprecedented heights and are introduced without debate, out of daylight." Nadler went on to argue that reforms must go beyond what the Democratic leadership has so far proposed. "If we don't clean up our campaign finance system--the biggest metastasized cancer on our democracy--there isn't much hope for America remaining a democracy for very long."

State Senator Liz Krueger brought laughs and moans as she described Albany's dysfunctional legislative system. Wayne Barrett's infamous naming of NYC as "City for Sale", she quipped, could easily be expanded to "State for Sale."

Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, called for a new 21st century agenda for openness, detailing how opennness protects our security, while secrecy is, and always has been, the enemy of democracy. "We need to take back the debate, reframe it." Blanton pointed to the recent revelations of body armor defects--a story that was suppressed for months and which, once revealed to the public, led to action to redress a lethal problem of bureaucratic incompetence and inertia.

Gary Bass of OMB Watch laid out why the unprecedented levels of secrecy and rollback of information must be seen as part of a fundamental change in the culture of government. His examples of how the American public is harmed by overclassification and restriction of information in the fields of health, environment and safety were especially persuasive and tragic, coming on the heels of successive mining disasters in West Virginia.

William Greider, The Nation's National Affairs Correspondent, laid out an agenda to address the fundamental deterioration of work and wages confronting not just the poor but also the middle class. How do we get back on the offense, Greider asked, at a time when "we are witnessing the groaning death throes of an economic ideology...The conservative laissez-faire dogma, brought to power by the Republican ascendancy, has hit the wall and is gradually breaking down, trapped by its own ideological fallacies and contradictions." (Watch for more on this theme in an upcoming article in The Nation.) Greider was also quick to criticize the Democratic mainstream establishment for failing to address the reality of working lives and conditions at a time of great change and stress.

Michael Fishman, President of local 32BJ Service Employees International, described how labor is globalizing, forming global alliances and partnerships with unions in other countries, as an effective way to counter the global power of multinationals. Labor is also using the power of trillions of dollars in union pension funds to change corporate behaviour. (It was the power of pension funds, Fishman argued, and the pressure they brought to bear as a result of about 40 percent of Houtson real estate being owned by funds like CALPERS that contributed to the important SEIU organizing victory in Houston at the end of last year, in which 5,000 janitors joined the union.

Fishman also told the crowd that at the end of March, multiple unions will sign a socially responsible agreement with huge multinational security corporation Securitas. Perhaps, Fishman concluded--sounding an optimistic note--"global capitalism will give us some opportunities to organize and win globally."

John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, and co-founder of the media reform group Free Press, reminded the audience that the Founding Fathers feared a consolidated media, one that would fail citizens while promoting corporate interests. How do we in the media, Nichols asked, revitalize the civic powers that are so important to a democratic society? How do we ensure that citizens are not fearful and passive but informed and engaged? How do we make sure that never again does our media--"and here I include the NYT not just FOX"--abet an administration determined to mislead us into a war of choice.

Too much of our media, Nichols observed, is, as Mark Hertsgaard warned decades ago, 'on bended knee,' with payola pundits and a vicious war on the press being waged by this administration. Nichols' dire warning of the "redlining" of the internet and the dangers of digital inequality should lead concerned citizens, of all stripes, to ensure that the upcoming legislative debates and rulemaking in Congress and the courts takes the public interest as a goal rather than just corporate profitability.

David Brock, President of Media Matters for America, was present at the creation of the modern righwing media monster in the early 1990s and now devotes his time to dismantling and dissecting the beast. He was best when ticking off examples of current media lies and distortions--take the recent coverage of the Alito Hearings, the phony "war on Christmas" and the efforts to give a false balance to the GOP-infested Abramoff scandals.

Brock documented the mainstreaming of extremist conservative views--for example, CNN's recent hiring of an extremist rightwing talk radio host, and the continual skewing of debates on television (where 80 percent of Americans continue to get their daily dose of news), and the increasing right wing pressure on the media (see Eric Alterman's Nation columns for more on 'working the refs'.) Media Matters' monitoring of the "Foxification" of our news landscape and its attempts to bring a countervailing point of view to a skewed landscape has brought some results. But, as Nichols argued, it is the systemic change--for example, restoring the Fairness Doctrine, that we must fight for in these next years. What could be less partisan than a belief that democracy is best served by a fair marketplace of ideas that truly represents this great and diverse land?

The final session, "Restoring Democracy from the Ground Up," featured Bertha Lewis, the executive director of ACORN and Dan Cantor, Executive Director of the Working Families Party. They reminded us that without work on the ground, organizing from below, we will never rebuild a thriving democracy, committed to shared prosperity, fairness, social and economic justice and true security.

Transcripts and video of the "Saving Our Democracy" conference will be available in early February from NDP. For more information check out the NDP website.

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