The Isthmus previews the Democracy Convention

August 23, 2011
Judith Davidoff

The timing could not be better, but organizers say plans for this week's Democracy Convention in Madison were set before Gov. Scott Walker's introduction of his collective bargaining bill and the ensuing protests that led some to compare the uprising in Wisconsin to democratic rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia.

In fact, knowing that summer openings are hard to find in Madison, Ben Manski, president of the Liberty Tree Foundation, nailed down a venue and date for the convention about a year and a half ago. It runs Aug. 24-28 at the Concourse Hotel and the downtown campus of Madison College.

Manski says the idea for the conference has been percolating for some time, and has always been part of the long-range plan for the organization he founded in 2004 while still a law student at UW-Madison.

"We've been working for the last seven years to get to this point," says Manski, who recently lost a bid for the west-side Assembly seat vacated by longtime lawmaker Spencer Black. Now, says Manski, his group has "clarity" about its goals and direction: "It feels very good."

The convention, co-hosted by The Progressive, Alliance for Democracy and Move to Amend, will bring together people who work on social justice and government reform issues, including corporate control of mainstream media, children's health, campaign finance reform and environmental protections. While plugging away, these advocates have come to the conclusion that there is an underlying problem in the United States that needs to be dealt with first.

"There is a recognition for almost all of us, we don't genuinely have the ability to participate in power in making the fundamental decisions that impact our lives," says Manski. "So what the democracy convention is about is bringing together many of the people around the country who recognize we do need a new movement in this country that puts the question of who rules, who holds the power, who is excluded from decision making, at the center of our work."

It is also a recognition that democracy is not just about lobbying or voting, but about what happens in schools, workplaces and communities, Manski adds. "Inside these institutions, most are not democratically organized. And yet that's where we spend most of our time."

Manski sees the conference as a "coming of age party" for a movement that dates to the 1990s, with the struggles against the "free trade" rules of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. Now, the movement that has been building at the grassroots level has matured, become more visible and can begin to have a real impact, he says. "We are at the level of the practical. That's what is so exciting."

About 1,000 participants are expected to attend the four-day conference. Mayor Paul Soglin will introduce keynote speakers Tom Hayden and Cheri Honkala Wednesday night.

Hayden is a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society and author of the group's Port Huron Statement, which, says Manski, "has had a profound influence on the country in terms of really pushing forward the need for a form of democracy that is participatory, not just representative."

Honkala, the national coordinator for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, is "one of the leading advocates for poor people in this country," says Manski.

Saturday night the conference moves to the Memorial Union Terrace for a concert by Michelle Shocked and Emma's Revolution, as well as Madison's VO5. The music begins at 8 p.m.