WSJ: Madison convention focuses on strengthening democracy

August 24, 2011
Deborah Ziff

There may be no other convention where you can learn about the history of civil disobedience, go to a class called Organizing 101, and discuss how to make a general strike succeed.

The first ever Democracy Convention will be held in Madison Wednesday through Sunday.

"It's the first national gathering in my lifetime that has focused on the underlying question of who rules," said Ben Manski, former co-chair of the Green Party of the U.S. and an event organizer. "[It] is not just interested in criticizing the lack of democracy in the United States but is devoted toward strengthening the movement to achieve the American promise of democracy."

Manski said he expects between 900 to 1,000 people to attend the convention, which will be held at the Concourse Hotel and the Downtown campus of Madison Area Technical College.

The keynote speakers are Tom Hayden, a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society in 1961, and Cheri Honkala, an advocate for poor people's rights, with a welcome by Mayor Paul Soglin.

There are nine conferences within the convention, focusing on areas such as education, open government and media.

Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor, said interest in the event may be fueled by the massive protests at the Capitol this spring over Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to limit public sector collective bargaining, concern about the economy and a sense that President Barack Obama is not progressive enough.

"I'm not sure you could pull this off in a lot of cities," Burden said. "In Tuscaloosa, this might not go over. But in Madison, I think they can make it happen."

Manski described the convention as part of a "democracy movement," with a goal of bringing reform and more participation to the way schools, government and corporations are run. An example of this, he said, is "participatory budgeting," where citizens can help set budget priorities.

"For most people, our participation in self-governance is limited to election day," Manski said. "The rest of our lives take place in institutions and an economy which are very undemocratic."

Burden said the convention has undertones of the Progressive movement 100 years ago but also shares some similarities with the tea party movement in that both are concerned with the concentration of power.

"The feelings that are being expressed at this event feel to me like feelings that are all over the place

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