MANSKI: The New U.S. Democracy Movement

October 9, 2008
Ben Manski

Around the world, Americans are often maligned as self-serving, ignorant, and conservative. Yet Americans are generally a progressive people.

Public opinion research tells the story:

  • Most Americans favor creating a federal universal single payer health care system.
  • Most support trade policies based not on property rights, but human rights, environmental protection, and popular sovereignty.
  • Majorities believe that the U.S. should not act as the “world’s police force,” and large majorities support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
  • Americans, by and large, believe that access to quality education is a basic right, and are willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
  • Two-thirds welcome the contributions of recent immigrants to the United States.
  • Nearly all of us call for stronger and stricter environmental protection laws, and most are willing to pay for their enforcement.
  • And for the first time, a majority of Americans state a belief that same sex relationships are “acceptable,” and that legal recognition of these relationships is “inevitable.”

Something stinks in America, and that something is not the American people. The reality is that the policies of the federal and state governments do not reflect the views of most Americans.

If U.S. elections produced results that reflected the will of the majority, the current presidential and congressional elections might offer some reason for hope. Yet today, without a single vote having been counted, the outcomes of the 2008 elections already appear certain.

Such certainty can only lead to instability. The saving grace of the U.S. system of government is supposed to be its ability to respond to and absorb popular demands. Mired in Iraq, lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the system appears unable even to absorb popular pressure, much less change in response to it.

John F. Kennedy is often misquoted as having warned that, “Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent change inevitable.” In fact, Kennedy used the word “revolution,” not “change.” Yet for those who refuse to accept that peaceful change is impossible, or violent revolution inevitable, the question to ask is whether there is another way.

Build a democracy movement.

If the people are generally progressive, and the system is the problem, then a movement to establish rule by the people – a democracy movement – could be the solution.

One option for building a democracy movement would be to gather the most prominent progressive leaders together in Washington D.C. to plan a massive public media and lobbying campaign intended to reform the American legal system, beginning with election law, continuing through corporate and media law, and on from there. This option is a recipe for failing to build a democracy movement. Such an effort would only succeed – indeed, has only succeeded – in building a false sense of empowerment among a relative handful of elites.

Another option would be to prepare the groundswell for the new democracy movement by investing in grassroots pro-democracy initiatives in every area of society – in our communities, workplaces, schools, colleges, universities, media, institutions of worship, families, practice of law, even our national defense – in the process creating the conditions in which millions of Americans gain democratic skills, a thirst for further democratic change, and a common sense of how a new, more democratic America could be constituted. Such an effort would be a recipe for awakening the tens of millions of democrats who would by definition make up any true democracy movement. The good news is that this effort is already under way.

The new democracy movement is just that – new – and the forms it is taking will therefore, at first glance, also appear new and will require a deeper look than is possible here.

At the community level, local democracy is the name of the game. Community organizers, elected officials, and political parties involved in the Local Democracy Network are shifting control over lawmaking and budgeting from elected officials to the voting public through the use of “direct legislation” and the introduction of “participatory budgeting.” They are working to democratize their localities by establishing community control over policing and by strengthening local equal protection guarantees. And, at the same time, they are working to bring more power down to the local level – to localize democracy - by expanding “home rule.”

In our schools, colleges, and universities, democratizing education is where it’s at. Student associations, student groups, education labor unions, and community groups have come together in the Democratizing Education Network to work to reverse the corporatization of education by setting a pro-democracy agenda: Full funding for public education, abolition of tuition, direct election of administrators, the right to organize student and labor unions, and five other key reforms outlined in the Democratizing Education Charter.

Pro-democracy campaigns are also underway in other areas. Groups like Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy are coordinating efforts to democratize the media. Campaigns to democratize the workplace are moving forward with the new Federation of Worker Cooperatives, ParEcon, and the Solidarity Economy Network. The peace movement is beginning to explore the possibilities of democratizing defense through the de-federalization of the National Guard, passage of a “war referendum” constitutional amendment, and expanded rights for military personnel. And as for the much-maligned ballot box, the many and diverse national organizations dedicated to democratizing elections have finally begun to devote substantial resources to supporting grassroots organizing campaigns designed to win enactment of the provisions of the “Voter Bill of Rights.”

Together, these on-the-ground efforts to democratize elections, education, media, defense, work, and our communities form the basis for a genuine American democracy movement, both wide and deep. For those unwilling to accept that peaceful change has become impossible, or violent revolution inevitable, the new democracy movement presents another, necessary, peaceful, revolutionary alternative.

Americans are a progressive people, and as a result the United States are home to a labor movement, peace movement, civil rights movement, student movement, women’s movement, environmental movement, gay rights movement, most every kind of movement one might name, except one. Until recently, no one spoke of the U.S. democracy movement. That has now changed. And that’s a really, truly, good thing.

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This article was written for Movement Vision Lab. Click here for the original edition.
~ Ben Manski is a Wisconsin attorney and the executive director of Liberty Tree