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Dare for Democracy: Three Essential Steps

The Small Planet Institute has published

an online guide to help people find a way to get involved.

Many Americans remain in shock and outrage, unable to grasp how a man who told bald-faced lies, who ridiculed and defamed others, and who boasted of sexual assault could yet ascend to the presidency of the United States.

Despair isn’t an option; it’s our greatest enemy. We know we must act more boldly than ever. To save the democracy we thought we had, we must take democracy to where it’s never been.

Most of us find our courage through acting with others. So we at the Small Planet Institute are launching a Field Guide to the Democracy Movement. Together we can create a vibrant, bipartisan, multicultural “movement of movements.”

This Democracy Movement can mobilize people not just online, but face-to-face, creating personal bonds strong enough to carry out historic civic action. To protect and further our democratic institutions, this movement must have strong grass-roots and national coordination. Most importantly, it must be a movement that turns disillusionment and fear into the courage and resolve needed to tackle the deep, systemic roots of the crisis we now face.

And the great news? The pieces are already in place; they just aren’t nearly as visible as they must be. To galvanize the millions more who want to act but can’t see an entry point, our Field Guide offers plenty of options:

  • Democracy Initiative in 2013 did what no one thought possible: cementing a coalition of labor, environmental, racial justice and election-reform groups. Its almost 60 organizations already boast 30 million members — each remaining true to its issue passion by joining forces for systemic democratic reforms without which none can succeed.

  • Democracy Spring, a scrappy, grass-roots mobilization for democracy reforms (of which we’re proud to have been part), in 2016 pulled off what’s believed to be the largest act of civil disobedience on the Capitol steps in history. Formed in 2015, Democracy Spring continues to engage in civil disobedience across the country to get money out of politics and to ensure voting rights for all.

  • Voting Rights Alliance, a critically timed alliance founded by politicians and civil society earlier this year, that’s fighting to end once and for all the travesty of voter suppression in America. It’s already staged numerous protests to pressure Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act.

  • Take Back Our Republic, a campaign finance reform effort founded by conservative Republican John Pudner, the mastermind of tea party Rep. Dave Brat’s successful upset of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in 2014.

Success in the Democracy Movement — with human dignity as its foundation — requires addressing three aspects of American society that contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.

1. Rejecting brutal capitalism

Much of Trump’s support, we believe, flows from a sense of betrayal. For example, one-fifth of American men aged 20 to 65 had no paid employment last year. Their vulnerability to big but empty promises is surely easy to understand.

But to grasp and tackle the forces leading to Trump means naming and ending the assault on human dignity itself that’s built into our peculiar form of capitalism.

We refer to it as “brutal capitalism” to bring attention to the harms inexorably generated in an economy driven largely by a single rule: Go for what brings highest return to existing wealth. In such a deliberately fostered economy, especially since the 1970s, human agency in shaping the rules to protect basic fairness, healthy communities and our commons — whether oceans, soil or air — is perceived as interference in a magical marketplace (so named by former President Ronald Reagan). A magical market works on its own without us. It succeeds, we’re made to believe, by reducing everything possible to dollar exchange among consumers.

The “magical market” therefore magnifies whatever sells — and sex and violence sell. So it follows that entertainment, advertising, fashion and even newscasts become increasingly violent, shallow and sexualized. Note that in an earlier era, for example, Barbara Walters was forced to don a Playboy bunny outfit for an investigation she did on NBC News, but she did not have to double as a sex symbol as many contemporary female news anchors do today. Increasingly, the degrading message — one the president-elect made explicit during his campaign — is that a woman is only as worthy as her body is sexy.

Underneath it all is this dangerous logic: In an economy valuing highest rate of return above all, wealth accrues relentlessly to wealth. Thus, in an extreme expression of this logic, the United States has easily become the most economically unequal nation in the “advanced” world. (Note: Economic inequality correlates with numerous negative social outcomes, ranging from infant mortality to homicide rates, according to social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett). Such concentrated wealth — with 20 Americans now controlling as much as half of all of us together — translates into political power. Thus, a telling study of policy outcomes during the ‘80s and ‘90s found virtually no correlation between the views of average Americans about what ought to be done and what law- and policymakers actually did. In a system that’s drowning in campaign contributions by people who can write six- and seven-figure checks, outcomes not surprisingly mirror the views of the elite class.

Transforming brutal capitalism, with its multiple assaults on human dignity that contributed to Trump’s election, requires democracy to be accountable not to monopolistic corporations but to us, the citizens. Such a democracy could open the door to an economy based on three values around which most Americans could rally: fairness, the protection of the nature of democracy, and the dignity of all.

A truly living democracy — benefiting and accountable to citizens — could, for example, maintain a minimum wage that is a livable wage, encourage unions and worker cooperatives giving everyone in a business a real voice, and spread corporate “profit-sharing” with workers. Few Americans know this is precisely the official platform of the Democracy Party, which notes that such change “is linked to higher pay and productivity.” Who knows? A real American democracy might even create a US version of Germany’s century-old, successful Works Councils, giving workers a say in their firm’s decisions.

2. Revaluing the role of government and reinstating government service as an honorable calling

A strong democracy requires reversing Republicans’ long and fierce anti-democracy movement — highly coordinated since the infamous 1971 Lewis Powell memo, a detailed playbook for delegitimizing government and elevating corporate power. Powell, who later served as a Supreme Court Justice, no doubt helped to inspire Reagan’s swipe at government in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Beginning in the 1990s, Republican leaders including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas fostered a take-no-prisoners approach to politics, captured in 1999 by David Horowitz’s The Art of Political War. In it, compromise is treason and obstructionism is virtue. Most recently, Republicans have filibustered in an unprecedented fashion to bring Congress to a halt, pushing its approval rating to historical lows. All the while, Democrats failed to stand for a convincing alternative.

And it’s all worked like a charm: Republican success in debasing Congress and hamstringing President Barack Obama then became the perfect setup for a bombastic self-promoter who claimed the mantle of outsider to a dysfunctional and rigged system.

3. Reclaiming citizens’ power and pride

Too many — and we’re guilty, too — have failed to grasp the strength of this anti-democracy movement and to fight its assault vigorously enough; for example, the war on voting rights that continued insidiously after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Then in 2013 the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder actually gutted the law, making it possible for 14 states to implement voter-ID laws in time for the 2016 election — including in swing states like Wisconsin and Ohio.

Too few of us appreciated this danger. Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot, acknowledges that “[w]e’ll never know how many people were kept from the polls by these restrictions.” But, he notes, we do know that in Wisconsin Donald Trump’s margin of victory was 27,000 votes, while 300,000 registered voters could not cast a ballot because they lacked required IDs, according to a federal court. Turnout in the state hit a 20-year low, falling by 52,000 in Milwaukee, “where 70 percent of the state’s African-American population lives.”

Berman adds that on Election Day, “there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas and North Carolina.” On average, blacks in 2012 waited twice as long as whites to vote. And, of course, the lower one’s income, the greater the time-cost impediment to voting.

And voter suppression is but one example. According to political scientist Michael McDonald, voter turnout plummeted from 62 percent in 2008, the year Obama was first elected, to 42 percent in the following midterm elections. The result? Not enough citizens stayed engaged to build pressure for democratic reforms, and a solidly Republican Congress able to block the president at every turn. In allowing special interests to block reforms Obama demanded, we failed to protect the very people who later voted for Trump.

So we citizens must hold ourselves accountable, too. We helped to set the stage. But today it’s a different world. Unprecedented shock and horror at steps Trump is now taking can motivate unprecedented action. As never before, the rise of a diverse, rewarding Democracy Movement is not only possible but essential. Whatever our specific issue-passion, it is urgent that we take to heart the essential lessons of the 2016 election and unite under the banner of democracy itself. Let’s dare to act — together. Check out our Field Guide and join the noble — and, yes, exhilarating struggle to save our country.

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