A Pro-Democracy Agenda

With last week's federal court ruling that Bush's domestic spying program is unconstitutional, here's the second of a two-part commentary from Mark"s new book, Losing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business are Betraying Americans for Power and Profit.

We're losing our democracy to a bunch of "new authoritarians' when a Congress elevates lobbyists over Democrats and shuns majority opinion, Religious McCarthyites dictate public policy, large corporations write the laws for consumers, an executive branch willfully and repeatedly ignores the law, and average citizens lack access to courts to "redress their grievances."

So, how do we reverse these trend lines and fault lines?

Presidents come and go, but the ingrained habits of culture and society endure. So while today's attack on democratic values is real, radical, and consequential, it's far too early to tell whether Bush & Co. will permanently diminish our democracy or--according to the law of physics that for every action there's an opposite reaction--better remind Americans of our democratic heritage.

One-party rule in the Kremlin from 1917 to 1991 and in Nassau County, New York, in the 1960s-1990s collapsed when a disgusted population said, "Basta!" Polling data indicates a public now also souring on Bush's failures and falsehoods. But ultimately, saving our democracy requires two preconditions--citizens being made participants rather than spectators in our public conversation and leaders laying out a Contract for Democracy to pursue and enact.

If other countries can have pro-democracy movements, so can America. We have in the past. Periodically, "organized people" have led our leaders. From the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to Earth Day in 1970, to the woman's movements of the 1920s and 1970s, to the anti-Vietnam activism in the 1960s, to the four hundred communities protesting aspects of the original "Patriot Act," periodically Americans have challenged elites to respond to urgent issues.

So as with earlier movements, a response to the anti-democracy policies of Bush, the Religious Far Right, and big business must come from the bottom-up, not the top-down. Around the country, there are thousands of unheralded organizations trying to win our democracy back--from ACORN fighting for a living wage to Demos fighting against felon disenfranchisement laws.

In the spirit of New York's own Al Smith, who once said that "the solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy," here are a couple dozen proposals that could comprise an initial Democracy Program for candidates and activists in 2006 and 2008:
  • Voting should occur on a Saturday in early November called "Democracy Day," combining a day honoring veterans who died for our democracy with a non-work day where we practice it.
  • States that have experimented with mail-in ballots, same-day registration, and early balloting (voting any time over a specific period pre-election day) have seen turnout increase by 10 percentage points and more.
  • Electronic voting machines are the future, but they musthave paper trails (as ATMs manage to do) to deter or detect fraud.
  • Instead of felony disenfranchisement laws,all ex-offenders in non-capital cases who have paid their debt to society should become full citizens, including the right to vote.
  • Instead of political gerrymandering rigging "elections" so they destroy electoral competition, a nonpartisan system of former judges should oversee the drawing of the legislative lines, as in Iowa.
  • Congress should enact three campaign reforms--a) establishing a system of public matching funds for qualifying candidates so that small donors diminish the sway of big donors; b) providing guaranteed TV/radio time for qualifying federal candidates as a condition of holding lucrative Federal Communications Commission licenses; and c) prohibiting lobbyists from picking up the tab for congressional junkets and from hosting fundraisers in the Washington, D.C. area.
  • Federal or state programs that proselytize for a particular faith cannot receive public funds.
  • Science classes cannot teach religion or religious-based doctrine, such as creationism or "intelligent design."
  • The Federal Communications Commission shall enact cross-media ownership rules prohibiting one corporate owner from monopolizing print and electronic news in a defined population area.
  • To keep closing the digital divide and make government more accountable, high-speed wireless Internet access should be treated as a utility, like phones and electricity.
  • States shall create a "civil Gideon"--providing counsel to the indigent in major civil cases as provided in criminal cases under Gideon v. Wainwright.
  • CEOs should not earn (in pay or benefits) more than fifty times more than the lowest paid employee of a company, and the minimum wage--now a third less in real dollars than thirty years ago--should become a real living wage.
  • Consumers shall again be allowed to file consumer class action in state courts.
  • A Presidential Executive Order should establish that a federal agency should presume to release all reasonably requested information under the Freedom of Information Act, unless it can be affirmatively shown that the information fits into an exempt category--i.e., there's a "right to know," not the requirement of proving a "need to know."
  • Presidents should obey the law.

"Stronger than all the armies," Victor Hugo famously wrote, "is an idea whose time has come." The idea that democracy works and requires participating citizens is an idea that is coming again. It's time to put the "self" back in self-government.