Democracy in the Balance: A Time to Resist and Restore
“Business must learn the lesson… that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”
“The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival — survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.”
– Lewis Powell
REMARKS DELIVERED BY DEMOCRACY ALLIANCE PRESIDENT GARA LAMARCHE AT THE DA AND COMMITTEE ON STATES’ NATIONAL DONOR SUMMIT
This quote is from the often-referred to but rarely read “Powell Memo” – the 1971 document by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell which issued a clarion call to conservatives about perceived threats to the free enterprise system, and sketched out a plan for dealing with them.
By the scale and scope of what the Koch Brothers and their allies have done in recent years, documented by Jane Mayer, Theda Skocpol, Rob Stein and others, the Powell plan seems almost quaintly modest today. But it launched a right-wing revolution – or what I may start calling, schooled by Reverend Barber, a wrong-wing revolution– that came to fruition in the Reagan and Bush eras, making such gains in political and social life that the Democracy Alliance was launched in 2005– not with a memo but with perhaps the most persuasive PowerPoint of the last few decades.
The aligned work of progressive donors has had much impact – in a stronger network of organizations, greatly bolstered capacities, and, most important, in the everyday lives of Americans. Many of us are here tonight because we have been part of that, and some of you are here because we want to learn more about it – because the urgency of this moment compels us to do more.
Some of our efforts will prove difficult for the right to unravel, like the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality. But from the high point of the 2008 election, we also have suffered heavy losses, and now we confront much more than a temporary advantage for one political party and ideology. As Powell believed that the free enterprise system was under assault, we now confront an even deeper threat to the entire democratic system.
“The urgency of this moment compels us to do more.”
As you have heard over the last day, these come together in a perfect storm:
- The Citizens United decision unleashed a torrent of “dark money” spending in elections that turbocharged corporate power and overwhelmed progressives, particularly at the state level. The syndicate assembled by the Koch brothers and their allies – a private political machine – is virtually unprecedented in American political life and unmatched by what progressive donors and activists have been able to do – so far.
- Republican Governors and legislators have used their dominance in thirty states to attack sources of progressive strength, breaking unions and investigating and defunding Planned Parenthood– while starving public higher and pre-K education, and rolling back rights for women, minorities and LGBT people.
- The same extreme right-wing forces have restricted access to the polls in state after state through draconian voter identification laws, sharply reducing the number of polling places, and rolling back progressive measures like same-day registration and mail voting.
- Right-wing control in a majority of states has been exploited to draw congressional and state legislative district lines that perpetuate minority voting power to lock in a distorted majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and shut progressives out of meaningful presence in state houses. Reverend Barber rightly called cheating last night.
- The Supreme Court has struck a damaging blow to the Voting Rights Act, removing a key tool for protection of ballot access for communities of color.
- Immigrants – a key source of American strength in a nation founded on a set of ideals, not race or national origin – are under sustained attack from both restrictive laws and executive orders and vigilante violence.
- An activist so-called conservative legal movement has politicized the courts and eroded enduring constitutional values of equality, liberty, justice and the rule of law. Having successfully held a Supreme Court seat hostage, the right is now poised to build a majority that will reverse Roe v. Wade and undo a host of other progressive constitutional gains.
- At the same time, the right is using its power to deregulate banks and exploit financial markets in order to consolidate wealth in the hands of a privileged few, fueled by years of giveaways to banks and corporations, accompanied by decades of underinvestment in public goods and services.
- We now have a President, with the most extreme anti-government Cabinet in generations, determined to advance this agenda at the federal level and undermine democratic norms from freedom of the press to the independence of the judiciary. But make no mistake, Donald Trump is the culmination of these trends, not the cause of them. The agenda his administration and his congressional allies are pushing has been waiting for this moment for a generation.
These assaults on democratic processes and systems hurt working families, endanger our environment and public health, erode faith and trust in government, delegitimize democratic institutions, and undermine the capacity of government at all levels to deliver basic services. Targeted and perniciously racialized, the right’s assaults on democracy harm all Americans, but have a profoundly disproportionate impact on communities of color.
This alarming erosion of democracy has not been accidental. It is the result of a long-term, tenacious strategy by the right. It has taken systemic root, and has affected culture, discourse and law, and it will not be reversed overnight.
We have much to resist. But building a progressive American future is not merely a matter of undoing the considerable damage that the Right is imposing.
“This alarming erosion of democracy… will not be reversed overnight.”
It requires a generation of restoration fueled by an understanding of why we have lost so much ground in the last eight years. How have we lurched in eight short years from the barrier-breaking promise of Barack Obama to the dystopian world of Donald Trump?
In many ways, our predicament is a failure of our imagination – our inability to see clearly the true nature and scope of the dire threats posed by the right and its seemingly unlimited capacities to govern with mendacity.
But this moment requires more than imagination, structure and strategy. And it requires more than sustained resistance to the Right’s destructive and divisive policies.
Our most critical challenge is to offer a clear and compelling progressive vision for America. A vision founded in freedom and justice, that inspires aspirations across the disparate geographic and demographic sections of our country. A vision grounded in economic opportunity, economic security and economic fairness for all.
Progressives cannot reclaim the mantle of leadership until we can give voice to the palpable and widespread economic insecurities felt throughout America. False promises have drawn some voters, for now, to a fraud like Donald Trump. But they were effective in the first place because of our failure to connect, and when the promises prove empty, voters will not turn to us unless they believe we can deliver.
We don’t have all the answers, but we must at least ask the right questions:
- What is the future of work in a world of technological advance and global connection?
- What can be achieved in a society liberated and enriched by the diverse talents and energies of all?
- What does democracy look like where maximum participation is the goal, where running for office is not conditioned on access to wealth, and where new leadership transforms all levels of government?
- How can we imagine a media with access for all communities and points of view, where truth is a paramount value, and trust in science and facts is restored?
- How can we rebuild a judicial system above the partisan fray, but fiercely grounded in a constitutional vision of freedom, equal opportunity and justice for all?
- What does it look like to have education and healthcare systems that are accessible and affordable for all, drawing on transformative innovation and technology?
- What foreign policies acknowledge this century’s existential challenges – from climate change to human rights to the threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation– and accepts both the value of American leadership and the exigencies of global interdependence?
In asking these questions, and in offering our best answers to American voters, we must lean into our differences – and we know we have them – on issues like trade and financial reform, education and foreign policy. In our big tent, we also have our differences on how change happens. It’s no secret to anyone who’s heard or read me that I believe social movements are central to that. Others see elections as more separate. Debating these differences civilly and robustly, while sticking together as progressives, is not a sign of weakness, but a source of strength.
Meanwhile the landscape we confront as a result of last November 8 has done much to unite us, helping us to begin clarifying what we stand for – and against.
Grassroots activism has been rocketing since the shock of last November. I know mine has. I didn’t work for 40 years for human and civil rights and economic justice to see it destroyed just as my children’s generation is coming to leadership, with my grandson not far behind. Like me, I’m sure everyone in this room has found themselves wanting to do more. Not just knock on doors, but march with millions to protect women’s rights. Not just write a check, but show up at the airport to stand against travel bans and deportations. There is no limit to what an aroused citizenry can do, and the energy and passion are with us.
“… everyone in this room has found themselves wanting to do more. Not just knock on doors, but march with millions to protect women’s rights. Not just write a check, but show up at the airport to stand against travel bans and deportations.”
We are facing the crisis that we do because our opponents have been highly disciplined and organized. The progressive cause in this moment requires us to do the same. We need to be long-term, strategic, well-financed and well-aligned, act at the local, state and national levels simultaneously and in sync, resolute in each forum in which power is contested: redistricting, legislative action, electoral work, leadership development. I like Reverend Barber’s word for this: fusion.
We don’t have donors now at the scale of the Koch Brothers, and certainly not the corporate self-interest that animates their investments. But progressives have people. And when we align our organizations, create common visions and shared plans informed by our rich diversity, generate the funds necessary to win and commit with the same long view that our adversaries have excelled at, we overcome the siloed thinking and short-termism that too often has limited our vision and stifled our effectiveness.
What is the promised call to action I want to leave you with tonight? First, we must continue to resist the Trump agenda, and that of his allies in Congress and the states, with all the energy and passion we can muster. These are the fights of our lives, and we must stand up as never before. For basic democratic norms like independent courts, a free press, and voting rights. For communities under attack, like immigrants, refugees, poor women and transgender youth. For the social safety net, from health care to Meals on Wheels. And yes, for those left behind by shuttered factories and mines, about to be screwed again by cynical election-year promises. We are defined by these fights. They are not about policies or programs, but the essential character of our country. In some of these fights, we will find common ground with principled conservatives, and we should not shirk from alliances which transcend ordinary political and ideological differences.
It is vital that our opposition and confrontation be channelled to the electoral realm, for we can all agree that replacement is the ultimate form of resistance. We must take the fight to the states, and put our dollars where they are most needed. To paint the future in places where we have some power, like Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, and California, so that when we win back power in other places there is a roadmap for a better America. To keep and expand our gains in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Mexico and North Carolina. To take back Ohio and Michigan and Florida and Wisconsin. To keep our eyes on the prizes of Arizona, Georgia and my beloved Texas, and down the line, southern states with now un-registered Black and Immigrant voters, and prairie and western states where proud progressive populist traditions can be reawakened.
“[These fights] are not about policies or programs, but the essential character of our country.”
We need to respect data and analytical models, to be sure – they remain critical tools. But analytics alone, cut off from what organizers on the ground are hearing on front stoops and on factory floors, will not win the day. We need to be in the field all across this country and not just right before elections, particularly in communities of color which have been the steadiest supporters of progressive causes but have too often seen resources come too little too late.
We need to take a page from the right and invest systematically in leadership development. We can’t take back power in this country, no matter how good our ideas and strategies if there is only a trickle of new leaders in our pipeline.
We need to invest not only in elections but year-in year-out policy work – supporting groups like the State Innovation Exchange and the EARN and State Priorities Partnership networks – and organizers with deep roots in communities, including those outside cities where our votes are increasingly concentrated, as Laura Quinn laid out this morning.
And we need continuous investment in innovation and new ideas, bringing creative solutions incubated in states to national prominence and offering fresh solutions which may challenge established orthodoxies, because no movement ever came to power and kept it without doing that – certainly not the right, which has set the policy table in this country for over forty years.
As Lyndon Johnson famously put it, we need to walk and chew gum at the same time. Not every one of us can do every one of these things – the DA, for its part, will focus on winning in the states and supporting core democratic norms and institutions in the period ahead – but all of it must be done, and we have to work together to make this progressive ecosystem flourish, because like the natural environment, it is interdependent.
I got out of the Washington Metro yesterday morning on my way here, and as I was ascending the escalator, I heard the stunningly beautiful voice of a soloist singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. She turned out to be a young Black woman, with a basket in front of her as she sang. I pulled out a dollar and put it in, grateful almost to tears for this moment of morning grace. As I walked away with her voice fading in the distance, I thought to myself: I want to live in a country where the abounding and rich diversity of musical and artistic talent is supported by my government, not one where already paltry arts funding is eliminated so that Trump, Ryan and McConnell can give more tax cuts to the rich. I want to live in a country where my 88-year old aunt, a retired nun living alone in senior public housing, can keep getting the nourishment and the human connection that Meals on Wheels gives her each day. I want to live in a country where my grandson and his classmates in their largely Black and Latino public school in Brooklyn can keep learning chess – so that I continue to be beaten in six moves by a five-year old – and not see precious public dollars for these children who are our future drained away by voucher programs.
These, I profoundly agree, are not just political battles. They are moral imperatives. They are not only about what laws are passed, who is in power, who gets money. They are about who we are.
Let’s do more than resist the worst attacks on us, though we must resist them mightily. We need safety nets, but we need ladders more. I want to build a country where we celebrate investments in all aspects of our common humanity, and lift us higher, not one where we just fight to save scraps of the Constitution and the social compact, constrained by a narrow vision.
It is no overstatement to say that the direction of our country for decades to come – and whether our country will be recognizable to our children – will be set by the political outcomes of the next two election cycles.
Democracy is in the balance.
Let’s think big.
And let’s get to work.