For some, there wasn’t a better venue for America’s first Democracy Convention than the in-your-face capitol of local democracy, Madison, Wisconsin — a state with a long history of progressive sensibilities. Earlier this years thousands of protesters converged upon the capitol in response to Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative majority’s decision to end collective bargaining for public employees — a fight that is not over and one leading to a test of Walker’s reelection capability.
Over 1,000 activists from across America converged at the Madison Concourse Hotel and the nearby Madison Area Technical College on Aug. 24-28 where nine conferences convened simultaneously. Conferences included: Education for Democracy, Democratic Defense, Economic Democracy, Racial Equality, Local Democracy, Earth Democracy, Media Democracy, Representative Democracy, and Constitutional Reform. Participants focused on one conference (as this writer did on Constitutional Reform) or sampled various conferences according to their interests.
The Madison-based Liberty Tree Foundation was the lead organizer of the multi-faceted production with essential contributions from Move To Amend, Alliance for Democracy, the Progressive Magazineand others.
The Opening Ceremony began with spirited performances by the globally renowned Call for Peace Drum and Dance Company. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin introduced the keynote speakers: long-time progressive activist, Tom Hayden and advocate for poor people’s rights, Cheri Honkala. Hayden stressed America’s history of populist activism. Less polished, yet a compelling speaker, Honkala challenged the notion of scarcity of resources in America, claiming the problem to be equity in allocation.
On the first full day, most participants selected among 24 sessions given by one of eight conferences with titles such as: The Big Picture: The Corporatization of Higher Education, Democratizing Money, Warfare Not Healthcare — The Federal Budget Priorities, and The Struggle of Black People.
Constitutional Reform registrants attended a jam-packed full-day “campaign organizer” training led by Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, George Friday and Kaja Rebane — all of Move To Amend. Content included the overall campaign strategy, anti-oppression training, principles of building well-functioning groups, and community organizing skills.
The entertaining Raging Grannies of Madison warmed-up the crowd for the evening’s plenary convention presentation. The panel titled Building a Democracy Movement for the U.S.A., featured Ben Manski of Liberty Tree Foundation; George Friday, consultant to nonprofit organizations; John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine; and Margaret Flowers, M.D., congressional fellow for Physicians for a National Health Program.
Manski questioned, “Do the people rule?” and pressed for work toward real democracy. Friday spoke of the “relationships, structure and systems” needed for Americans to “take the risk to create something you haven’t seen yet.”
Soft-spoken, but passionate Flowers declared, “This convention is not about elections; it’s about building a movement!” She stressed the need for action now but with the awareness of a 12 to 20 year cycle of commitment and work to develop a movement.
Moving from professorial to passionate, Flowers proclaimed, “I want politicians who are part of the struggle, not part of the machine!”
Nichols said, “Our responsibility, if we’re going to build a democracy movement, is to make it functional to have a democracy. And the way you do that is to get the money out of politics and the way you get the money out of politics is to tell the Supreme Court of the United States via a constitutional amendment that people are people and corporations are corporations.
“And people are superior to corporations!”
The nearly palpable synergy among the panelists delighted the audience and amplified the passion for real democracy, for rule by the people.
On the second day, conventioneers chose among forty-four presentations with titles such as Local Control: Using Local Government to Influence National Issues, Democracy and Indigenous Peoples, Revoking Energy Corporations’ Charters, Ranked Choice Voting and Envisioning the Ideal US Constitution.
The stimulating “... ideal US Constitution” discussion examined whether to seek a major rewrite of the constitution (e.g., defining rights to education, housing, food, healthcare, etc.; direct election of the president; statehood for the District of Columbia; etc.) or a comparatively minor, but crucial amendment to abolish “corporate personhood” and “money equals speech.”
Virtually all the convention goers (as far as this reporter could ascertain) strongly endorsed amending the US Constitution to affirm the following:
1.) Human beings, and NOT corporations, are “persons” with constitutional rights.
2.) Money is NOT equivalent to political speech and can be regulated in the political arena.
Singer/song writer Anne Feeney warmed up the audience at Madison’s historic Grace Episcopal Church which hosted the evening’s full convention panel: Reform or Revolution: Which way forward? Overall, the five panelists advocated revolution more than they supported reform.
Regulars at the daily Solidarity Sing-Along ,which occurs at the Wisconsin State Capitol, welcomed conventioneers. Guitars, fiddles and drums added structure and volume to the event.
The final plenary session, titled Securing Democracy through Constitutional Reform, featured David Cobb; George Friday; Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap; and Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.
Cobb noted that the US Constitution represents the legal codification of our national social contract and that government at all levels has the right to regulate political expenditures to protect the integrity of elections. Ford urged audience members to look past idealized illusions and to assess more objectively the state of democracy in America.
Sopoci-Belknap stressed that Move To Amend affiliate group must be rooted in communities. “The fundamental task is to develop processes that empower people.” Friday reminded attendees that “Change happens in and through chaos.” She challenged activists to begin working with people who are similar to themselves and to then expand to people who are less similar.
Throughout each day, at the most elemental level, the convention posed the question: Who should rule in America: The People or Corporations?
All convention plenary session speakers and Constitutional Reform conference speakers consistently emphasized that an essential condition of a democratic political system is participation by all economic, racial, ethnic, religious and other minority groups. Thus, a democracy movement requires the inclusion and active participation of people representing all groups within society.
Diversity among the presenters appeared as a strength of the convention. However, the thousand-strong convention participants were over-represented by older white folks and under-represented by virtually every other demographic group. Leaders of the convention clearly valued heterogeneity as evidenced by multiple hours of the convention being devoted to strategies to increase grassroots participation by all communities.
While the conventioneers lacked breadth in diversity, they demonstrated a passionate dedication to the cause of democracy for all. America’s first-ever democracy convention concluded with anticipation of reconvening in two years.
Mary Lindsay is with the Kansas City Affiliate of Move To Amend and lives in KCMO. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Building a Democracy MovementDemocracy SquareLiberty Tree Foundation2011 Democracy ConventionWisconsin WaveWisconsin Positive Business AllianceDemocracy SquareDemocracy SquareLiberty Tree Foundation2011 Democracy ConventionWisconsin WaveWisconsin Positive Business Alliance