Our discussion focused on what we can do to keep democracy viable in light of strong elements in our society that seem to be moving us closer to autocracy.
We discussed the idea of a Mandate for Democracy to be designed by members of the group and signed by people who back it. We considered a number of essential principles for which we might advocate.
Participants discussed the essential role of dialogue to identify areas upon which we agree and then build toward a consensus on broader issues. There is a need to reach agreement on actions based on common principles and to follow through on those agreements.
An essential emphasis of any legislative solution must be returning to the democratic principle of one person/one vote. This is an area, like slavery, in which the US founders fell short, but for their times they were radical and progressive.
The group agreed that the majority of voters concur on most core issues, but these often are framed in an either/or way. In the area of climate, for example (the term climate change already is a loaded concept), no one wants extreme temperatures, floods, rising oceans, or fires. The problem is how to address people's interests and concerns, and solutions to them, rather than seeing everything through a divisive lens. Political donations by wealthy industrialists placed into ads convince voters to work against their own interests.
Limits on voting in some states also threaten democracy. Some group members told us they had done cold calling to other states advising voters how to get around restrictive voting laws such as limited polling places and curbs on last minute registration.
Members expressed concern that Democrats don't have a strong united front to sell their accomplishments, whereas Republicans have identified a number of fringe issues, such as abortion and guns, to unite their voters. Democrats represent many ideas that most people seem to like, such as health care reform, environmental causes, and recognition of the need for vaccines. They recently passed a number of bills that were signed into law, including an infrastructure bill, funding for VA coverage for veterans exposed to toxins while on duty, and a STEM bill to provide grants for "groups historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." A Senate bill to raise taxes on wealthy corporations, allow the government to negotiate prices of prescription drugs, expand the Affordable Care Act, and create jobs through climate change incentives, appears likely to become law. An assault weapons ban was passed in the House of Representatives that, however, appears unlikely to pass the Senate. But Congress has historically low ratings because of a public perception that they get little done (82% disapproval). The Supreme Court also has a low public perception (25% approval).
Some of our members emphasized how new political parties — or the threat of them — have inspired changes in our political structure or even affected elections. Ross Perot, for example, who started the Reform Party, got a large percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 1996, which may have affected the outcomes of those elections. Democratic Socialists have influenced how people vote due to their large following. A concern was expressed that in upcoming elections, third parties or discontent among youth could affect the Democratic vote.
Members also expressed concern that, due to the upcoming election, there is little time to get voters on board to support candidates who represent key values such as saving the environment and reproductive rights.
One member suggested that a fair voting system would include a ranked-choice structure. (“A ranked-choice voting system [RCV] is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.” —from Ballotpedia) However, for federal elections this would require a constitutional amendment.
Solutions to environmental issues include electric cars, improving and using public transportation both within and between cities as is done in many European countries, and government backing for alternative energy sources.
Many people who profess to oppose abortions will use them when needed for their own families, so it primarily is a wedge issue of politicians to get votes. It also ties into what the Catholic Church preaches, although it seems that most members don't oppose it in practice. Abortion restrictions can be a threat to the lives of pregnant women who have fetuses with abnormalities that are unlikely to be viable. Pregnant young girls may not be able to sustain a birth which also is a threat to their lives. Those in areas of the greatest poverty tend to have the most children that they have difficulty feeding which further entrenches their poverty. This is why birth control is related to poverty and holds hope for a possible way out.
The question came up as to whether the majority of people really do believe in democracy, or whether they only believe that the phrase "We the People" refers to themselves and those who share their world views.
We discussed that at the core of democracy is the idea of humanistic values: every person is worthwhile and worthy of respect regardless of the qualifications in gender, race, religion, level of income and other areas. It is up to those of us who believe in these values to support and disseminate them. This is the core understanding of those who believe that democracy is valid and must be maintained. Democracy cannot work if we — and others — believe it is to be upheld only for us and those who think and look like us. Despite how difficult it may seem, for democracy to work we must uphold the value of everyone, even those with whom we disagree.
Your comments and thoughts always are welcome. Also, don’t forget to look at our blog site: renewingdemocracy.org
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.