Ten years after 9/11, progressives need to fashion a pro-democracy movement here at home.
It should have come as little surprise. For 40 years, American troops had checked a Communist expansion across the continent of Europe. But it was neither MX missiles nor grain embargoes that ended the Cold War. It wasn’t American tanks, but ordinary Berliners with hammers and garden tools that ultimately brought down the Berlin Wall. Those men and women knew that America has an important role to play in spreading democracy. It is the role that Vaclav Havel spoke of when he told a joint session of Congress just months after he went from dissident to president that the “Declaration of Independence, your Bill of Rights and your Constitution…inspire us all”; that Angela Merkel recalled when she told a joint session how, as a young girl in East Germany, she was “passionate about the American Dream”; and that Lech Walesa referred to when, six days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he began an address to that gathering with the words, “We the People.” They knew what the young people from Algeria to Yemen have been repeating: that America’s power to build democracy comes from the moral force of our ideals and not only our military might.
It is far too soon to see how the revolutions of the Arab Spring will end—and what sort of governments arise in their wake. The revolutions of 1989-91 gave us not only Havels but Putins and Nazarbayevs too. In China, the dictators who mowed down the young people who had dared quote Jefferson and built a mock Statue of Liberty eventually gave way to a new generation of dictators who opened markets even while shutting down the Internet and locking up dissidents. But the wave of democratization that has swept across the world from South Africa to South Korea over the past generation demonstrates the intrinsic need for men and women to control their own destiny.
Just as progressives like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. knew 50 years ago, the greatest aid Americans can provide those struggling for democracy around the world is the example of a renewed and vibrant democracy in the very birthplace of the modern idea. What we need is a “pro-democracy movement” for America itself. This would include not only the conventional calls for greater transparency and participation, for getting money out of politics and more citizens involved in it, but also an expanding of the definition of democracy for the twenty-first century.
This is a lost thread of progressive action. In 1914, 24-year-old Benjamin Parke De Witt wrote in his landmark The Progressive Movement that the disparate strands of Progressive thought could be woven together into three basic goals: extending the role of government, rooting out the power of privileged interests, and widening democracy. In recent years, progressives have focused on the first two of these goals—and all but ignored the last.
In doing so, we’ve turned our back on an important tradition. In the age of Jefferson and Jackson, Americans put the franchise in the hands of common farmers and landowners instead of simply the wealthy aristocratic landowners, and used political conventions to replace the old “King’s Caucus.” The original Progressives passed laws for the direct election of senators, the merit system for government jobs, the secret ballot, the initiative, the referendum, and women’s suffrage. The 1960s saw not only the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act, but political primaries that brought the nominating process out of the back rooms and into the voting booths, the final destruction of the old-time political machines, the one-person, one-vote rule, and the elimination of the poll tax.
The truth is that in neglecting the work of expanding democracy, we’ve made the other two goals much harder. But even if that were not the case, our indifference to the task of expanding the meaning and power of democracy in twenty-first-century America is a failure in and of itself. As Louis Brandeis said in his 1915 testimony before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, “It is absolutely essential in order that men may develop that they be properly fed and properly housed, and that they have proper opportunities of education and recreation. We cannot reach our goal without those things. But we may have all those things and have a nation of slaves.”
Technology has opened up the political process over the past decade, but government itself—save for marginal changes—has remained largely impervious to citizens’ voices. The past generation has witnessed a democratization of the workplace as more employers give their workers the freedom to make their own decisions on the job. We have witnessed democratization in the marketplace as consumers have more decisions to make and greater ability to shape what they buy. The challenge of the twenty-first century is to make political democracy come alive in the same manner. To make democracy what the philosopher John Dewey wanted it to be, not just a form of government but a “way of life.” To make democracy what it was meant to be, more than just ballots and elections every couple of years, but real self-rule.
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