Saturday, November 05, 2011

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Yesterday, I submitted the following op-ed piece to my local newspaper. I don't know yet if it will be published there. But it is published here. ;)

When my 17-year-old son visited me in Jacksonville last month over Columbus Day weekend, I had several "activities" lined up for him on his visit. The first and most important was to accompany me to the inaugural General Assembly of the first Occupy Jacksonville meetup in Hemming Plaza.

I was (and am) proud to have had my son by my side that day. I wanted him to see democracy in action. And that's exactly what we experienced, together, along with upwards of 300 other concerned Jacksonville residents.

Some might suggest that if I wanted my son to see democracy in action, I should perhaps take him to Washington, DC. But unfortunately, "democracy in action" is not the order of the day any more in Washington (to the extent it ever was). Mostly what happens in Washington these days are closed-door meetings between government officials and their corporate sponsors, the big-dollar lobbyists.

To call the Occupy Movement "democracy in action" might seem premature, or even delusional, depending on your political bent. After all, protesters in a public park don't sign laws into existence. Protesters balance no budgets, create no legislation, add no earmarks.

They do something far more important, though. They change the nature of political discourse in this country, one conversation at a time.

Naysayers are fond of criticizing the Occupy Movement as having no demands and (more to the point) being utterly powerless to bring about concrete change in Washington. And yet, on November 1, six U.S. Senators (Tom Udall of New Mexico, Michael Bennett of Colorado, Tom Harkin of Indiana, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Jeff Merkely of Oregon) introduced a Constitutional amendment that would effectively overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, thereby restoring the ability of Congress (and the states) to properly regulate the campaign finance system.

Getting the Citizens United decision nullified has been one of the most avidly advocated reforms of the Occupy Movement, not just in New York but in all venues where the movement exists. Placards and signs denouncing the 2010 Supreme Court decision (a decision that effectively opened the door to unlimited corporate and special-interest spending in elections, treating corporations as ordinary citizens) can be found at any Occupy rally, including the rallies that have been occurring in Jacksonville since October 8.

Following the Supreme Court's January 21, 2010 decision, there was a national outcry. President Barack Obama himself said that the decision "gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington — while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates." Obama would eventually say in his weekly radio address that "this ruling strikes at our democracy itself" and "I can't think of anything more devastating to the public interest."

The controversy over the ruling quickly died down, however, and from January 2010 to September 2011, there was no further action on the matter.

But then a curious thing happened.

Following on the heels of the Arab Spring uprisings, a protest called Occupy Wall Street began in lower Manhattan. With startling alacrity, what began as a modest public gathering in an obscure park in New York spread to become a nationwide phenomenon involving (by some counts) as many as a thousand cities, here and abroad.

Much uncertainty lies ahead. What can be said with certainty, however, is that the Occupy movement, for all its supposed disorganization and lack of goals, has (in a few short weeks) fundamentally changed the nature of political debate in the United States. What was previously unthinkable (e.g., a Constitutional amendment overthrowing the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision) is now not only thinkable, but front-and-center in Congress.

I'm proud to have brought my son to Occupy Jacksonville. I'm proud of what the Occupy movement has done, and will do. As we're fond of chanting in our marches: this is what democracy looks like.