A Democracy Worthy of the Name

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe's speech at the 8th Annual Fighting Bob Fest held in Baraboo in 2009. A Democracy Worthy of the Name

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe at the 8th Annual Fighting Bob Fest, September 12, 2009

Posted: September 15, 2009

(Video available.)

Thanks Ed. And good morning everyone. Thanks for making the journey to Baraboo for this great gathering. It inspires me more than you’ll ever know to carry on the work we do at the Democracy Campaign. You have an amazing capacity to recharge batteries. I thank you for that.

Ed and the whole gang responsible for Fighting Bob Fest have once again put together a lineup of great speakers. You’ll be hearing them later today. For now, you are stuck with me.

WDC Executive Director
Mike McCabe’s Remarks

Video courtesy of
On The Earth Productions

You’ll be hearing a lot about health care today, and you’ll be hearing it from bonafide experts like Wendell Potter and some of our country’s most powerful voices for reform. And with good reason. There’s no greater need in America than health care reform.

Except maybe one. Let me put it this way . . . if authentic health care reform is to become a reality, there is one bill that absolutely, positively must pass. . . . The national Fair Elections Now Act.

A top-to-bottom overhaul of the way congressional elections are paid for, replacing the system of legalized extortion and bribery we have now with one that puts the average citizen in the driver’s seat.

There are more health care bills circulating in Washington than I can count. Most of them are duds. A precious few – like HR 676, the Medicare for All bill – represent real change.

And there are more reasons than I can count why America ’s health care system needs to be overhauled – from stories of untreated illness and misery and suffering to financial ruin and bankruptcy to tragically preventable deaths.

But I wrote a blog not too long ago that was titled “113 million reasons why not.” One hundred and thirteen million reasons why the most efficient and effective and fiscally responsible health care reform plan of all is considered “off the table” in Washington . One hundred and thirteen million dollars given to candidates for federal office – in 2008 alone – by the industries that want to keep things exactly the way they are.

I was telling only a small part of the story. Those same interests have made over $2 billion in campaign contributions over the last decade. And they’ve spent more than $260 million on lobbying so far this year. There are six health care lobbyists for every member of Congress, and three new lobbyists register every day to influence the health care debate.

President Obama spoke eloquently and passionately about the need for reform Wednesday night. A lot more will be said today. But I’m afraid the kind of health care reform we really need remains terribly unlikely . . . and we will never get truly serious about global climate change . . . and we will not fix our banking system or Wall Street as long as the needs of the few are placed ahead of the needs of the many because those privileged few own our government. The will of the people won’t be done on any of the biggest problems facing America unless we have a democracy worthy of the name. And we cannot have such a democracy so long as it is as seriously undernourished as ours is today.

Democracy is a living thing, and like all living things it requires sustenance. There are some things no true democracy can do without. Think of these as 12 minimum daily requirements, a basic subsistence diet:

  1. Free speech. Not fee speech, free speech. The ability to be heard must be protected as vigorously as the right to speak.
  2. A free and independent press. Although I don’t know how much longer we’ll call it the “press.” Maybe the digital age will one day compel us to live without printed news. But it can’t be allowed to make us do without journalism. Not if we are to have anything resembling a democracy.
  3. Legitimate elections. The right to vote has to be jealously guarded, but just as importantly voters need to be able to trust that every ballot is counted and counted properly. And we can’t overlook the way political jurisdictions are drawn. Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around. Oh, and one other thing . . . to be legitimate they need to be elections, not auctions.
  4. Equal justice under the law. That means fair and impartial courts. And independent judges. Criminal justice cannot be an oxymoron in a democracy. (We are on the brink of striking a major blow in Wisconsin for judicial independence. To that end, I need you to make three phone calls to help push the Impartial Justice bill across the goal line.)
  5. An ability to distinguish between democracy and commerce. In a democracy – or any just society – not every human interaction can be a commercial transaction.
  6. An appreciation for and devotion to the commons. We can have a society where everything is privatized, or we can have a democracy, but we cannot have both.
  7. Citizenship. There can be a ruling class, or there can be democracy, but there cannot be both.
  8. Civic education. Preparing our nation’s youth to live in a democracy needs to be as front and center in school as preparing them to be economically productive. Lord knows math and science are important, but they can’t be allowed to crowd out civics, as has been the case for some time now in our education system. We need to get as good at producing organizers and activists and public servants as we are at churning out worker bees.
  9. A distribution of wealth sufficient to sustain a middle class. A democracy where the many work primarily for the excessive enrichment of a few is a democracy whose days are numbered.
  10. Religious freedom and a separation of church and state. For the good of both religion and democracy, the two need to go hand in hand.
  11. Economic freedom and a separation of corporation and state. These two go hand in hand as well, but the current U.S. Supreme Court seems tone deaf to this truth. At a moment of corporate excess and irresponsibility not seen since the Gilded Age, our nation’s highest court appears poised to rule that corporations do not have enough political clout. What planet are they on? What remains of the wall between corporation and state – the century-old law that was Fighting Bob La Follette’s greatest accomplishment – could be demolished entirely by the court in the Citizens United case. Any among us who are not yet familiar with this case need to get familiar. And get prepared to respond. The stakes for democracy could not be higher.
  12. Dissent. The highest form of patriotism. The ability and willingness to criticize every branch of our government at every level must never perish from our land. If it does, so does the very idea of democracy.

I’m sure all of you could add to the menu. But if you ponder even these dozen staples, you inevitably come to realize how poorly fed American democracy is at this moment in our history, and how vulnerable that leaves all of us. And with this realization the debate over health care in America comes into sharper focus. So do a lot of other debates.

We have our work cut out for us. There is so much that needs doing.

Before panic sets in and the task before us overwhelms you, remember that our opportunities are at least as great as our challenges. Now you’ll never catch me celebrating until I see dry ink on signed legislation, but there’s no denying we have the best opportunity in 30 years to win major campaign reforms in Wisconsin. This is our moment. We have to seize this opportunity.

That’s why I need you to make three phone calls. That’s why we need you to come to our noon breakout. That’s why we need to figure out what we can do today and tomorrow and the next day to make people matter more than money in politics.

This is our moment. We have to seize this opportunity to remake our democracy into one that is worthy of the name . . . and one that is worthy of the memory and the spirit of Fighting Bob La Follette.