Activism

Unprecedented Democracy Summit Sparks New Hope

A movement to unite Americans across political beliefs finds lots of common ground.

Desmond Meade, Lawyers' Committee, MALDEF at "The Fight for the Right to Vote" panel at Represent.Us Unrig the System, moderated by Brennan Center's Myrna Pérez
Photo Credit: Natalie Tennant via Twitter

The greatest joy of working on a growing movement to fix our dysfunctional democracy—the Democracy Movement—is being able to witness those indelible moments when the movement reaches a new chapter, when it takes a quantum leap forward, profoundly expanding the scope of what is possible. This past weekend was one of those moments.

Almost 1,500 people gathered at Tulane University in New Orleans to attend the Unrig the System Summit, a massive undertaking to unite Americans across political beliefs toward the common purpose of fixing our broken (“rigged”) political system. And unite people it did, proudly procuring representation from all 50 states and hundreds of organizations.

The event, organized by the non-partisan, anti-corruption organization Represent.Us, was months in the making and included stars of the political and non-political world, such as actress Jennifer Lawrence, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig and former chief White House ethics lawyer to George W. Bush Richard Painter. Over the course of two and a half days, there were dozens of panels and lectures by the brightest democracy thought-leaders, workshops on messaging and creating grassroots campaigns, and perhaps most importantly, ample opportunities to gather, chat and scheme with other democracy diehards.

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Conferences like Unrig the System build the collective brainpower of the movement. Knowledge is shared and then taken home to all corners of America, to all the places where it is most needed. This is what a mass movement requires, for an activated and educated citizenry fighting in common purpose is unstoppable.

Such gatherings also create self-awareness, an understanding among all those involved that they are not alone. Each local action is multiplied by thousands of others across the country. And while intuitive, the opportunity to see the faces of other democracy heroes makes that realization truly come to life. It provides a transformative sense of interconnectivity.

Another key contribution to the Democracy Movement at Unrig the System was the official launch of an interactive, online Democracy Movement Map featuring democracy campaigns in every state. This still-in-development tool allows anyone interested in saving our democracy to immediately plug into local groups working on specific, concrete, and positive solutions. And, needless to say, examining the plethora of democracy campaigns across the country is inspiring and further contributes to the sense that yes, there is, in fact, a Democracy Movement emerging across the United States.

As remarkable as these contributions are to our democracy’s future, it’s in the spontaneous brainstorms before and after sessions that the significance of the conference became apparent. After every panel, every speech, every workshop, lingering participants found new allies to talk with and openly expressed both their wildest dreams and concrete plans for the next year. These conversations spurred plans for intra- and inter-state partnerships.

“It was so powerful for me this morning to pop my head into a room of about 25 of the most fearless and important leaders working around the country on this really wonky issue called gerrymandering reform,” Josh Silver, Represent.US co-founder said during his Saturday night plenary speech. “These are people who are going to win major victories this year in several states across the country… and most of these people had never met each other. That sucks! But they met each other today, and those kinds of side meetings happened all across campus, and that is awesome. And that is what a movement is made out of.”

These conversations are often a logical consequence of conferences, but considering the context, this mingling was both meaningful and unique. Attendees spanned from Tea Partiers to progressives. And their spontaneous conversations did not begin with reticence, with cautious questions of, “Are you on my side of the political aisle?” At Unrig the System, attendees knew they were on the same team regardless of political affiliation.

This conference thus provided one of the most elusive spaces in politics today: a chance to cross party lines. And most folks took full advantage, bridging the gaps that divide us, from class to race to ideology. Disagreements arose, but conversations continued, as ultimately on the core question of democracy there was profound agreement. The closing plenary session was emblematic as progressive Democrat Tulsi Gabbard and conservative Republican Mike Gallagher shared the stage, representing vastly different political visions with a common commitment to fixing our democracy.

In some respects all of this is prefigurative—that is, putting into practice our beliefs—of the political system Americans desire: united, despite what we are told, in our commitment to democracy; agreement on solutions, from gerrymandering reform to public financing of elections; and space to have a voice, engage in actual debate, and allow majority opinion to define the future.

The conference program was densely packed, but Unrig the System participants proved that the fight for democracy, and democracy itself, isn’t a dull duty. To engage in this work—the pursuit of a functioning and representative democracy—is a service to a higher good; it’s a patriotic duty, one filled with tremendous love for America and all its inhabitants. It gives us a sense of power, meaning, and connection—three qualities essential for humans to thrive. Above all, it fosters a sense of human dignity, a dignity for ourselves as individuals and political participants.

Conferences are a valuable political tool, indeed. There’s a reason conservatives have CPAC and progressives have Netroots. Now those who believe in democracy—in other words, the vast majority of us—have Unrig the System, a conference that holds more potential than perhaps any other, as its unifying and movement-building power is boundless. And that’s a major boon to the Democracy Movement, one that should provide all of us with energy moving into 2018.

Adam Eichen is the co-author, with Frances Moore Lappé, of Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want. Follow him on Twitter @AdamEichen.