On October 15th, 2011 actor, activist, and American citizen stood up at Occupy Oakland and gave an electrifying, passionate talk about creating changes in America. Halfway through the seven-and-a-half minute talk, he spoke these words:
“We have to be here, tomorrow, the next day, the day after tomorrow, and the tomorrows after tomorrow, not only to change it, but to ensure that this transformation is institutionalized, just as the transformations into a country controlled by corporations have been institutionalized. We have to take it back, and transform it into one that is for the people, by the people, that works on behalf of the people, and works on behalf of the planet.”
Here is a short version of that talk, as a clip of 2:08. The quotation above starts about 1:23 into the talk:
The link to the clip is below:
Here is the longer version of the talk:
What I’ve italicized above in the quotation is a brilliant idea, one that is rare. Here it is again:
“. . . not only to change it, but to ensure that this transformation is institutionalized, just as the transformations into a country controlled by corporations have been institutionalized. . .”
This idea, if implemented, would constitute a new strategy for American progressives.
Dr. King and the others involved in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s pursued changes in the form of new laws—such as the law forced by the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and 1956. It happened in the district court case called Browder v. Gayle. But they did not change the institution of the federal government that enabled such Jim Crow segregation laws to proceed in the South long after it had been made technically illegal by the constitutional amendments in the Reconstruction Era just following the civil war. As Wikipedia says,
The then-existing institutions of state legislatures, the national Senate, the House of Representatives, all failed to enforce the 14th Amendment granting all African Americans civil rights.
In 1956 that court case that ended forcing African Americans to go to the back of public buses did not alter the institutions that enabled Jim Crow discrimination to go on for 87 years after the 14th Amendment was passed.
The same happened time after time. Dr. King’s later efforts in his march on Washington in 1963 aspired towards a nation that more clearly established justice for all. His work and that of many others led to the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act in the the mid-1960s, but did not change the institutions in the national government that had failed up to then. Nor did those acts of law immunize the nation from further injustice against vast numbers of Americans perpetuated by the national government.
Likewise, the Port Huron Statement of 1961, written by Tom Hayden and other members of the Students for a Democratic Society, never attempted to institutionalize the changes they sought, let alone actually institutionalize the changes they sought by creating a more democratic national government. This could have been done through amendments to create a true multi-party, proportional system for electing Congress, and a national vote and runoff system for presidential elections and more. But they didn’t. But other nations did this long before.
For example, while Finland adopted a proportional system in their national legislature in 1906, the United States has maintained many features of the national government that prevent democracy. This was not challenged by either Rosa Parks, Dr. King, or Tom Hayden.
This conspicuous failure by progressive leaders to connect the dots between the problems of our national government and problems in our Constitution and its institutions has yet to be widely discussed, let along implemented in the twenty-first century.
But there are some brilliant voices in the nation, in addition to Danny Glover’s impassioned statement.
And these ideas have been exhaustively presented by these authors and books for many years: Sanford Levinson (Our Undemocratic Constitution), Doug Amy (Real Choices, New Voices, The Case for Proportional Representation), Daniel Lazare (The Frozen Republic and The Velvet Coup), Bruce Ackerman & James Fishkin (Deliberation Day), Akhil Reed Amar (For the People), Larry Sabato (A More Perfect Constitution), Steven Hill (Fixing Elections and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy, Christian Fritz (American Sovereigns), and John Dinan (The American State Constitutional Tradition).
My answer for institutionalizing the changes proposed by these progressive American scholars is to create a new institution to draw up a second bill of rights—a series of 5 to 15 amendments—which would alter our government to make it a sustainable democratic republic. That new institution would be a people’s congress or people’s convention. Constitutional law professor Sanford Levinson proposes such a convention in his book Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance. I’ve summarized a portion of that book which explains how the convention would be chosen here.
Such a people’s congress or convention, once established as an institution that represented the American people, would deliberate about amendments to the national Constitution, would publicize them for discussion, and then put them to a vote in a national referendum.
This is how the American people would exercise the first principle of democracy: the majority of the people of any nation can alter their government as they choose.
As our own Declaration of Independence describes this first principle
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Nothing could be more basic in the American tradition of democracy. This is THE first principle of democratic governance.
My own approach towards Danny Glover’s call to institutionalize the changes we make is to create such a people’s congress or convention. That is exactly what we are suggesting with this amendment.
We envision this idea of a people’s congress as a way the American people can alter our government outside of the ordinary institutions of government through a new institution. That is how Danny’s brilliant idea can be implemented in the near future. Come and see for yourself!