America’s democracy was designed to preserve, through its elected representatives, freedom and equality of rights and opportunities for all its people. Our faith in democracy’s continued fairness is what has made and kept America great. It’s a faith based on a solemn compact that each succeeding generation will leave our system of government better than they found it.
Throughout 50 years of involvement in the political life of our country, I have been and continue to be guided by the practical and patriotic ideals of the public lives of John F. Kennedy and his brothers with whom I was privileged to serve.
They include the honesty to face the nation’s undeniable truths no matter how uncomfortable; the courage to challenge all citizens to fairly share the responsibilities and sacrifices necessary to shape the consequences of those truths; and the confidence to trust a generous and inclusive American people to respond with fair and patriotic instincts.
Here’s what President Kennedy said of democracy 53 years ago:
“(A)s a strong believer in the democratic faith, ….. we know our enjoyment of freedom is not so much a gift from the past as a challenge for the future, not so much a reward for old virtues, but a goal for new struggles, not so much an inheritance from our forefathers as an obligation of those of us who follow….for democracy is never a final achievement” he said, “ It is a call to an untiring effort, to sacrifice and a willingness to live and to die in its defense.”
He added: “Every generation of the Americas has shaped new goals for democracy to suit the demands of a new age.”
Half a century later, in considering the stakes in the coming election, for me the single issue that overrides all others is the state of our democracy and whether we are keeping its implicit promise to leave it to succeeding generations better than we found it. To answer that question honestly we must confront certain uncomfortable truths:
First, the politically inspired claims that a tax-advantaged “trickle down” economic policy of the 1980s would benefit all Americans have been proven patently false. In combination with other societal and political factors, they have robbed a vast majority of American families of their economic security while unprecedented privately invested wealth has flooded upward. Of all the wealth in the country, 76% is now owned by the top 10% of Americans while the bottom 40% have a negative net worth.
While this ominous shift of society’s wealth and income is being amassed at the apex of America’s pyramid, the several rungs on the ladder of opportunity, once just a hard-earned step away for the average family striving for security and upward mobility, are now beyond their reach even as these millions of Americans work harder and longer for lower wages often at more than one grueling job.
Unless this continually growing inequality of opportunity for advancement is redressed by policies of fairly shared change, the gaping separation between the privileged and the disadvantaged will lead to increasingly dire consequences not only for sustained and shared economic growth but for the character of our national community and for the stability and viability of our democracy.
A second, closely connected and equally uncomfortable truth is that the recent campaign finance “rules of the game” are poisoning the politics of our democracy.
For some time now, workers have labored from one low paying job to another to support their families, while big money political donors and their agents strolled from one welcoming Congressional office to another lobbying for ways and means to protect their wealthy status quo and advance their private economic interest.
But then, to further distort the process, along came the Citizens United case in which a “strict constructionist” majority of the highest court in our land opined in warped doublespeak that a public corporation is equal to a private person and that political contributions are equal to “speech”. This decision condoned and, as a practical matter, encouraged unlimited torrents of funds from individuals and institutions, both private and public, to flow into fictionally “independent” “Super-Pacs” of the super wealthy to bankroll bundles to their favored campaign; it also led to tax-exempt entities masquerading as do-good non-profits to follow the example of the political Super-Pacs but — without disclosing the sources of their funds.
Finally, Citizens effectively licensed outsized political power and influence to the wealthiest among us, thus making a mockery of —“one person; one vote”—a cherished concept of fairness and equality in ours — or any other– true democracy.
Today, it’s neither naïve nor overly cynical for the American people to suspect that the unlimited amounts and often undisclosed sources of political money bear directly on the access and influence afforded to high-end donors to the detriment of the people’s own concerns and needs;
and when the people perceive their political system to be “for sale” and see the enormous amounts of political money spent on elections while they struggle to make ends meet for their families, it is not irrational to conclude that their democratic system now belongs to someone else. Their names may appear on a list of eligible voters, but if they feel effectively disenfranchised, why vote?
Additional and significant collateral damage inflicted by the endless campaign finance marathon is the public’s time that is spent by incumbent representatives in a demeaning chase to woo Super- donors and constantly dial for dollars.
It is valuable time far better spent listening and attending to the concerns of their constituents or building legislative bridges to their Congressional colleagues across the aisle.
The uncomfortable truths I’ve mentioned have consequences. Consider these:
The economic inequality of United States’ households is wider and growing faster than in any other developed country in the world;
- Our political campaigns, privately funded by American affluence, are more expensive than in any other democracy; (it’s estimated that $4.4 Billion will be spent on TV alone in this election year);
- Voter participation in the US ranks 31st in a list of 34 of the world’s developed democracies.
- In our most recent election of 2014, 2/3d of eligible voters did not go to the polls;
- in the age group of 18 to 34 yrs. old to whom the future belongs, over 70 % abstained.
- $1.1 Billion was spent on U.S. Senate races in 2014 but only 38% of eligible voters turned out where those Senate seats were contested;
- Less than 60% of eligible voters participated in our last presidential election;
- Another uncomfortable truth:
The essence of democracy is “public trust” — a belief that every citizen, no matter his or her station in life, has a fair shot at economic security and a reasonably equal opportunity to influence public decisions that may affect that security and quality of life.
– Today, this nation’s “public trust” in our public officials sits at a sorry 26%.
Make no mistake. These dots connect and, together, they add up to the harshest and most uncomfortable truth of all. Among all the Presidential candidates, only Bernie Sanders is telling that truth: The unlimited amounts of money flooding our political system from a narrow and immensely wealthy slice of American society is the most pernicious internal peril threatening the fundamental tenets of economic, political, moral and social justice and, not least, the fairness and vibrancy of our representative democracy.
At age 240, ours is the oldest surviving democracy in history. We owe that survival to our predecessors for their generosity of spirit, their commitment to an ethic of national community and national responsibility and their wise understanding of the value and virtues of shared prosperity.
If we believe that each generation has an obligation to their predecessors – as well as to their successors-to leave America better than they found it, our generation must heed the admonitions of history. For history instructs that for a people there is nothing for nothing.
Writing of an earlier democracy, the distinguished historian Edward Gibbon reminds us: “…When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them; when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.”
The “new normal” of our “new age” that I have described is neither sustainable nor acceptable in America. To successfully meet the seemingly intractable systemic challenges and changes, the contemporary language of resignation—“whatever” or “it is what it is” has no place in our national conversation. What is required instead is an attitude of responsibility and resolve best summed up in the firm and forthright response of a forthright son of Brooklyn: “ENOUGH is ENOUGH”!!
Let no one misunderstand. I have great respect and appreciation for the significant contributions President and Secretary Clinton have made in their public service to America through the years and, as well, for Governor O’Malley and his outstanding record as Mayor of Baltimore and Chief Executive of Maryland. And, just as with Bernie Sanders, my disagreements with them on particular issues are few. All three of these distinguished public servants also deserve our thanks for the civility and mutual respect with which they have debated the issues of the day and, trusting that will continue, unlike the Republican opposition mud-wrestling match, this Party will be united going forward to November.
But, to his great credit, of all the presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat, Bernie Sanders — alone— has spoken consistently, honestly, courageously, passionately and credibly about what he and I, and I suspect most Americans believe—but are unsure what to do about it: That truth is that the core values of our democracy have been seriously endangered and need to be repaired and renewed by this generation.
What we can do about it is to respond to Bernie Sander’s challenge to all of us: to share the responsibilities and sacrifices required to restore public trust in America’s representative democracy and to reknit the fraying fabric of our national character and community.
That bold and patriotic summons of Bernie Sanders speaks directly and compellingly to what is, for me, the overriding issue at this critical juncture in our nation’s history—and that is why I am here today—and I urge you to join me in the days and weeks ahead!
And think about this.
Before a vote has been cast in 2016, a significant segment of the potential electorate is sending strong signals about its feelings of cynicism, alienation, fear, anxiety and resentment, anger — based in no small part on the economic struggle they are losing, the fairness gap they are experiencing and the pay –for-power gap they are witnessing.
In response, the two Republican candidates leading in current polls and drawing the largest crowds are crassly exploiting these negative emotions, channeling them through shameless appeals to their listeners’ worst fears and anxieties which they then seek to allay with pledges of selfish exclusion and dangerous division delivered with crude and mean-spirited rhetoric.
Either one of them could be the nominee of the Republican Party in November.
Now, some folks have observed that Senator Sanders can sometimes come across as “angry”. Well, let me assure you of this: if Bernie Sanders seems angry, he IS angry.
I had the privilege of serving briefly with Bernie Sanders in the United States Senate, and I quickly learned that you don’t have to know Bernie for long to know him well. He is who he is— a plain spoken, and authentic patriot who wears his passion for a better America on his sleeves.
The fact that Bernie Sanders viscerally feels the burn (to coin a phrase) of those whose opportunities and security have been ravaged by the changed rules of this new normal is testimony to his character and his candidacy. Come the general election, his authentic empathy will appeal to the enlightened and positive self-interests of Americans as well as to the country’s larger and longer term national interest. His message will channel their anxieties toward a platform he has espoused consistently throughout his political life. It is a platform based on hope not fear; fairness not privilege; unity not division;
opportunities afforded not denied; inclusion not exclusion; shared sacrifice and shared security —all traditional ideals consistent with the best in our national character.
Here’s one more thing to think about in contemplating the stakes for our democracy’s future and envisioning the contest in November.
Enlightened Democrats, Republicans and Independents will be asking themselves:
To whom does this country belong? To whom will my next President be most accountable?
Will it be a boastful, never-in-doubt billionaire accountable to no one but himself for his nomination?
Will it be a candidate accountable to a small group of special interest multi-millionaires that bankrolled his campaign?
Or, will it be the Democratic nominee who demonstrated his conviction and credibility– as he always has — by matching principle with performance— and refused to play by rules that have tainted the legitimacy of our political process and, instead, resolutely “walked the walk” on the road to the his party’s nomination supported and encouraged only by small contributions from millions of middle-class Americans?
A vibrant American democracy depends upon a broad, diverse and representative engagement of voters trusting that their voices will be heard equally and their hard work will be rewarded fairly. That is a traditional and treasured ideal that our founding fathers put in place at the bedrock of our system of government. It is the essence of the obligation passed on to each and all of us —regardless of party…and it is the democracy to which Bernie Sanders will lead us.
And you can mark these concluding words: –A representative American democracy will not be restored from within the Capital Beltway until a majority of Americans, Democrats, Republicans and Independents can cause their elected representatives to “feel the Bern” of a virtual grassroots political prairie fire, sparked by patriotic citizens fanning the flames of civil and civic engagement with smart phones and new techniques of social media and igniting a popular uprising of massive voter turnout with good old-fashioned shoe leather determined to leave this democracy better than they found it.
“Democracy is never a final achievement; it is a call to an untiring effort, to sacrifice and a willingness to live and to die in its defense…. Every generation of the Americas has shaped new goals for democracy to suit the demands of a new age.”
This is our “new age”! These are its demands! This is our challenge! This is our obligation! This is the noble and patriotic goal of Senator Bernie Sanders!!
For his outspoken and courageous leadership, his candid and consistent pledge of allegiance to that All-American ideal, I am proud to be here to join this “untiring effort”; and, as a former Chairman of the National Democratic Party, to endorse Bernie Sanders for our Party’s nomination for President of the United States of America!! Thank you all,—- and most of all, thank you, Bernie Sanders !
Sen. Paul G. Kirk, Jr. (1/14/15)