Democracy Alliance President Gara LaMarche delivered these remarks at DA Spring Conference in Atlanta, GA, on April 16, 2018.
Welcome to the DA’s Spring Investment Conference. We meet in Atlanta, a key city of the South, and will hear from both veteran and emerging voices of the region throughout our few days together. We want to honor our history and work together toward a future in which no part of this country—and no community within it—is taken for granted or written off when it comes to building an enduring majority for progressive government.
I don’t know about you, but I feel the great weight on our shoulders as we gather together this time. Every election is important, and nothing should ever be left on the field, but this time the stakes are higher than ever, and everyone knows it and means it. What rides on this election is the answer to a question on which the American experiment depends: Can we build a bulwark—in Congress and in as many states as possible—against an administration that is hell-bent on destroying basic democratic norms and institutions?
This is not normal, and we cannot allow it to become the new normal. It is a constitutional crisis, unfolding and deepening daily.
The policies of this administration, and its cheerleaders and enablers in Congress and the states, are a disaster in every single area of policy you can think of, from the economy to the environment to reproductive rights. The corruption is unprecedented, and the potential criminality is staggering.
And yet even though the policies are Bush and Reagan on steroids and the venality would make Nixon blush on his worst day, what is most alarming is the steady erosion of democratic safeguards—attacks on judges, the press, and investigative and intelligence agencies designed to be beyond partisan control. These are attacks on independence and truth itself. They call for more than winning an election. They demand a plan for the long, hard work of restoration.
Today and tomorrow we’ll have many critical discussions aimed at understanding and seizing the moment we’re in to make historic advances this year. How is the South changing, and how should investments in movement-building, infrastructure, and politics reflect that? How is the anger and activism sparked by the #metoo movement affecting political and civic engagement by women? Just how wide is the map we are contesting? Just how vulnerable are U.S. elections to hacking and other digital disruption, and how can we protect their integrity and regain a digital edge? What do we know about what messages are most powerful for persuasion and mobilization?
We need to emerge from Atlanta with a sharp understanding of the landscape, a working appreciation of the ways many civic engagement and electoral efforts align with and reinforce one another, an intensified determination to win, and a clear map for investments that will get us there.
That’s a tall order, but the moment demands nothing less.
We also need to do more.
We need to start thinking about what progressives will do when we start to take back power. While we take nothing for granted about this November, we must both win convincingly and plan to govern. For whether we can build on any victory, and overcome the forces that are threatening our democracy, will have everything to do with how we act with the power we are trusted with.
In my view, we need to be thinking well before November about the rules of the road for a vibrant economy and a working democracy.
First, we need to be clear and credible on economic policies for working people. Trump ran a con on them and has stocked an administration with fellow one-percenters and corporate shills who want to raid the Treasury to fatten their own bank accounts, unraveling any regulations that stand in their way. But our own failures the last time we were in power to hold to account the architects of the financial crash means we have significant repair work to do on our own house.
The good news is that we know what to do, and the strategy sessions and salons we’re featuring—from corporate accountability to raising America’s wages now—are shovel-ready both for new progressive state governments and any new leadership in Congress.
Second, and just as importantly, we need to have a laser-like focus on the rules of democracy itself – the rules that govern power. When the right takes power, from the state to the federal level, their first, second and third items of business—more important to them than any single policy change—are to consolidate their power, and strike at the sources of ours.
They rig Congressional and state legislative districts, restrict voting rights, attack labor, trial lawyers, and Planned Parenthood and use the awesome powers of the state to strike fear into communities of color and immigrants, as they are doing right now with the insertion of a question on citizenship status into the census. They pack the courts with young ideologues and even change the rules when they need to, so that right-wing Neil Gorsuch now sits in a lifetime seat that should have been Merrick Garland’s.
In other words, as our friend Dan Cantor of Working Families says, “They don’t mess around.”
We shouldn’t mess around either. If we regain power and all we do is talk and think about policies, we won’t have power for long. But if we think about what it takes to restore fairness—what Joel Rogers of SiX has long called “game changers”—we can make power last and count.
If we make a priority of strengthening the rules on corporate malfeasance, expand voting protections and access, restore the integrity of the census, get money out of politics and protect and strengthen the rights of core progressive constituencies like women, labor and people of color, we won’t have to face the crumbling of our majorities as we did in 1994 and 2010.
We know what to do. Will we have the toughness and the focus to do it? We’ll find out once the first thing we have to do—winning—has been accomplished.
I fear history will not be kind if we fail with stakes as immense as those we face right now. But my fear is outmatched by hope, because history is being written, each day since the cataclysm of November 2016, by an unprecedented wave of activism that will not stand for the destruction of our democracy.
I’m proud to stand with all of you, and with those who will join us these next few days, in building that wave as an unstoppable force for the America we want.