This weekend I was in Washington, DC. Prior to the antiwar protest, I went to interfaith service Saturday morning at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation and heard breathtaking sermons from Rev. Robert Hardies, Sister Carol Miller, Ms. Khalila Sabra, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rev. Graylan Hagler, and Bhante Suhita Dharma.
My old friend Rabbi Michael Lerner (disclosure: I was on the advisory board of Tikkun for years) highlighted the gig with a rousing call to action in the streets, and he and I marched partway to the demonstration together.
But what all the speakers knew, and the people in the (literally) overflowing church knew, was that it wasn't about any "big names" or "leaders." It was about the people marching. The people sitting in the pews. The people who went largely unreported in the mainstream media, but ultimately will transform this nation. The people who comprise the Parade.
Ultimately, it's all about the Parade - "We The People." The ultimate question for Americans - one we've been debating since 1787, is: "Do we run our country, or do our politicians?"
This issue - the power of the Parade, of We The People speaking up and speaking out and participating in the political process - was the primary debate in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. Tragically, it will again be hotly contested as the House of Representatives begins to investigate potential crimes by the Executive branch and the Bush administration begins to push back and claim executive privilege (a doctrine that appears nowhere in the Constitution).
Now, as then, the cleavage will be between the liberal vision of a nation "Of the people, by the people, for the people," versus the conservative vision of a nation with a thin veneer of democracy over a government run by an elite meritocracy (with the governing merit being "wealth").
In 1787, the debate broke out into the open when Alexander Hamilton, on a hot June day, gave a long-winded speech about how America should be an elected monarchy. He said, as James Madison transcribed in his notes on the Convention, "The British Government was the best in the world: and that he [Hamilton] doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America."
Hamilton added, according to Madison, "Let the Executive [President] also be for life."
The delegates soundly rejected Hamilton's conservative vision of America, and he left most of the subsequent deliberations to his peers, going back to New York two days after his infamous speech. (To his credit, when the Convention was finished he was the only New York representative to sign the new Constitution, and he argued strongly for its ratification in a series of newspaper articles today known collectively as "The Federalist Papers" co-authored with John Jay and James Madison.)
But the dynamic push-and-pull between conservatives who believe in an elite controlling government and liberals who believe We The People should hold all power has gone on from the founding of this nation to today. After George Washington - who referred to himself and to our nation as "liberal" - left office, the conservative John Adams followed him. Adams referred to the average folk as "the rabble," and was so suspicious of us that he pushed through the Alien and Sedition Laws in 1798, allowing him to imprison anybody for saying anything he considered slanderous about himself.
But the liberals carried the day in the election of 1800 (sometimes referred to as "the Revolution of 1800"), throwing out conservative John Adams and electing the liberal Jefferson.
Liberals like Jefferson had long believed in giving all power to We The People - the Parade. For example, Jefferson wrote in 1788 to CWF Dumas, "I have such reliance on the good sense of the body of the people and the honesty of their leaders that I am not afraid of their letting things go wrong to any length in any cause."
A year later, in a letter to David Humphreys, Jefferson repeated his faith in the rabble. "Whenever our affairs go obviously wrong," he wrote, "the good sense of the people will interpose and set them to rights."
And a decade after leaving the presidency, Jefferson - having held that executive office for eight turbulent years - still believed in the Parade. As he wrote to Spencer Roane in 1819, "Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law."
The Parade was the core concept of the Founders and Framers of this nation. Their idea was that we don't elect leaders - we elect representatives.
It's not about who's in Washington, our state capitols, or our county or municipal offices. It's about us.
One of the most effective ways to trivialize the political process is to turn it into a sports event. From TV commentators to radio talk show hosts to bloggers and pundits of all stripe, calculating the game of "who's going to win" is a powerful and effective tool for diminishing a discussion of the real issues and the real role of We The People in politics.
Such a discussion trivializes activism. It trivializes the Parade. Ultimately, it trivializes We The People - us.
When we look back on the history of political movements in America, none has ever been instigated by a politician. They've always arisen out of the Parade. From the liberal democratic republic we founded, to the abolition movement, to the suffrage movement, to the anti-war, civil rights, and women's rights movements of the last century, every one originated with masses of people standing up and speaking out as we did this past weekend.
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And in every case, when a critical mass of people became passionate enough to form a Parade, eventually a politician jumped out in front of it and said, "This is MY parade!"
Abraham Lincoln was not elected on a platform of freeing the slaves. Teddy Roosevelt never spoke of taking on the trusts and the Robber Barons before becoming president. Franklin Roosevelt ran on a very middle-of-the-road platform in the election of 1932.
Now it appears that at least one of our Democratic politicians has noticed the Parade.
"Do you believe that you have a unique selling point up against Hillary and Obama?" Chris Matthews asked John Edwards on his Hardball program on MSNBC, on the 28th of December.
"I think I have a different perspective on what needs to be done in this country," Edwards replied. "Some people believe that we should campaign, hope that the candidate that we vote for will be elected president, and somehow that president is going to go out there and solve all our problems. I just think that's not going to happen. If we want to actually change this country, the only way to do it is for America to get involved.
"You've heard Bill Clinton and others talk about 'individual responsibility.' I'm not talking about 'individual responsibility.' I'm talking about responsibility for your country. We want people to take responsibility for their country; to not just wait for the government to solve their problems but for the government and Americans to work together to solve problems, which is why I've been talking about Americans going out there and taking actions, instead of just waiting for the next election. I think that's different."
When Matthews pointed out that Bush's solution to America's problems is to "just go out and go shopping," Edwards asked rhetorically, "What planet is he living on?"
He then spoke directly to the concept of the Parade:
"After September 11th , we had an extraordinary moment of unity and a proud feeling of patriotism - I had it myself, all of us had it - and it was a great opportunity for us tap into the will of the American people to do great things together. Not just for themselves, but for America.
"I don't think that will and feeling has gone away. And the next president of the United States needs to tap into it - not in an ideological or partisan way - but say, 'These are the great things that we can do as Americans. But you can't sit home and complain that somebody else is not doing their job. If you actually want America to be great, you're going to have to step out and take some responsibility yourself and do something."
Matthews pointed out that George W. Bush, "a president of limited rhetorical ability," managed to turn Americans against the French, against French fries, against Europe, whereas in World War II, the children of the "elite" (from all four of FDR's sons, who all served in combat, to Joe Kennedy's two eldest sons, one of whom was killed and the other shot out of the water by the Japanese) served in the war, and Americans sacrificed (butter and tire rationing, for example). "How," Matthews wanted to know, "do we engage the public in the war effort today"?
"That was a time," Edwards replied, "when the president didn't just take action through the government. The president said to the American people, 'If we want to do the things we want to do - support the war effort, like you just asked about - we're going to have to do it together, and you're going to have to get off your duff and go out there and show how much you love your country.' He [Roosevelt] inspired people to do that, and that's exactly the kind of thing we need again."
Edwards then went on to draw his metaphor out beyond war.
"I think there are multiple levels on which we need to do that. You just asked about the war. This is an area where the decision-making about the war is primarily the President of the United States' responsibility, but speaking out and making our views heard is the responsibility of America. Doing something about our energy situation, which is a total disaster - both the energy situation and what is happening with global warming - this is something that the government alone can't fix. My own view about it is that we ought to ask America to be patriotic about something other than just war."
Edwards' entire rap was about the Parade. Hopefully we'll soon be hearing the same from the other Democratic candidates, as they figure out that people want "representation," and the type of "leadership" America has historically done best with is leadership from the front of an already-moving Parade.
FDR spoke of the Parade when he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
JFK called people to the Parade when he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask, rather, what you can do for your country."
Ben Franklin openly endorsed the Parade, saying: "In free governments the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns."
Americans love the Parade - the idea that We The People are really the ones in charge, and that we want our representatives to represent us, not to "lead" us. It's in our political DNA. Our Founding document - our original political gene pool - speaks of it: "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
This isn't meant as an endorsement of Edwards, although I have little doubt he would make a fine president, even though I do disagree with him on past votes and many issues. That's not the point: rather, it's an agreement with his push that we all join the Parade.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edmund Randolph, a year before Jefferson became President:
"The whole body of the nation is the sovereign legislative, judiciary, and executive power for itself. The inconvenience of meeting to exercise these powers in person, and their inaptitude to exercise them, induce them to appoint special organs [branches of government] to declare their legislative will, to judge and to execute it. It is the will of the nation which makes the law obligatory; it is their will which creates or annihilates the organ [government] which is to declare and announce it [the will of the people]."
It's not enough to sit around and wait for politicians to do things - we must be guiding them. It's not enough to simply vote - we must be active in the political process, from local party work (any party!), to joining activist movements, to writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper and calling into talk shows.
If you want to help save democracy in America, join the Parade!