ATLANTA -- The political discussion in the United States is, for the most part, disappointing -- not merely because it is too ideologically and intellectually narrow but also because it is too backward in focus.
Instead of imagining what might be, contemporary politicians spend most of their time talking, at best, about treating existing wounds to the body politic and, at worst, about "threats" that no longer exist. In the former category, place all the Democratic and Republican politicians who promise a "new direction" with regard to the Iraq quagmire but never get around to rejecting the neo-conservative -- or more precisely, neo-colonial -- policies that got us into the mess in the first place. In the latter category, place all the partisans who suggest that the problem with our health-care system is too much government involvement -- which is a little like claiming that the problem with a headache is too much aspirin.
At a certain point, you just want to say: "Get over it! At a point when only one in five Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, isn't it time we changed course?"
That's the message of the thousands of Americans who have gathered in Atlanta in recent days for the U.S. Social Forum.
Modeled on the World Social Forums initiated by the South American left, which have brought together activists from every corner of the planet to strategize about organizing across border to promote fundamental change -- ending poverty, addressing environmental threats, rejecting war and genocide as responses to conflict -- the U.S. Social Forum says radical reform is both a realistic goal and a reasonable one.
It adopts the World Social Forum mantra: "Another World Is Possible."
And it adds an essential second line: "Another U.S.A. Is Necessary."
As the diverse range of peace and social justice groups that have organized the U.S. Social Forum recognize, only when the U.S. becomes a more responsible player will the planet become a more functional and humane place. This is not a matter of blaming the U.S. for everything that ails the world; there is plenty of blame to go around. Rather, the point is a positive one: By making the United States live up its founding promises of democracy, respect for the rule of law and avoidance of entangling alliances, this country can both lead by example and by the practice of respecting the right of others for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There is a good deal of optimism on display in Atlanta this weekend. But it is an optimism rooted in bitter experience. Activists like the Liberty Tree Foundation's Ben Manski have long track records of battling against empire, injustice and environmental degradation. They know how hard it is to change the course of American politics and governing.
Yet, they believe that the American people, if freed to shape the country of their desires rather than their fears, would make the U.S. a better player on the planet. In other words, they argue that America is not the sum of George Bush and Dick Cheney. Rather, it should be the expression of the best insti of three hundred million basically decent people who, given an opportunity, would opt for peace, fairness, equality and sustainability.
Manski, the executive director of Madison's Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution, has played a critical role in developing the U.S. Social Forum's "Democracy Track," a series of events designed to get people thinking about how to renew and extend citizen participation in decision making at the local, state and federal levels. As a participant in several of the plenaries, I've been genuinely impressed with the seriousness of everyone involved to, as Manski puts it, "build a democracy movement for the U.S.A."
There is no question of the need for such a movement. Our electoral processes are a shambles, as evidenced by the dubious results of the last two presidential elections. Our campaign finance system is a crime. Our media aids and abets all that afflicts the nation. And working families find it harder and harder to make their voices heard on the job, in the school or in the community. The crisis is clear. What's exciting about the U.S. Social Forum is that the solutions -- fundamental structural and policy changes in foreign and domestic policies, rather than tinkers around the edges -- are coming into focus.
John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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