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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York…

The Erosion and Rebirth of American Democracy

by Magali Sarfatti Larson, Temple University

Polls show the continued deterioration of the United States’ image in the world. The main causes are the occupation of Iraq, torture, the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the government’s positions on global warming. However, comparable surveys show strong support for the values that America embodies and that President Bush has vowed to spread. It looks, according to a BBC report, “as though America itself is seen to be living up to those values less and less.” This is exactly the topic that our Annual Meeting plenary will explore: What are main reasons of concern for American democracy? And are there signs that it can be reformed or even transformed? I will briefly mention some of the issues that our superbly qualified speakers may want to address.

In a democracy, civil rights—in addition to free elections—are what define freedom. Six years of one-party rule, built upon a war against a ubiquitous menace, have saved very little of America’s moral prestige. Our abandonment of the Geneva conventions and our treatment of prisoners have caused widespread revulsion even in allied countries, though less in the United States.1 We might care more, however, about the domestic attacks on civil liberties. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, a rubber-stamp Congress has allowed unprecedented accumulation of power in the hands of an “imperial presidency,” undermining the constitutional balance of powers and our takenfor- granted rights. The Patriot Act, clandestine intelligence operations, the stonewalling of congressional inquiries, Bush’s “presidential signing statements,” the weakening of prosecutors’ independence, the political sway over regulatory agencies, and a tone of omnipotence and impunity have raised the specter of authoritarian rule.

Political Participation

Moreover, in the United States, as in all advanced democracies, the independent institutions that connect citizens to their government have been declining steadily. The decline of unions (12% of the workforce in 2006, with only 7.4% in the private sector) has more political significance in the United States than the decline of parties, which is notable in Europe. Economic dependency and self-censorship magnify the waning of secular institutions that educated their publics to politics. While this country may lead in private electronic media, the better educated citizens (even more than the rich) prevail in all aspects of political participation, a correlate of the disaffection, and the resulting political abstention, of the poorer and less credentialed.

There is not enough space here to mention what American electoral regulations forbid and allow.2 These are long-standing, anti-democratic pathologies. More than 20 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the slow but organized suppression of the black vote continues. Combined with the disenfranchisement of former felons, it played a role in the suspect presidential elections of 2000 (e.g., Florida) and 2004 (e.g., Ohio). Jimmy Carter often says that our electoral system does not meet his Center’s requirements for observing an election. The corruption of democracy revolves around the unholy trinity of money, media, and manipulation. And the marketing of candidates is one of the United State’s exports to the world.3

What, then, is there to signal a possible restoration of the rule of law and of the nation’s founding principles? For those answers, we turn to our speakers. Hope is lodged in the extraordinary vitality of our civil society, the proliferation of alternative movements, and the commitment of those who fight for the soul of a country they love. As the protesters say in the streets, “this is what democracy looks like.”

The Plenary Speakers

Joel Rogers is a public intellectual whom Newsweek identifies as one of the 100 Americans most likely to affect U.S. politics and culture in this century. A MacArthur “genius fellow,” he teaches sociology, law, and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he directs the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and the John R Commons Center.

Rogers has published widely on economic development, industrial relations, comparative labor movements, democratic theory and American politics. His most recently written or edited books show the synthesis of theory, empirical research, and public practice in his work: Working Capital: Using the Power of Labor’s Pensions (Cornell, 2001); America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, with Ruy Teixeira (Basic, 2000); and What Workers Want, with Richard Freeman (Cornell, 2006). His earlier publication with Thomas Ferguson, Right Turn: the Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (Hill & Wang, 1986), was among the first scholarly works to assess the enormous impact of Reagan’s presidency on the future of America and the world.

Rogers’ activism has focused on strengthening democracy in the United States—in the civil rights, peace, and labor movements and in the areas of election law, union organizing, regional economic development, and energy and pension policy. He is a contributing editor of the Boston Review (for which he and Joshua Cohen have edited a remarkable series of volumes) and of The Nation.

Patricia Williams, the James Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University since 1991, is one of the most original critical voices writing in America today. In granting her a “genius fellowship” in 2000, the MacArthur Foundation stated: “Her voice has created a new form of legal writing and scholarship that integrates personal narrative, critical and literary theory, traditional legal doctrine, and empirical and sociological research.”

Williams’s charming memoir, Open House: Of Family, Friends, Food, Piano Lessons, and the Search for a Room of My Own (Farrar, Strauss, 2004), is a declaredly personal work and her acclaimed The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Harvard, 1992) is no less personal. As Catherine McKinnon writes, Alchemy “accomplishes the near impossible: simultaneous depth of engagement in law and world.” In all her work, academic or not, Williams disentangles with unique wit and objectivity the esoteric processes by which the law subordinates African Americans, but also calls them to make real through their heroic struggle the liberating promise the law contains. These qualities are well known to the readers of her column in The Nation, “Diary of a Mad Law Professor,” a timely reflection on race and gender in American law, culture, and society.

Medea Benjamin, a leading U.S. peace activist, has been fighting most of her life for civil rights and social justice here and abroad. Graduating in public health and economics, she worked 10 years in Latin America and Africa for important NGOs. In 1988, she co-founded Global Exchange, an organization preeminent in the struggle for social, economic, and environmental justice. Directing Global Exchange, Benjamin has been a key figure in organizing international actions against corporate globalization and the World Trade Organization, and in campaigning for fair-trade and against sweatshops (including the effort to draft Human Rights Principles for U.S. Businesses in China). She was the Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate from California in 2000.

Since September 11, 2001, Benjamin’s all-consuming activity has been against the war, starting with an extraordinary journey to Afghanistan in 2002. She has helped establish the Occupation Watch International Center in Baghdad. Her new and famous women’s group, CODEPINK, brought six Iraqi women to New York and Washington in 2006. CODEPINK not only carries out imaginative anti-war actions but fights to reorient our budget. It has 250 chapters throughout the United States ( and a book edited by Benjamin and Jodie Evans: Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (Inner Ocean, 2005), one of her many publications. In 2005, she was one of the 1,000 exceptional women nominated collectively for the Nobel Peace Prize.

ASA president Frances Fox Piven, who needs no introduction, will preside over this plenary. We see it as complementary to President Ricardo Lagos’s opening night plenary and to Barbara Ehrenreich’s interview of a lifelong champion of democracy, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan.

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1 76% in the United Kingdom; 89% in Germany; 82% in France and in Italy; 84% in Portugal, and 61% and 69% in Poland and Hungary disapprove of our treatment of prisoners, not far from the 63% of Americans who disapprove of indefinite detention.

2 For some of the obstacles to voting in America see Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s updated classic Why Americans Still Don’t Vote (Beacon, 2000).

3 A flabbergasting demonstration of how American consultants operate is in Our Brand Is Crisis, Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary on Bolivia’s presidential election of 2002.