The Democratic Turn of the Century: Learning from the U.S. Democracy Movement

March 18, 2015
Ben Manski

Originally published by the journal Socialism & Democracy. Contact the author for permission to reprint.

Democracy movements arose in most regions of the globe during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Students of social change have studied many of these movements, but, remarkably, have so far failed to look at that of the United States.

What makes a democracy movement different from another type of social movement? One distinctive trait is the explicit choice of participants in naming their efforts as pro-democracy. But there are other common qualities as well. These movements transcend national and social borders, and in so doing unite disparate elements of society. They challenge existing conceptions of personhood, citizenship, and sovereignty, and expand the circle of standing and governance. They are universalist and evangelical, seeking always to bring popular participation and self-determination to new fields of life. And democracy movements return the question of revolution to the fray, by closing the gaps between issue advocacy, reform efforts, and revolutionary outcomes. Democracy movements, in the words of Richard Flacks, promote “the ability and willingness of people to take responsibility for the direction of society and its institutions, [and] the restructuring of society in such a way that the people are increasingly empowered to make history in and through their daily lives” (Flacks 1988).

I want to look at the contours and origins of the present U.S. democracy movement, and to identify certain theoretical questions that emerge from that description. I will examine the democracy movement’s integration of prefigurative and strategic politics, in order to illustrate the point that democracy movements are qualitatively distinct from other social movement forms. Democracy movements in general, and this democracy movement in particular, require specific attention and analysis. The present turn toward deep democracy is far from complete; understanding its pathways will prove essential if we are to confront future hardships.

Contours of the democracy movement in the United States

Today, the flashing of Walt Whitman’s “sign of democracy” is visible across the United States. In the Rust Belt a major city has become so identified with public investment in cooperatives as to become known nationally as the home of “The Cleveland Model.” In thousands of communities across the United States, crowds of hundreds and thousands have gathered nightly in general assemblies, a horizontalist decisionmaking process reintroduced to North America from revolutionary Argentina and Europe. On a growing number of campuses students have reorganized their student associations as “student unions,” bringing back a student syndicalist politics that last arose in the 1960s and last was widely practiced in the 1930s. In dozens of major cities citizens now gather in the tens of thousands to deliberate and vote on municipal budget priorities. Voting rights sit-ins have occupied state capitol buildings across the South and the Heartland, leading to a renewed push for a Right to Vote Amendment. Mayors and city councils from California to Maine have reasserted their ancient authorities of eminent domain and home rule to protect homeowners, workers, children, and ecosystems. A majority of the population of the United States either has voted for or is represented by legislatures that endorsed a constitutional amendment to nullify the doctrines of “money is speech” and “corporate personhood.” All these and more are elements of a living history.

Within the social sciences and humanities it is widely recognized that, to borrow a phrase from an earlier era of social struggle, there’s something happening here. Occupy Wall Street and the #occupy movement it generated have garnered the most attention, with scores of books and hundreds of social science articles examining its uses of technology, aesthetics, organization, and forms of discourse. The Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 similarly inspired significant research, particularly in sociology and labor studies. The movement “to make clear that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights,” and that “money is not free speech,” which rose to national debate in the aftermath of Citizens United v. FEC, entered the pages of law and public policy journals in the 1990s. A growing body of research understands contemporary U.S. voting rights, racial justice, civil liberties, student, union, immigrant rights, climate, and global trade campaigns as taking the form of pro-democracy struggles. Beyond this, the academy has taken increasing notice of the underlying democracy crisis that movement intellectuals have been concerned about for many years.

Yet that is where the inquiry stops. Remarkably, this growing body of academic work has yet to coalesce into a coherent area of inquiry. Instead, most researchers have studied individually each democratic uprising, struggle, and campaign. And the structural analysis of the democracy crisis has been conducted well apart from social movement research. Instead of the academy, it is the democracy movement itself that remains the greatest repository of records, inquiry, and analysis into its own origins, developments, and directions.

Origins of the democracy movement in the United States

When Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he was calling up the spirit of a struggle that had defined American history since well before Reconstruction or the Revolution of 1776. For much of the twentieth century, that spirit had risen powerfully with the labor movement’s call for industrial democracy, the women’s movement’s struggles for voting rights and equal rights, and the civil rights movement’s civil disobediences and marches (Winant 2001). In the 1960s, that spirit took up residence in the student and youth movements of the United States and much of the rest of the world. Yet even at the height of the 1960s-1970s New Left, Third World, and feminist movements, in the years when democracy was in the streets and the ideals of participatory democracy were emergent, the explicit call of Port Huron and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for a movement toward “greater democracy in America” was not immediately answered in the emergence of an equally explicit democracy movement. While the turn towards radical democracy was significantly imagined in the politics of the 1960s, the contemporary U.S. democracy movement was not conceived until the early 1990s, and its birth came still later, at the turn of the millennium.

There are many possible explanations for this delay. Some point to the setbacks of the 1980s, in which the conservative culture war’s division of the white working class and the Reagan White House’s war on unions, African Americans, and the poor, remade many progressives into reactionaries. Instead of democracy on the march, the U.S. Left found itself compelled to defend the social welfare state and labor peace. Others suggest that the rot in the coalition between Washington liberals and grassroots radicals had already set in by the late 1970s, as the Carter administration carried forward the policies of the entrenched security state and reached accommodations with a rising class of global capitalists. In either case, the outcome was the same. The desire for a concerted movement toward democracy went unrequited throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and democratic politics went into abeyance, refining ideas and practices at the grassroots, but failing to emerge as a national force (Taylor 1989).

And then Washington declared the Cold War over. This meant that the example of the Soviet bloc no longer could be wielded as a cudgel against radical politics, nor leaned on by rigid ideologues of the Left (Wallis 1990; Flacks 1996). It meant that the rising and apparently unchecked dominance of the corporation and the unleashing of corporate globalization posed an existential threat to aspirations for democracy in the United States. And around the globe, from Manila, Beijing, Prague, Cape Town, and many other locations, revolutions and uprisings gave the sign of democracy.

On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation issued a call for war against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the form of the First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle. This heightened the struggle between democracy and corporate rule, setting the stage for a process of collective inquiry, deliberation, and movement-building aimed at making democracy central to the politics of the many branches of the U.S. Left.

The 1990s: resisting corporations, rethinking democracy

Instead of marking the end of history, as political theorist Francis Fukuyama had predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact initiated a new period of struggle between corporate capital and people’s movements. From Washington, Wall Street, and Dallas came a multipronged push that included neoliberal trade policies like NAFTA and the Multilateral Agreement on Investments, domestic policies like the telecommunications and welfare reform acts of 1996, and everywhere, resource wars for oil and minerals. In response, as one slogan of the 1990s read, “resistance can be expected.” This resistance often began within the social and economic sectors under most direct attack, and in many places transformed into sectoral counter-efforts focusing on democratization, including efforts to democratize the media, education, the labor movement, trade, agriculture, policing, corrections, philanthropy, and elections.

Resistance to the consolidation of mass media brought together new efforts like Countermedia, Free Speech TV, and Acción Zapatista, along with established projects like Paper Tiger, to launch and other media democracy projects. A desire to see the internet used for democratic purposes fed the creation of the Institute for Global Communications (, EnviroLink, and the Center for Campus Organizing, each of which pioneered online organizing, expanding the new commons of the worldwide web. Campaigns to resist corporatized education arose, led by the 180/Movement for Democracy and Education, Teachers for a Democratic Culture, and Rethinking Schools, among others. In response to the corporatization of welfare, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and other foundational members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign organized home reoccupations and mass direct actions at government buildings and banks. Corporate offshoring of jobs and a new wave of union-busting was met with organized mass resistance across the Midwest as a labor reform movement with roots in the 1970s gained traction via Labor Notes conferences, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Association for Union Democracy, and other associated efforts. In a closely linked development, the fair trade movement emerged as a response to corporate-dominated trade policies with the National Labor Committee, Global Trade Watch, Global Exchange, and Equal Exchange, all of which sought to create worker-consumer alliances to regulate trade. Farmers also united with consumers resisting the corporatization of agriculture and science by building community-supported agriculture and establishing controls over toxins and GMOs. The 1990s-era explosion in corporate prisons, incarceration, and police militarization gave urgency to campaigns for community policing, prison abolition, and the freeing of political prisoners, led by the Black Radical Congress, Critical Resistance, and the Anarchist Black Cross, among others. And in response to the corporate takeover of the Democratic National Committee, new national independent political parties arose, dedicated to “grassroots democracy,” a pillar of the Greens, a “democratic revolution” in the words of the New Party, and “democracy [as] the struggle of our generation” as the Labor Party put it.

In the 1990s, corporate capitalism left no sector of society untouched. In the process, corporatization provoked popular resistance and inspired new pro-democracy initiatives. One organization instrumental in weaving together the genetic material of the emerging democracy movement was the Program on Corporations Law and Democracy (POCLAD). Founded by veterans of the New American Movement of the 1970s, the New Left of the 1960s, and significantly, the Progressive Party of the 1920s-40s, POCLAD became the first in a series of organizations that worked to make radical democracy central to the politics of the U.S. Left.

In 1993, POCLAD co-founder Richard Grossman co-authored a Thomas Paine-style pamphlet entitled Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Articles of Incorporation. In their widely circulated and read pamphlet, Grossman and Frank Adams called for a new approach to social change work in the U.S.:

We are out of the habit of contesting the legitimacy of the corporation, or challenging concocted legal doctrines, or denying courts the final say over our economic lives..... What passes for political debate today is not about control, sovereignty, or the economic democracy which many American revolutionaries thought they were fighting to secure. Too many organizing campaigns accept the corporation's rules, and wrangle on corporate turf. We lobby congress for limited laws. We have no faith in regulatory agencies, but turn to them for relief. We plead with corporations to be socially responsible, then show them how to increase profits by being a bit less harmful. How much more strength, time, and hope will we invest in such dead ends? (Grossman & Adams 1993)

Instead, Grossman and Adams concluded, the time had come to recognize that, “Our sovereign right to decide what is produced, to own and to organize our work, and to respect the earth is as American as a self-governing people’s right to vote.”

Among other things, Taking Care of Business was used as a discussion piece for “Rethinking the Corporation, Rethinking Democracy” weekend retreats, or “Rethinks,” involving a handpicked cross-section of activists, organizers, and intellectuals from the labor, women’s, student, indigenous rights, poor people’s, civil rights, environmental, and other existing movements. POCLAD held scores of Rethinks in every region of the United States and thousands of activists on the front lines of sectoral anti-corporate and pro-democracy campaigns took part. The POCLAD Rethinks influenced the actions of participants and helped cohere a new politics. They also led to the formation of new organizations and networks.

This self-described “Second Circle” of pro-democracy initiatives took varying forms. The National Teach-In Clearinghouse coordinated five rounds of Democracy Teach-Ins from 1996-2001 at hundreds of college campuses and union halls. The teach-ins asked participants, “Is it possible to achieve democracy and social justice when corporations are allowed to control so much power and wealth?” Democracy Unlimited of Wisconsin, Cooperative, gathered over 180,000 signatures on petitions calling on Wisconsin’s Secretary of State to revoke the certificates of authority of Exxon, Unocal, and Pepsico to do business in that state. Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County, in California, went much further, initiating and winning a ballot measure that nullified corporate constitutional rights in that county and establishing an official county committee for organizing against corporate constitutional rights. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund began to work with farmers and rural communities to nullify corporate constitutional rights and to assert home rule police powers to regulate particular corporate practices. The newly established Alliance for Democracy formed local chapters across the country whose goal was to “free all people from corporate domination.” Reclaim Democracy and consumer rights advocate Marc Kasky challenged the Nike corporation’s claimed “right to free speech” before the Supreme Court. A new publication called Adbusters issued calls for “Buy Nothing Day” actions. And existing organizations and movements like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, National Lawyers Guild, and Earth First! all created ongoing taskforces and campaigns to, in the language of the day, “End Corporate Rule.”

By the late 1990s, the various sectoral anti-corporate, pro-democracy campaigns were regularly interacting with the broad social movement-oriented POCLAD and Second Circle intellectuals and organizers, and all of them were in regular communication with activists and social movement organizations in other parts of the world. The place where they all came together in person was Seattle, Washington.

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