Let’s all build some downhome democracy

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Introducing the Rolling Thunder tour

In my constant travels and talks throughout
our country, I find that something big
is happening at America’s grassroots that
the media power centers are either missing,
misreading, or plain ignoring:
Democracy is breaking out!

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From coast to coast, in just about every place that
has a zip code, there’s a rising assertion of a truly
American, democratic patriotism that has nothing to
do with Osama bin Laden. What I see, especially in
America’s newly activist and idealistic young people
.is an enduring, positive patriotism of ordinary
folks doing the essential work of citizenship, organizing
to take on the power structure (local and
global) that’s running roughshod over them. In hundreds
of communities in every region of the country,
people are questioning authority, confronting the
corporate order, and challenging both the conventional
wisdom and the complacency of the elites.
These outbreaks of unauthorized democracy are
widespread, well-informed, largely successful, truly
inspirational, immensely important and, therefore,
almost entirely ignored by the establishment media.
It takes bifocals to read America today, one lens for
reading the close-up, official version of
what is happening, and another for
lifting our heads and
out to see an entirely different reality.
Despite a decade of steady hype about .the best
of times,. the experience of a majority of Americans
is that the workplace is indeed leaner and meaner,
reducing workers to disposable cogs; politics is a
money game in which people don’t matter; the
marketplace is bullied by a handful of monopolistic
conglomerates that manipulate everything from
prices to the very DNA of the food supply; the ethic
of the Common Good is trashed and elitism is celebrated;
the essential American ideal of self-government
is being brazenly usurped by assorted world trade
scams that enthrone global corporate rulers;
and the lofty goal of creating a democratic republic
is shoved aside by the powerful few who prefer
empire to democracy.
Conventional wisdom says that Americans want to
go back to the way things were prior to September
11. But I believe that an unconcluded majority
yearns to reach forward, rather than return to a status
quo antebellum that had shown little interest in
their economic and political status and no respect
for their voice.
Last spring I spotted a bumper sticker on a pickup
truck here in Austin: .Where Are We Going? And
What Am I Doing In This Handbasket?.
This is not a theoretical question for
most Americans, who
have seen the privileged few
steadily separate themselves
from our society’s commitment to
the common good. From the
Nixon presidency forward, a narrow
class of corporate, investor,
and political elites has commandeered
practically every lever of
economic and governmental decision-
making in our country (and
globally), and is pulling those
levers to advance its wealth and
power at the expense of working
families, small farmers, independent
businesses, our communities,
our health-care system, our
air and water and food, our privacy
and liberties, and even our
basic right to self-government.
This is a daily assault on
America, coming from the bastions
of privilege on Wall Street
and in Washington, and it’s now
striking millions of people. At its
core, this is a profound assault
on America’s middle-class possibilities,
on the viability of small-d
democracy, and on our nation’s
sense of being a united society
with a shared destiny.
The story of this assault is plenty
big, but bigger yet is the story
of how Americans are not meekly
surrendering to it, but teaming
up to whack the assaulters right
in their snouts. It’s a story about
American grit, about how people
are rallying beneath the media
and political radar screens to
retake our democracy street by
street, issue by issue, greedhead
by greedhead.

We’re already moving

I’ve heard, read, and seen too
many Washington-based progressive
leaders and pundits who
take a deep draw on their pipes,
furrow their brows, and ask with
a dismissive shrug: “Yes, but
where is the Next Big Issue that
can catch the public’s imagination
and create a progressive
Hello? Is the ongoing fight for
American democracy not big
Beyond the pipe smoke of the
clueless cognoscenti is a growing
middle-class and working-class
rebellion against the very corporate
and political elites who keep
telling us to keep our heads
down, be happy, go shopping.
This is a movement that’s very
much on the move, that involves
millions of people, that’s at work
in practically all of our communities,
that is informed and purposeful,
that is not controlled by
any party or faction, and that
offers the brightest hope for
advancing both political and economic
democracy in our nation.
This movement involves not
only activists, but also the
stressed and angry majority of
ordinary folks who have thousands
of kitchen-table conversations
every evening about their
place in a society that is out of
whack and under the control of a
wealthy power establishment that
doesn’t give a damn about people
like them.
The rebellions against this
everyday reality are cropping up
in the workplace and on campuses,
on farms and in the suburbs,
on the Internet and at backyard
barbecues, at noisy protests and
in quiet discussions. These rebellions
are centered exactly where
they were in 1776: in people’s
deep desire for democracy, for
real self-government that values
them, includes them, and offers a
chance to build a more perfect
The fundamental question being
asked is this: Who the hell is
going to be in charge? We the
People or a handful of greed heads?
Shall we Chautauqua?
I believe that we.re in an exciting
moment in our history, one
that is ripe with progressive,
democratic possibilities. Now is
the time to advance those possibilities
by collecting up and connecting
up the phenomenal
activist energy that is lighting up
our countryside.
Go into any city, state, or
region, as I do on a regular
basis, and you’ll find myriad
groups fighting for the same values:
economic fairness, social
justice, and equal opportunity for
all. Each group is battling the
same basic power structure in its
own way, over its own issues,
and all are battling for the same
democratic ideal: participation in
The critical mass of grassroots
agitation over real grievances is
there. What’s missing is the
essential next step of connection.
People are moving, but we are
largely separated from each other
as we struggle with one tentacle
or another of the corporate octopus
that has usurped power and
wealth from all of us. Hence,
people fighting a toxic polluter on
one side of town don’t know the
people fighting for a living-wage
ordinance on the other side of
town, and neither of these groups
know the people just outside of
town who are fighting to stop a
huge hog factory . . . and
so forth.
One way to get together is
simply to get together.
That’s why I have teamed
up with a growing and
enthusiastic bunch of progressive
leaders and organizations
to launch the
Rolling Thunder
Downhome Democracy

Throughout 2002, we will
work with progressive
groups in a dozen cities
across the country to organize
local democracy festivals
that will bring thousands
of people together for
a weekend so we can get to
know each other, get connected,
get involved in
coalition building . . . and
get down to some serious
Yes, fun! As Plato put it
nearly 2,500 years ago:
“Unmitigated seriousness is
always out of place in
human affairs.” Or, as I put
it, Let’s put the party back
in politics!.
Our Democracy Fests are
loosely modeled on the oldtime
Chautauqua movement,
which began in
Western New York in 1874
and spread across the country
town by town via 93
Chautauqua circuits. It was
a Methodist-led but secular
Enlightenment movement, bringing
people together in the summertime
at encampments where
they could hear speakers of great
renown, listen to music, form
glee clubs, participate in plays,
eat and play together, and hold
open discussions. At its peak, the
movement reached 35 million
people a year, and Theodore
Roosevelt was so moved by its
democratic value that he said:
“The Chautauqua is the most
American thing in America.”
We want to revive that spirit.
On the civic side, each of our
Downhome Democracy
Chautauquas will include:
l Two or three rousing speeches
by the likes of me, Barbara
Ehrenreich, Rep. Jesse Jackson
Jr., and other national voices.
Enlivening and interactive
workshops on issues that local
groups want to focus on.
Hands-on, how-to training
sessions to develop
people’s civic and personal
power, concerning everything
from how to get better
media to how to talk to
your doctor.
A book tent featuring an
hourly schedule of signings
and readings by authors.
Open-forum “soap
Boxes” so individuals who
want to vent, present, or
rant can just have at it.
An array of booths
where participating organizations,
both local and
national, can present their
materials, solicit memberships,
and engage the
Facilitated strategizing
sessions where people and
groups can get down to the
gritty business of figuring
out how to work together
over the long haul, making
us stronger as a whole than
we are as separate parts.
Some targeted group
action, inviting the public to
join in a rally, march, or
whatever against a particular
corporate bully.
Petitioning, writing, and
signing on issues or initiatives,
voter registration and
education, send-a-message to-
every form of direct enlistment in
citizen action.
While all the participating
groups will bring their particular
issues to the Fest, each is being
asked to present them in terms of
the overweening corporate power
that threatens us all. Plus, no
whining. This is to be a celebration
of citizen power, not merely a
recitation of all that is wrong. We
want to focus on what we can do,
how we can take power back in
every aspect of our lives, from
the corrupting corporate cash in
our elections to the corporate
contamination of our food.

Fight the power, have fun!

While we develop the civic side
of our community, let’s also wallow
in the glorious cultural side.
Remember, the Chautauqua spirit
is a festive one, and these events
are to be something that regular
folks will want to come to, bringing
their families, friends, neighbors,
church members, co-workers,
bowling buddies, and the
whole community. The setting is
not a lecture hall, but more like a
county fair, with lots going on all
at once, including:
Great music, comedians,
clowns (Patch Adams will be at all
of our events), artists, and other
top performers.
Food and drink, we’re planning
an Organic Food Kitchen
(thanks to the great folks at
Organic Valley and other organic food
companies); we’ll ask local
chefs, farmers, grocery markets,
and other food makers to bring
their goodies; and YES, we’ll have
beer and wine!
Stuff for kids, ranging from
games and puppets to poster painting
and bumper-sticker
Crafts and hands-on demonstrations,
including making patches
and assembling quilts that
express the grassroots, democratic
theme of the Chautauqua.
A tent for poetry slams, storytelling,
songwriting, and such.
Whatever else we can think of
that’s fun a “Dunk-a-Lobbyist”
booth, a baseball game, chess, a
cook-off . . . you name it.
If nothing else, the Rolling
Thunder Tour will be an uplifting
celebration that brings all sides of
town into contact, not merely
gathering organizational leaders,
but reaching into the neighborhoods,
clubs, churches, bars, and
wherever else will let the larger
community get to know each
other, learn from each other,
laugh, eat, and see what we
might do together. I think all of
us will be surprised at how much
progressive activity there is in our
own town and how much potential
we have to take our democracy
I find in every town I visit that
there’s a yearning for political
family, especially since
September 11.
Yes, we now have the Internet,
e-mail, and other forms of high-tech
outreach, but we.re in desperate
need of .high-touch. outreach,
too. Let’s get together and
actually talk with each other
through a democratic Chautauqua
The tour is being initiated by a
wide range of groups (see p.3
box), but local groups in each city
will do the heavy lifting. Each of
the Downhome Democracy events
will be a catalyst for local coalition-
building, beginning with the
planning and production of the
one- or two-day festivals.
To be part of the tour and the
process, a broad base of local
progressive groups will form a
coordinating coalition that will be
responsible for structuring their
event, finding the right venue,
working their membership lists
and doing local promotion to turn
out a great crowd, staffing the
festival with volunteers, and
doing the cooperative leg-work to
make it happen. We’ll also ask
each coordinating coalition to
identify a unifying issue or two
(living wage, public financing of
elections, etc.) that local people
can work on together beyond the
event, thus keeping the coalition
process in action.
The national Rolling Thunder
partners will help with event
coordinating, provide organizational
support, add to the crowd building
effort, offer name speakers
and entertainers, assist with
media, provide engaging workshops
and training specialists,
and generally .be there..
In addition, we.re planning to
have a mobile electronics center
at each festival. Sort of a Bob-
Roberts-Mobile, it will arrive prior
to the event and stay afterwards.
Staffed with professionals, it will
offer training for local activists in
the use of these electronic tools
for everything from canvassing to
It also will leave behind an
invaluable resource: We intend to
collect and compile, on the spot,
a computerized list of those who
come to the Chautauqua, and this
list will be available for free to all
of the groups that help produce
the event, allowing them to stay
in touch with the attendees and
involve them in future actions.
Coordinating coalitions have
begun planning Chautauquas in
Tucson, Chicago, Austin, Atlanta,
Madison, Seattle, and Colorado
Springs, and groups from 20
other cities have approached us
about being part of the tour. We
hope you’ll get involved with us.
as a local organizer, funder,
national planning partner . . . or
at any level of participation.
Democracy is not something
that just happens; it has to be
built from the ground up. Let’s


I’m making moves!

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