Spirits of the ’60s keep appearing before me.
I see the spirit of the 1961 Freedom Rides in today’s bold undocumented undergraduates fighting for the Dream Act at the risk of deportation. These young people are putting their bodies on the line, as so many students did in the ’60s when facing segregation, the draft, and the university-turned-knowledge-factory. I see the same ’60s spirit reborn in the one million strong protesting for immigrant rights on the streets of Los Angeles. I see it in the students being dragged away or pepper-sprayed as they assemble to fight escalating tuitions. I see it in the movement to confront global warming, where, in the words of the Port Huron Statement, if activists “appear to seek the unattainable, let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” And I see it in the Occupy Movement, whose own September 17 manifesto’s first principle demands a “direct and transparent participatory democracy.”
The Port Huron Statement is, in other ways, irrelevant and retro today. It was written before the Kennedy assassination; before the Vietnam escalation; before the modern women’s movement, the farm workers’ union, the peace, anti-draft, and GI movements. But its call for participatory democracy echoed through all those struggles. For example, the late community organizer Carl Wittman saw the student, civil rights, and anti-poverty movements as a collective realization of the Statement’s vision and, furthering that belief, wrote the first gay liberation manifesto during the Stonewall riots in 1969. Millions of people like Carl were in the closet one way or another in the early ’60s. Participatory democracy was a great coming out by everyone.
Participatory democracy is embodied in tactics of direct action and of decision-making aimed at achieving consensus. But its scope is broader and includes progressive tools of referendum, recall, and initiative we see unfurled today in Wisconsin and in efforts to extend and deepen public participation in foreign policy, workplace decision-making, neighborhood assemblies, interactive learning, and so on. It also includes the underground press and independent media, which arose in response to the arrogant indifference of the mainstream news corporations. The Internet and social media now promise the greatest expansion of participatory democracy in history.
The Port Huron Statement’s core message is timeless but not dogmatic: we all need participatory democracy.
Participatory democracy as a framework can unite single-issue movements around a larger long-term goal. Liberals, radicals, libertarians, populists, Marxists, feminists, anarchists, progressive entrepreneurs, poets, musicians, unions, parties, non-governmental organizations, and even conservatives (sometimes) can easily fit in. While some of these groups may enjoy being isolated vanguards of the fringe, most people would prefer to steer their boats in a wider sea with many currents.
Participatory democracy can manifest even in the electoral arena, such as the moving upswell of commitment to Barack Obama among young people, African-Americans, and many others in the historic election of 2008. But typically it begins at the margins and pushes into the mainstream through many fits and starts. The establishment embraces participatory democracy’s reforms when pragmatic representatives realize that it is better to concede on the issues than allow the popular surge to become more radical and destabilizing. When we win, the public forgets, the media announces that the system works, and the inevitable countermovement tries to contain and undermine the achievement.
For example, how many people remember that it took hundreds of activists in wheelchairs occupying federal buildings in Washington D.C. before the Americans for Disability Rights Act was passed? I think about them with gratitude every time I stand on a curb.
Participatory democracy is based on an “inside-outside” strategy: it doesn’t rely only on candidates and legislation, but also on the moral energy of masses of people standing up or supporting those who do. We should honor all those who went to jail to resist the Vietnam War or racism, but also thank the courageous politicians such as Ron Dellums, Bella Abzug, and more recently Russ Feingold and Dennis Kucinich, who have risked their careers to open the doors of institutions to the winds of change.
The Port Huron Statement is neither a relic for ancestor-worship nor a modern catechism. Its core message is timeless but not dogmatic: participatory democracy is the political expression of the universal human need to be involved in the joint-creation of our community and, through that collective activity, the creation of ourselves.