The Las Vegas massacre focused national attention once again on the National Rifle Association’s ability to thwart democracy and the desire of an overwhelming majority of Americans, including most gun owners, for stronger rules on gun ownership. Yet, as Frances Moore Lappé and her co-author Adam Eichen make clear in their compelling new book, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want, the NRA is only a bit player in the war against democracy launched by an alliance of the superrich in the 1970s.
Daring Democracy is forthright in documenting the systemic dysfunction that follows from that short-circuiting of our democratic system. It is also hopeful and compelling in its call to citizen action.
Most details in the recent history of the elite’s assault on our national well-being that began in the United States in the 1970s were familiar to me. Yet Lappé and Eichen’s account evoked fresh insights, renewed my sense of hope and possibility, and drove home the truth of their assertion that “to save the democracy we thought we had, we must take our democracy to where it’s never been.”
A functioning democracy is necessary in order for our cause to succeed, be it restoring Earth’s environmental health, eliminating extreme inequality, achieving justice and protecting the rights of people of color and LGBTQ people, eliminating atomic weapons, or ending war. Furthermore, domestic political forces that diminish the lives of all but the richest Americans also block global action to limit abuses of financial power that diminish the lives of billions more people throughout the world.
Though the historic roots of oligarchy run deep, the contemporary elite war against democracy is distinctive in the sophistication of its strategy and the scale of its funding. Lappé and Eichen document in detail the early roles of mega-billionaire clans such as Olin, DeVos, and Koch, soon joined by the Mellon, Scaife, Bradley, and Coors families. Their efforts were inspired and guided by the notorious August 23, 1971, memo written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell, whom President Richard Nixon subsequently appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Claiming that corporate power and the “free enterprise” system were under attack, Powell laid out a detailed strategy to gain control of the institutions of media, law, and economic thought and policy. The all-out war against democracy that followed stripped unions of their power, decimated the American middle class, and rolled back most of the gains millions of workers achieved under President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
President Donald Trump rode to power by capitalizing on the resentment of the White workers disenfranchised by that war. As inequality grows more aggressively across racial lines, White workers experience the pain of exclusion that Blacks and Latinos have long endured. This creates a foundation for an essential and potentially decisive alliance in the quest for true democracy.
Another distinctive contribution of Daring Democracy is its impressively up-to-date account of the agenda and strategy of an emerging democracy movement accelerated by Trump’s electoral victory. Their review of the movement’s practical and detailed pro-democracy policy agenda includes proven ideas for designing and building public support for initiatives such as public financing of elections, transparency for political donations, automatic voter registration, ranked choice voting, nonpartisan redistricting, a means to overcome the non-representative power of the Electoral College, and restoring voting rights for ex-felons who have served their time.
The final chapters of Daring Democracy tell the post-election story of the democracy movement as Lappé and Eichen have experienced it. At its core is a diverse alliance of citizens with widely varied agendas drawn together by a common awareness that success in their seemingly divergent causes ultimately depends on the vitality of a democracy in which every person has a voice. The alliance is growing in racial, generational, and class diversity and is beginning to transcend traditional political divisions.
Lappé and Eichen make clear that there are no easy victories and wins are rarely permanent. Despite the setbacks, however, awareness of the democracy imperative is spreading and the movement is gaining power.
Daring Democracy is a book deserving of the attention of everyone committed to the dream of a nation and a world that works for all.