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The Planet
Question. Stand. Speak. Act.

Democracy depends on eternal vigilance


The following speech was presented to the Sierra Club's National Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C., in March 2005.

The Sierra Club would be just another hiking club were it not for the democratic institutions we have in America.

The ability of citizens to petition their government for change enabled John Muir to lobby successfully for the establishment of Yosemite National Park.

Bruce Hamilton
Bruce Hamilton
Because our government was open, Ansel Adams was able to use his photos to lobby Congress, the secretary of the Interior, and eight presidents to secure protection of such places as Kings Canyon and North Cascades National Parks.

When dams were proposed for Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Club was able to rally public support to convince the federal government to abandon its plans.

Even in some of our darkest hours-when James Watt was secretary of the Interior during the Reagan presidency, or when Newt Gingrich and his cronies took over the House of Representatives in 1994 and pushed the Contract with America-the Sierra Club was able to use our country's democratic institutions to block their radical right agenda.

In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, we have had a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

But now, as the radical right is consolidating its power, we face the real risk that these democratic traditions may "perish from the earth" in this country.

Republican friends say this is no different than when Democrats controlled the White House, Congress, and the courts, and Republicans were the ones frozen out.

But the big difference, as I see it, is that when the Democrats were in control of the branches of government-such as 1976-1980 during Jimmy Carter's presidency-we actually saw increases in democracy and citizen empowerment. Today just the opposite is true.

We are witnessing the dawn of an era when the power brokers in the U.S. Congress, the federal agencies, and the White House are creating a new government, where corporations and the power elite call the shots while Congress and the Bush administration insulate the government from the people they are supposed to serve.

Let me give some examples:

Oversight hearings are designed to expose the excesses of executive power by agencies and the federal government. But now Republicans have no incentive and no intention of exposing abuses by the Bush administration. Meanwhile, the minority party-the Democrats-has no power to officially investigate, so investigations don't happen.

The Right to Know and the Freedom of Information Act are essential tools of democracy. Citizens need to be able to find out what is in a chemical plant, or see the evacuation plan for a nuclear power plant. But under the Patriot Act our government is curtailing this information and these rights, putting us all at greater risk rather than improving our security.

The need for full disclosure of the environmental impacts of a project is as pressing as ever, but our government is avoiding full disclosure through Findings of No Significant Impact, "categorical exclusion," or outright exemptions from the National Environmental Policy Act for defense, transportation, and energy projects. Soon communities will not know when or where the federal government proposes to place a major highway, pipeline, transmission line, or toxic waste shipment route.

Public participation is being increasingly limited. Before the Roadless Area Conservation Rule was adopted late in the Clinton administration, more than 100 public hearings were held around the country. The timber industry at the time complained the process was inadequate and insisted on more hearings. But now, when the Bush administration wants to undo the Roadless Rule, it does so without public hearings, ignoring the more than 2 million public comments that were submitted-overwhelmingly in support of the Roadless Rule. The Bush administration is closeting itself with industry allies and making all its decisions behind closed doors. There were so few public hearings on the new mercury rules that we had to stage our own unofficial hearings to allow people to be heard. And now it's come to light that, according to the EPA's Inspector General, the agency was making up facts to match a predetermined political outcome.

The administration and radical right also want to restrict our access to the courts and stack our courts with right-wing judges who protect corporations over people. They propose to restrict our ability to go to court by challenging our standing. They want to restrict class actions and insulate illegal actions from judicial review.

The radical right is restricting the rights of the minority party. The Democrats' ability to ask questions, offer amendments, have a vote, and filibuster are all being curtailed or eliminated. The "nuclear option"-declaring that a simple majority is all that is required to end debate on a controversial judicial appointment-is the most radical anti-democratic initiative yet.

The administration and the radical right are suppressing press overview and access to information. Political consultant Rob Stein describes a "Republican Message Machine" where the radical right and its corporation partners "own" the right wing press, pay commentators and journalists to promote policies, seed press corps with fake journalists, issue propaganda made to look like objective news stories, and hold briefings with pre-screened, sympathetic questions.

Through undemocratic "free trade agreements" such as NAFTA and the WTO, this administration empowers unaccountable trade tribunals where corporations can challenge and overturn environmental, safety, and labor laws, and citizens have no access or legal mechanism to defend these safeguards.

In sum:

  • Our democracy is not gone, but it is going.
  • These are alarming trends, not inevitable results.
  • It is still possible to restore democracy, but it requires "eternal vigilance."
  • The best antiseptic to fight this infection of our democracy is sunshine.

We need to expose what is happening so the public will rise up, object, and turn back this tide.

This is not a Republican or a Democratic thing. It's not a progressive or a conservative thing.

The allies of democracy and open government and "people power" come from all parties and both ends of the political spectrum.

To be part of the solution requires respect for the voice and the will of the people and respect for the Bill of Rights.

To defend our democracy we must reach beyond our comfort zone and rebuild a far broader community that has forgotten how to be public citizens. Reach out and engage hunters and anglers, people of faith, labor, bankers, auto dealers, teachers, stock brokers, neighbors... the list goes on.

Requirement for membership in this movement is that you believe in freedom and the right of every citizen to practice democracy on a daily basis.

This is the spirit of our Building Environmental Communities program. On issues as local as cleaning up litter along streams all the way up to standing united against the "nuclear option" in the Senate, we need to rally broad communities to "take back our government" before it is too late.

To build this broad coalition it will require what author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams calls "respectful listening" to our fellow citizens. She writes:

"It asks that we vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act, ultimately, on behalf of the common good. Democracy's only agenda is that we participate and that the majority voice be honored.

"If we cannot engage in respectful listening there can be no civil dialogue, and without civil dialogue we the people will simply become bullies and brutes, deaf to the truth that we are standing on the edge of a political chasm that is beginning to crumble. We all stand to lose ground. Democracy is an insecure landscape.

"Democracy depends on engagement, a firsthand accounting of what one sees, what one feels, and what one thinks, followed by the artful practice of expressing the truth of our times through our own talents, gifts, and vocations."

Your presence here today is living witness to your commitment to not let go of our living, breathing democracy.

I urge you, once you go home, to continue exercising your activism in your workplace, your neighborhood, your local chapter, your political party, your church, your charitable giving. Teach your children to participate, too.

Speaking out and acting out your role in democracy is a true act of patriotism in these perilous times. The best way to defend democracy is to fully exercise your democratic rights every day.

"Question. Stand. Speak. Act," Terry Tempest Williams writes. "We have a history of bravery in this nation and we must call it forward now. Our future is guaranteed only the degree of our personal involvement and commitment to an inclusive justice."

Photo: Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover; all rights reserved.

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