Cultural Crossroads: A Vision for the Future of America and the World

In this final chapter excerpt from What Would Jefferson Do? (Harmony Books, 2004), bestselling author Thom Hartmann reflects on why democracy works and how we can return to the Founders’ ideals.

We’ve strayed far away from the Founders’ vision of American democracy, which was grounded in the Enlightenment and John Locke’s belief that no institution — governmental, ecclesiastical, or corporate — should ever have the rights and powers reserved exclusively for We the People.

Corporations have reached out and grasped rights and powers that Samuel Adams and George Hewes directly challenged at the Boston Tea Party when they lit the fuse of the American Revolution.

Churches have created unholy (literally) alliances with politicians and governmental institutions to provide “faith-based” services ranging from prisons in Florida to schools in Washington, D.C., all as ways of insinuating themselves into the arterial flow of governmental tax dollars and to gain power over politicians.

And our government itself has been so infiltrated by agents of special interests — from CEO president and vice president to corporate-funded “conservative” think tanks writing public policy — that many of our constitutional rights have already been usurped.

Add to this the war-intoxicated executive branch of the government granting draconian police powers to our law-enforcement agencies and disabling the 227-year-old wall of separation that forbade the U.S. military from operating within the United States against U.S. citizens and you have a prescription for the transformation of democracy into a modern feudal state.

All of us — no matter what our current political persuasion — can participate in returning democracy to our nation. Let us not fall prey to the pervasive cynicism that has gripped much of the world today, which would encourage us to think there’s no point in trying. People rarely show up for local democratic forums such as town council and school board meetings — even fewer people volunteer or run for such offices — and the number of “nonvoters” has exploded. This cynicism has led to an epidemic of nonparticipation in democratic processes, and we must end it.

Such resignation among voters certainly benefits those in power, because the less likely someone is to vote, the less chance there is that peaceable “regime change” will happen when voters throw them out. Thus, the mighty — in this case, the largest corporations and individuals with dynastic wealth — have a big stake in perpetuating the myth that democracy always fails. They want us to believe that there’s no hope, no pointing in fighting, because they will win control of our nation, and therefore we should simply give up in our attempts at reform.

Should we just give up? Is despair an appropriate response to the overwhelming power of what President Cleveland called “aggregated capital”?

A Progressive Majority

“We do not have the luxury of despair,” answered Vermont’s Independent congressman Bernie Sanders when I asked him that question on my radio program in December of 2003. “In fact,” Sanders added, “despair is precisely what the people who own this country and have the power want you to feel. They don’t want you to fight back.”

Sanders said, “Progressive viewpoints are, in fact, held by the vast majority of the people. People want health care for all; they don’t want the disgrace of having the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world.”

The reality is that every time Americans have confronted a serious social problem of political origin, it seemed at first impossible to overcome. But people of goodwill, vision, and perseverance fought for years to bring an end to slavery, the oppression of woman, and the subjugation of Native Americans.

Although none of these battles is over, all are well past or near the turning point, showing that dramatic cultural and governmental change is possible — and, in fact, is inevitable when enough people wake up and speak out. True, systemic change never happens from the top down: it’s always from the bottom up. In virtually every case of positive change in the history of democracy, there was each time a groundswell of popular support and a chorus of “average persons’” voices that preceded a nation’s leaders taking action.

We Can Speak Out

One of the lessons that Congressman Sanders taught me is that members of Congress do listen to their constituents. Most read “Letters to the Editor” section of their hometown newspapers regularly, and even if they don’t listen to every call or read every e-mail or letter from their constituents, they have staffers who summarize these for them. And — as conservative activists have discovered over the past 20 years — politicians take citizens’ opinions seriously; they realize their political survival may be at stake.

The phone number for the United States Capitol is 202-224-3121. You can ask for any congressperson or senator and speak with a member of his or her staff. Be sure to keep your calls to a single subject, and try to present your opinion in a single sentence or two: brevity increases the probability your concern will be understood and communicated to your reprehensive.

More effective than calling, e-mailing, mailing, or faxing is to organize a small group (five to fifty is usually sufficient) of people who share your perspective and ask your representative for a personal meeting at his or her local office the next time he or she is in the district or state. Elected representatives rarely avoid such displays of people power, and if your group is articulate, brief, and to the point, you may well influence your representative’s thinking.

Other ways to get on your elected representative’s radar screen are to write op-ed articles for your local paper, create or join a local advocacy group and meet with the local media, and write personal letters to your elected officials.

And don’t forget the option of running for elective office yourself.

What Sort of Nation Do We Want?

As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, times change and democracies must change to meet them. The disparities in wealth in America today would be mind-boggling to the Founders, as would the costs of health care and old age.

It’s entirely appropriate for each generation to ask the simple question “What sort of nation do we want to live in?” and then look for ways, consistent with the Constitution and its processes, to create just that sort of nation. If Germany has learned some good lessons regarding single-payer health care, we should feel free to borrow them and incorporate them into our democracy. If Sweden has learned how to make retirement work, it’s something we should consider. And so on.

Now we are confronted with the problem of a relative minority of people in our culture who hold massive wealth and power. They use this to mold our opinions in their media, to control our legislators by making obscene campaign contributions just to protect their wealth and power, and to control our lives by owning the great majority of jobs. They believe that the aristocracy and feudal power of giant corporations and enormous personal wealth entitles them to decide and dictate how all Americans should live, completely removing American freedoms from our hands.

They are wrong, and the vast majority of Americans know it.

We have not just a duty but an obligation to confront and defy this sort of power. Our first obligation is to the generations that came before us and fought for democracy: they didn’t fight, die, or work so hard to bring about a new corporate aristocracy.

Our second obligation is to the generations that will follow us: we hold this world in trust, having borrowed it from them, and they will not easily forgive us if we bequeath it to them in worse shape than we inherited it.

And our third obligation is to the present: to return democracy to America so that our foreign adventures will be restrained by democratic processes, our domestic taxing and spending priorities will reflect our true needs, and our courts, legislatures, and governors and president will answer to us, rather than corporate special interests.

The Founders endured enormous hardship and loss to break free of an oppressive government that was then the most powerful force in the world. The effort and sacrifice this required was extraordinary, and following that horrific war they established a liberal democracy whose purpose is to serve and protect the people, so that control should never again reside in a small set of powerful hands.

Reprinted from What Would Jefferson Do? Copyright © 2004 Mythical Research. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random, House, Inc.

Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of eighteen books and the host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show syndicated by Air America Radio. Visit