Eternal Vigilance | April 2023
The Elders Action Network Journal of Sound Democracy
Elders protect democracy every day because that’s what it takes.
Welcome to the April edition of Eternal Vigilance. In this edition we share some thoughts about the current perilous situation and why we must stay engaged in pushing back. It’s a long read, but please stick with us. We offer some specific steps we can all take together.
It’s all too easy to look at the situation and become paralyzed by a sense of futility and fear. That would be a mistake. Right now is the best time to stand up as a community and push back hard on the energetic, well financed and highly coordinated movement to destroy democracy.
But those of us who cherish a civil society still have a few cards to play. Elders Action Network is part of a broad national coalition of civil rights, environmental and public service organizations that have successfully mobilized key voting groups, including people of color, women and young adults, resulting in a generally progressive trend in the electorate. High turnout in these groups has been decisive in several recent statewide elections, including the Georgia senate race and the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race. In addition to mobilizing voters, we must continue to call out public corruption and advocate for sound civic values.
This is why we act: The conspiracy to destroy democracy has momentum – and a purpose
In the past month, we have seen some of the most disturbing manifestations of the far right authoritarian plot to cut the legs out from under our democracy. At the same time, we’ve seen citizens turn out at the polls and the streets to push back hard, motivated by their displeasure with government action to curtail reproductive rights and inaction on gun safety. In the April 5th Wisconsin Supreme Court election, Janet Protasiewicz, the candidate committed to reproductive rights and sound elections, trounced the MAGA candidate by more than 10 points. Turnout among women and college students was off the charts. Meanwhile, in Nashville, thousands of young people marched on the state capital to demand gun safety legislation, sparked by another horrific school shooting. Pundits from across the political spectrum have noted the blue wave building across the country. The MAGAs have gone too far on abortion, they say, and the voters are starting to notice that their basic human rights are being curtailed.
Despite these hopeful results, the conspiracy to destroy democracy has serious momentum. Frankly, we remain at risk of losing our democracy to a fascist-style onslaught of disinformation, intimidation and authoritarianism. In just the past two weeks, we’ve seen a deluge of anti-democratic outrages:
- The Tennessee legislature has expelled two duly elected state representatives for standing in solidarity with their young constituents protesting government inaction on gun violence.
- Idaho became the first state to criminalize assisting with an out-of-state abortion.
- In a stunning overreach, A Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas is attempting to force the FDA to ban the abortion drug mifepristone, which has been FDA approved and safely used for more than 20 years.
- It was revealed that a sitting U.S.Supreme Court justice and his right wing activist wife secretly accepted lavish gifts from a billionaire Republican donor, probably in an illegal fashion. In a discomfitting detail, it is now being reported by multiple sources that the right wing activist billionaire, who has hosted the justice at his home and on his superyacht, is an avid collector of Nazi paraphernalia and supporter of authoritarian causes.
- The Florida legislature is advancing bills to destroy academic freedom, further suppress voting, censor discussion of race and gender in schools, require political bloggers to register with the state, and allow carrying of guns without any requirement for training, licensing or registration. The Chair of the Florida Democratic Party participated in a peaceful demonstration in front of the state capitol and was led away in handcuffs by state troopers.
Unfortunately, we could fill a whole journal with recent attacks on civil society. It’s a pattern. A MAGA official or delegation tries an anti-democratic tactic in one state, and then it spreads from state to state. According to a recent Politico report, we have entered the worrisome era of legislative supermajorities – states in which the dominant party has a veto-proof majority in the legislature, and is thus able to overrule the other branches of government. Very often these supermajorities are the result of extreme gerrymandering.
In fundamental ways, our democracy is already broken. We are beyond fearing that our basic liberties will be infringed. We are experiencing it in real time. The sabotage of democracy has a purpose – to prevent the enactment of policies that are popular with the American public but antithetical to the far right. It’s a grab for power in the face of an electorate that is trending younger, more female and less white.
The Nashville school shooting is a vivid example of what’s going on.
- Day one, a deadly school shooting occurs.
- Day two, In an outrageous and dangerous distortion of the facts, Fox News and several prominent Republican politicians frame it as a pattern of transgender revenge killings – “it’s the trans people, not the guns that are the problem” kind of thing.
- Day three, a Republican representative Tim Burchitt tells the media, “We’re not going to fix gun violence. I home school my kids so no problem.”
- Days four through ten – The Republican-controlled Tennessee legislature expels Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two duly elected state representatives who stood with school kids to protest gun violence. Jones and Pearson happen to be young men of color, highly articulate and not afraid to speak truth to power.
- Late breaking development – the Metropolitan Council of Nashville votes unanimously to re-appoint Representative Jones; he is sworn in and re-seated in the legislative chamber to thunderous applause from supporters on the floor and in the gallery.
Tennessee students protesting lack of gun safety. Source: BBC News
Notice the pattern here – a horrific event occurs, right wing media uses it as an opportunity to deflect attention from the issue and demonize an outsider group, right wing politicians reject any and all common sense fixes, and then exact political revenge on anyone who dares to stand up for the popular point of view.
This intentional distortion is nauseating and terrifying. The Nazis led with anti-trans propaganda because they could demonize an outsider group that was already marginalized and lacking strong public support. Then they moved on to Jews, Romas, gays and progressives. Today’s buzzword on Fox News and from folks like DeSantis and Cruz is “Soros-backed” as in “the Soros-backed prosecutor who is indicting Trump.” It’s pretty well known that “Soros” is a right wing dog whistle – a way to say Jew without saying Jew – another terrifying example of the classic authoritarian tactic of outgroup demonization.
Jeff Johnson, EAN’s public corruption team leader, summed up the problem: “Decisions are being made that are counter to the will of the people on fossil fuels, reproductive rights, fair taxation, voting rights, respect for diversity and gun safety because our system is not a functioning representative democracy at this point.”
This is why we act. We can not tolerate this aggressive move toward authoritarianism. We will not “obey in advance.” Yale historian Timothy Snyder notes that authoritarianism works by incrementally encouraging people to modify their public behavior to avoid conflict with the coercive, intimidating elements. Perhaps you thought about speaking out at a School Committee meeting, but passed because you feared it would lead to personal attacks. That’s how the more empathetic voices get shut down and the authoritarian bullies ease their way into power.
This is how we act:
We base our action strategy on a hopeful premise – if we allow voters to vote, they will do the right thing. Thus we must be part of the voice in society that stands up strongly for that basic freedom. We will continue to reach out to key voting groups because that matters a lot. Last month, we called upon our members to work with Vote Forward to send thousands of personal “go vote” letters to traditionally marginalized Wisconsin voters. Now we’re happy to report that women and young adults turned out for that election in record numbers tilting the outcome toward the candidate committed to reproductive rights and fair elections.
Helping voters is not enough. We will call out and oppose public corruption, and we will champion sound civic values. In April and May, we will continue to outreach environmental voters, work on registering young voters, speak out against authoritarian outrages like the Tennessee expulsion of legislators, and continue to profile and organize several key swing districts in key swing states. Please read on to learn about our pro-democracy work, our state voting rights teams, and how you can make a very real difference.
Action Opportunities Right Now
Each month, Eternal Vigilance presents several actions our community can take right now to strengthen the fight for democracy. Some of these actions are “one-offs” – write a letter, attend a phone bank, or do a brief research task. Others call for ongoing commitment. Our entire organization is fueled by volunteer leaders and organizers who envision and build all our programs and initiatives. Here are the hot opportunities right now:
- Participate in an Elders for Sound Democracy monthly community meeting to meet activists from around the country, give advice and feedback on our pro-democracy action agenda, and take deep dives into important issues and topics. This month, we will explore our personal experience with the failure of the state to protect us from gun violence and respect our reproductive rights. In May, we will collaboratively develop national and local actions addressing these concerns. Meetings are held the third Wednesday of each month at 10:00 am PT / 1:00 pm ET. Please join us for the April meeting. Register here.
- Send a strong message to the Tennessee legislative leadership that summary removal of duly elected representatives for exercising their first amendment rights will not be tolerated. EAN is working with Common Cause, Sunrise Campaign, Brady Campaign, League of Conservation Voters and others to generate hundreds of thousands of responses to a petition calling out this authoritarian outrage. Please take a few minutes to respond.
- Participate in an environmental voter phone bank to low voting, strong environmentalists, which is a proven program for building the power of environmentalists. In March, we reached voters in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. See Elders Promote the Vote.
- Work with EAN’s national research team for the Swing District Initiative. We have lots of easy and more challenging volunteer opportunities helping to build pro-democracy coalitions and foster respectful communication across political and cultural divides. Contact email@example.com.
One of ESD’s most important resources is our state voting rights teams that conduct innovative voter empowerment work in key states, including Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. This year, our state teams will be looking very closely at what influences elections in the communities and districts that have a recent history of close elections, and that have the potential to swing either way. We believe that these districts present the best opportunities to foster communication across ideological and partisan lines. We need volunteers to take on individual districts, and prepare profiles of the key issues, key organizations with the potential to counter partisan alienation, and the key sources of civic and media influence. These swing district profiles will inform our work to build bridges across partisan divides in these more moderate districts. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to take on a role with our state teams. Because we are a virtual organization, team members can live anywhere and participate in one of our priority states.
The Right Stuff
Each month, Eternal Vigilance features a story demonstrating exemplary public service and civic virtue. Though the loudmouths and bullies get most of the attention, most Americans respect the honest and dedicated folks who support their communities as public servants, engage in county government and school board meetings to fight for tolerance and justice, and work tirelessly to help secure our fragile democracy.
Repudiating Political Violence and Supporting Civic Values Matter
Gretchen Whitmer and Jocelyn Benson won reelection in 2022 as Governor and Secretary of State of Michigan. Both had been targets of threats and name-calling during the election. Whitmer had been targeted by a group who were convicted of planning to kidnap and harm her. Whitmer said she “would like to think” her reelection was a repudiation of political violence. “Good people need to call this out and say we will not tolerate this in this country. And perhaps part of that message was sent this election.”
A right-wing campaign in 2022 escalated threats against Michigan election officials and threatened election disruption. In January 2023, the Secretary of State and Democratic lawmakers announced plans to protect election officials and election integrity. “We cannot have a secure democracy if we do not protect the security of the people who administer, protect and stand guard over our elections,” Secretary Benson said.
How can we stand up for democracy?
- Support candidates who promote democracy and respect the rule of law, precedent, and evidence, especially those who brave threats and bullying.
- Support the plans of elected officials like Whitmer and Benson, who are working to protect democracy by supporting:
- legislation to ban and increase the penalty for threatening, harassing or doxxing election workers or pressuring them to act illegally;
- legislation to ban deceptive practices in elections, such as lying to voters when seeking petition signatures and knowingly spreading misinformation about elections and citizens’ ability to vote;
- increased funding for township, city and county clerks to run elections.
Linda Warner and Therese Flaherty contributed to this article.
We’re building bridges in communities still capable of a civil conversation
You can be part of it
While Elders for Sound Democracy is a national network of pro-democracy activists, it is our state teams that have enabled us to make an impact on voter access in key states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Now, in 2023, we are taking a much more comprehensive look at what it means to fully engage in championing democracy. One of our key realizations is that we need a much stronger focus on what’s happening at the local level and how concerned elders can engage.
Last month, we shared these key facts that impel us to bring a much stronger action focus to democracy at the local level:
- There are simply many more elected positions at the state and local levels, and each election is an opportunity to engage voters. The numbers are astounding. There are 537 federal elected positions, just over 7,000 state elected officials, and on the order of 493,000 local elected positions!
- Many key decisions are made at the local and state level. School committees decide what children learn and what they read; secretaries of state run elections. State legislatures determine reproductive rights and many other important quality of life decisions. The intolerant right is well organized and highly energized on all these fronts.
- While gerrymandering has resulted in many voting districts that are locked for one party or the other, there are still dozens of districts that can swing to either party and ticket-splitting can occur. These swing districts are at the very heart of the conversation that this nation needs to have to find common ground across partisan divides and near the political center.
- Local organizing enables us to build relevant coalitions and target our actions to fill needs not being addressed by other pro-democracy and civil rights organizations.
How our network is taking it local
Elders Action Network is reconvening our state voting rights teams and developing a methodology for building bridges in swing districts – communities where a healing political conversation is still possible. This work takes place at our monthly ESD community meetings and at team meetings throughout the month. Many volunteers have found a great outlet for their skills and passions working with our state voting rights teams. This month we feature Elders Action Network’s Swing State Initiative. This is a golden opportunity for individuals interested in sound democracy to get involved in an innovative and high impact campaign.
Michael Sales, lead organizer for the Swing District Initiative, explains that EAN needs an empowered team of activists who enjoy doing research and want to support grass roots organizations and individuals who are standing up for democracy in “Swing Districts.” Here’s a working definition of the term:
A Swing District is one where a House seat was decided by no more than a 2% margin in the 2022 election. Districts that have a mix of urban, suburban, and rural voters are of particular interest.
This work will get EAN down into the weeds to truly understand the driving issues, the political dynamics, and the power structure of US Congressional districts where voting behavior is close enough to indicate that people with contrasting views are being exposed to one another, even if they don’t want to be. Our hypothesis is that democracy is much more than a spectator sport in these districts because the people living there are more likely to know that their votes count, because they do.
We want to bring hope and energy to local progressives and good government activists of all sorts by showing them that our national organization is behind their efforts to energize their region’s democracy. As the headliner to this edition of Eternal Vigilance reminds us, most Americans are more progressive than lawmakers who get into office through big money and biased gerrymandering.
Wisconsin’s District 3 is a good example of a Swing District. For 20 years this region was represented by a centrist Democrat. It voted Democratic at the presidential level between 2000-2012. But in 2016 and 2020, it voted for Trump by narrow margins, and a staunch Republican won the Congressional seat. A thoughtful analyst concluded that the shift reflected a “rural resentment” that Trump’s grievance-based politics was able to capitalize upon.
However, in the hotly contested, record-breaking turnout for the state Superior Court justice election just completed in Wisconsin, this district went handily for the more progressive candidate. Women’s reproductive rights was the key animating issue in this race. Unlike the results for the Congressional election in 2022, those few rural counties in District 3 that voted for the candidate that supported abortion bans did so by very narrow margins. The more urban areas returned high margin votes for the pro-reproductive rights candidate.
I estimate that there are approximately 15 Swing Districts meeting the criteria cited previously, across the US. There will be some issues like women’s reproductive rights, corruption in politics, crime, concerns about extreme weather, and sensible gun regulations that will be present in all of them. Other issues will be quite local, e.g., how to lower energy costs paid by Wisconsin’s District 3 egg producers.
The Swing District crew will work with the State Teams to establish a manageable number of districts to collect and analyze voting and issues data, and engage local voters. Each of these steps should and will be fun and highly energizing. Connecting with local activists will keep us non-partisan because many local issues concern and involve people across the political spectrum. We’ll find that a lot of folks are trying hard to “get to yes,” (find common ground) even if their policy positions and political affiliations vary.
In addition to getting to know local activists, this research will also introduce EAN to a set of thought leaders and allies who are already focused on these districts with the objective of engaging in complementary efforts to advance progressive policies and good government. The networks we’ll create and become part of can become professional and personal resources to draw upon in 2024 and beyond.
I hope that you’ll want to join this action learning team. Looking over this list compiled by Indivisible might be a good first step. Indivisible is more partisan than ESD, but it’s a very good shop with dedicated volunteers and staff.
Try this: Pick a district to spend an hour or so studying. Can you identify one or two key individuals who could help us understand the character and structure of this district? Why did you choose them? We’re going to try comprehending what makes Swing Districts tick. Finding key local leaders who are already on the ground and know their communities well is important. Local and regional journalists, academics, political figures, community organizers, etc. can be very good guides to people like us. See if you can find someone you’d like to talk to.
Through my training and my practice as a strategy consultant, I have done a fair amount of research, and I did teach social science research a thousand years ago! I haven’t done this specific kind of political analysis; so, we would be on a learning journey together. But, working with others, I’m excited to get started down this path.
Swing District Initiative leader Michael Sales can be reached at email@example.com, 617-335-9776.
Michael Sales and John Sorensen contributed to this article.
This month’s Deep Dive explores our national gun violence Impasse
Gun Lobby has its way – Nothing will happen to protect our children
“We have federal regulations and state laws that prohibit hunting ducks with more than three rounds. And yet it’s legal to hunt humans with 15-round, 30-round, even 150-round magazines.” –Dianne Feinstein
Gun control is the classic example of special interests and hysterical ideologues shooting down the legitimate concerns of the American majority.
Guns are now the biggest injury-based killer in the U.S. The contribution of guns to the U.S. Homicide rate among teens and young adults is 49-fold higher than in the affluent countries in Europe and Asia. Most Americans want more gun control legislation. In fact, over 80% support expanded background checks. Over 60% of Americans favor bans on automatic assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines.
America leads the world in firearms-caused deaths.
Nevertheless, while many politicians and other citizens for decades have made it a high priority to create effective gun control laws; they have failed. This is despite the fact that mass shootings, which now happen almost weekly, frequently stimulate renewed efforts to finally pass gun safety legislation.
Two sad features of the American political system are largely responsible for this disconnect between popular will and legislation. One is the pervasive influence of money in politics. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has long successfully opposed measures to limit gun deaths, including universal background checks and bans on automatic assault weapons. One of the NRA’s key strategies is to make millions of dollars of contributions to politicians who subscribe to these NRA positions. Some NRA political coups are breathtaking in their scope. For example, legislation spearheaded by NRA still forbids The Centers for Disease Control from advocating gun control.
The NRA of late is losing some of its financial clout, but the chance of enacting gun control laws any time soon has scarcely improved. NRA and opponents of gun safety legislation have successfully convinced a minority of the electorate that any gun legislation will be the beginning of a process to ban guns entirely. These voters have outsized influence on the prospects for gun control due to a second lesion in the U.S. political system: gerrymandering, the unfair redrawing of lines between voting districts for political purposes. The multi-decade stifling of efforts to enact gun safety laws is but one example of how flaws in the U.S. system undermines democracy, to the detriment of our citizens.
Please see the “Action Opportunities Right Now” section above for suggestions about how to engage on gun violence.
Joffre Baker contributed this article.
Be part of the solution
Elders for Sound Democracy (ESD) has an ambitious strategic plan on behalf of the democratic freedoms we cherish. This work is volunteer-driven. Everything that you just read was written by a volunteer. We need group organizers, communicators, educators, activists and general volunteer support. Our work provides opportunities for purpose and fulfillment. Check out our webpage for information on current activity and volunteer opportunities.
To make sure you receive all ESD announcements and meeting invitations, join Elders Action Network, and be sure to check the Sound Democracy interest box. By joining you will receive the invitations to our monthly ESD Community meetings that are on the third Wednesdays of each month at 10:00 am PT / 1:00 pm ET.
Please consider making a donation to Elders Action Network for the express purpose of expanding staff support for our Sound Democracy organizing efforts. To help us with this need, you may donate here. Your donations are tax deductible.
Your volunteer efforts and donations are helping preserve our democracy for our grandchildren, future generations, and all life.
Thanks to this month’s journal team of dedicated activists and journalists – all volunteers: Joffrey Baker, Paul Dryfoos, Therese Flaherty, Michael Sales, Linda Warner, John Sorensen, and Carol Vollen. Paul Dryfoos edits this journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Crystal Gloistein publishes the journal for EAN and manages distribution. If you are interested in contributing an article about an issue of concern to the pro-democracy community or a recommended action be sure to let us know.
About our journal’s name:
The quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to abolitionist Wendell Phillips in an 1852 speech damning slavery.” “Eternal Vigilance” evoked the fight to end slavery, all the civil rights struggles that led up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the threats currently in front of us, and the need to continue our vigilance and activism every day in every way.