By Sara Jerving on September 08, 2011

More than a thousand Americans descended on Wisconsin's state capitol last month to toss around ideas on how to achieve genuine democracy in the U.S. This discussion was part of the first-ever Democracy Convention, bringing together over 200 speakers in more than 150 sessions.

The panels covered a wide range of topics, including disenfranchisement caused by voter suppression laws (often called "Voter ID Laws" by their proponents), the corporate push to privatize public services, and achieving eco-climate justice, among others.

Democracy in Doldrums, Movement Needed

"We need a democracy movement for the U.S.A., we've long needed it, and that need is as immediate today as it's ever been," Ben Manski, convention organizer and executive director of Liberty Tree, a nonprofit group founded in Madison by Manski, who recently ran for the legislature as a Green Party candidate.

The convention kicked off with keynote speeches by Tom Hayden, anti-war activist and founding member of Students for a Democratic Society, and Cheri Honkala, national coordinator for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.

Civil Liberties, the Casualty of Expanded Government Surveillance

Lisa Graves, the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, spoke on one of the media democracy panels, where she discussed the deterioration of civil liberties in the U.S. caused by widespread surveillance.

She also summarized some of the documented history of secret spying on citizens, noting "Make no mistake, in this country… extensive secret surveillance powers have been used to try to chill dissent, thwart dissent, to in essence blackmail leaders of movements that dare to demand that our democracy live up to it's values," she said.

She also criticized the corporate media for uncritically repeating invented terms like "enhanced interrogation" and "extraordinary rendition," which mask and attempt to legitimatize unlawful acts of torture and kidnapping to render a suspect for torture.

ALEC, a Saboteur of Democracy

The Center also hosted a panel on its recently launched ALEC Exposed project that analyzed more than 800 "model" bills and resolutions secretly voted on by corporate and legislative members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has become an influential institution in the crafting of changes to the law that largely benefit its corporate members. Graves was joined by a panel of experts who shared their opinions about the ways in which ALEC legislation undermines our democracy and has had devastating effects on immigrant and workers' rights.

Brendan Fischer, a Law Fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy, illustrated an ALEC bill that aims to privatize the parole process and provide a steady stream of profits to bail bond companies. He noted that the bail bond industry has not been proven to be more effective than state-run parole systems.

"This is a good indication of what a lot of these ALEC bills are trying to do," he said. "In this case there is a genuine problem to be solved -- too many people are in prison," noting that the "ALEC solution" is predicated on on how its corporate members can profit off of a proposed solution.