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Brennan Legacy Award Dinner Remarks

The Brennan Center is committed to protecting the system of strong checks and balances, and will do our part as a “check.” The great fight for our Constitution is on.

November 17, 2016

It is wonderful to be with you tonight at a moment of celebration and community.

Typically I would tell you about our successes over the past year. We would take pride in the work we all did to protect the right to vote. Six hundred thousand in Texas alone. We would tell you that six states have now enacted automatic voter registration – including, last week, deep red Alaska. We would tell you that our coalition of law enforcement leaders had become a powerful force for criminal justice reform. We have so much to feel proud of.

But this is no ordinary time.  

America has entered unmapped territory. This isn’t the first ugly time in our history. Our founders worried about times like this. We’ve had slavery, and segregation, and the Know Nothing movement against immigrants. We’ve had backlash before; economic turmoil before. James Madison, during the constitutional convention, warned that voters might “become the tools of opulence and ambition.” And it’s not the first change in administration. I’ve lived through a few.

This is different. This time the fabric of our democracy itself is stretched tight.

Think of what just happened. In this election a nativist faction was able to seize first one of our great political parties, and then win a low turnout election despite losing the popular vote. This faction gives voice to a toxic mix of racism and xenophobia. But it laid bare a deep and abiding rage toward an out-of-touch political system and widening inequality.

Now we see the first consequences. A white supremacist installed in the office next to the Oval Office. A vow to seize and imprison and deport up to three million people – immediately. A renewed pledge to block Muslims from entering the country. A surge in hate crimes and violence.

Folks, this is not normal. This is not a drill. The values we cherish – freedom and equality, democracy and the rule of law – are at risk. Many of us—many our fellow Americans—are feeling fear, even terror.  

So what can we do about it?

First and foremost, tonight you have our pledge: we will fight for our Constitution.

When the right to vote is under assault, not just in states but for the first time in years in the halls of Congress – we will fight back.

When minority groups are under attack, facing Islamophobia and discrimination, we will fight back.

When the presidential bully pulpit is used … to bully, we will fight back.

The Brennan Center is committed to protecting the system of strong checks and balances, and will do our part as a “check.” We must bolster and stiffen the spines of those institutions – the courts, the media, civil servants, and civic organizations – that can act as a bulwark against abuse.

But we need to do more than that. All around us, old alignments are scrambled and old arrangements are fracturing. That’s the very moment when fresh thinking and new ideas can take flight. As Lincoln said, “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

For years, I’ve heard that voters don’t care about political reform. Not any more. This year millions of people in both parties rejected a politics dominated by a tiny few, by dark money and Super PACs. We will fight for reform and constitutional change. And we will shine the light of accountability on Donald Trump’s Washington.

Rigged elections?  Let’s talk about gerrymandering. We are moving forward as the hub of an exciting litigation campaign to challenge partisan gerrymandering before the U.S. Supreme Court. Even now, even today, we have every reason to believe that we can uphold the true meaning of one of Justice Brennan’s greatest legacies – one person one vote.

And we will continue to work with a broad and growing bipartisan movement to end mass incarceration – the great racial injustice of our time. You’ve heard  our definitive research: there is no massive crime wave. We can reform our laws and keep our communities safe.  

In all this work, we need you. We need your help. We need your passion. We are grateful to you for being here, and for all the pro bono work, for all you do in your own lives and with other groups to fight for what is right.

It was exactly one week ago, about now, that a lot of people here saw an election result they did not expect and did not welcome. So many people have spent the week since wondering about the country and their place in it. Well, the time for shock is over. The time for anxiety is over. The great fight for our Constitution is on. 

This is not a new fight. It’s the oldest and greatest fight – the fight to make our country live up to its true and best self, as the poet Langston Hughes said – to let America be America again.

Please make a contribution to the Brennan Center for Justice today.

(Photo: ThinkStock)