Skip Navigation

Michael Waldman: The Birth of a Democracy Movement

Brennan Center President Michael Waldman’s address to the Brennan Legacy Awards Dinner, November 2018

November 29, 2018

Below is the speech delivered by Brennan Center President Michael Waldman to the Brennan Legacy Awards Dinner, November 13, 2018:

This wonderful dinner is a chance for us all to come together, to honor the legacy of Justice Brennan and his vision of a legal system rooted in “human dignity,” to recommit to the great American values of freedom and democracy and justice. To the ideals of a nation founded on the idea that we are “all created equal” — not on blood and soil, but on the highest sense of human worth.

Each year, we get together about a week after the election. Two years ago, people were in shock, and didn’t know if the country they loved was real. By last year, people were angry. People understood that there was a debate going on, that great matters were at stake.

Today it is clearer than ever: We are engaged in a great battle for the future of constitutional democracy in America. Nothing less. 

Our challenges go much deeper than one election, one candidate, one party, one president. 

All around the world, amid economic and demographic change, broken systems of democracy have produced a backlash. We see a normalization of nativism and misogyny, of hatred and abuse. We see a realignment of our politics in ways that challenge the very constitutional order. We are always on the edge, one tweet away from a constitutional crisis. 

But at this very moment of unease and darkness, something big, something inspiring, something luminous has begun to stir. One week ago today, we saw something quite remarkable in American history.

By the tens of millions — in the face of voter suppression, gerrymandering, broken voting machines — the people spoke. The highest turnout since 1914. On Election Day, democracy won. 

The Brennan Center is proud of the role we have come to play to make these elections free and fair. With your help, we have become a leading national force for change. Independent. Nonpartisan. Rigorous. We fight fear with facts. And we have stepped forward as the source of innovative thinking and the bold reforms that will renew our country.  

Let me tell you about some of the things we’ve done this past year.

Do you remember Donald Trumps’ phony voter fraud commission? It was a big threat for voter suppression. The Brennan Center led the fight with litigation, and research, and ridicule in equal measures, and we killed it. It imploded without finding any evidence of widespread misconduct. (And in case he’s listening … I’m sorry, Kris Kobach, we do not actually have a job for you.)

We stopped illegal voter purges this year all over America. MSNBC reported that: “The Brennan Center is the leading force for voting rights all over the country.”

After Russia attacked our democracy, we worked with conservative allies to win $400 million from Congress for states to buy new voting machines — a bipartisan, left/right win.

And perhaps most significant of all, what happened a week ago — and what that represented in the turn in our politics toward these fundamental issues of democracy and justice.  

All throughout our history, these great questions have been debated. Forces arose that have pushed a retrograde racial vision, that pushed back against immigrants. This is not the first time. And, when it has happened, sooner or later, the people have responded — understanding that the answer to an attack on democracy is to strengthen democracy. We saw that in the wake of the Civil War with the enfranchisement of African-American men and former slaves. We saw that during the progressive era, with women winning the right to vote in the 19th Amendment. We saw that during the Civil Rights era. They understand that that right to vote, for every American, was the most important reform of that time. 

And in this election, for the first time in memory, the state of our system of self-governance became a central public and political issue. Democracy itself was on the ballot. And the voters enacted a wave of powerful reforms. 

So many of you worked on the Supreme Court cases this year, when we hoped there would be a ruling to declare extreme partisan gerrymandering to be unconstitutional. Then, Justice Kennedy said, "Come back next year” — and then, two days later, retired.It was reason to despair, but the citizens acted. In Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and Utah, voters ended partisan gerrymandering — ballot measures the Brennan Center helped write. 

Michigan is a really great example. Citizens were very upset about the gerrymander there, one of the worst in the country. All the party leaders from both parties told them, “Don’t bother. Nobody cares. Nobody understands this stuff. Process. It’s boring. You’re never going to win.” So they went out and with an entirely volunteer army got 400,000 signatures for a ballot measure to create a redistricting commission. If you drove down the wintry roads in Michigan earlier in the year, there were people standing by the side of the road, holding signs that said, “Honk if you hate gerrymandering.” They won overwhelmingly.

For a decade you’ve heard us talk about automatic voter registration — a transformative change, created by the Brennan Center, that would add tens of millions to the rolls. On Tuesday, Michigan and Nevada became the fourteenth and fifteen states to enact it into law.  

Believe me, this is a report to the stockholders, I enjoy giving!

Then there is Florida. So much bad happens when it comes to elections in Florida. But even as they are counting votes and suing each other and doing all the things they like to do down there, there was an extraordinary win for democracy. 

It’s a powerful story of how change happens. Two decades ago, the Brennan Center brought the first major modern lawsuit to challenge Florida’s lifetime ban on voting for anyone with a criminal conviction. We exposed the racist roots of the law, a direct descendant of Jim Crow. We made a strong case — and we lost. 

But we did not give up. We did not step back. We kept at it. 

Three years ago, my colleague Myrna Perez and others worked to help write this ballot measure, the Second Chance Act. Then this remarkable coalition mobilized. Faith communities. Civil rights groups. Conservatives like the Koch brothers. Progressives. And most heartening of all, formerly incarcerated men and women themselves going door to door, saying, “please give me my rights back.” 

And, it was a high bar. I was personally quite skeptical. You needed 60%. They got 65. And that moment that that was called that night, 1.4 million citizens had their right to vote restored. It was the biggest, single expansion of the franchise by far since the 26th Amendment was passed in 1971.

This was not done merely by lawyers, merely by judges, merely by professors, merely by professionals. All of these victories were won by thousands and then millions of citizens taking matters into their own hands.

We saw, I would submit, the birth of something significant and transformative in American politics last week. We saw the birth of a democracy movement that can help transform this country over the next decade. We’ve put to rest the lie that people don’t care about the Constitution.

Now the politicians and policymakers must heed that shout for change, need to heed the insight that if we don’t fix the systems in our country, we won’t solve the problems in the country. And the Brennan Center will play a critical central role to try to make this promise real. 

Yesterday morning, the new House leadership announced the very first bill to be voted on — H.R. 1 — will be democracy reform. Automatic registration. Small donor public financing. Redistricting reform. Will it be signed into law this year? No. But this will plant a flag and thrust this issue to the center of political debate. If this president isn’t willing to sign it, perhaps the next president will. (It could be Mike Pence, I know. Maybe he might want to sign it, too.)  

Last night, Republican and Democratic Senate leaders agreed to major sentencing reform — of the kind that the Brennan Center has been fighting for with our law enforcement allies, bolstered by our research showing that contrary to what you may hear from anybody else, crime is not soaring. Crime is at its lowest level in decades. We can create safety and justice at the same time. If this bill passes in a lame duck session, it will be the most significant national criminal justice reform in a generation.

We will fight for change in state capitols across America. And that includes Albany. The head of the New York City Board of Elections said that chaos and long lines at New York’s polling places was “a sign of a robust and healthy democracy.” No, it wasn’t. All the excuses are gone. There is finally a governing majority for real small-donor public campaign finance reform to make our state the leader in the nation. We are restarting our group of business and civic leaders to fight for reform in Albany — and I ask you to all be a part of it. 

We will fight for the independence of law enforcement. We now have a new illegally appointed acting attorney general whose very presence in that job is a constitutional affront. No, Mr. Whitaker, Marbury v. Madison was not wrongly decided. No, Mr. Whitaker, the Mueller probe is not a “fishing expedition” — let him do his job. 

Next month, together with conservative allies, we launch a major effort to expose and limit the emergency powers that can be wielded by a president in the case of real — or phony crisis. 

And facing a hard-right majority on the Supreme Court for the first time since the 1930s, we will defend these victories at the ballot box from forces that are readying their briefs right now to try to challenge them and take them down.  

So how should we feel about a moment like this?

It is certainly unnerving, often depressing and dizzying. So many people whom we all love and know feel so targeted, feel so afraid and hurt by the currents that are coursing through our body politic. Like so many, I am the grandson and great-grandson of immigrants who came to this country fleeing religious bigotry and violence and poverty. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be an immigrant family raising a child in this country right now. I would not know what to say to my children. It’s unnerving to see the norms, the civility, the common values that hold us together, at risk and often shredded every day.

But it isn’t only an unnerving time. In a strange way it is becoming a hopeful time — because we understand what’s at stake. We understand how much we care about it. We understand that we once again must commit ourselves, and recommit ourselves, and redouble our efforts on behalf of these core American values. And it’s often at times like this when some of the greatest progress can happen. Amid great change in the past, the patterns come together only in retrospect. At the time, they were chaotic and depressing and scary. 

This is the kind of moment where new voices come forward, old arrangements shatter, new coalitions take shape, bipartisanship becomes possible in ways you couldn’t expect, new energy is felt.

Abraham Lincoln, at a time like this, said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” He said: “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” That is the task for all of us. That’s the task we do and try to do every day at the Brennan Center. We’re so grateful to all of you for being here, for supporting this work, and for being part of this fight for America at its very best.

(Image: Shutterstock)