Sunday, June 12, 2016

Political Persistence

I spent time this past weekend at the state board meeting for the League of Women Voters of
Pennsylvania. One of our goals was to revisit vision and values.

Vision draft:  informed, engaged voters; effective, responsive government. 

Values listed: non-partisan, respectful, fact-based, trusted, persistent.

We will need to be persistent indeed if we hope to realize the vision. Only informed, engaged voters will make possible an effective, responsive government. Only an effective, responsive government will create space and motivation for informed, engaged voters. It’s a chicken and egg sort of construct. And both chicken and egg are in very bad health.

This week was the 100th anniversary of a parade in Chicago asking the Republican party to include a plank supporting women’s right to vote.

In spite of a heavy storm, over 5,000 women showed up to march in the rain, while inside the convention hall, a group of anti-suffrage women testified that women did NOT want the right to vote. According to a Chicago paper:
As if timed to the instant, through the doors of the hall came the drenched and bedraggled marchers for suffrage. They pushed up to the platform, they massed down below, they scattered out over the hall and still they came pouring through the doors…as the shock of surprise yielded, several of [the delegates] on the platform smiled in understanding amusement, as if the incongruity of that outworn charge had at last been comprehended.
 The Republican Party did adopt a suffrage plank, as did the Democratic Party two weeks later. Four years after that, the 19th Amendment, extending the right to vote to women, was finally ratified.

That change was the fruit of over a century of work led by a persistent, passionate, very brave band of women.

The gathering in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 is often listed as the start of the suffrage movement, but read the biography of Lucretia Coffin Mott and it’s clear the work began decades before. 

As a young teacher at a Quaker boarding school in New York, she learned that the fee "for the education of girls was the same as that for boys.” Yet, “when they became teachers, women received but half as much as men for their services.”

“The injustice of this was so apparent," Mott recalled in an autobiographical sketch, "that I early resolved to claim for my sex all that an impartial Creator had bestowed."

Married at 18 in 1811, Mott became a Quaker minister in 1821 and spoke often and passionately about the systemic immorality of slavery. When shut out of the American Anti-Slavery Society by white Christian men, she helped found the Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, one of the first racially mixed organizations in the country.

While organizing to end slavery, the group also worked to build literacy and leadership skills in black communities, provided shelter to runaway slaves and raised funds to improve living conditions for impoverished black families.

That work was done under the constant threat of violence from white males attempting to silence them. 

Mott's persistence awes me. Her courage inspires me.

I’ve posted before about my work for redistricting reform in Pennsylvania. We had a setback this week, as the Government Reform Caucus decided not to endorse the bills we’re supporting. Pennsylvania politics as usual.

The next day I had a long conversation with an older man who wanted to make clear change is not legislatively possible: “The Republicans have had that legislature LOCKED DOWN for fifty years.” 

He repeated the phrase “locked down" with gusto multiple times: it’s locked down, it won’t change, and any Republican who votes for reform is committing political suicide.

Maybe so, but at last count the bills we endorse had 13 Republican co-sponsors.

And as I reminded him cheerfully: I’m part of the League of Women Voters. We don’t think change is easy, but we tend to be persistent.

Even so, I find myself marveling at the persistence and sacrifice of Lucretia Mott. She did not like politics, based as it inevitably is on moral compromise.  Yet she saw the connections among the issues that concerned her: freedom, literacy, peace, alleviation of need.

She was 47 when she was forced to sit – in silence - in a separate women’s section at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London. 55 when she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized their own women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848.

She was 71 in 1864 when she helped found Swarthmore College, one of the first coeducational colleges in the country. She was 73 in 1866 when she helped organize and became the first president of the American Equal Rights Association, formed “to secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex."

She was 87 when she died in 1880, three decades before women finally received the right to vote.

Next weekend I’ll be attending the national League of Women Voters Convention in Washington, DC. On Saturday morning I’ll be leading a caucus on building coalitions and finding allies for redistricting reform.

Reading through the history of the work is a little discouraging. Lots of names. Lots of bills. Only a few states where real change has been accomplished.

In his farewell speech in 1989, Ronald Reagan said that “high on his agenda” would be “talking up the need to do something about political gerrymandering. This is the practice of rigging the boundaries of congressional districts. It is the greatest single blot on the integrity of our nation’s electoral system, and it’s high time we did something about it.

The League of Women Voters, in states across the country, has been working on this since at least 1990. That’s three rounds of redistricting ago.  If the practice was a blot on the integrity of the electoral system back in 1989, it’s now a spreading, smothering stain.  

With the constant improvement of mapping systems, the fine-tuning of data mining and the millions of dollars invested by both parties in capturing state legislatures, gerrymandering has made competitive elections almost impossible and has eliminated real choice at almost every level.

Reform coalitions have come and gone as invisible funding sources co-opt good intentions and inevitable discouragement saps energy and interest. 

Even so, there are redistricting reform coalitions in more than a dozen states. I’m hoping to meet the leaders during my time in DC.

We’ll be voting at the convention on a new redistricting position, created by a national task force that has studied the problem, researched solutions and drafted recommendations.

The position recommends an end to the conflict of interest that allows politicians to draw their own maps. It endorses adoption of independent commissions with strong standards for transparency, public input, fairly drawn lines.

I’m sure it will pass with strong support.

At the same time, I don’t envision anyone marching in the streets. Redistricting reform is a complicated issue and most Americans have trouble focusing past the first bullet point.

Somehow Lucretia Mott was able to make the connections clear: faith in God, confidence in the equality of all, reverence for life, sacrificial hospitality, literacy, voting rights, a longing for peace.

We are fractured, distracted, easily swayed by sound bites and simplistic answers.

Captive to an entrenched system that offers us little choice and pays little attention to the real needs, hopes and dreams of the average citizen.

In Pennsylvania, we have crowded jails, crumbling roads, immigrant families held in substandard detention facilities. We have the two most underfunded school systems and the most inequitable school funding structure in the country, outrageous property taxes, overlapping jurisdictions, a bloated, expensive government that accomplishes little and captures national attention for its incompetence and corruption.

Not long after the convention in Seneca Falls, Mott wrote: "Any great change must expect opposition, because it shakes the very foundation of privilege."

We are in a time of great change, and it’s hard to say where that change will lead.

As I worked on this post, I heard the sad news: fifty dead in Orlando.

The sixteenth time our current President has addressed the press to speak of a mass shooting.

Our electoral systems themselves make it less and less possible to come to agreement on issues like guns, immigration, taxes, war.

Anger feeds anger; hate breeds hate.

Violence encourages greater violence.

Will the foundations of privilege be shaken, as Lucretia Mott prayed, or will the foundations of democracy be fractured instead?

From where I sit today, it’s hard to say.