Monday, January 27, 2020
Common Purpose Seeks to Save Democracy
Elkhorn resident Andrea Lieberman, seen here with her husband Jamie, helped Common Purpose register voters last year in Nevada. “It’s like a balm to your soul to do this work,” she said.
Friday, August 16, 2019


Are we looking at the end of democracy?

That’s the question former University of Washington Professor David Domke posed as he looked over a full house at the Community Library last week.

“I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I wouldn’t put money on our democracy lasting,” he said. “Democracies don’t last. My kids are not going to grow up in the United States of America that we’ve known.”

“It’s way easier to read about history than live through it,” said David Domke, who said we could see coups, martial law and other things tear at the fabric of democracy if we aren’t vigilant.

That’s not to say Domke is taking it sitting down. He just stepped down as chair of the UW’s Department of Communication, walking away from 22 years of tenure amidst such honors as Washington State Professor of the Year, to work for change nationwide.

Domke co-founded Common Purpose, a bipartisan organization that mobilizes voters and builds community regarding key issues around the country. The organization also develops young leaders.  

“I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something,” he said, quoting Jeanie Ashley Bates Greenough in “A Year of Beautiful Thoughts.”

New York Times critic Wesley Morris said that Barack Obama’s election was the dynamite that broke open the country, Domke said.

On the surface, it looked like progress had been made, considering Obama was the product of an interracial relationship—the kind that was outlawed in some states as recently as 1967. But Obama’s election stirred up a lot of anxiety that catapulted Donald Trump into the White House.

“Imagine if the devil said, ‘You can have Barack Obama for eight years, but you will have to take four years of Donald Trump.’ Would you take that deal?” Domke asked. “I want to suggest to you that that was the deal that was made. The question is: Will there be four years of Donald Trump or eight?”

The United States is in deep trouble, with only 32 percent of Americans proud of their political system, Domke said. Everything else, including sports, economic and scientific achievements and arts and culture, have an approval rate of about 80 percent.

“This is a profound psychological crisis,” he said.

And, he said, young people—like his 12-year-old son—now live with heightened anxiety, thanks to the school shootings.

Domke noted that America has had three periods of progressive social change followed by periods of dramatic turmoil that usually last about 25 years.

One took place from the 1840s to the 1860s amidst a push for abolition and women’s rights. It gave rise to the Civil War.

The 1890s to the 1920s saw another period of progressivism, the establishment of the national income tax and a second women’s suffragette movement followed by the rise of temperance, the Ku Klux Klan and the Immigration Act exluding Asian -mericans.

The 1940s through the early 1970s saw massive resistance to Civil Rights and women’s rights.

We’re the middle of a fourth such period today, which started sometime in the 2000s and was fueled by such things as the push for same sex rights, he said. It’s given rise to nativism and voter ID laws making it harder for people of color and others to vote.

Technological change played a role in all of these, starting with the telegraph and including  photography, which allowed white northerners to see what slaves looked like, said Domke. In fact, the most photographed person in the world in the 1800s was Frederick Douglas who allowed himself to be photographed to say: This is what a black person looks like—they’re human, just like you.

The fledgling film industry helped recruit members for the KKK with its “Birth of the Nation.” And technology definitely played in a role in the last election, Domke noted.

“We have a president who would not be president if not for social media, if not for ‘The Apprentice.’ ”

The difference between now and then is that, even though the country was incredibly messed up in the past, Congress could come together and act, Domke said.

“Today is a disaster. And I’m going to pin it on one person--Mitch McConnell,” he said. “This country might go down on my watch and that scares the s-t out of me. That’s why I’m going to give it everything I can.”

As a political professor, Domke read more than 400 major Presidential addresses. He was particularly inspired by John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address delivered in June 1963 in the midst of Civil Rights turmoil, in which Kennedy noted that this nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds on the principle that all men are created equal.

Kennedy noted that the Negro baby born in America in 1963 had half as much chance as completing  high school than a white baby born in the same place on the same day and a third as much chance of completing college.

“This is not a sectional issue,” he said. “Nor is this a partisan issue…We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we’re going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. It is time to act in Congress, in your state and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.”

The night JFK gave that address Medgar Evans was gunned down, Domke said. And Kennedy himself was killed several months later.

Domke said the name Common Purpose was taken from former White House advisor and CNN contributor Van Jones, who wrote the book “Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.”

Jones said that in a healthy society “common pain should lead to common purpose.”

“If we don’t have a more reasonable America in 2020, I’m pretty confident all bets are off,” said Domke. There’s no guarantee that country you want will still be here. If you want it, you’ve got to fight for it. Do the something you can do.”

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