March on Harrisburg Aims to Repair Trust in Our Democracy

— Michael Pollack

March on Harrisburg PosterMarch on Harrisburg is a grassroots, nonpartisan group dedicated to healing our wounded democracy and repairing the relationship between “We the People” and our elected representatives. We have a solid plan underway to pass three crucial and important laws in Pennsylvania, but first, it is important to understand the disease we are working to alleviate, the deep disease in our society, rooted in the way we relate to one another.

Sometimes it is an eye disease, and we don’t see the faces in front of us, or in the words of the well-known theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, racism makes “us see the generality of race but not the uniqueness of the human face.” Add to racism: homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, political tribalism and any encounter we have where we barely see the face of the other and, without any information but an assumed identity, register serious judgments.

Sometimes our societal ailment is an ear disease. We refuse to listen, and we refuse difficult new information. Sometimes we do not listen to our own sounds until they boomerang back to us from an algorithm or an echo chamber, or we forget how to even make sound in the overwhelming static of punditry and lies. Sometimes it is a nose disease, and we don’t trust ourselves when we smell something rotten, and we forget the commandment of Jon Stewart: “if you smell something, say something.” Sometimes it is a tongue disease, and we don’t believe that taste in our mouths, and we’ve forgotten how to express it. Sometimes it is a touch disease, and we shy away from outstretched hands because we dare not touch a hot issue for fear of getting burned.

On a societal scale, this disease has done serious damage to our democracy. It has corroded the relationship between citizens and our public representatives. Democracy is based on a marriage between the people and the state, between the government and the governed, and that marriage is in trouble. Democracy is based on strong public trust, and that trust has been violated. Exhibit A: Polls demonstrate that trust in our government’s ability to “do the right thing” has fallen from 77% in the early 1960’s to 19% in 2015.

Exhibit B: What thoughts come to mind when you hear the word “politics”? Democracy is rooted in open and direct communication between “We the People” and our elected representatives, and that communication has become distorted and is too often meaningless. Public polling consistently shows majority support for policies ranging from handling climate change to ending mass incarceration to creating a public healthcare option for all to raising the minimum wage to (at the very least) taxing fracking profits in Pennsylvania. And yet, there is a consistent disconnect between the will of the people and the law of the land.

March on Harrisburg is the marriage counselor striking at the root of the lack of trust, the poor communication and the sorry relationship between people and government. We are addressing deep corruption in this relationship, viruses in our societal software, glitches that distort information and yield chaos. March on Harrisburg is dedicated to resolving this situation through legislation. We are pushing bills in three specific areas: banning unlimited gifts to state legislators, ending gerrymandering and establishing automatic voter registration.

It is currently completely legal in Pennsylvania to give a state legislator a brand new car, expensive home repairs, vacations for the family, the best possible season tickets to anything and everything, and any material bribe except for cash (“cash gifts” were only recently and temporarily banned). In Harrisburg, these bribes are called “gifts,” and Senate Bill (SB) 132 and House Bill (HB) 39 would ban them.

It is written in Deuteronomy 16, “Do not take a bribe, because a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous.” Those who take bribes do not honestly hear and see information that conflicts with bribes, and righteous voices are not heard. Isaiah cries out (1:23), “Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves. They chase after bribes, the widow and the orphan’s case does not come before them.” When bribery is systemic and legal, politicians become addicted to expensive lifestyles, and they do not honestly see, hear or communicate with those who most need them. Those who do not give or accept bribes are excluded from the decision-making process. We do not have a seat at the table. As George Carlin said, “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it!”

In Pennsylvania, the state legislature draws its own district boundaries in an absurd corruption called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is partisan redistricting. Gerrymandering allows for politicians to choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their public servants. It is a weaponized method of political segregation (and of racial, ethnic and class segregation as tied to political affiliations). It creates geographically bizarre districts with single-party monopolies; it rejects competitive elections; and it encourages hyper-partisanship and well-funded fringe candidates. Gerrymandering is the reason why Congress generally has an approval rating of under 10% and a re-election rate of over 90%. Gerrymandering disconnects the governed and the governing. As Karl Rove noted in a 2010 article in The Wall Street Journal, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” Congress should be the People’s House, so we are working to pass SB 22, which would take redistricting power away from the state legislature in Harrisburg and place it with an independent non-partisan commission.

Our third legislative objective is to pass automatic voter registration (AVR) in Pennsylvania. AVR would automatically register Pennsylvanians to vote any time they interact with a state government agency, unless they decline to be registered. If we had AVR nationwide for the 2016 election, there would have been up to 50 million more registered voters. AVR removes the barrier of registering to vote and encourages participation. It makes issues of voter IDs and voter fraud irrelevant. Although the United States is alone in the world in not having AVR, it is promising to see this approach under consideration in the majority of states. In Harrisburg, the bill is HB 193, and we are supporting it so that we can open up the main line of communication in our democracy, that is, voting.

Our plan to ban gifts, end gerrymandering and create automatic voter registration has three phases. First, we are meeting with all 253 Pennsylvania state representatives and state senators to learn and influence their positions on our bills. We are approaching our elected officials with loving patience and compassionate listening, and we are learning that many in the State Capitol are aware and are concerned about these problems. Second, we are marching 105 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg from May 13 to May 21. We will hold rallies and teach-ins along the way. The community necessary to sustain the movement for democracy will organically organize as we walk and talk. Third, we are practicing nonviolent civil disobedience at the State Capitol from May 22 to May 25. We will force a loving confrontation with our state legislators and push our bills out of committee and to a vote.

In our meetings with legislators, March on Harrisburg is holding our public officials to high account. According to a joke attributed to different people over the years, politics is from the Latin “poly,” meaning “many,” and “ticks,” meaning “little blood-sucking creatures.” We are challenging our state legislators to raise the honor and integrity of their profession from politics to public service. March on Harrisburg is a loving intervention to demand that Harrisburg does its part to repair the trust and the relationships that sustain our democracy.

Holiness emerges from open and honest communication and relationships. We believe that when stumbling blocks and barriers between “We the People” and our government are removed, beautiful relationships will emerge, and democracy will thrive. The American philosopher John Dewey wrote, “When the emotional force, the mystic force one might say, of communication, of the miracle of shared life and shared experience is spontaneously felt, the hardness and crudeness of contemporary life will be bathed in the light that never was on land or sea.” It’s time to generate some light.

A lead organizer for March on Harrisburg, Michael Pollack is a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.

To become part of the March on Harrisburg, register on the organization’s website.

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