Let’s Put Democracy Back Into Austin’s “Progressive” Organizations!

By Bill Oakey – July 2, 2015

As I write this, we are about to head into the Fourth of July weekend. Celebrations are definitely in order, as we are all very fortunate to live in the freest country on Earth. This is also a time when we can pause and reflect on what we can do to ensure that we practice the best principles of democracy in our civic activities. To fall short of those principles would be to succumb to certain human weaknesses that threaten the very democracy that we claim to support and embrace.

Our Progressive Organizations Need to Consider One Fundamental Reform

How many times have you been to a civic meeting in this town, where the membership was called upon to vote to endorse a candidate for office, or to take a position on a ballot proposition? And how many times did you come to that meeting, hoping to hear presentations from both opposing candidates or both viewpoints on that ballot proposition? In far too many cases, Austin political and environmental organizations who consider themselves “progressive,” will only present one side of an issue. Last November’s urban rail bond proposition is a perfect example. The “Old Guard” leadership of several organizations only saw fit to trumpet their viewpoint at the endorsement meetings. No spokesperson for any faction opposed to the rail bonds was given equal time to lay out their viewpoint in a formal presentation to the group.

My immediate reaction to this non-inclusive approach is to ponder a simple question. What were the anointed leaders who came to these meetings with their minds firmly set in their convictions afraid of? Were they afraid that giving both sides a fair chance to present their case would somehow harm their chances of winning the vote? Were they afraid that their version of the facts on the issue would not be strong enough to win over those who disagreed with them? I prefer to ask a different question. Why not offer equal respect to the members of both sides, and let the beauty and the power of the democratic process play out in a spirit of fair play? I welcome anyone who disagrees with that concept to share their comments at the end of this blog. Perhaps I am missing something here, and if so, I would sure like to know what that is.

With candidates for office, many of these same organizations use a variety of methods to steer endorsement votes to the hand-picked favorites of the insiders. Meetings can be stacked with brand new recruits who had their membership dues paid for them by supporters of the anointed candidates. Or else, the executive committee of the organization decides which candidate they want to endorse, without providing any speaking opportunities for opposing candidates in front of the whole membership. I would like to think that 2015 would be a good year to put that style of backroom dealing out to pasture. Let’s leave those shenanigans to the Old Guard political hacks of the past. For the rest of us, let’s confront the leaders of these organizations and insist that they revise their bylaws and put procedures in place that respect fairness and the basic principles of democracy.

And if those leaders would prefer to maintain the status quo, let’s vote them out and usher in a New Guard that will operate in the open without any fear whatsoever of what fairness and the democratic process might bring.

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