This is Not a Normal Election: A Call to Action
Dear Civic Hall community and friends:
This is a long letter, so here’s the short version: It’s time for civic groups to step forward to defend civil society during this election.
Here at Civic Hall, we are devoted to the idea of civic tech—the use of tech for the public good. Implicit in that notion of public good is the idea that we are all in this together, that when freedom is threatened for one of us, it’s a threat to all of us; that when we debate questions of public policy we use facts and reason; and that the public record means something solid, that we are accountable for our past words and actions.
It’s time we recognize that Donald Trump is not just bad news for Democrats or Independents, but bad news for everyone who wants to live in an open, tolerant, civil society. As we see it, the public good is under attack.
First he came for the Mexicans. And many of us were not Mexican, so we didn’t say anything. Then he came for the Muslims, and many of us were not Muslim, so we didn’t say anything. You know how this goes. It’s time to stop denying what is going on, or hoping that others will step up to help stop it.
So, with this open letter, we are calling on members of the Civic Hall community to join us this week, either at a meeting this Thursday night at 6:00pm, or, if you can’t make that time, Saturday at 1:00pm, to get organized.
We hope you’ll join us!
Now, here’s the longer version:
In the 12 years since the launch of Personal Democracy Forum, the annual conference created by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry that spawned Civic Hall, we have worked hard to create a place where people of different political views but a common interest in the potential for technology to better the public good can come together to meet, interact, dialogue and collaborate. PDF has been one of those rare events where Democrats and Republicans (as well as independents, anarchists, Greens, Libertarians and Tea Partiers) rubbed shoulders, listened to each other with respect, and occasionally huddled to talk shop or even conspire on common projects.
We have a vivid memory, for example, from PDF 2007, of seeing Zack Exley, one of John Kerry’s top digital organizers, and Mike Turk, one of George W. Bush’s top digital organizers, tucked into a corner amiably chatting. (We even have a photo to prove that it happened.) And many of us can recall banding together across the political spectrum to defend the freedom of the blogosphere against unnecessary Federal Elections Commission regulation, and coming together to stop the ill-advised SOPA and PIPA bills that would have destroyed the internet as we know it. When we launched our first group blog, techPresident.com, our contributors spanned the spectrum. When we launched 10Questions.com, our effort to crowdsource questions for the 2008 presidential candidates, we partnered with political blogs from left to right.
At a time when so much of the public arena is divided by which political tribe you identify with, it was valuable to create a secular space where all could come regardless of partisan background, to focus on our common interest in seeing how tech could benefit the larger good.
The only line we drew was an insistence on civility. For a long time, we hardly bothered to spell out what we meant by that, since it seemed so obvious. Early on we realized that some people have an instinct to shut down a statement they disagree with—but our audiences at PDF were always strictly discouraged from heckling or booing speakers with whom they disagreed. If you want to be heard, you have to allow others with different views to speak too, we said. And our community accepted that.
But our commitment to being open to people with different beliefs than ours had one additional line, that perhaps we should have been more explicit about. Which is that we never included speakers who were known to be racists or xenophobes. If you were intolerant of others, we were intolerant of you.
When we created Civic Hall, we imbued it with those same values. We’ve worked hard to create a secular space where people from varying backgrounds and differing points of view can work, network, and collaborate with each other, because diversity and honest dialogue are essential ingredients for real civic innovation.
What does all this have to do with today?
The 2016 presidential election is not a typical American election. Normally, both parties nominate candidates who, based on past political experience and personal temperament, are manifestly qualified to be president. And both candidates present competing agendas, rooted in a common understanding of how a president can make her or his ideas into policy and law. They argue for different priorities, but they use the same reference points. They have competing tax plans, but they both show us their tax returns. They compete for our votes, but they do not prejudge the voting process as “rigged.”
What is happening now is not normal. One presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is not running a normal campaign. He makes big promises, like other politicians, but unlike them, he makes no effort to explain how they can be fulfilled. Many of those promises—such as his call to implement “stop and frisk” nationwide—are nowhere close to the purview of the president, on top of being unconstitutional. Like his call to ban Muslims from entering the country, these ideas represent a radical break with past practice and a direct threat to our core freedoms. Not only are these proposals bad, backwards policy—they are not plausible.
He also makes claims that are not plainly not true. He said for years that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He claims that Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton created ISIS. He asserted that the American judge overseeing a lawsuit against his Trump University was biased against him because he was Mexican. He makes up “facts” and changes his assertions so often and so rapidly that the normal response of observers in the press—to try to correct the record and hold him accountable—has broken down.
Finally, and unlike every major presidential candidate in our lifetimes, he is openly tolerant of, if not proudly allied with, many of the most intolerant people and forces in our society. He refused to condemn Klansman David Duke’s embrace of him. He has frequently shared racist, sexist, and anti-semitic messages and images on social media. He hired a cheerleader for the so-called alt-right movement—a movement that brazenly baits women, minorities and Jews with open hostility—to be his campaign manager. At one of his rallies, he proudly mocked a disabled reporter.
There are all kinds of partisan reasons to oppose Trump, and we personally agree with many of them. There’s a long list and there are plenty of partisan political groups fighting the election over those issues; that’s what partisan groups do.
But in making this call, we want to make clear that we are not against Republicans or conservatives as a group. Indeed, a notable number of Republicans, including longtime friends and frequent PDF speakers like Patrick Ruffini, Mary Katharine Ham, Mindy Finn, Liz Mair, and Mike Turk have been publicly critical of Trump. Many of them signed onto a letter from a group of leading Republicans that opposes Trump for his “campaign of anger and exclusion, during which he has mocked and offended millions of voters, including the disabled, women, Muslims, immigrants, and minorities.”
In that same letter, this group of Republicans condemned Trump for his “dangerous authoritarian tendencies, including threats to ban an entire religion from entering the country, order the military to break the law by torturing prisoners, kill the families of suspected terrorists, track law-abiding Muslim citizens in databases, and use executive orders to implement other illegal and unconstitutional measures.”
Standing for inclusiveness, tolerance, facts and the rule of law are not partisan values, those are American civic values.
Normally, civic groups stay out of political fights. Places that seek to be open to all, that embrace civility and the value of a space where reasonable people can disagree, steer away from picking sides in normal elections.
But these aren’t normal times and this isn’t a normal election.
If Donald Trump is elected, his victory will mark the end of our ability as a country to reasonably disagree, as well as the functional collapse of our democracy. Some may say that we have already reached that point, and it’s true that when a Supreme Court vacancy lasts a whole year—something that has never happened before but appears to be happening now—we are already close to a breakdown in the political process. But that is all the more reason to oppose Trump’s success, not to normalize it.
If Trump wins, it means that a candidate’s basic devotion to some objective version of the truth doesn’t matter. Government, which has to balance conflicting demands from different parts of the public, can’t function if it no longer matters whether our highest elected official tells the truth and is held to a public record of what he has said in the past. We’ve never had a demagogue like him, someone who solely seeks public support by appealing to people’s emotions and prejudices, at the bully pulpit.
And if Trump wins, civility—our willingness to get along with each other even when we disagree or dislike each other—will die too. Trump’s core message of white nationalism is a direct attack on the multicultural, diverse and inclusive democracy that America is slowly and thankfully in the process of becoming. He has frequently urged people to violence at his rallies, and most recently twice suggested that people with guns turn their sights on his opponent. This is beyond the bounds of any normal campaign.
So we think it’s time for civic groups to step forward to defend civil society.
The election is 42 days away.
We are calling on all members of Civic Hall to come to a community meeting either this Thursday at 6:00pm or Saturday, October 1st at 1:00 pm to get your feedback and to talk about what we, as a community, can do to help keep Donald Trump from winning the White House. We are asking you to do this not in your official capacity, but as a volunteer and a patriot. This is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, by the way. It’s an endorsement of any and all actions that help to stop Trump.
If enough people volunteer to help organize us and share in the work, we will open Civic Hall on the weekends so it can be used as a base for phone-banking, meme-making, and other creative forms of voter engagement and mobilization. Any member of any political persuasion who wants to organize or do work that contributes to opposing Trump’s campaign will be welcome, including people working on third-party efforts.
This call is not just for us. Leaders and members of other civic groups also need to get off the sidelines. This is not a normal election. These are not normal times.
Andrew Rasiej, Micah L. Sifry, Jessica Goldfarb and the team at Civic Hall