Transformation: a Student-Led Mass Political Movement

The 2016 presidential race is evolving into one of the most exciting (and dangerous) political events in American history. With an avowed socialist challenging the New Democrats and a narcissist billionaire confronting the establishment Republicans there will be, undoubtedly, tens of millions of disgruntled voters following the election.

If Hillary Clinton manages to secure the Democratic nomination, millions of unhappy—primarily young—supporters of Bernie Sanders will be looking for a cause. If Donald Trump loses in the primary, or is defeated in the general, his angry followers will be ready to revolt. If no candidate obtains a majority vote in the Electoral College, and the president and vice president are selected by Congress, the entire electorate will be marginalized—and thoroughly disgusted.

United by the willful failure of their government to respond to their needs, all of these people are being primed to take action. What can be done to mobilize and energize the anger and discontent of the People for effective political change? Young people around the world have been at the vanguard of recent mass political movements. Are the students of America willing and capable of leading a peaceful uprising in the United States to compel the constitutional changes required to transform their government?

Around the World

One of the most amazing things to come out of the Colombian civil war was the Children’s Mandate, an election in support of peace organized by the children of a nation being torn apart by war. Starting with a gathering of just 26 young people, 2.7 million children voted on October 25, 1996 for 12 basic rights including justice, a clean environment, peace, love, and family. One year later, the children were joined by 10 million adults who voted for peace.

Commencing in Tunisia, the Arab Spring youth movement swept through the Middle East between 2010 and 2012, resulting in changes in the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. A number of other nations in the region also experienced massive protests.

Although Western governments played a role in its instigation, the Ukrainian revolution in February 2014 commenced with massive protests against the government and led to a near civil war before the government capitulated and its leadership fled the country. The new government immediately sought closer ties with the European Union, and Russia began a process of destabilization that continues to this day.

Following England’s surrender of its territorial rights to Hong Kong in 1997, the city-state was accorded a special status allowing it to retain its laws, currency, and local government, while the People’s Republic of China assumed responsibility for military and diplomatic affairs. Differences over the nomination process for its legislative council and chief executive led to a massive youth-led peaceful movement in 2014. Organized by students, the Umbrella Revolution occupied the city center and defied the Chinese government for more than two months.

Most recently, on Sunday March 13, 2016, 3.5 million Brazilians participated in anti-government rallies across the nation seeking the ouster of the current president and arrest of the previous leader. Confronted with a deep economic recession and widespread political corruption, the spontaneous protests were diverse and consisted of a broad range of people fed up with their “horrible” government. Would such a protest movement be possible in the United States?

Back in the U.S.A.

Commencing in America and England and spreading throughout the Western world, the counterculture of the Sixties brought beneficial social and political changes in the United States—many of which are now being challenged and reversed by the economic and political elite that has seized power in America. Primarily focused on its opposition to the war in Vietnam, the counterculture insurgency mostly involved disaffected middle-class young people who were disenchanted with the direction of the nation and its government. In addition to substantial improvements including Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, Voters’ Rights Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, the movement also forced the end of the military draft in 1973.

Most amazing, for purposes of this paper, was the 26th Amendment in 1971 which lowered the voting age to 18. Having built momentum throughout the Sixties, the proposal to allow 18-year-olds to vote in all national elections was passed by Congress on March 23, 1971. The Amendment was sent to the states and ratified four months later.

The illusion of prosperity resulting from Reaganomics, the arrival of the “Me” and “Gen-X” generations, and general disinterest in government all contributed to an overall decline in political involvement, particularly by young people. This began to change during the presidential election of 2004, when Vermont Governor Howard Dean challenged Senator John Kerry, the establishment candidate, for the Democratic nomination. Although he failed to secure the nomination, Dean pioneered Internet-based fund raising from small donors and net-roots organizing—which Barack Obama took advantage of four years later in his campaign.

Democratic victories for the White House and Congress in 2008 contributed to the rise of the Tea Party, which initially opposed Obama’s plan to provide financial aid to bankrupt homeowners. The ultra-conservative grassroots movement organized opposition to the entire administration agenda and began to influence the election of local, state, and federal Republicans. Current presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz is a darling of the Tea Party.

Inspired by the Arab Spring movement and concerned about social and economic inequality, primarily progressive young people began to “occupy” public places around the world in 2011. The best known of these in the United States was Zuccotti Park in New York City, and within months there were occupations in many American cities and towns. Committed to nonviolence and united by the slogan, “We are the 99%,” the struggle relied on emerging web technologies and social media to spread its message; however, there was an aversion to any structured organization. Relying on “participatory democracy,” working groups considered most issues, and decisions were collectively made by the general assembly at each location. A primary criticism of the movement was the absence of clearly defined goals, and, without leadership, most occupations ended within a few months.

Although the Tea Party and Occupy movements never gained significant political traction on their own, both have had an influence on the 2016 presidential election, particularly the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Each in their own way, using both the new and old media, have organized campaigns that challenge the established political parties.

The 2016 Campaign

Previously an independent who caucused with the Democratic Party, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders became a candidate in the Democratic primary as a Democratic Socialist determined to focus attention on the failures of militarism and big business to address the true needs of the nation. Initially believed to have a role only in pressuring Hillary Clinton—the establishment candidate—toward more progressive positions, Sanders’ campaign made full use of the organizational structure pioneered by Howard Dean, and the Internet funding strategies of Barack Obama, to create a highly effective national campaign. Eschewing contributions from political action committees, lobbyists, corporations, and financial institutions, Sanders is now consistently raising more money than Clinton, primarily in small amounts from millions of individual donors. While Clinton has a lead in the delegate count, particularly when the establishment super delegates are included, Sanders has at this point won eight of the last nine primaries and is leading in national polls. Continued success could force a brokered convention in Philadelphia during the last week of July. At the minimum, we can expect a massive demonstration of support for Sanders and the principles he has espoused, both inside and outside the convention.

Self-proclaimed billionaire Donald Trump may have launched his candidacy as a protest—more likely to improve his business “brand”—but the ability of the huckster to manipulate the 24-hour news cycle has excited millions of Republican, Democratic, and Independent voters who are attracted to an authoritarian candidate who promises he can fix everything if elected. Although he has no clearly defined policy positions on domestic or foreign affairs and he says whatever pops into his mind on any given subject, Trump is currently leading in the delegate count. His momentum may have been checked by Cruz’s recent wins in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Wyoming—largely as the result of a massive Republican establishment effort to “Dump Trump.” Continued success of the effort may lead to a brokered convention in Cleveland during the third week of July in which an alternative, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, may end up with the nomination.

Depending on the outcome of the primaries and conventions, there is a real possibility of third party or independent candidates attracting enough popular votes in the general election to deny any candidate a majority in the Electoral College. In that case the election will be decided by Congress, with the House of Representatives choosing the president and the Senate selecting the vice president. Depending on the contemporaneous congressional elections, there could be a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate leading to the two executives being from opposing parties. Who can save the United States from this mess?

The Millennials

The future belongs to the young people. They are the ones who will have to cope with the toxic economic, environmental, militaristic, and social issues they are inheriting. These massive problems will still be there tomorrow―if reasonable solutions continue to be opposed and defeated by the corporate and wealthy elite.

The 2008 election was the first presidential campaign where the participation of young people made a significant difference. Thousands of young Americans enthusiastically turned out for Barack Obama, and more than two-thirds of voters under the age of 30 supported him. With older voters split between the two major parties, the youth vote made a difference in the states where the popular vote was close. The Pew Research Center determined that:

Young voters are more diverse racially and ethnically than older voters and more secular in their religious orientation. These characteristics, as well as the climate in which they have come of age politically, incline them not only toward Democratic Party affiliation but also toward greater support of activist government, greater opposition to the war in Iraq, less social conservatism, and a greater willingness to describe themselves as liberal politically.

In 2008, 45 percent of young people have registered Democratic and 26 percent registered Republican. Today, half of all young people consider themselves to be political independents. Almost one-third do not believe there is “a great deal of difference in what Republicans and Democrats stand for.” Young people are approximately 14 percent of the voting population, and they are more interested in the actual issues—rather than the corrupt proposals of political parties and their corporate-approved candidates.

Members of the “Me” and “Gen-X” generations have become parents and grandparents, and as their children and grandchildren are entering adulthood, we are finding the attitudes and practices of the new “Millennial” generation (born 1982-2003) to be significantly different.

Millennials have grown up with smartphones, texting, computers, email, the Internet, and social networking. They are master communicators and active participants in the new media―they are connected and online all the time. They are ethnically diverse, are more empathetic, and have a better understanding of the perspective of others. Millennials have a greater concern for the well-being of their friends, their communities, and the environment. They are positive about their own futures and that of their country.

In spite of everything that is going wrong, young people still trust in the American Dream. The Pew Charitable Trust found 58 percent of young adults believed they would more easily improve their conditions than their parents had, and 88 percent thought it possible to improve one’s financial condition, even during a recession. They are confident, but the challenge they face is perhaps greater than any preceding generation.

In one of the most massive shifts of financial obligation in the history of the United States, the generally free undergraduate education previously provided by most states began to dramatically shift in the Eighties to the students themselves. The states slowed or eliminated funding for higher education, as the institutions drastically increased their fees. Today, the only option available to most working- and middle-class students is the borrowing of large sums of money which will have to be paid back from their future earnings. Student loan debt now exceeds $1.2 trillion—which is more than the Nation’s total credit card debt. Students entering an increasingly limited, low-paying, job market commence their careers owing an average of $25,000.

Burdened by the debt of student loans, and awakening to the discovery that their college degrees only qualify many of them for jobs behind the counters of rental car companies, the question is whether these young people of today will look up from the screens of their smartphones and take action to secure their tomorrows.

The Millenials have been given the confidence since infancy to play a leadership role in a social and political movement that will transform and reorient the government of the United States toward the society that elects it. Will their government evolve to protect them and their children―as they venture forth into a future that could be either tragic or magnificent beyond their wildest nightmares and most glorious dreams?

Voting in America

Only one in three eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm federal elections for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Since, in most cases, candidates were elected by approximately half of all votes cast in their elections, the winners actually received the support of about 15 percent of eligible voters. This does not even include unregistered citizens. It can hardly be considered a mandate for the senators or representatives to do anything—and they haven’t.

There may be a moral duty to vote in a free society, but, unlike some other countries, Americans are not legally obligated to vote. Many conservatives believe voting should be a privilege to be earned, and they are not reluctant to impose onerous conditions to suppress voting. Most progressives believe voting is a right, and they oppose restrictions placed on registration and voting.

Voting in a free society has to be more than a privilege, which can be granted or taken away at the whim of government. By definition, voting is an integral part of a republican form of government, and, if a government is to be free and democratic, voting not only has to be a right, but it has to be effective as well.

Not one of the founders of the United States believed the Constitution was perfect, and all believed it could and should be amended as necessary. The failure of the Constitution to specifically provide a right to vote and its abdication of voting rights to the states has resulted in the destructive political practices currently undermining the Nation. The government is no longer representative of those who elect it, nor is it the government the American People consented to. If the Republic is to survive, its constitution must empower the People who elect it.

The United States Voters’ Rights Amendment

There are a number of contemporary issues relating to voting, all of which have generated their own constituencies for reform. Inasmuch as most of these issues involve constitutional questions, activists face almost insurmountable obstacles in getting Congress to enact amendment legislation and convincing a sufficient number of states to ratify the amendment. The Equal Rights [for women] Amendment is an example. First introduced in Congress in 1923, the Amendment was finally enacted and sent to the states for ratification in 1972. It has yet to be ratified.

A majority of voters are alarmed by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which extended constitutional personhood rights for corporations. The Move To Amend organization is at the forefront of the effort to change the Constitution to eliminate the personhood rights of corporations and the equation of money and free speech. Assuming the success of Move to Amend and the ultimate ratification of its proposed Amendment, there would remain many other unresolved issues relating to the voting power of Americans.

The United States Voters’ Rights Amendment (USVRA) is a voters’ bill of rights―in that it remedies the most destructive practices that have eroded the tenuous voting rights allowed to the People by Congress and the states. It is, however, far more than a set of constitutional amendments that would curtail these anti-democratic practices.

Ratification of the USVRA―and the movement that forces it to happen―would create a dramatic transformation of the United States government into finally becoming a true representative democracy. The USVRA would reorient the government to the People and their society, and it would provide the means to make the government work for their benefit.

The USVRA not only guarantees the individual right to vote, but it includes other provisions that ensure the votes cast by the People are effective in defining what they want their government to do and how they want it done. These include defining equal rights for women; maximizing voter participation and prohibiting the suppression of voting; eliminating corporate personhood; controlling campaign contributions; guaranteeing freedom of the press; public funding of elections; prohibiting gerrymandering; increasing congressional representation; improving political education and public information; articulating policy issues; deciding policy issues by voting; eliminating the Electoral College; curtailing lobbying; and prohibiting conflicts of interest.

The purpose of the USVRA is not to change the personal political beliefs of anyone. Rather, it’s goal is to provide individuals of every political persuasion with the knowledge and means to arrive at logical conclusions, effectively communicate their thinking, and to persuade others of the validity of their convictions. Far more powerful—ultimately— than holding a gun, the physical act of voting is a dramatic and irresistible force for freedom.

A successful transformation of the government will require a mass, nonpartisan movement sufficient to overcome and defeat the formidable forces arrayed against any effort to diminish or eliminate the current monopoly of power. As an alternative to violence, what is needed is a peaceful evolution, rather than a violent revolution. Undoubtedly, the process of transformation will be arduous, but for now, let us consider how one would go about creating the massive political movement required to effectively achieve a modification of the government.

Amending the Constitution

Those who are experienced in political organizing believe the best plan is to keep the issues very simple. The political theory is that any increase in the number of issues raised is followed by a commensurate rise in the number of people who will find something to oppose. For example, the organizers of the Move to Amendment campaign initially considered including the basic right to vote—in addition to the elimination of corporate personhood and the equation of money and free speech. They decided to limit the number of issues to increase support and to reduce opposition.

Move to Amend is a good example of the traditional approach to promoting a constitutional amendment. Once the organizers researched and formulated the language required to reverse the effect of Citizens United, they began to build a movement. The organization’s website is dedicated to fund raising, the sale of merchandise, soliciting new members and coalition organizations, community meetings, obtaining resolutions from municipal councils and legislative support, local ballot measures, and circulating a petition to Congress to amend the Constitution. The organization has been active for more than five years, it has been endorsed by hundreds of progressive organizations, and the We the People Amendment has been introduced in the House of Representatives; however, it has yet to obtain 500,000 signatures on its petition—its current goal. Its proposed amendments are included in the USVRA.

Progress along the path to a constitutional amendment, such as We the People, is very slow. It took 45 years for the Equal Rights Amendment for women to be passed by Congress after it was first introduced, and it failed to be ratified within its seven year ratification period. Now renamed the Women’s Equality Amendment, it has been reintroduced into every subsequent Congress; however, it has yet to be passed. Since the United States will never achieve effective voting rights so long as more than half of its people do not have equal rights, the Women’s Equality Amendment is included in the USVRA.

Confronted as they are by life-threatening environmental, economic, militaristic, and personal freedom issues, the people of the United States do not have time to slowly amend its constitution, issue by issue, to achieve effective voting rights. Given the growing power of corporations and the economic elite in America, the window of opportunity to compel a nonviolent transformation of the government is closing, as power is increasingly concentrated in the plutocracy.

The present electoral crisis, however, presents a golden opportunity. There is a tremendous potential inherent in a political awakening provided by the Occupy and Tea Party movements; the outlier campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump; and the emerging ability of the Internet and social media to organize and motivate a broad spectrum of social and political interests. As Thomas Paine once said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.”

Thomas Paine also believed, “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” The latent power of voting is the only force which can correct the present abuses of governmental power and force the government to work for the benefit of the people. That power, however, is subverted by the current voting process and its coverage by the mass media. The right to vote—effectively—is the single issue that has the potential to unify every single American in a mass movement, and the USVRA provides a solid structure for that effort.

Given the right and power to formulate their own political policy and to elect those they believe will best effectuate their policy, American voters will be able, finally, to take charge of their own destiny. Moreover, they can once again provide a government worthy of being emulated by others around the world.

Increasingly powerless in the political process, the People of the United States have to find common ground—in spite of the fact that the political parties and the corporate media seek to divide and polarize them on a variety of misleading and confusing issues. If the USVRA can serve as the instrument to transform the government, how should the movement to achieve its success be organized and led? What would be the best way to bring about a peaceful transformation of the government?

Inspiration can be found in the drive to lower the voting age to 18 during the Sixties and early Seventies. As a result of the military draft, thousands of young men were suffering horrific injuries and deaths in the unpopular Vietnam War—the continuation of which was driven more by domestic party politics than national security. The 26th Amendment was ratified only four months after being passed by Congress!

The all-volunteer military has eliminated, to a certain extent, the motivation for young people to participate in the political process to avoid becoming cannon fodder in unpopular and unnecessary wars. The reality of impending environmental and economic collapse, however, and the imminent threat of militarization and curtailment of freedom can serve to unite young people—if they are made aware of the dangers and they receive support and encouragement.

Educating the Movement

Those who teach know best the limitations, ambitions, and potential of America’s young people. It is probably true that many of the least educated are irrevocably disinterested; however, students who value their education are certainly more politically informed, concerned, and motivated. The most fertile fields in which to plant the seeds of a mass political movement are the campuses of high schools, community colleges, colleges, and universities of America. It is there, particularly in the law schools and other graduate programs, where the essential leadership will come to fruition. These students know, understand, and make good use of the Internet and social media. They are the critical mass for a peaceful political evolution.

These young people must; however, receive direction, and it is there that those who teach have a duty and responsibility to become involved. Not only is the availability and provision of a quality education one of the most critical political issues facing the Nation, the current presidential race demonstrates the manner in which educational failures have consequences in partisan politics. Donald Trump takes pride in the fact that his largest group of supporters are poorly educated—half of his voters have a high school education or less. Repeated polls show that those who are better educated are much more likely to identify with progressive ideals and are better prepared to accept change.

Teachers are not supposed to have or demonstrate a political agenda in the classroom; however, the USVRA is a nonpartisan proposal that has the potential to empower young people of every political persuasion. Irrespective of politics, teachers are not serving their students if they fail to teach critical thinking and leadership skills. What, if anything, the students do with what they learn, including the USVRA, is their choice.

While it is questionable whether a student-led, mass political movement is possible in the United States, an equally good question is how should a movement be launched? In addition to adult knowledge and wisdom, these young people need the benefit of professionally-trained creative thinking and inspired direction.

Students United

Can anyone predict the ultimate outcome of a small group of students who organize a Youth for the Voters’ Rights Amendment (Y4VRA) Association on a single college campus? The ultimate connectivity of just a few students to their “friends,” and the friends of their friends, on the social media and around the world, has infinite potential for social and political change.

Rebel communication during the Revolutionary War was maintained by Committees of Correspondence in most colonial towns. Spreading from a core of determined student activists, it is not difficult to imagine the establishment of Committees on every campus in America to communicate with each other and to provide a base for local activities. Drawing on the political netroots experience gained during the last decade, non-partisan goals could be defined and national coordination organized. Mono-focused on achieving the constitutional right to cast effective votes, and cognizant of the transformative effect such a right would create throughout the political process, students could direct their attention (and questions) to every candidate for elective office in the Nation. Forced to take a stand, politicians of every persuasion would find it difficult—even impossible—to avoid taking a position in support of increased democracy and more effective representation. To do otherwise would invite defeat.

With the creative resources available on every college campus, viral videos could be filmed, local communities organized, celebrity and political endorsements obtained, and every aspect of social media mobilized in the effort to peacefully transform the United States government into one that actually represents the People who elect it.

Adopting as a standard the incredibly rapid enactment and ratification of the 18-year-old-voting amendment in 1971, there is no compelling reason why the USVRA could not be passed by Congress and ratified by the states within one election cycle, rather than the decades that have been required for other amendments.

With the enactment of the USVRA, Lincoln’s vision could become a reality—truly a government, of, by, and for the People. Imagine a government that nurtures those who elect it—and the attraction such a government would have for the peoples of other countries. Imagine the potential of a civilization in which every child has equal access to nutrition, health care, and education. Imagine limitless opportunities for future generations. Imagine that dreams can come true if we truly believe in the power of liberty and have the freedom to express it.

If in fact the USVRA has the inherent potential to unify a national, nonpartisan, political movement, and if the People of the United States are prepared to bring about a transformation of their own government, all that is required is a catalyst to bring these elements together. Will the students of America be the spark that ignites the evolution? Answering that question is the most important test the current generation of students will ever have to take, and the grade they earn will be forever marked in the annals of human civilization.

William John Cox is a retired public interest lawyer and author of the United States Voters’ Rights Amendment. His memoir, The Holocaust Case: Defeat of Denial was published in July 2015. His latest book is Transforming America: a Voters’ Bill of Rights.