BENNINGTON — In a time of political uncertainty, former Vermont governor Howard Dean offered messages of hope and faith in democracy at Bennington College.
Dean's talk on Thursday, facilitated by Susan Sgorbati, director of the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action and state Sen. Brian Campion, explored questions of American democracy as the first in a seven-talk series for fall 2018 on the topic.
Dean started by referencing a quote, commonly attributed to Winston Churchill, which claims democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others.
"Democracy is the basis of human rights," said Dean, a former doctor who was Vermont governor from 1991 to 2003.
Even rights missing from the Constitution — namely, those for women and people of color — came about in public life because of the power of democracy, he said.
"The real core of democracy, and the genius of democracy, is not that democracy, ideologically, should be the perfect system," Dean said. If something better were to come along, he said, that would be great. "But it hasn't," he said. "Is corruption eliminated? Is misogyny and discrimination eliminated? No. We're always going to fall short of whatever we seek to do, because we're human beings."
There's also a price to pay if one wants to live in a democratic society — "if you don't vote, you lose," he said. And voting is the bare minimum "passing grade" — political involvement on some level is important too, he said.
"You'd be surprised by how powerful you can be," he said. Dean mentioned a project he worked on when he was just starting out in politics with two other people, to get a bike path along the water in Burlington. They created an interest group and lobbied for the change — and they got it. Anyone could make such a change, he said.
Responding to a question by Campion, Dean said that democracy has been under attack in the United States "for a long time," by rich people who feel that their opinions should matter more because of their wealth. This has led to problems with the courts, he said.
"The Supreme Court used to understand what their role was — to be above politics," he said. "Now, they're part of politics."
He referenced the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down limitations on corporations' campaign expenditures, finding them an abridgment of free speech.
"Nowhere in the Constitution does [a] corporation have the same rights as [an] individual," he said.
There is a consensus nowadays that the government is too powerful, and the people need more say in it, he said.
"There is a hunger for democracy," he said. "There is a hunger to make individual people matter, and I don't think we've gotten there yet."
In response to Campion's question about how people can take on money in politics, Dean brought up Beto O'Rourke, a Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Texas currently campaigning against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.
O'Rourke is running "the most exciting campaign in the country now," and is doing so with no political action money, Dean said. "And he's out-raising Ted Cruz two to one," he said. "It can definitely be done."
Dean briefly reflected on democracy during his time in Vermont politics, calling the state "a democracy that works."
"And why does it work?" he said. "Because we know each other. You respected people, even if they were a different party, because you needed to work with them."
The audience spent about an hour questioning Dean on varied topics, including climate change and what democracy looks like for non-citizens.
One audience member asked Dean about his feelings on the electoral college. "It's a mess, it's unnecessary, it's undemocratic and it's stupid," he said.
The electoral college was originally designed partially to allow some form of political veto power, as smaller American colonies were concerned about being railroaded by the larger ones. They made a compromise that seemed like a good idea, Dean said.
"We ought to get rid of it," he said.
In response to another question, Dean shared how democracy — and by extension, the world at large — has changed since his youth. In 1968, he had two African-American roommates. They had never been to school with a white person. He had never been to school with a black person.
That year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and Chicago rioted in response.
"If you had told us ... that we were going to have a black president 40 years from now, we would have laughed ... bitterly," he said.
People can't know change before it happens, he said. But they can do something to make it happen.
"Your job as young people is to be impatient, angry and do something about it," he said, to loud applause from the audience. Young people are taking over the Democratic party — and that's a great thing, he said.
"This is the generation that's going to change a lot of things," he said. That change is happening on the ground at a grassroots level. And Washington, D.C. politics doesn't understand any of it, he said.
One woman asked Dean what he would recommend students do to address climate change, referencing a recently-released United Nations report warning of catastrophic climate change possible as soon as 2040.
The big thing is voting for people who plan to address climate change, he said. And on a local level, there's a lot that can be done, he said.
"Little stuff matters," he said. "One extra plastic bottle, times 50,000, does matter. Even though think it doesn't make a difference, it does."
Dean also discussed a lack of civic education for many students. "Somebody graduating from high school without knowing how Congress works is insane," he said.
Civics education has become politicized nationally, making some afraid to teach the subject. But it's essential — if someone doesn't know how government works and they don't care, they're not participating in democracy, he said.
Along those lines, without the free press, society is dead, he said.
"You have to have somebody that tells you you're wrong," he said of the news media's checks on politics. "You have to have an outside mechanism that prevents you from cutting corners."
One woman asked Dean about the positive picture he'd painted of democracy, in a time when many people are worrying that democracy itself is at stake.
Dean agreed that he was "somewhat optimistic."
"Individuals have the power to change their surroundings," he said. 'There is no one that doesn't have 100 times more power than they think they do."
He pointed to the record numbers of women running for office around the country.
"The change is in front of you," he said. "This is not the time to despair."
And, he said, voting matters.
"We still have the vote," he said. "This is not a fascist society — yet. So vote. That makes a difference."
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.