With inequality, injustice and democracy debated on the streets of cities and towns across Connecticut and the country, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas brought together some of the nation’s most prominent activists to discuss their views on how our nation should move forward.
“We are living in a really unique moment,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, political activist and CEO of Voto Latino. “We need to come together and use this moment and address the system and make a change. We change by will.”
Political commentator and author Heather McGhee cited widening economic inequality while power is being concentrated without accountability at the top of the pyramid, from Wall Street to the White House. Combined with the coronavirus pandemic, the rest of society has been relegated to the bottom of the heap with little to no power and all the accountability, she said.
“There has been an enough-is-enough moment and it’s inspiring,” McGhee added. “A new America is coming.”
Professor Archon Fung of Harvard University agreed that inequality is the singular threat to American democracy.
Fung explained that only 10% of the lobbying groups in Washington represent blue-collar workers. He called out an unresponsive government as part of the overall problem facing the democratic system.
“Congress is only responsive to the top ten percent in the income distribution. If you are not in that top ten percent of the income distribution then democracy is not working well for you in the sense that the government is not passing laws that you want, when people who are better off than you, want different things.”
Warning that the outcome of the next election will affect not only the next four years of America, but also the next twenty, the panelists urged action.
“I have people come up to me on the street, in desperation, asking me, ‘What is going to happen?’,” said McGhee. “I answer back, ‘Whatever you make happen.’”
“We need to make voting a civic duty and a commitment,” said Fung. “Every American should vote. Registering to vote should be a right of passage. We have lost the ideas that we should vote because it is part of our participation. Winning has become more important than the process, and democracy, I fear, is becoming a power grab.”
Through Voto Latino, Kumar is working to ensure that there is adequate funding for voting infrastructure and to fight attempts at voter suppression.
“We need to continue these conversations and occupy voting booths to see systematic changes,” said Kumar, who pointed out that in November, the Latino community will make up the second-largest group of voters.
Moderator Miles Rapaport, former secretary of the state, questioned whether universal national service would enable Americans to give to the nation and take from the experience, the ability to be a real participant.
McGhee said she would like to see the protest energy from George Floyd’s death be channeled to become levers of policy change throughout the country.
“We need huge civic engagement and voter registration,” she said, and urged people to become “super citizens” in their own communities by getting involved with their local school board, city council and town offices.
“The protests have been heartening to me, because I believe that many people are there not only because of the murder of George Floyd … but because they see that as a broader pattern of racism, inequality and democracy,” Fung added.
Kumar said amid difficult conversations, she has hope for the future.
“What COVID has done is broken open the wounds of our country and the opportunities we have. We need to use this moment to address the systemic changes because there is not one individual in America that has not been touched by the pandemic or moved by what is happening in the streets,” she said.
The non-profit Festival of Arts and Ideas is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It has several panel discussions available on its website, www.artidea.org.