Our guest author today is Tatiana Vaksberg, one of the founders of the 1989-90 Bulgarian students movement and an award-winning investigative journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria, concentrating on issues of human rights and transitional governance. This post was adapted from her remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.
My country is one of those places in Eastern Europe that said “no” to communism 28 years ago in an attempt to build a new and democratic society. Back in 1989, I was among the young students in Bulgaria that formed the first free student organization in 40 years. We struggled for a new constitution that would allow a multiparty system, freedom and respect for human rights.
In 1991, I started working for Bulgarian television’s central news desk. I have worked in the field of journalism ever since, which obviously changed my perspective. I started reporting on the way the new constitutional provisions were implemented and on the way other people continued to struggle. But what has never left my mind was the importance of one repetitive and persistent question which is common to many Bulgarians today: have we achieved what we struggled for?
The quick answer is “yes.” In 28 years, we achieved almost all of the main goals that we had in the beginning of the 1990s: Bulgaria is now a NATO and European Union (EU) member and all of its citizens’ rights and freedoms are constitutionally guaranteed. Even if Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU —with an average monthly salary of only 420 dollars — the country has the fourth highest GDP growth rate in the EU. Technically, we live in a democracy with a poor but growing economy. Like Germany, we have elected for a third time the same conservative government, which could be seen as a sign of political stability. Nevertheless, something is terribly wrong with our achievement. The more we look democratized and stable, the worse are our achievements in the field of constructing a true civil society and true democracy.
I want to speak about this discrepancy.
Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.
I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.
But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.
Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and primary author of ASI’s Democracy Web civic education resource. This post was adapted from a longer essay, which can be found here.
Since November 8, 2016, American citizens and international observers have faced a startling new situation. On that day, the United States, the longest continuous representative democracy in the modern world, elected the seemingly authoritarian-minded Donald J. Trump to a four-year presidential term. Trump, a man with little apparent knowledge of, experience in, or appreciation for either representative government or America‘s international treaties and alliances, promised to upend U.S. domestic and foreign policy and reshape the international order. He has succeeded.
In the face of the decade-long rise of dictatorial leaders and nationalist and chauvinist parties in a number of countries around the globe, Trump’s election brought broad acknowledgement of a crisis of world democracy. Given its position and role in the world, the United States is now center stage in that crisis.
One of the most troublesome aspects of the election was that the rules of the U.S. Constitution awarded Trump victory based on the preference of a minority of voters using an antique and unique electoral college system that overrode a substantial national vote margin in favor of the election’s loser. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s supposed unpopularity, the Democratic Party candidate won 2.85 million more votes in the national ballot, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Trump’s electoral college victory was determined in three decisive states by a total of 77,000 votes (out of 13.4 million). Putting aside that the results were influenced by foreign intervention (see below), the election process itself should be a cause for serious concern over the state of American democracy. For the second time in recent U.S. history, a national minority government has been imposed on the majority. No other democracy elects national leadership in such a manner. Yet, there is still little discussion of addressing this structural weakness in our political system.
Our guest author today is Paweł Zyzak, an award-winning Polish historian, civic activist, and currently an advisor to the Polish Investment and Trade Agency. The following is drawn from a recent talk about his new book, Efekt Domina: Czy Ameryka Obaliła Komunizm w Polsce? (Domino Effect: Did the United States of America Overthrow Communism?).
Surprisingly, the Polish publishing industry has very few works on the topic of Washington’s policies towards communist Poland. There are a few reprints of books by American authors dealing with Polish issues, but these are hardly Polish experts and they focus on secondary issues, such as John Paul II’s cooperation with Ronald Reagan or the CIA’s support for Solidarity, which is in fact hard to trace. Or, for example, Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), in which Greg Domber tells mainly an official version of the Reagan Administration.
Thus, mine is the first history published in Poland to recognize the American labor movement and the American anti-communist Left as having a rightful place in bringing about the Polish transition from communism. Thanks to a grant from the Albert Shanker Institute, I was able to reach all available American archives and historical witnesses, as well as articles and studies on the AFL-CIO’s activities and the American government’s policies towards Poland. And thus my book, which one might say is a “missing link,” deals with not only Poland’s modern history, but America’s as well.
Poland was indeed an element in the political strategy of the Reagan administration as part of the destabilization of the Soviet empire (at least during President Reagan’s first term), but the title of my book (Efekt Domina) recognizes that it was the AFL-CIO‘s leadership that argued Poland was the place from which the domino effect leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc would originate. And it was the AFL-CIO leadership that actually had the decisive impact in bringing that about.
The seventh author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eugenia Kemble, president of the Foundation for Democratic Education and founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute. You can find the other posts in this series here.
We are now at a time when basic freedoms are threatened, public education is systematically attacked and unions are crumbling. More than at any time since Al Shanker's death 20 years ago, this remarkable teacher’s most important legacy needs our attention.
At the core of this legacy was Shanker's fixation on the idea and practice of democracy. It bubbled up to the top of his agenda early and raw from a mix of personal experiences, including anti-Semitic bigotry, the tough working life of his parents, and the voiceless experience of teaching in schools run by autocrats. And it was refined by exhaustive reading of such pragmatist philosophers as John Dewey and Charles Saunders Pierce, religious theorist, Reinhold Neihbur, the anti-communist, Sidney Hook, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and many, many, many more.
Al believed that union leadership was democracy leadership — in the running of the union, and in its role as a defender of public education, free trade unionism and political democracy here and around the world.
The sixth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and a consultant for the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web project. He is the author of Democracy’s Champion: Albert Shanker and the International Impact of the American Federation of Teachers, available from the Institute. Chenoweth also worked in the AFT's International Affairs department from 1987-1991. You can find the other posts in this series here.
Albert Shanker knew from an early age the power of prejudice. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a poor Queens neighborhood where anti-Semitism was rife. Among the few Jews at his school, he was subject to constant taunts and a near fatal attack by fellow students. The lessons of his childhood and upbringing gave him a profound sympathy for other marginalized groups in society and helped lead to his activism in the civil rights movement (he was an early member of the Congress on Racial Equality). His upbringing also taught him other powerful lessons. His mother’s membership in textile workers unions had helped his family out of poverty (“trade unions were second to God in our household”), while the public schools he attended (and other institutions such as public libraries) were essential to his gaining greater opportunities for higher education that ultimately led him into teaching. All of it was intertwined.
Perhaps most profoundly, the rise of fascism, World War II, and the post-war challenges of Soviet communism informed his early world view. He became a committed believer in democracy and opponent of dictatorship. His early leanings towards socialism were rooted in the study of anti-fascist and anti-communist intellectuals of his era, including John Dewey, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, Iganzio Silone, Arthur Koestler, and Victor Serge — Left intellectuals who opposed all forms of government that would oppress freedom.
The fifth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is his daughter Jennie Shanker, adjunct professor at Temple University, and a member of the Temple adjunct organizing committee. Eadie, Adam, and Michael Shanker also contributed to the piece. You can find the other posts in this series here.
It’s been 20 years since my father passed away at the age of 68, and he’s still not far from the thoughts of family and friends. The many incredible events of the past year have made his presence palpable for us at times, as the repercussions of the election unfold in the news.
His life’s trajectory was formed by the personal struggles of his family, the lens through which he saw the world. His parents were immigrants who moved to this country to escape the pogroms in their home territory between Poland and Russia. His mother came over on a boat at the age of 16 with her mother, arriving after weeks at sea with pink eye. She was denied entry into the country and was forced to turn back. She returned by herself a year or so later and settled in NYC. She worked behind sewing machines, rotating between different sweatshops that hired her for short periods of time. Her long hours of hard work, lack of decent working conditions, low pay and lack of job security led her to the unions of her day.
My father attended public schools in NYC, speaking only Yiddish in the first grade. He was unusually tall as a kid, had a large port-wine stain birthmark on his neck, and he was a Jew. Hitler’s Germany would have an ongoing presence in his family life.
The fourth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. You can find the other posts in this series here.
Those of us who had the privilege to work with labor leader and progressive giant Al Shanker can attest to his deeply held sense of justice, his urgency in the fight for fairness, and his composure in the face of both personal and professional battles that would have left many of us undone.
For me, Al Shanker was a friend, a leader and a mentor. Shanker believed every worker deserved dignity, respect and a shot at the American dream. And when it came to paraprofessionals, he used his influence as AFT president to organize us into the union, thus giving us a voice in the classroom, dignity in the school building and the wages necessary to take care of our families. Back then, many paraprofessionals, like those of us in Baltimore, were seen as just the help and weren’t given a voice or chance to work in an equitable environment. Many of us were black and brown mothers, heads of households.
But, thanks to Al Shanker and the AFT’s organizing efforts, paraprofessionals saw better times, stronger collective bargaining agreements, higher wages, more dignity in our workplaces and greater love from the community we served.
The third author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Herb Magidson, who, before serving as an AFT vice president for 28 years, was an assistant to Shanker when he was president of the UFT. You can find the other posts in this series here.
During these last few tumultuous months, I’ve thought many times about Al Shanker. How would he have reacted to the chaos now afflicting our nation? How would he respond to a new president who is so dismissive of the basic democratic principles on which the United States was founded more than two hundred years? And what counsel would he have given us as we seek to deal with this challenge to our very way of life?
At a time when authoritarians throughout the world appear to be gaining strength, I think of Al, above all others, because what was special about Al was his unwavering commitment to freedom; his dedication to the belief that support for a vigorous public school system, and a free trade union movement are integral to a robust, open society where workers from all walks of life can prosper. This 20th anniversary of Shanker’s death comes, therefore, at a moment when it is helpful to be reminded of the contributions of this hero who celebrated freedom and dedicated his life to its promulgation.
The next author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). You can find the other posts in this series here.
I met Albert Shanker in September 1995, just a year and a half before his untimely death. I made an appointment to interview him for a book I was writing on affirmative action policies in college admissions. My father, who taught high school, used to clip Shanker’s columns in the Sunday New York Times and share them with me. So I was excited to meet the man whose writing on education, labor, civil rights and democracy spoke to me so profoundly.
Shanker cut an imposing figure. He was 6’4” with a deep voice and his office at the American Federation of Teachers had an impressive view of the Capitol. He wasn’t one for small talk so we got right down to business. On the issue of affirmative action, I strongly identified with Shanker’s position – wanting to find a way to remedy our nation’s egregious history of racial discrimination but simultaneously wanting to avoid a backlash from working-class whites, who also had a rightful claim to special consideration that racial preferences failed to acknowledge.