Over the last eight years, David Swanson has been one of the most tenacious and effective activists against the transgressions of the Bush presidency. As Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign, Communications Coordinator for ACORN prior to that, a tireless anti-war activist for Democrats.com and, most notably of all, as the indefatigable spearhead behind the campaign to publicize the incriminating "Downing Street memos," Swanson has been a living, breathing illustration of what vibrant citizen activism and independent, adversarial investigative journalism should be.
There have now been many books written which chronicle the imperial, lawless presidency of the Bush era, but Swanson’s superb new book — Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union — is one of the very few to examine how we can recover from it and reverse its pernicious trends. Many Bush books, given the horrific subject matter, have been dark and gloomy, even somewhat depressing. To be sure, there are parts of Swanson’s book that documents in gruesome detail all of the liberties abridged and damage done during the last eight years. This book also does not shy away from highlighting those areas in which the Obama presidency has, much to the dismay of many, come to replicate some (though by no means all) of the worst Bush abuses. But Daybreak is far more uplifting and inspiring that virtually any other book in its genre, as it devotes itself to laying out a detailed plan for how American citizens — through the activism to which he has devoted himself — can bring about a rejuvenation of our political values.
One of the most notable — and most valuable — aspects of this book is that it does not relieve the reader (you) of responsibility for our decadent and freedom-infringing political culture. Most commentators will attempt to flatter or at least please their audience by casting blame for our nation’s woes on everyone except for the average citizen: evil politicians, power-hungry executive branch officials, a subservient Congress, weak and spineless Democrats, the craven media. All of those parties receive their due flogging from Swanson, but he repeatedly reminds us that the true power — and ultimate responsibility — for shaping our political system lies with us. And from an pathological dependence on television to excessive religious influences to political apathy and defeatism to allowing ourselves to be isolated from one another, many Americans are failing to fulfill the potential they have to effect the kind of change they claim they want.
That Swanson thinks this is unsurprising, given that he himself lives this creed. The premise of most of his work — at ACORN, at Democrats.com, at AfterDowningStreet.org — is that ordinary citizens can and must find the right organizing strategies to change what they dislike in politics. Had Swanson merely insisted upon this principle over and over, the book could have veered off into the realm of the annoyingly preachy. But it never does, and the reason is that he is doing much more than evangelizing about our power and obligations to act. A large bulk of the book is devoted to laying out a very thoughtful, innovative and quite plausible blueprint for how citizen passion can be converted into meaningful change.
Most impressively, in laying out this blueprint, Swanson avoids leading readers to believe that the work will be quick or easy. To the contrary, America’s political rot is so advanced and so fundamental that he emphasizes that reversing it will be hard and will take many years. Some of the steps –such as re-establishing America as a nation of laws by punishing the high-level political leaders who repeatedly violated them — will likely be uncontroversial among most strident Bush critics (you know who you are).
But other more unique proposals — such as amending the Constitution — will almost certainly provoke strong resistance among even those most receptive to his message. And so it should: everyone ought to be reflexively wary against such changes. But Swanson makes a compelling case that the diseases with which our political system is afflicted are so entrenched that only systemic change — changing our underlying political rules — will enable the needed changes. An entire chapter is devoted to a manifesto of new rights which Swanson believes must be explicitly guaranteed to Americans. Ultimately, I was unpersuaded by the wisdom of some of these specific proposals, but the case made for them by Daybreak is provocative, thought-provoking, and certain to generate valuable debates.
"We can do more than bandage the wounds" is this book’s battle-cry. Unlike most, Swanson has the courage to embrace the logical conclusions of his premise: the U.S. faces radical political problems and — therefore — only radical change can rectify it. But "radical" in this sense does not mean violent upheavals or instituting an unrecognizable form of government. To the contrary, it means revitalizing our political culture by changing the rules so as to enable the political values we were intended to have once again to flourish. Paradoxically, this book is deeply critical of the American political establishment, yet it is profoundly patriotic. Swanson passionately believes in the promise of America, is genuinely committed to its restoration, is certain that citizen activism is the answer, and is convinced that he has the plan to bring that all about. The passion of his convictions, by themselves, make Daybreak very worthwhile. And with enough attention and discussion devoted to this book, it is not hard to see how Swanson’s belief that we have the power to fix what ails our nation could be vindicated.