A New Day Rising: An Interview with David Swanson

by Bob Sommer

David Swanson’s first book, Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union (Seven Stories Press, $19.95), traces the growth and concentration of power in the executive branch of government during the Bush administration—a radical change that has altered, and now threatens, the very fabric of the republic. Yet Daybreak also suggests that electing a new president and Congress is not the solution to this constitutional jeopardy, for until the American people reclaim their representative government, changing parties and executives at the highest levels won’t change anything. Swanson served as press secretary for congressman Dennis Kucinich’s two presidential runs and is a cofounder of the website AfterDowningStreet.net. His book tour brought him to the Kansas City area for two days, where I met with him on Constitution Day, fittingly enough—September 17, 2009. We discussed his new book and his work as a political activist.


Bob Sommer: Let’s start by talking about your background. You hold a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia, worked for congressman Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaigns, cofounded AfterDowningStreet.net, and now have written Daybreak. How did you get from there to here?

David Swanson: Well, I grew up in northern Virginia and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I finished high school. Eventually I attended architecture school but dropped out and never became an architect. Then I did a master’s in philosophy, and what do you do with that? So I became a reporter. I started as a part-time sports reporter, covering high school basketball, and worked my way up to political reporter and editor, and ended up as a political reporter in Washington, D.C., covering the labor movement. But I still was getting censored and told what to do, and I’ve never been someone who could be told what to do, so I became a PR person for a group called ACORN, which recently could use some better PR. Then I quit that to work for congressman Dennis Kucinich because at ACORN we were winning all these local victories, and sometimes state victories, but it was one step forward and two steps back. We would pass city laws and they would knock them out in the state legislature or at the national level. I worked for Dennis and we lost, so I went and worked for the labor movement in their media branch, and I ended up working as an activist and blogger. I now work mostly for a group called Democrats.com, but also for other activist groups, writing articles and blogs and doing speaking events. I have the ideal job because I work from home in a beautiful town some distance from Washington, D.C., so I can get there if I need to, but I don’t have to live there. I’m at home with my three-year-old boy and my wife and I do full-time activism.

BS: You mention congressman Dennis Kucinich a number of times in Daybreak. How has he influenced you personally and politically?

DS: Oh, tremendously. To begin with, he creates a strange anomaly in our system because if you look at the forces of corruption that I analyze in the book—the corruption of money, of media, of party discipline, of gerrymandering, of unverifiable elections and so forth—and you look at most districts across the country, you can pick out where some of these corrupting forces have determined bad representation, representatives who don’t represent their constituents. And then you look at Congressman Kucinich. I was just in his district on the book tour and spoke with some activists there, and there’s nothing radically different about the citizens of that part of Cleveland compared to the other districts across the rust belt and across the country, and yet they have a congressman who represents them and the rest of us dramatically better, and it comes down to him and his decision not to be corrupted. He demonstrates that you can resist the forces of corruption and still represent the people and get reelected.

BS: Your website, Let’s Try Democracy, mentions that you live in Charlottesville “and can see Thomas Jefferson's house Monticello from [your] window.” You also mention James Madison, whose house is close enough for you “to feel it when he rolls in his grave.” Jefferson and Madison and James Monroe—presidents three, four, and five; and all Virginians—figure prominently in the political philosophy described in Daybreak. How have their writings and proximity influenced you?

DS: You can look out my front window and see Monticello up on a hill, especially in the winter when the leaves are gone. Madison’s house is just down the road in Orange, Virginia, and James Monroe’s is a mile or two from Monticello, so everybody in that area talks about them and reads them and has wildly different interpretations of who they were and what they would have wanted. And you might include the fear they had of establishing a monarchy. I mean, these are people who had risked their lives to get rid of a monarchy, had fought a war, which was perhaps not necessary—I am someone who advocates against wars—but they had gone to great lengths to get rid of a monarchy and had set up a government in which the first branch, the primary seat of power, was to be a legislature, and a relatively impotent executive would execute the will of that legislature. Jefferson thought they were just going to have a House of Representatives. He didn’t know about the Senate. He went to Europe and came back and was told about the Senate, which would be this antidemocratic force to restrain majority will, because there was a lot of that in the thinking of these guys, even while they were thinking of moving democracy forward, at least for wealthy white male people who owned slaves. And they put into the House of Representatives, the body that would be closest to the people, the power of impeachment. They thought we would use it all the time, and that it would be frequently needed for presidents and judges. They also built into the Constitution ways to amend it, which they thought we would do constantly. They didn’t want it to become some sort of sacred book. Jefferson famously shredded our sacred Bible and picked out the parts that he thought were good and threw out the rest and made his own Bible. He didn’t want the Constitution treated any differently.

James Madison and George Mason and other Virginians put a lot of thought into how to avoid what Jefferson called “elected despots”—how to not have brief monarchies of four-year periods but to really maintain the power of the people through representatives in the legislature. And they clearly understood that the greatest danger would come from war, so we were not to have a standing army. If we were going to have an army for a war, it would be up to Congress to oversee and fund and get rid of it after the war. Congress was to decide whether we were to have a war or not because wars would allow presidents to seize power. All of this is largely undisputed, and yet you see people with exactly contrary points of view today.

BS: In your discussion of presidential power, you ask rhetorically, “Why did James Madison hate his country and love the terrorists?” The context of that question is a statement from Madison that begins, “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded.” Describe what you meant.

DS: Well, I can’t say exactly what James Madison meant, but clearly he was right if he thought that during times of war, civil liberties would be stripped away and people would be more likely to permit it under the guise that it was needed for war. During the past eight years, because we’ve had this declaration of war by the president, of eternal vague war against terrorism, we have seen our rights and liberties stripped away. Habeas corpus is now gone. I mean, you didn’t even need the Bill of Rights—this was in the Constitution. But Alberto Gonzales can come before the Congress and say, “Well, the Constitution says you can’t have habeas corpus taken away from you, but that doesn’t mean you ever had it.” Which suggests that we don’t have any rights that are in the Constitution. So because there was a war against these evil, evil terrorists, we lose habeas corpus. And then a new administration from the opposite party—because we have a government now divided into two parties rather than three branches—comes in and formalizes the system put in place by the previous administration, a system of pseudo-due-process for people stripped of habeas corpus.

You go down the line through the Bill of Rights and subsequent rights in the amendments, and they’re all gone. Not that they were perfect nine years ago, but they were radically damaged during the past eight years, except perhaps for the Third Amendment, which they don’t need to touch anymore because we’ve built homes for soldiers and we don’t have to put them in our homes. You come to news like today’s news—that the senators of the great state of Kansas, where we sit right now, have managed to keep the evildoers out of Leavenworth (which apparently is a place you can just wander out of if you feel like it)—and they’ve done that by holding up nominations that they’re now going to let go forward, using an antidemocratic abuse of power to fight off this mythical threat of evildoers, who have been used to justify the removal of our rights. And because these monsters, these dark-skinned Muslim foreigners, can’t be treated as humans, we aren’t going to have rights any more, and in most cases we aren’t going to have those rights for Americans of any color, race, religion, or description either. So we’re going to lock people up without charging them; we’re going to detain them without due process; we’re going to spy on them without warrants; we’re going to remove all the rights going back to the Magna Carta because of these evil monsters that scared the senators from Kansas, and as a result everybody’s going to lose their rights.


BS: While many would consider you politically on the far left, Daybreak, especially the first half of the book, espouses relatively conservative attitudes toward the Constitution and the Republic. You describe how far we have “strayed from adherence to the Constitution” and rather ominously state “we are in unprecedented territory, far closer than ever before to losing our republic, and losing it in much the way that Rome lost hers.” Conservatives, in particular George W. Bush, have campaigned on the principle of strictly interpreting the Constitution. How do you reconcile that?

DS: Well, I would need to see the evidence that many would consider me on the far left—I think what that would probably mean is that people have seen on television that advocacy for peace and justice and workers’ rights and healthcare constitute far left positions. It would mean that people have not looked at the opinion polls done by those same media outlets, which show that most positions I advocate for are strong majority positions in the United States. Most of us falsely believe we are in a fringe left minority because our televisions tell us that over and over again. But I think we have to constantly keep correcting that wrong understanding. Single-payer healthcare is seen as a crazy, commie, lefty, pinko position, except that a strong majority of Americans has favored it for decades—and down the line through most of the issues I talk about and care about.

I do think that it is properly called a conservative position to say with John Adams that we should have a nation of laws and not a nation of men, and that laws should be enforced for all and that no one should be above the law. You look at Glenn Beck’s Nine Points for America—who I would not call a conservative, but a racist fanatic—and I think it’s number five that no one should be above the rule of law. Well, you know, we can all agree on that in principle, but are we going to actually apply it to people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and so forth? There are those who would apply it to a president if he’s a Democrat and those who would apply it to a president if he’s a Republican. I would apply it to any president and to any public official, above all to the highest of officials. So I would not begin the prosecutions with the lowest ranking torturers who strayed from the illegal torture policies, but start at the top and work your way down. When they’re going on television and confessing, you don’t get the lower-down to squeal on the higher-up and work your way up. You can start, as we did at Nuremberg, at the top. I think that’s perhaps properly called a conservative position, although it’s probably also a liberal idea that’s been fighting for real traction for a couple of centuries.

BS: The phrase “unitary executive” gained wide use during the Bush administration. What is meant by that phrase, and what’s wrong with it?

DS: It got some traction during the Reagan years. In some measure it is based on one of the Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, which ironically seems to suggest that we should have one executive rather than two or three or a council in order to have one guy we can hold accountable for everything that is executed, meaning that we can impeach that person; we can expel that person from office. Which is just about the opposite of what Dick Cheney and his lawyer and chief of staff, David Addington, had in mind, which is that the executive has all power; that powers to make laws, to make wars, to make treaties, to make appointments, and to act outside of any rule of law belong to the president and the president alone, and the president is given this unitary power of executive in the Constitution, meaning, in Dick Cheney’s interpretation, that he can decide what’s law and execute it. The meaning of the Constitution as understood by most people for over two hundred years, and seems clear to me, is that the president is required to faithfully execute the laws as passed by Congress, which means that you don’t get to change them with signing statements, you don’t get to create them with executive orders, and you don’t get to create them with secret memos written by your lawyer. You have to actually execute the laws as written by Congress, whether you agree with them or not, or in the case of new laws, veto them. Sign them or veto them. Those are your choices. The Constitution provides no third path on that.

BS: President Barack Obama came to office with an agenda of “looking forward.” Yet you are a strong advocate for impeaching Bush and Cheney and investigating the alleged crimes of their administration. Wouldn’t that just mire the country in a divisive political struggle that would make the brouhaha over South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson’s shrill insult to the president when he addressed a joint session of Congress look like small change?

DS: Yes and no. When people on Capitol Hill argue with each other, it is treated as a catastrophe by the media in Washington. I mean this is the biggest concern: that everybody in Washington gets along harmoniously with each other. At least, when Democrats get elected to power, the primary demand of the people they’re supposedly representing is for bipartisanship and harmony; whereas, when you elect Republicans, all you hear is mandate for right-wing change. People I’ve talked to across the country seem to care relatively little about how well people in Washington get along with each other at dinner parties and much more about whether we have peace and justice and jobs and prosperity and human rights. As my friend John Nichols, who wrote the forward to my book, has said, you’re confusing the illness with the cure. The sickness is the destruction of our government, of our checks and balances, of our representative republic. The cure is impeachment, or enforcement of laws and prosecution. You know, aspirin is not a headache; it is a cure for headaches. Impeachment and prosecution are aspirin, not the headache. We’re getting things upside down. We’re told that the impeachment of Clinton was traumatic and destroyed the country. It actually was much briefer and much less of a big deal than we’re told to remember it was, but it was also an impeachment for a silly offense, and a majority of the public opposed it. But a majority of the public wanted Bush and Cheney impeached without the Congress even acting. If you look back through the history of the country, where impeachments have progressed, they have been incredibly popular with the public. The last time the Democrats did anything to stand up for checks and balances, when Richard Nixon was president, they subsequently won the biggest victories anyone could remember, and they lost after letting Reagan off the hook so as to avoid the trauma and disagreement on Capitol Hill.

At this point we can and should impeach Bush and Cheney and strip them of their privileges, but we would first have to explain to an uneducated public that we can even do that. It would be easier to simply impeach people who are in office now, like Jay Bybee, chief torture-memo writer and appeals court judge. We just impeached a judge from Texas for groping employees. You know, impeachments do not have to involve sex. Here’s a guy who wrote memos not just legalizing torture, but legalizing aggressive war, legalizing warrantless wiretapping, and he’s sitting there as a judge with a lifetime appointment, waiting to go to the Supreme Court, and they will tell you in Washington that we shouldn’t impeach him because the media will accuse us of going after a conservative judge. Well, do conservative judges now get immunity even when they legalized torture in secret memos? Where can you go beyond that? If you can’t impeach him, whom can you impeach? And if you will never impeach, if you will never use subpoenas and enforce them, what is Congress other than a bunch of court jesters? If we will not prosecute statutory crimes against the people who make those crimes happen, and only against the underlings, then we’re going to have two classes of citizens, those under the law and those above the law. What did we have a revolution for?

BS: One theme that runs through Daybreak is the prominence you believe the House of Representatives should have in our governmental structure. Why is that?

DS: It is the closest thing to representing us. It represents by population. It’s expanded now to the point where each member has to represent 700,000 people. That’s absolutely impossible. It hasn’t been enlarged in a long time and should be. These are the members of our government who we are most able to influence. We can call them; we can email them; we can fax them. We can go to their offices and meetings and go to their homes. We can find out where they are and talk to them face-to-face. They don’t have security guards; they don’t have secret service. It takes less money for them to run for office than it does for senators and presidents. They’re less the focus of the corporate media and that corrupting influence because there are more of them. They’re accountable every two years in elections, at least they would be if we didn’t have such a corrupt system and all the gerrymandering and all that, but we need to clean up the system. We need to make them truly representative of us. We have a long ways to go, but it’s our best shot at having anyone represent us in Washington.

BS: Anyone who knows your work as a blogger and political activist won’t be surprised to find in Daybreak a strong indictment of the Bush administration, but many Democrats come in for sharp criticism as well, including congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, senator Chris Dodd, and president Barack Obama. My original question was, “Why do you hate your country and love the terrorists?” but I’ll settle for asking how and why they’ve disappointed you.

DS: [Laughs] Well, they haven’t disappointed me in the way they’ve disappointed a lot of people who put way too much hope in elections and way too much emphasis on a president, and expected the world to change because we elected Barack Obama. I voted for him. It was the better choice of the two lousy choices we had. I was thrilled that for the first time in history my state of Virginia voted for the less racist of the two candidates and it was a black guy. I mean, that’s helpful. But I don’t expect anything to change in Washington because we elected a different guy president. I expect things to change in Washington if people get active and engaged and force change in between elections. If you look at the Democrats that you name—and most Democrats—they are funded by corporations and they are subject to the demands of their party, which is now led by President Obama. You know, at any given moment half of Congress is following the lead of the president because he is the leader of their party, and their loyalty is not to a branch of government but to a party. In my district in Virginia we threw out perhaps the worst, most offensive Republican there was in Virgil Goode and put in a Democrat named Tom Perriello, who answers to the Democratic leadership. It’s much more difficult for a man like him, who was given $1 million by the Democratic Party in the last week for TV ads and who won by a fraction of a point, to ignore them than it is to ignore us, the people who live in his district. And so he comes in and he’s thrilled to vote for wars, but when they put in the IMF [International Monetary Fund] funding for the Eastern European banks, he’s dead set against it until they threaten and cajole and promise, and they’re now running radio ads for him. The threats and the promises they use to control these people are intense. When a Congress member won’t vote the way his party demands, he or she is often threatened with a loss of money and even with a primary challenge. This is their career on the line, and it’s very difficult for constituents to make it harder for that member to ignore us than to ignore the party or the media or the money. But that’s what we have to do until we clean up the system, and we can do it, and there are cases of us doing it. So I’m not so much disappointed in individuals as I am dismayed by the whole system. But it shouldn’t surprise us, and it shouldn’t depress us. It should energize us to get to work and save this republic before it gets even harder to save.

BS: The second half of Daybreak describes a variety of ideas for a “new and improved U.S. Constitution.” This seems like a departure from the conservative interpretation of the Constitution you described earlier in the book, while tampering with it also seems quite risky. What are you suggesting?

DS: Well, the Constitution has always had a lot wrong with it that should be fixed. It’s also had many things wrong with it that have been fixed, right? When it was written, only white, wealthy males were allowed to vote. I’m glad that’s changed. But I think it could get silly, too, like amending the Constitution to ban alcohol and then amending it to put it back. With the handful of times that we’ve tweaked this thing over more than two centuries, that those are two of the amendments on the books is crazy. But this is a document that was cutting-edge a long, long time ago and isn’t any more. You look at constitutions around the world that are way out ahead of us, and you look at international treaties that are way out ahead of us, and you look at this document that we were supposed to update with the times, that Jefferson asked us not to treat as a sacred document but to fix as we advanced, and it long since needs to be updated. There are many, many reforms we can make legislatively simply by changing rules. For example, the filibuster, the worst blockage of majority opinion in our government, is not in the Constitution, contrary to what you might hear on Fox News. It’s just a rule. Fifty-one men and women in the Senate could just change it tomorrow, but to get rid of the Senate itself, which I advocate for—as it’s also an antidemocratic block on the will of the people—would require amending the Constitution.

We’ve reached a point now where crazy things, like giving rights to corporations as if they are human beings, like declaring that money is speech, require either a Supreme Court decision or an amendment to the Constitution to reverse. If you want to get rid of the Electoral College, this remnant of antidemocratic control over our elections, you have to amend the Constitution. There’s no reason that you couldn’t go into a convention and amend the Constitution with a comprehensive package of reforms that updated our system of government and gave us rights that other people have developed around the world. We’ve amended the thing so that we can’t discriminate in voting against certain classes of people, but we don’t have the right to vote in the Constitution! Had we the right to vote in the Constitution we could quite easily get automatic registration so that when you’re eighteen, you have a Social Security number and you also have voter registration. Instead we have this busywork that we think of as activism, where we go out and register people to vote. We could have a national system of verifiable voting—on paper, publicly counted before all variety of witnesses, locally, at the polling places, and those totals would be added up regionally, and the whole thing transparent, so that we knew we were electing the people we chose to elect. A lot of reforms would be easier, and some can only be done by amending the Constitution. And yes, it’s risky, because we could amend it to make it even worse, but not doing it is just as risky.

BS: Daybreak is not only a description of how power came to be concentrated in the executive branch, but a proscription for reclaiming that power. You describe “aggressive progressives” toward the end of the book. What do you mean by that phrase?

DS: Well, I got that slogan from Democrats.com, a group that I work for. You know, progressives almost always tend to be on the defense, and those on the right in this country tend to be on the offense. I mean we’ll sit down and ask ourselves, do we really think that we can pass single-payer healthcare this year? If not, what we ought to do is go out there and just make our initial demand for what we think we’re going to get, this weak little public option thing, and that’ll leave us no room to negotiate and therefore it’ll have to be that or nothing, but we’ll seem very reasonable and pragmatic and strategic. Whereas those on the right just demand that we stop legislation that will kill grandma and enforce abortions and impose socialism and so forth. They never ask is it realistic that this year we’re going to strip all rights from gay people or deport all immigrants or defund the school system. They just go out and demand it, and they push the debate in that direction, and then the debate in the corporate media becomes this two-sided thing between absolute crazy extreme right-wing positions and something sort of halfway to the right wing that gives them 80 percent of what they wanted but not quite. So that tells you where the middle ground is.

It is the role of Congress members to compromise and negotiate agreements and pass bills, but that’s not our role. And our role is not necessarily to exaggerate what we want in the direction of some crazy extreme that doesn’t make any sense, but our role is to demand our ideal, exactly what we want, without some censorship, and nothing less, and if a compromise is reached by our representatives in the form of a bill and we want to support that bill, we support that bill, but without self-censorship, without pretending that now our ideal is the public option and forbidding our neighbors from saying the words single payer at our rallies because it would distract from our new ideal. That’s not strategic or wise; that’s corrupt and we could learn something from those on the right. Not as much as we think if we forget that they control the media. We have to stop beating ourselves up for not being as witty as these ignorant illiterate morons. They’re not witty and pithy and disciplined in their messaging. They own the media. Nonetheless, they’re willing to go out there and speak their minds, and we self-censor and pre-compromise before we open our mouths. That’s a problem.

BS: In your acknowledgements you describe writing a draft of this book in about a month and then submitting it to a large revision following suggestions from your editor. Can you describe that process, beginning with how your prior work enabled you to compose the draft so rapidly?

DS: Well it didn’t seem rapidly to me. The first part of this book was largely things that I had been working on and didn’t need much research. The second half needed some research, and the books I have in mind for when I get off this crazy tour are going to involve a lot more research. But I sort of took a month off activism to just stop and think, what’s working, what’s not working, and what can we do to fix it. I turned off the telephone. I turned off the email and the Twitter and Facebook and everything and didn’t answer the door, and wrote a draft. Then I sent it to several publishers. A couple of them got back and said they wanted to do it, and I chose to go with Seven Stories Press, which has done a great job in my limited experience of publishers. I’ve loved what they’ve done, although they wouldn’t publish it for a year. They have sort of their fall line and their spring line. You know, book fashion shows, and so during the course of that year we spent maybe a second month fixing it up. My editor, Crystal Yakacki, sent me a proposal for how I could revise and rearrange and turn everything around in the book, and it was very much a reorganizing of everything and a rewriting of major sections. I did that and got it back to her. Then she liked it, and then it was small tweaks and fixes, and then it was footnoting. For God’s sake, please read the footnotes after I spent all that time on them. And then as the months went by and the world continued to spin, I revised several chapters to update, so the book looks not just at eight years of Bush-Cheney and what went before, but at the first months of Obama and the new Congress. At some point I had to stop updating and put the thing out the door, and we worked out the cover and blurbs and promotions. Seven Stories was incredibly helpful. John Nichols wrote a forward at the last minute that was wonderful and over-the-top. It was a good experience for me.

BS: Your book tour for Daybreak has included a lot of events hosted by activist groups like PeaceWorks here in Kansas City. What have you learned touring the country as an author and political activist yourself?

DS: Well, I’m going to forty-seven cities, and I think I may be around number ten so far, so most of the tour is still in front of me. I’ve taken on way more than I should have, but I’m meeting lots of people and learning lots of things—incredibly inspiring stories from people who can talk a blue streak, and eloquently, but never put pen to paper. I went around Ohio and did five or six cities and met people who are struggling with an economic depression but who are still working on national issues like healthcare and international issues like Iraq. I met one woman who went to Iraq a couple of months before the bombs hit with a bunch of academics and met with the leaders of the government there, who presented the letter they’d sent to Congress saying, “We have no weapons. Why won’t you listen to us? This is as crazy as the babies in the incubators”—the lies that started the war the last time—“Can we please talk?” She brought this letter home thinking it would change everything only to find that nobody cared and the bombs were going to hit. But now she has a son adopted from Iraq. People are doing everything they can at whatever level, working night and day, with no recognition and certainly no interest from the corporate media. I come a day early to a place like Kansas City and find myself out protesting a weapons factory and nuclear weapons and learning about the lawsuits and actions that are being filed to try to block the factory from being expanded. I was out there protesting with a bunch of guys who do hip-hop poetry and then come back to this house and put down this lengthy poem about war and peace that was just amazing. I got it on my tape recorder, so I leave every town with recordings and photos and stories and things that I wouldn’t know, on top of getting a better feel for what I’m writing about that people agree with, disagree with, don’t understand, already knew. It’s very, very helpful.

BS: What’s next for you, now that Daybreak is in print?

DS: I would much rather be writing another book than anything else, although it is probably useful for me, for the reasons we just discussed, to do a book tour aside from the little bit that it does help in promoting the book. You know, I would love to actually make most of my living writing books, which may be a very distant dream. I’m going to keep working with Democrats.com and Progressive Democrats of America and peace groups and United for Peace and Justice and Code Pink and the human rights groups that are working for prosecutions now and the ACLU and everything that I’ve been doing because, you know, we have a long way to go and most people are just now, after eight months, waking up to the idea that we have to be active citizens, even though there’s a new Congress and a new president. So there’s a lot ahead of us.

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