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Five bellwether moments from the ‘Unrig the System’ reformers convention

With almost 2,000 attendants from across the country, the Unrig Summit in Nashville over the weekend stands as the biggest public gathering to date of people interested in tackling the challenges of our current democracy.

After three days of speeches, panel discussions and nonprofit groups hawking their widely disparate ideas for "fixing the system," it was tempting to view the gathering as a cacophony of voices dissatisfied with the status quo – but nowhere close to a chorus behind a galvanizing solution. But these five moments stood out for sending important messages about the future of the fledgling democracy reform movement.

No. 5: Business in the tent

One of the best-attended panel discussions Saturday was led by a former Apple executive, Sarah Bonk, now working full time to sell the notion that the influence which corporate interests have over the government will only be weakened if a critical mass of American businesses conclude it's in their best interests to lessen their reliance on enormous political and lobbying spending in pursuit of profit targets.

Much of the energy for bettering the system undeniably comes from the political left, so it was a sobering moment for many in the audience to hear their passion will only get them so far unless the big corporate interests they so regularly disdain are willing to limit campaign and policy influence outlays.

No 4: One man's story

The notion that a more expensive democracy can deliver tangible benefits to people on society's margins was highlighted no more movingly than by Desmond Meade, whose narrative of grassroots political success after personal failing has made him a breakout star on the inspirational speaking circuit in the past year. He spent three years in prison for drug and weapons convictions before earning a law degree, but was able to register to vote in Orlando in January thanks to the Florida ballot initiative he helped steer to victory last fall as the head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The franchise for as many as 1.4 million other convicted felons in Florida is also supposed to be revived, but Meade was the one who had convention goers on their feet several times with his simple message that "love your neighbor as yourself" is the best slogan for democracy reform.

No. 3: Youth movement

Unrig attendees skewed decidedly older, whiter and richer than the national electorate. But a clear conference theme came from those people lamenting that their moment to secure a more functional and cleaner democracy may have passed their generation by – and counting on a younger and more ethnically diverse group of leaders to step up.

And several were on hand for prominent roles, including 22-year-old conservative environmental activist Benji Backer and Emma Gonzalez, one of the most politically active survivors of last year's mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. She wowed the convention with a rousing call to set new limits on the flow of money in elections in order to limit the influence the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment rights groups have on the congressional agenda.

No. 2: The unmentioned

At more than a dozen panel discussions and in several dozen speeches, the name of the incumbent president was not mentioned once. And of the handful of times Donald Trump was cited by grassroots activists, scholars and political players, it was a passing reference in almost each instance.

His almost complete absence from the conversation was a pointed reminder that, while most attendees clearly hold Trump himself responsible for a newfound rattling of democratic norms, the issues they came to deliberate in Nashville (the dominant role of money in politics, the shaky state of voting rights and the limits in electoral competition, principally) were hobbling the functionality of democracy long before this administration began – and ought to find a place on the national policymaking agenda no matter what happens in the 2020 election.

No. 1: The discordant finale

A we're-all-in-this-together spirit of collaboration and patient listening lasted until the final session, when a wave of discord generated the convention's most newsworthy and cautionary moment.

The marquee speaker of the weekend was former Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz, who is pondering generous spending from his own fortune to mount an independent run for president with good government reform as a campaign centerpiece. But he was hectored and booed unlike anyone else. A dozen attendees stood to derisively chant "Billionaires for president!" the first time he tried to talk, and then the room filled with catcalls and jeering when he sought to rebut the argument that his candidacy would at best be remembered as spoiling the chances for the Democratic nominee and assuring Trump's re-election. The rest of his speech was welcomed with tepid applause at best.

It hardly mattered that Schultz endorsed a favorite cause in the hall, using ranked-choice voting to break the Republican and Democratic duopoly on power, and frequently offered versions of "our democracy is being threatened by a rigged system" in taking about campaign financing.

In their lukewarm rebuff of Schultz, the activists who traveled to Nashville to lament the current state of democracy and deliberate all manner of aspirational "fixes" came off as much more interested in the pragmatics of the coming campaign than in rewarding a potential national figure for trying to speak their language.

(Full disclosure: The conference was organized by RepresentUs, which seeks to end "the legalized corruption that has come to define modern politics," but among the major sponsors was Issue One, the political advocacy group incubating The Firewall.)

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