Downtown For Democracy (D4D) has a goal: regime change in America. It has a method: challenging progressives to move beyond stylish apathy into political involvement. And it has the means: via hip cultural events, it’s raising money to help progressive candidates in the 2004 election.
“Where’s My Democracy?” was the organizing question on March 25, when D4D put on its latest fusion of art, politics, and fundraising at Cooper Union. The Great Hall was standing-room only for much of the “read-a-thon for democracy,” filled with a mostly white crowd of well-heeled Upper West Side culture mavens, vaguely countercultural creative professional types, and downtown death rock shabby chicsters.
Fundraising was center stage; tickets to each reading were $50, or $75 for a dual “marathon admission.” Holders of the $500 “patron ticket” got choice seating in the hall, a private cocktail reception with the authors between readings, and a limited edition box set of signed broadsides of each story. $5 newsprint editions of the writings, along with clever T-shirts and acutely designed posters were on sale in the lobby, arrayed near tables holding voter registration cards, free copies of the Nation, and the obligatory wine service.
D4D formed as a Political Action Committee last summer, founded by a group of NYC creatives—young professionals from the worlds of film, art, fashion, publishing, and other media—and it had an impressive start in November 2003, when it raised over $130,000 at a contemporary art auction in which 80 percent of the buyers—and 95 percent of the ticket buyers—were first-time contributors to a national political campaign. And that’s just what D4D wants: to get young voters (and other liberals with money) to open their pockets, pull out a little more than they can afford, and put it down for Democrats. D4D has already contributed to five federal candidates, and intends to put most of the money raised at the read-a-thon towards grassroots efforts in battleground states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, that could be key in deciding the election.
“Where’s My Democracy” featured primarily new works read by acclaimed writers. Host Jonathan Safran Foer summed up D4D’s working philosophy as the evening’s first reading began: “I’ve always had strong opinions. But aside from voting I’ve done virtually nothing to affect the political process,” Foer said. “I raise my voice about situations that I wouldn’t raise my finger to prevent or correct. I read the New York Times as if being informed were enough, as if the news were made by other people.” But events of the past few years—the Patriot Act and war in Iraq, tax cuts for the rich, among others—compelled him to get involved. He began to give “more of my money, more of my time, and a lot more of my energy, to act upon what I believed in. Because belief does not win an election. Politics is a battle of ideas, yes, but also of wills.”
The audience gave over to surprise and applause as Foer invited “mystery guest” Salman Rushdie to the podium to start the evening’s readings. Rushdie’s riff on the 2000 Florida vote count was set in the cadences of a Dr. Seuss verse; think Grinch v. Veep. Brooklyn was well represented during the evening, by writers Jennifer Egan, Paul Auster, Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Cunningham led off the second set of readings with comments that distilled the evening’s serious intent as well as its self-aware aesthetic. “Thank your for your generosity. Thank you for your beauty. Thank you for your liberal fashion sense,” he said, generating laughter. “Here we are, all of us trying to save the world…I’ve never known of an election that mattered this much. And darlings, I have lived through Nixon, Reagan, and Bush number one! I bless you all for caring enough to come here tonight. Anyone who donates just a little more than feels quite comfortable—I will clean their apartment. I’m not good, but I’m enthusiastic.”
Jhumpa Lahiri was the evening’s final reader. Describing her work in progress, she said, “It’s called ‘Hell–Heaven.’ Hell hyphen Heaven. That’s the working title. I’m not sure that’s going to be the title of the story, but I like to think of it as a metaphor for the reason we’re all here tonight, because the story is about a very intolerable situation and then a more pleasurable situation. Maybe that will happen in November. We’ll see.”