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Forging a New Democracy in the Heartland

Green Hoosiers

by STEVEN HIGGS

Bill Stant has a vision for a new American democracy. In it, power flows from the people, not the almighty dollar. And the people are responsible, active, and engaged.

"I know it’s quaint," he told a meeting of the Monroe County Green Party last week. "I know it’s old fashioned. But democracy, and the health of democracy, depend on virtuous citizens."

Stant, a Brown County financial planner, does more these days than just talk about new democracy and power to the people. As a candidate for Secretary of State on the Green Party ticket, he works to implement his vision on a daily basis. But, he said, he needs a community of virtuous citizens behind him to make it happen.

Indiana has the fifth most restrictive ballot access laws for third parties in the nation, Stant told the handful of Greens who gathered at the Monroe County Public Library to hear his second run through his "stump speech." He must get roughly 30,000 petition signatures by next June, five months before the race, just to get his name on the ballot.

"I mean, that’s preposterous," he said. But desperate times require bold action. And the "savage inequalities" in 21st Century American economics and rampant corruption in the political system demand it.

"In a business-dominated society, money is power," he said. "Money therefore fuels the political machine." Average voters know this, and it has created a "crisis of legitimacy" in the political system at large and widespread cynicism, alienation, and apathy among voters.

"If you go along with it," Stant told the Greens, "if you accept it, if you walk away from it in disgust, let’s face it, you get the government you deserve."

***

Stant said three components comprise his vision for a new democracy: economic democracy, truly accountable political parties, and democratic sustainability.

Economic democracy, Stant said, means citizens should "participate in all decisions that profoundly affect their lives, not just those few decisions that are left to the political process."

That means taking seats at the table with private institutions primarily corporations that "aren’t going anywhere anytime soon" when they make decisions about job or pay cuts or environmental impacts on their communities.

Democrats and Republicans, he argued, have become so beholden to the economic elites that they are not accountable to the people at all.

"They don’t really need the voters except on election day," he said. "They don’t really need activists. What they need are public relations experts, pollsters, statistical analysts, focus groups. And they buy those with money. That’s how money replaced the voters. That’s how money replaced the rank and file members of the parties."

Stant’s vision requires political parties that are strong at the grass roots, with members who work, volunteer, and engage in the real work of democratic citizenship, and who hold parties accountable for their actions.

The primary way through which to achieve a sustainable democracy is to "democratize our public education institutions," he said. As children progress through junior high and high school, they should be participating directly, in a democratic fashion, in the governance of their institutions.

"They should be helping to decide the curriculum," he said, "helping to decide the textbooks. They should be helping to decide the lunch hour, the recess, so that when they graduate with a high school degree, they are expected to be active citizens in a democracy. I think, if we can democratize education in that way, then we will produce virtuous citizens."

***

Underpinning Stant’s democratic vision is the restoration of political and economic equality in the United States.

He said a return to the bedrock American democratic principle of one-person-one-vote is critical, and that should start with the office he is seeking. As the state’s top election official, the Secretary of State should be nonpartisan and immune from pressure from political parties, especially from economic pressures.

"Right now in the state of Indiana and in the state of Ohio and in the state of Florida and most of the other states," he said, "your vote counts for less if the top election official of the state is a partisan representative of one of the parties. Clearly your vote in Columbus, Ohio, accounted for much less if you voted Democrat than if you voted Republican."

Genuine political equality, he said, "would involve real control of public institutions from the grass roots, so that those institutions, starting with the political parties, could be used to guarantee the fundamental material conditions without which equality of opportunity, which is so fundamental to our whole political consensus, is just hot air."

Without material equality among those who are competing in the labor market or starting up businesses, he said, there is no equality of opportunity.

"We have to have certain minimum equality of conditions in order for equality of opportunity to be meaningful at all," he said. "And I believe that if we can make our parties accountable, we can make equality of opportunity real. And if we can make equality of opportunity real, we can re-establish control over the political policies, at the grass roots."

***

Political equality also demands fundamental changes in the way in which elections are carried out in Indiana, Stant added.

"There would be more parties on the ballot in the future of democracy if my vision were realized, if the green Party’s vision of a healthy grass roots democracy were realized," he said. "We would have instant runoff voting that allows you to vote on your principles, instead of making some cynical decision about the lesser evil."

Ballot access for third parties should be encouraged rather than discouraged, as is presently the case. Instant runoffs means voters vote for more than one candidate and rank their choices so that every vote does indeed count.

"Instant runoff voting would mean, You know what, I really want to see Ralph Nader become president because he’s the one who speaks to me. But I’m terrified that George Bush might become president if I vote for Ralph Nader. So will am going to rank Ralph Nader first. In the event he doesn’t get enough votes, then my second-ranked vote is John Kerry, and my third-ranked vote is George Bush.’"

Political equality also demands proportional representation so that one-person, one-vote actually means something.

"If a third party gets 15 percent of the vote in the southern third of Indiana, they get 15 percent of the seats representing the southern third of Indiana. Simple, straightforward."

Political equality, Stant said, would mean intransigent problems like poverty and environmental pollution, for example, would be much more likely to be addressed.

"How many new ideas would be sitting around the policy-making table if we could achieve that," he said. "I think some of the problems we’ve been struggling with for decades and decades, going back to the turn of the century, the last turn of the century, could be solved."

***

Stant is under no illusions that realization of his vision is within reach, at least not in the near future. To date, his supporters have only collected 4,000 signatures. And illustrative of Indiana’s restrictive ballot-access laws, Greens cannot collect signatures next summer and fall, when average citizens are actually focused on politics.

But he believes that the time is overdue for new ideas in politics. And popular political movements have spawned fundamental change in the past.

"It’s always been objectively possible for the people to mobilize and retake their public institutions, especially those of the elections," he said. "But we’re not doing it."

And some of the changes he is calling for would require constitutional changes, a subject that he said is taboo in American politics. Still, state and national constitutions were created in different times, times that are far different from the 21st Century.

"It’s not impossible to implement this kind of change," he said. "If we can’t reclaim the Constitution, and make it live for us, then, well, I don’t think we’re in touch with real democracy."

And, he reminded those at the meeting, those who seek to re-democratize Indiana and America face daunting odds.

"So, how do we achieve our vision, how do we overcome the odds that are against us?" he asked. "Well, there’s only been one counterweight historically to money, and it sounds like a cliché and sloganistic, but there’s only one possible source of the power with which we will challenge the power of money and retake, reclaim our electoral process, and that’s the power of the people."

STEVEN HIGGS is editor of the Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.