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Democracy in Crisis


Among the tens of thousands of Americans protesting in the nation’s capital against George W. Bush’s war-quagmire in Iraq this weekend, more than a few will probably wonder why there are not more folks with them or, at least, more marching in other villages, towns and city squares around the country. After all, nearly 70% of the American people believe the war was a bad mistake and want out.

Amidst all the proper discussion of restrictions and underminings of democracy in our society, one subject stands out almost as an unmentionable–namely, unused democratic capacity.

Needless to say, my prior columns have pointed out the curtailments, suppressions and weakenings of democratic institutions and initiatives by government, corporations, elected officials and other institutions and forces behaving autocratically. Today, let’s take note of some places and opportunities where we have plenty of elbow room, and space, to use our existing democratic capacity.

1. Half of democracy is showing up. There are lots of empty seats at city council and boards of education meetings. Rallies rarely fill the streets to the extent allowed by demonstration permits.

2. In New England, many municipalities have abolished the town meeting form of government because too few of the burghers bother to show up. Imagine–direct democracy. The people were the legislature in these smaller towns. You can’t get anything better than that.

3. There are legitimate complaints about the mass commercial media not telling us enough about many subjects early enough–such as years ago tobacco health risks, auto defects and the like. Too many advertising dollars were and are at stake. But they’re giving us far more information than we use–to wit, corporate crime, fraud and abuse and ripping off the taxpayers. Recall: “It’s Your Money,” on ABC and the exposes on Sixty Minutes .

4. Between ten and fifty percent of eligible voters actually vote, depending on the election, from a primary to a presidential. That leaves a lot of unused voter capacity. Another kind of capacity is doing one’s homework, as a voter, so as to not go to the polls again and again to vote for incumbents who again and again vote against one’s legitimate interests, however charming and distracting their empty slogans may be.

5. Citizen groups who get justice done at the local, state and national levels offer more unused capacity. They would like very much for people, who share their grievances and applaud their remedies for change, to join them either as dues paying supporters and/or active collaborators. There are no filled quotas or standing room only signs for active supporters.

6. How about all the times when agitated people say: “This isn’t right, I’m going to call City Hall, contact my member of Congress, or collect signatures on a neighborhood petition?” But these civic energies are soon shelved. Self-declared but unused capacity.

Of course, it is always easy to rationalize inactivity by saying: “Oh, it wouldn’t have made any difference. They’re going to do what they want anyhow.” Sorry. That one wore out before 1776. Fortunately, enough of our forebears rejected that surrender mode and left us with much of what we like about our society.

There is an additional long tail to the unused capacity by citizens to make a difference that does not go unnoticed by the politicos and the corporatists. Even when aroused citizens change the powerbrokers’ directions, the powerbrokers resume course because they have learned that aroused citizens return to their unaroused state and cease their vigilance.

The residents of Washington, D.C. are experiencing this with the new Mayor, 36 year old Adrian Fenty. As a distinct underdog, Mr. Fenty knocked on literally half the households of Washington, D.C. He took very little corporate money in a populist campaign opposed by local corporate interests and big developers who supported the early favorite, Linda Cropp. Mr. Fenty won overwhelmingly and owed nothing to these commercial interests.

No sooner was he elected than he began to reverse himself. He went along with a $600 million taxpayer funded baseball stadium that he vigorously opposed as a city council member. He is thick with corporate consultants eyeing a city takeover of the dismal local school system.

Sam Smith, the legendary local commentator and publisher of the Progressive Review, describes Fenty as actually believing in the Federal City Council–the core powers of the corporate world that have helped maintain Washington, D.C. as a model “tale of two cities”–one community rich, the larger other, poor and abandoned.

Mr. Smith described a fellow activist as “lamenting how Adrain Fenty has gone corporate after campaigning as a populist.” And he’s only been mayor-elect and mayor for a few weeks.

But Mr. Fenty knew that those doors of those homes and apartments he knocked on were opened by people he knew would not knock on his door at City Hall. The corporate lobbyists will be the ones knocking.



Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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