According to public choice theory, citizens exercise leverage over their government by using the vote as a major tool. This theory discounts the weight of corporate media power in influencing citizen consciousness, Votergate scandals which amount to stolen elections, or elected leaders who fail to respond to voter choices. But the vote can still be powerful, particularly when parties feel the need to be accountable to public choices. The power of the vote has been diluted by: (a) the present duopoly of power (Republicrats), (b) the kind of Orwellian patriotism that "protects" troops by sending them on impossible missions; and (c) the fossilized violence of Bush electoral victories based on theft (2000) and fear (2004).
The Democrats’ failure to stop Bush represents an important civics lesson. Voting is reduced to a diffused signaling system (rather than a means of power) when political parties are owned or limited by corporate and Pentagon power. Thus, those suggesting that the cave in to Bush is a scandal are in denial. The scandal has been in the making for decades. It dates from the postwar permanent war economy which the most responsible historians know began during World War II. At that point, various constituencies weaned on war money (from defense contractors, to industrial unions and university scientists) decided that defense addiction was a worthwhile bargain.
If we are to reclaim our government, we must return to the very idea of what a state is. As Thomas Paine remarked in Rights of Man, "government is nothing more than a national association acting on the principles of society." In other words, the American Revolution created an accountability system linked to yeoman farmers, among others, in which the machinery of the government, linked to the association of people, created accountability. This accountability was renewed during key points in U.S. history, like during the Populist Movement, the 1930s, and the New Left.
The Three Filters: Foundations, Established Media and Status Quo Democrats
Why can’t contemporary movements similarly promote accountability? One could point to the growing power of mega-transnational corporations and politicians who increasingly resemble commodities. Yet, the independent character of social movements and social change organizations is itself increasingly compromised.
The ability of citizens’ to accumulate economic, media and political capital is blocked by various filtering systems. Today’s social movements, often serialized and atomized by professionalism and deal making with established foundations, corporate media and entrenched political parties, dilute their ability to support popular will. Power is diluted by exchanges and deals because the contemporary social movement (very much like the Democratic Party itself) can not generate its own capital or power accumulation system.
Economic capital often comes from a check written for a 501C3 organization by an established foundation or wealthy patron with limited political horizons. Media capital is similarly accessed by fitting into the established frames, with the dominant paradigm being intellectual Taylorism, i.e. the political dots of environmental decay, militarism and the sabotage of democracy remain unconnected. Political capital also comes by making deals with established Congressional leaders, particularly status quo Democrats, who take complicated realities and atomize them into committee perogratives and assignments. As a result, the multifaceted military society is treated as a "defense issue," not an opportunity cost against equitable economic development, environmental renewal, the expansion of social services and even a sensible civilian-based industrial policy. As Marcus Raskin noted in Being and Doing, the average citizen is subjected to various forms of "colonization."
What is to Be Done?: From Political Amnesia to Democratic Fundamentals
The Internet promises a direct way to sidestep political leaders and potentially allows citizens to accumulate economic, media and political capital directly. Problem is the Internet is not an ideology or even a political philosophy. This form is not necessarily married to any specific radical or even democratic content. Instead, it can be used by Right, Left and Center. It is in fact now being used to support presidential campaigns that often seem more diversionary than enlightening. In any case, the very knowledge of the design of democratic forms is increasingly becoming obsolete, much like the depleted skills of various machinists, craft workers and artisans we sometimes read about in the business pages.
Those outraged by Congressional powerlessness have several options. First, the intellectuals might go back to democratic fundamentals. We could return to some fundamentalist thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, Paul Goodman, Henry Wallace, C. Wright Mills, Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, W. E. Du Bois, Malcolm X or any number of thinkers who gave us some basic ideas about accountability structures and how to design and promote them. Unfortunately, these thinkers’ ideas have become passé in the face of "identity politics," post-modernism, and a revisionist version of anarchism. Malcolm’s ideas about the mosque as mobilization center, Du Bois endorsement of cooperatives, Goodman’s ideas about radical media, Arendt’s notions about local democratic action are lost to a social amnesia process. Instead of figuring out how to transcend the burdens of racism, sexism and exploitation, the power structures corresponding to these are simply deconstructed. The alternatives require reconstruction, but that is not on many intellectuals’ agenda.
Second, political organizers who are not in despair might try to figure out how to form a bridge between the ideas of such forgotten intellectuals and the average citizen. Perhaps if local organizers developed sufficient computer skills in sufficient numbers, they could sidestep the colonization process created by "the three filters" and political amnesia. They could build their own means of raising money, organizing citizens, and helping to educate them about their choices.
Third, visionary politicians of all political parties, foundations, journalists, intellectuals and activists-among others-ought to create "study circles," teach ins, town meetings and other kinds of democratic interventions. We need to begin a local process of renewing democracy from below. These strategies are a far cry from simply voting and attending mass street demonstrations-both representing another form of "the spectacle" that render citizens passive entities expected to follow the tracks of entrenched leaders and bankrupt policies.
Finally, unaffiliated and under-organized citizens may be confused as to who or what to turn to. They are caught between various professionalized and co-opted cultures in established groups which often offer very little sense of hope. In contrast, the Democratic Party’s failures represent is part of an ongoing legitimacy crisis confronting the U.S. state. Democratic political entrepreneurs should exploit this crisis and rebuild U.S. democracy before it’s too late.
JONATHAN M. FELDMAN is a lecturer at Stockholm University and part of the network, www.economicreconstruction.com. He is author of a forthcoming article in Social Text, "From Warfare State to ‘Shadow State’: Militarism, Economic Depletion and Reconstruction."