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Democracy: the (Re)Claiming of Democracy

In danger of losing their vote and voice, Americans are demanding a return to the founding principles

At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln said America was dedicated to assuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would not perish. It's hard to find a time, other than Lincoln's, when reality has so challenged those grand words.

Americans are trained, and deeply believe, that they live in a country where government operates by their consent. They are protective of their form of government, and willing to put up with considerable suffering before demanding change. Given enough abuse, however—given sufficient evidence that the power of government is being hijacked for ends contrary to the common interest, Americans have in the past demanded fundamental change.

These ideas—consent of the governed and the right to demand change—are not some new radicalism: they are the foundational radicalism of the Declaration of Independence. And the willingness of Americans to protect their rights is not a matter of history: it's happening right now.

The last 10 years have produced a resurgence of political involvement as people realize that American democracy is in danger. It's taken a beating, especially in the last five years:

  • The 2000 election illustrated the anti-democratic effect of the Electoral College as, for only the third time, the loser of the popular vote became president. The election featured widespread vote suppression and disenfranchisement, particularly of people of color. The outcome was decided by an unprecedented ruling from the Supreme Court, which stopped vote counting in Florida, and took the decision from the voters.
  • The country is so strongly under one-party rule that George Bush has not vetoed a bill, although he threatened to veto a defense budget which prohibited torture. He's on track to be the first veto-free president since the six-month term of James Garfield in 1881. Because of the anti-democratic structure of the Senate, the 44 Democratic senators represent a majority of the population, yet have virtually no power. The Senate became Republican-majority in the 2002 elections that marked the first major deployment of touch-screen voting machines and featured widely questioned results.
  • The country is mired in a war started under false pretenses, in the face of protest by millions, and against majority public opinion. A majority of Americans favors ending the war; the administration and its supporters in Congress insist they will stay the course.
  • The 2004 presidential election is still, for many, marked with an asterisk. As with 2000, credible reports of voter disenfranchisement and vote suppression were widespread. The election again turned on a single state where litigation continues over allegations of vote fraud and official misconduct.
  • Disapproval of the president runs 60 to 65 percent; Congress fares worse at 75 percent. The most recent AP/Ipsos poll shows 64 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, a majority opinion since January 2004.
  • The debacle surrounding Hurricane Katrina made undeniable the growing race and class division in the country, and illustrated the federal government's skewed priorities as money and manpower that could have made a difference in that disaster continue to be expended in Iraq.

It's not a pretty picture, neither is it an exhaustive list. This is, nonetheless, a story of hope. Growing numbers of Americans see the peril and, in large part through the Internet and the independent press, are identifying problems, disseminating information ignored by the mainstream media, and taking action. Grassroots activists in four critical areas—protecting the vote, cleaning up campaign financing, using local power to address global issues, and Internet organizing and media—are producing results that are placing the country back on the path to true democracy.

Taking Back the Vote

The vote is central to the modern American conception of democracy. For most Americans, it is their sole participation in politics. Securing the right of women and minorities to vote were two of the great struggles, and great progressive victories, of the 20th century.

Strange, then, that this treasured emblem of democracy has, with startling speed, been privatized. Even stranger that it has been privatized in ways that leave elected, accountable officials largely out of the process of collecting and counting the votes. Strangest of all, this privatized system is designed to leave no paper trail and no way of verifying vote tallies. By 2004, about 80 percent of Americans' votes were tallied by just two corporations, ES&S and Diebold.

The speed of this transformation has been equaled by the speed of the resistance to it. Ten years ago, no one had heard of Diebold, ATM-style direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines didn't exist, and no one thought about the issue of voter-verifiable ballots. But the election of 2000 galvanized the independent press and the online community, and by the 2002 election, when DRE machines were rolled out in large numbers, there were thousands of people monitoring the election online.

Now, a mere three years later, 25 states have laws requiring all voting equipment to produce an auditable paper ballot. Similar legislation is pending in another 14 states.

Without reliable vote counting, democracy is a sham. Faced with losing that cornerstone of democracy, Americans did not wait to be led. They demanded, and got, action.

Taking Back the Money

Running for office is expensive. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that candidates for federal office spent nearly $2 billion on their campaigns in 2004. According to Micah Sifry and Nancy Watzman of Public Campaign, lobbyists pump $2 million a day into the DC money machine. There are 125 lobbyists per legislator in Washington, DC; even in state legislatures the average is five to one.

As people saw lobbyists and big money taking over government, they came up with a solution. In November 1996, citizens passed an initiative making Maine the first state with a clean elections law, under which candidates get public campaign funds if they agree to spending limits and take only small private contributions to start their campaigns. Five other states have passed clean elections initiatives for some or all offices. On December 1, 2005, Connecticut became the first state to have a clean elections law passed by its legislature, rather than by initiative.

Sifry says these laws result in legislation more responsive to people. Since Maine and Arizona went clean, both have made substantial strides in healthcare reform. Politicians elected “clean” say they are freed from the burden of eternal fund-raising and kowtowing to lobbyists, leaving them more time to deal with the business of legislating.

The idea is catching on. Public Campaign now counts only eight states without an active campaign for clean elections.

Taking Initiative Locally

As the federal government shows little interest in the opinions, let alone the consent, of the governed, people are successfully addressing national and global issues at the state and local level.

The Bush administration continues to oppose the Kyoto Accord; the U.S. delegation staged a walkout at the recent Montreal meetings, then participated in a compromise. But Americans care about global climate change, and have made their voices heard at the local level. In June 2005, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which calls for cities to meet the goals of the Kyoto Accord, and to urge the U.S. Congress to act to reduce greenhouse gases. One hundred seventy-three mayors from 37 states have signed the U.S. Mayors Agreement.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act. That law has been roundly criticized as a threat to the Bill of Rights and has generated activism at the local level. According to the ACLU, nearly 400 cities in 43 states have passed resolutions declaring opposition to the rights-chilling effects of the USA PATRIOT Act. Seven states have passed statewide resolutions. Portions of the law came up for renewal, and passed easily in the House. Senator Russ Feingold led opposition to renewal in the Senate, citing widespread citizen concerns. The Senate was on the verge of renewing the law; the day before the vote, The New York Times broke the story of National Security Administration domestic spying. Public outrage was swift and vocal; with full renewal likely to fail, the Senate extended the law for one month.

Taking the Internet

So far, it has not been necessary to take back the Internet. It early became more a tool of the people than of the powerful. It has been a key in organizing at all levels, from the anti-Iraq-war protests to monitoring elections to political organizing and fund-raising.

Howard Dean's surprising run for the Democratic presidential nomination took off only after his staff tapped the power of the Internet. MoveOn.org is a force in fund-raising and mobilizing large numbers of people. Of equal importance to the resurgence of American democracy is the access the Internet provides to news from all over the world. It allows anyone to be a reporter or commentator, without seeking the blessing of the established media. It is creating communities, via forums and blogs, where people can discuss issues and news stories with those of like or opposed mind.

The Internet is, without doubt, a source of reams of misinformation. But the mainstream media have also had notable failures recently: The New York Times and The Washington Post both issued public apologies for lack of rigor in their pre-Iraq-war reporting. As with those stalwarts, and other media, the Internet is also the source of an amazing amount of fact, much of which is hard to get elsewhere. The difference is transparency and access: the mainstream media can filter or ignore criticism; the Internet brings collective wisdom to bear on any assertion—it's as close as we've come to the realization of the “marketplace of ideas” that is the touchstone of free speech theory.

The events of the past decade are not the result of a new culture of corruption. The Bush administration is bolder than most in its anti-democratic initiatives, but there has always been tension in America between democracy and oligarchy, and between freedom and security. A growing segment of the electorate is bolder, too. The community-building, networking, organizing, and rapid communication made possible by the Internet and independent media are producing immediate responses and fast results. The visible successes show that the people can make their voices heard.

The Bush administration invokes the security of the American people to justify its actions; most recently, the President has promised to continue apparently illegal wiretaps on that basis. A rallying cry of the opposition is this quote from Benjamin Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The question is whether we now have the will to demand government by our consent and for our freedom. The Declaration of Independence says it is our right to. The evidence says we can make that demand—and make it stick—peacefully, and through the very democratic processes people are now working to protect.


Doug Pibel wrote this article for 10 Most Hopeful Trends, the Spring 2006 issue of YES! Magazine. Doug is associate editor for YES! Magazine.

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