Scott Ritter, the former US Marine and United Nations arms inspector who is traveling the globe trying to stop a US attack on Iraq, said something recently that I can't stop thinking about:
“There has been a disturbing tendency among certain nations, Iraq included, to try and make a distinction between the people of the United States and the government of the United States. This is wrong. Ultimately, there is no difference, and indeed there can be no difference between the people of the United States and the government of the United States, because thanks to our constitution, we the people of the United States of America are the government. In America today, we take very seriously the concept of government of the people, by the people and for the people. This represents the very foundation of the democratic way of life we love and cherish.”
It struck me as I read this that I have done exactly what Ritter warns against. I have come to think of the US government as something apart from me. Sure, I vote. Religiously. And I read the newspaper and call my elected representatives. But I don't really think they'll listen to me. I have been so distraught at actions taken by the US government that I tend to disassociate—to do exactly the opposite of what Scott Ritter said, and think of the government as an entity apart from me.
This helps me sleep at night. I'm not preparing to bomb Iraq. I'm not developing weapons of mass destruction including a new generation of nuclear missiles. I'm not supporting brutal dictators or tossing aside international treaties.
Ritter's statement took away that salve to my conscience and made the unfinished project of democracy all the more urgent. The government is acting in my name, using my tax money, claiming to act in my best interest, and yet I and many other Americans want the government to do things that are very different.
A two-to-one majority of Americans believes that UN weapons inspectors should be given an opportunity to do their work before military action is taken. And 65 percent believe that the US should wait for support from our allies before attacking.
Americans want action taken on climate change, contrary to Bush administration policies. Ninety-seven percent believe the US should increase the use of new technologies that improve fuel efficiency and conserve energy. Sixty-seven percent of us think the federal government should guarantee health coverage for every American. Seventy percent think corporations have too much power, and 79 percent of us say it should be illegal to sell genetically modified fruits and vegetables without labeling.
Many of the things you and I are passionate about are also passions for large numbers of other Americans—in some cases, for substantial majorities. So what will it take to get a democracy that responds to the will of “we the people?”
This issue of YES! suggests some approaches to revitalizing our democracy. It suggests that we have the right to elect officials to represent people rather than dollars, constituents rather than big contributors. We have the right to claim the constitutional protections that the founders of the US created for people—not for corporations. And we have the right to be heard regardless of our gender, color, religion, national origin, race, or belief.
Democracy is an unfinished project. Our challenge today is to include those who have been excluded, to reclaim our precious democracy from the corrupting influence of big money, and to deepen our democratic processes. Instead of dumbing down complex and urgent questions with simple win-lose propositions, we need to find ways to make decisions that draw on our greatest wisdom to serve the common good. The people of Porto Alegre, Brazil, are a special inspiration; ordinary people—rich and poor—decide how city money will be spent and in the process have run corruption out of town and have addressed the human needs of even the poorest. (The ruling party in Porto Alegre is the Workers' Party, whose candidate was just elected president of Brazil.)
Instead of thinking of power as a means to dominate, power can be the generative capacity to make things happen; Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres explore this shift in “The Miner's Canary.”
Vandana Shiva tells us about the emergence in India of Earth democracy—the practice of people reclaiming the rights to care for and use the commons of water, land, and seed stock. From Finland, we learn how assuring everyone the right to basic economic security has eliminated poverty, strengthened democracy, and made the country among the most livable in the world. From Seattle, Pramila Jayapal tells about immigrant communities who called a hearing so that their stories of profiling and humiliation could finally be publicly aired.
The Bush administration's push for war especially highlights our nation's desperate need for more democracy. We have yet to have a national dialogue on the sort of relationship we want with the rest of the world. Do we want to be an empire? Could the US instead function as a member of a family of nations? We convened a virtual roundtable on this topic with the hope that it will be just one of many conversations about what “we the people” want for the future of our nation.
Although many of our rights have slipped away in recent months, this is still a democracy, the government is still us, and, as Ritter suggests, we'd better start acting like we're in charge.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder