In the beginning it was a simple concept: majority rule. Whether it claims root in ancient Athens or some unknown tribal community, it has survived the millennia as the democratic ideal and remains today a powerful force in the governance of nations.
Modern democracy emerged in the eighteenth century as an alternative to monarchy, aristocracy, dictatorship and other forms of tyranny. The founding of the American nation, with all its flaws and inequities, was civilization’s first marriage of the nation state to the democratic ideal.
Right-wing cynics will point out that America is not and has never been a true democracy; it is rather a republic. They are of course literally correct yet fundamentally misguided. Democracy is an ideal that has never been attempted on the scale of nations and until the advent of advanced technology has never in fact been possible. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries no nation could afford to wait for a poll of the franchise before making a critical decision.
A modern democracy is therefore representative yet it embraces the ideal and works constantly toward achieving it. Throughout history it has been a constant struggle. The primary battleground of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the franchise, which expanded to include the landless, ethnic minorities and women.
For over two hundred years America has marched toward realization of the democratic ideal and every step of the way we have overcome the bitter and violent opposition of those who consider themselves the ruling class. Change has never been easy but Americans have always intuitively fought for their democratic rights as citizens of this nation.
Now all that is at risk. The new millennium was christened with a presidential election in which we would learn that our Supreme Court does not recognize an individual right to vote. The most massive disenfranchisement of black Americans since the Jim Crow era was therefore allowed to stand and a corporate media characterized what happened in Florida as the shenanigans of politicians rather than treason. Two political parties without any standing in our constitution were allowed to negotiate away the people’s right to choose their own president. Five members of the Court decided the election based on their own political biases and democracy was in retreat.
Eight years later, as Americans elected their first black president, the most blatantly pro-corporate Supreme Court in history put the last nail in the coffin of campaign finance reform, ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the government can place no restrictions on corporate financing of political campaigns. A Democratic controlled congress could not even muster the votes or the courage to require transparency.
Thus the CEO’s of corporations like British Petroleum or J.P. Morgan can contribute as much as they wish to whatever candidates they choose under deceptive titles like the People’s Committee to Elect Patriots. In the media immersed environment of today can anyone even imagine that the corporate elite will choose voluntary restraint? They will engage. They are engaging. And the candidates they choose will represent their interests above and beyond any concern for the people or their individual rights.
Our democracy is under siege and the only people who appear outraged are those who attach themselves to the Tea Party movement. The irony of course is that the Tea Party movement is the creation of right-wing front organizations dedicated to the corporate cause.
What is the corporate cause? De-regulation. Corporate tax reduction. Austerity. Privatization of public service. Anti-labor laws. Unrestricted free trade. Evisceration of environmental protection. Strict limits on corporate liability.
If it sounds familiar it should. Until now the corporate cause has been indistinguishable from the Republican Party platform. Meg Whitman is the corporate cause. Sarah Palin is the corporate cause. John Boehner is the corporate cause.
All that is about to change. Until now the Democratic Party has been the soft side of corporate politics but when the floodgates swing open and corporate funding comes rushing in, Democrats will scramble to grab their share. The Bush tax cuts will be renewed. Deregulation will come back on line. Free trade will once again be a bipartisan mandate.
The two parties will become one, separate but indistinguishable, under the banner of corporate good. Get used to it.
Welcome to corporate democracy, American style, where every candidate must sign a loyalty oath to the corporate mandate, where the dominant parties serve the same corporate gods, where the corporate aristocracy gains the power of government, the power to close whole industries and ship jobs overseas where labor is as cheap as dirt. Welcome to the world of corporate think where we learn to recognize the virtues of poverty and unemployment and what’s good for Wall Street is good for all.
What choice do we have? How can you fight back when the other side has all the resources? It’s the Bad News Bears against the Yankees but it’s not a movie. The Yanks will win and the other side will go home with their heads hanging, grateful that they’re still attached.
There may be a way out of this mess but it takes a leap of audacity. Not the kind of audacity that Obama promised in the last election, the kind that turned into the audacity of compromise and the stubborn refusal to deliver jobs at the cost of corporate profits.
No, the kind of audacity we need today is the kind that stands up for real democracy at all costs, the kind that refuses to go along with the corporate mandate, the kind that rejects both parties as surrogates of the same corporate interests and the kind that says quite simply:
Let the people decide.
It is a simple concept like democracy itself. I propose a political organization as a counterpoint to the Tea Party. Its candidates will hold to two sacred promises: First, they will accept no corporate contributions. Second, they will vote the people’s will.
It should be called the Direct Democracy movement for that is the ground upon which it stands. If elected the Direct Democracy office holder will register voters from his or her constituency, inform them in advance of important votes, present the case for or against, invite them to make their decisions on line and cast his or her vote with the majority.
Let the people decide.
Many will argue that the people are ill-equipped to make important decisions. They lack information, education and knowledge. If that is the case, it becomes imperative to make the people more informed, educated and knowledgeable. If we made it more important perhaps we would think twice before under-funding and privatizing education. If indeed we are still the wealthiest nation on the planet, it follows that our people should be the best educated. That we are not is an indictment of our values, not our educators.
While we’re pondering de Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” and the potential harm that true democracy could bring, add these questions to the equation:
If the people decided, would we still be in Iraq? Would we still be hanging on to a failed occupation with 50,000 troops and an unofficial army of contractors hunkering down in a series of impenetrable fortresses designed to last the long haul?
If the people decided, would we have escalated the war in Afghanistan eight years in with no end in sight and no glimpse of anything resembling success on the horizon? Yes, the president says we are on our way out but after Iraq we don’t know what that means. How long, how much and how many more must die before we admit that this too was a mistaken war?
If the people decided, would we have handed the financial industry a trillion dollars with virtually no strings attached? Would we have insisted that an accounting be made, that CEO’s not be awarded outrageous bonus checks, that loans be made to small businesses and that some significant share of that fortune be delivered to creating jobs and saving homes?
If the people decided, would we be moving forward on mass transit and alternative energy rather than wallowing in the muck of legislative paralysis as we are today?
We can argue these points and we should but I believe the time has come to place our faith in the people and let the chips fall.
We have a choice. We can either seize control of our own government or yield it to those who do not have our interests at heart.
As I write these words a Los Angeles Times report indicates that corporate funds are rolling into Republican coffers at a record pace. Over $300 million has been targeted to the coming election by fifteen right-wing tax-exempt organizations, undoubtedly fronts for corporate spenders. That kind of money does not grow on trees and does not come without expectations yet it is a pittance in the corporate political war chest.
If we do nothing we will lose our democracy. Winning it back will require radical thinking and dedicated action. What could be more radical or more worthy than democracy itself?