The decline of American democracy is shown by compelling information and analysis. Better yet, a detailed strategy fo restoring American democracy is presented. The first part will depress you; the second part will motivate you to become a more engaged citizen.
Preface: Waking Up and Shaking Up the Status Quo
CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight did a poll in November 2005 and found that 89 percent of people would welcome joining a viable third party. The following day MSNBC found that 71 percent felt it was time for a major third party. This was good news because like so many other Americans I have concluded that the two-party duopoly is hopelessly dysfunctional and counterproductive to the kind of democracy we deserve. The two-party status quo must be crushed. One condition should help. The pillars of American democracy are cracking.
If you pay attention to language you will notice that “status quo” is one of the most commonly used phrases in all spheres and modes of communication. It is used in statements about changing or preserving current conditions. This book is about changing what is bad, about fighting status quos that do more harm than good because they undercut American democracy. It presents a dissenting view about the United States. Namely that American democracy no longer works for the good of its citizens. It no longer is the best in the world, or the envy of citizens of other democracies. American democracy is dying right before Americans’ distracted and delusional eyes. And it has been dying for decades through the acts of Democrats and Republicans.
This is the question that Americans should ask themselves: How can I turn my discontent into a force for good to rescue and revitalize my democracy?
Many Americans are frustrated because their desire to give meaning to their lives by “making a difference” has been thwarted. So much talk about change is tossed around, but stubborn opposition to significant change flourishes. My own career journey embodies these hopes and frustrations. When I joined the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1978 a top boss told me that I could choose a job that gave me money, power, or influence, but this job only offered a shot at influence. At the time I applied for the job, I had the security of being a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I had described my successful career as “publishing and perishing.” I embraced the opportunity to improve my country and traded security for challenge.
I chose this path because the 1960s had had a profound influence on me, though I was older than my revolutionary-minded college students. Counter-culture books and thinking filled me with a desire to change the status quo values of American society. By the late 1970s I concluded that the counter culture revolution had failed; there was no fundamental or systemic change in society. Revolutionary changes in politics, government, public policies and the consumer culture were still needed. Rampant consumerism had only gotten worse. Corrupt elected officials had become the norm, not the exception.
For some years my work for Congress was satisfying. Then it became clear that impartial government analysts offering sound information, ideas and public policy options could not compete with well-funded “special interests” for access to members of Congress, their staffs, and the news media. Even when good ideas surfaced, received public attention and were incorporated in laws, federal agencies undermined them. Bureaucrats were corrupt or incompetent, or both. I helped get a federal pollution prevention law passed, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency never earnestly implemented it. The public obtained few positive changes and benefits. Fraud, waste and abuse were far worse than the public realized. Changing the status quo was a lot harder than I had ever anticipated.
The U.S. offers incredible personal freedoms, yet has become resistant to true societal improvement. How can this be? My answer is a society obsessively focused on materialistic consumption, driven in large measure by incessant mass marketing and advertising, technological change, and corporate power. By intention, citizens are kept distracted and largely disengaged from their government, and too busy to be agents of change or to support them. The public has become numbed by a political-corporate system that uses Americans as worker bees and consumers, and that serves special interests rather than public interests. American society needs change – not tweaking, but genuine change. Money protects the two-party status quo.
When baby boomers and older Americans reflect on how greatly the world has changed in their lifetimes, it is easy to miss the point that most of the change is related to consumption, not improving quality of life and achieving a more civil and honorable society. There is far more pseudo-change for consumers than meaningful change for citizens. As explained in my previous book Sprawl Kills – How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money, America’s progress has taken us backward by trading quality of life for materialistic consumption. Worse yet, few people challenge this.
Yes, many people in other nations either want to live in the United States or copy our lifestyle. But are immigrants mostly seeking voracious consumption? Perhaps, in time, they will learn that compulsive consumption gets in the way of political freedom.
I take the status quo busting theme to its ultimate application by presenting the case for millions of Americans joining together, particularly disgusted and angry left-wing progressives and right-wing conservatives, non-voters, and lesser-evil voters. United Americans can bust the two-party duopoly with a new third-party that rises above social issues, and finds common ground on principles – principles to guide the rebuilding of our representative democracy and wiping out the corporate corruption and abuse of government, the workplace, and the marketplace. Rather than wait for a politician to be a “uniter,” Americans must unite themselves.
Many excellent previous books have discussed ugly truths about failing American democracy with the intent of motivating fixes in it. They have failed. William Greider’s Who Will Tell the People – The Betrayal of American Democracy, first published in 1992 stands out as an excellent example of the case for change. Yet this and others have not awakened large numbers of Americans. Things have only gotten worse, despite endless government and corporate scandals. Americans seem to expect less and less from their government and even less from corporate America, and they get it. Americans have not yet taken back their government. As a big fan of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and America (The Book), as well as Bill Maher’s shows, like so many others, I have found solace in cynical comedic revelations about the faults of our government and society. Like fiddling while Rome burns, many Americans are laughing all the way to a fake democracy. This comic relief is like self-medication. But the good news is that the popularity of such shows, and witty books by people like Al Franken, reveal a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. Many people want a better political system. Their dissatisfaction can be seized on to invigorate American democracy.
A note about style: I provide many quotations from a truly diverse set of past and present people to show the breadth and depth of accurate views of American society’s vulnerabilities and decline. We dissenters have lots of company. My contribution is in pulling many facts and ideas together, and weaving them into fresh themes that support a compelling call for change through a politically smart strategy. Unlike other books, American democracy is examined from political, legal, psychological, economic, historic, and cultural perspectives.
There are two parts to this volume. First, is the case for change, then what needs to be done to fix our republic. Chapter 1 probes the meaning of democracy and outlines our democracy deficit. Democracy decline is the theme of Chapter 2 along with discussions of our current shortcomings in all three branches of government. Chapter 3 offers a unique psychological analysis of why people have difficulty facing the truth about American democracy and how lies are crafted to deceive people. The enormous problem for democracy of a culture of lying is the theme of Chapter 4. Democracy cannot be examined without attention to the failure of America’s mainstream media to protect it, the subject of Chapter 5. Ending Part 1 is an account in Chapter 6 of the bizarre story of an undisputed bulge on President Bush’s back seen in several 2004 televised debates that the mainstream media refused to cover seriously. Part 2 begins with a detailed presentation in Chapter 7 of eight election reforms, the nitty-gritty of strengthening American democracy. Next, Chapter 8 pays special attention to the current options for direct democracy – ballot measures and constitutional conventions. Following, in Chapter 9, is a broad view of today’s problems, challenges, and solutions from the historical perspective of American democracy’s roots. The final chapter presents details on how a national movement to fix our democracy can take form through actions centered on revitalizing our democracy, promoting citizen participation, and stopping corporate aristocracy and corruption, and through a new third party.
Can this book succeed where others have failed? That depends on you. Americans must vent their private discontent through public outrage. Relax your defenses. Open your mind. Feel the pain. Help make a revolution.
Along with our budget and trade deficits, we have a democracy deficit, resulting from decades of civic distraction and irresponsibility. The longer we wait, the more difficult repairing American democracy becomes. A wonderful American tradition is national renewal and reinvention and we need it now more than ever.
Most critically, Americans need to distinguish personal freedoms from trustworthy democracy. Freedoms obscure negative conditions. They allow Americans to feel that they live in the greatest country, despite not living in the greatest democracy. Threats to constitutionally protected freedoms must always be of concern, but even with freedoms intact democracy is still a larger issue. Besides, there is more to freedom than what our Constitution addresses. Americans have the freedom to drive anytime and anywhere, but few have the freedom to walk or use quality public transit instead of driving. Americans have the freedom to consume from the world’s greatest array of products and services. But we lack the freedom to choose among diverse and equally visible political candidates and parties. With free speech, there is the foul freedom to lie and misinform, and too little freedom for individuals and the press to be brutally honest about things political without being branded un-American. We are free to vote for the illusory political system, that no longer means much, but not for the more controlling restricted one that the power elites own.