How to Fix Our Democracy
The economics of democracy.
Economist Jeff Madrick, writing in 2003, asked some difficult questions as part of a lengthy analysis of the US economy: "Where does income and wealth inequality start to impinge on civil and political rights and on America's long commitment to equality of economic opportunity? Where does it both reflect a failure of democracy and contribute to its weakening?" When the head of ExxonMobil recently earned $368 million in a year--more per hour than his workers earn per year--it's not hard to see why Madrick concluded, "There is a good argument to be made that we are already there." The rich have become the super-rich, and middle-class families feel as if they're running up a down escalator. Even a snapshot of the data is convincing: In 1980 the wealthiest 5 percent of US households earned 16.5 percent of all income; in 1990 it was 18.5 percent; in 2000, 22.1 percent. Meanwhile, real median income for men has fallen for five straight years. The number of poor has increased from 31 million to 37 million since 2000, and the number without health insurance rose from 41 million to 47 million.
Not since the Gilded Age, when wealthy businessmen effectively appointed senators, has big business held such sway in Washington. Scores of laws and policies implemented by Bush 43--cutting job-training programs, eroding the minimum wage, slashing taxes on the rich and social programs for the poor--have hastened the tilt from labor to capital. George Bush has redistributed wealth far more than George McGovern was ever accused of--except up, not down.
Or as Louis Brandeis wrote: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
Emergencies are easy ways to justify extremism, as radicals from Father Coughlin to Joe McCarthy have taught us. But today America is witnessing an authoritarian impulse from those at the highest levels of government.
When questioned two years ago about his failed policy in Iraq, Bush famously said, "We had an accountability moment and that's called the 2004 elections," casually dismissing the checks and balances built into our government for the 1,460 days between presidential elections. Last fall, former Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that we suspend parts of the First Amendment during the "war on terrorism." In January White House press secretary Tony Snow said the President "has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way." And now Bush and Cheney are implying that they can attack Iran at will, without any prior Congressional authorization, in clear violation of the Constitution and statutory law. We are edging toward what James Madison warned of, in a line cited in the Hamdan decision: "The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
So just as the last half of the twentieth century saw a quadrupling of the number of democracies around the globe--just as, in the view of historian John Lewis Gaddis, "the world came closer than ever before to reaching a consensus...that only democracy confers legitimacy"--the world's oldest democracy is being systematically undermined by radical reactionaries. We are another Bush/Cheney White House, another DeLay Congress, another Scalia on the Court away from permanently losing our democracy. In six short years, George W. Bush has not only blown a large inherited federal surplus, he has also squandered an inheritance of centuries of democracy progress. That's not alarmist. It's merely descriptive of the quiet crisis our democracy now faces.
At a December colloquium on this subject in New York City, Bill Moyers (in a speech published in the January 22 Nation) observed that what America needs is not just a "must do" list from liberals but "a different story," one with the power to inspire us and challenge the prevailing conservative narrative of private = good, public = bad. That story is democracy. While theocrats and plutocrats pose as populists, it's essential that progressive patriots--for what can be more patriotic than democracy?--erect stronger levees to withstand the oceans of money, lobbyists and lawless officials threatening to drown America's constitutional traditions. For only then can our government represent the large majorities in favor of universal healthcare, stricter gun control, withdrawal from Iraq and more.
The Democracy Protection Act is offered up to officials, activists and citizens alike in the spirit of Walt Whitman, who wrote that "America is always becoming."