A central question burdens the Democratic Party for the long term, beyond Gore's fate or the large policy issues. How does the party really feel about reviving small-d democracy? The party and many of its progressive constituencies are now quite adept at doing the money and marketing version of democracy--it works for them. They will endeavor to regain majority control and then--maybe--pursue some reforms like campaign financing. But the unruly young insurgents are unlikely to cooperate with that timetable, since they identify corporate power as the central source of what's undermining democracy. As the Greens or others keep attacking from the flanks, Democrats may find themselves shoulder to shoulder with loathed Republican colleagues, defending the system's legitimacy. If a genuine democracy movement does spring to life, would the regulars and institutions of the Democratic Party try to lead it or smash it?
Democracy, I'm suggesting, has deeper maladies than stupid slogans or the corrupting influence of big money. It will not be revived by an act of Congress or a presidential order, even if the power of private money is contained. We are stuck with profound popular disconnections in this mass-media age that can only be healed gradually, patiently, by devoting resources and attention to the atrophied connective tissues of society itself. That requires on-the-ground action--the hard work of talking and listening, re-earning loyalty and trust among ordinary people. It's natural for the parties and allied constituencies to devote their energies to battles of the moment, but we may be approaching a time when they have no choice but to change--or else face further deterioration in their own power and legitimacy. Labor this year demonstrated the electoral payoff of connecting face to face with confused and alienated voters. Instead of dumping so many millions on campaign ads, labor and other progressive groups should spend more money on face time with real people between elections.
In the meantime, a small-d agenda of reform laws could begin to ventilate our politics:
§ Instant-runoff voting will allow dissidents to participate but also spur the two major parties to campaign for second-choice votes, which are counted if neither major-party candidate wins a majority. That reform sets the stage for enriched representation.
§ Campaign finance reform will not accomplish much unless it includes at least a modified version of public financing for challengers and engenders political dialogue beyond the usual propaganda. Conservatives insist on solving our public problems with more competition--that's exactly what our democracy needs.
§ Media access and candidate debates open to all contenders ought to be high on the reform list, especially given the imperious disdain and flagrant errors of the big media this year. Why are these clowns allowed to define politics for us? This country now has hundreds of available channels, and, given the huge subsidies media moguls have received in the form of free public property (the airwaves), it is time to pursue Ralph Nader's proposal for audience channels--the right for political parties, churches, labor unions and civic groups of every stripe to get scheduled chunks of airtime to communicate with whoever wishes to watch and listen. Congress can start by blowing up the corporate-sponsored debates commission and mandating free radio and TV airtime for future candidates and campaigns.
As these ideas suggest, American politics will have to get a lot noisier--with many eccentric new voices chiming in--before it can hope to regain the confidence of the people or become more stable, less fractious. Most leaders in both major parties will no doubt see the risks in these proposals but not the opportunities for themselves or the country. If so, the insurgent temperament will have to bang away at the system until regular politicians grasp that a genuine democracy may actually be in their interest too.