Downgrading Democracy

Downgrading Democracy

When Congress, the president and the media run roughshod over popular will and citizen action, small-d democracy pays the price.


Most of the endless rehashing of the debt deal has correctly focused on the fact that corporate interests and Tea Party politics have prevailed again, at the expense of the middle class, children in poverty, students and the elderly. But too little attention has been paid to the blow this drawn-out debate has dealt to the foundational principles of our democracy.

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted after the deal shows that a whopping 77 percent of Americans believe that elected officials acted like “spoiled children.” The yawning gap between the mindset of decision-makers in Washington and the daily reality of most Americans is a grave threat to what organizers call “little-d democracy.” This is about neither the Democratic Party nor the procedural machinery by which our nominally democratic government operates. “Little-d democracy” is the basic idea that ordinary Americans, regardless of rank or stature, can have a voice in shaping their destiny.

When all is said and done, the process that created the debt deal may end up being as destructive as the deal’s effects. While the country watched helplessly, each new turn and every talking head in the saga demonstrated that ordinary people had no real part to play. Unless we employed an army of lobbyists or had a key to the Congressional washroom, it seemed, there was no reconciling the debate on the Hill with the needs and desires of those most affected by the final deal.

Some points to consider:

§ For months, poll after poll showed that rank-and-file Americans of all political persuasions believe that revenues (the nice way to say taxes) should be a part of any deal. Seventy-two percent of Americans polled between July 14 and July 17 said taxes should be raised on those making more than $250,000 per year, including 73 percent of independents and a stunning 54 percent of Republicans. Fifty-nine percent wanted taxes raised on oil and gas companies, including 60 percent of independents and 55 percent of Republicans. Yet Republican legislators refused to vote for any deal that included revenues, and the Democratic leadership capitulated, even though the GOP’s position was exactly the opposite of what large majorities wanted.

§ In the week leading up to the vote, more than 600 rallies were held around the country supporting the passage of a clean debt-ceiling bill and protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from cuts. alone made more than 125,000 calls to Congress to support a clean debt-ceiling raise. Coverage of all of these rallies was minimal at best. There was also one Tea Party rally, which, despite the impressive resources of its corporate backers, was sparsely attended. Yet the talk in Washington almost exclusively centered on what the Tea Party would accept.

§ Respected economists on both sides of the partisan divide agree that cutting spending during a recession is all but certain to make things worse. This consensus was hardly mentioned in the debate and not at all reflected in the outcome.

§ The press skewed coverage away from reporting the facts in favor of presenting both parties’ claims equally, regardless of facts. As a result, most major media reported that both sides were compromising when, in fact, the GOP—the party less representative of the views of most Americans—was winning far more concessions and compromising far less.

§ The president’s simple reminder to the American people that they can and should communicate with those they voted into office set off a firestorm of debate on cable news and other news outlets about whether this was an act designed to anger Republicans and whether it was appropriate for the president to make such an ask. Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC asked Democratic strategist Bill Burton if the president should really be taking his case to the American people and if the crisis would be better solved by leaders meeting behind closed doors.

§ Finally, the construction of a new “Super Congress,” also nicknamed the Gang of Twelve, is yet further separation between the deal-makers and the people whose lives hang in the balance. In 2008 a similar issue arose when it appeared that unelected “superdelegates” might decide the outcome of the Democratic primary. A nationwide frenzy about direct democracy resulted. Contrast that response with the lack of such an outcry over the Super Congress—evidence, perhaps, of a weary citizenry that has given up.

This combination of factors—overlooked citizen action, disregarded public opinion, unheeded expert warnings, uncritical press coverage that ignores the facts and denigrates citizen participation—creates conditions for a broad-scale disengagement from the processes that nominally allow citizens to participate in governance. In fact, when a Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll asked for single-word characterizations of the budget negotiations, “ridiculous” was at the top of the list, along with “disgusting” and “stupid.” Seventy-two percent responded with a negative word, and only 2 percent had positive feelings to offer. This is a far more disturbing trend than what we would have seen if the poll had reflected voter anger and frustration. Anger moves people. Disgust and contempt for government create apathy.

We are coming off a decade of unprecedented organizing opportunity. With the emergence of online engagement and social media, Americans were beginning to feel that they had a way to participate strategically in the conversations in Washington that shape their lives. This president was the first one elected using broad engagement strategies, and his election changed the national psyche by demonstrating to millions of Americans that their participation could pay off and democracy could work. The disappointment about the debt deal is especially acute against the backdrop of the record levels of participation, enthusiasm and hope generated during the 2008 election.

In between, we had the 2010 Citizens United decision, which rebuilt the gates around the Capitol that the online revolution had supposedly crashed. Corporate cash, already omnipresent in lobbying, dominated the airwaves; and thirty-second ads, played over and over again, drowned out the millions of organized voices crying out for change. That led to the 2010 election of radical candidates representing a tiny minority of Americans who were more concerned about the federal deficit than they were about joblessness and the overall economy.

The debt deal’s final resolution of what essentially amounted to a hostage crisis by that minority represents a complete unmooring of official decision-making from the will of the American people. The past few weeks could be the final straw that leads to a collapse of confidence not just in this government but in the American project of self-governance. At a time of so much great need in our country, sending the message that citizen involvement is futile is dangerous not just to the substance of one debate but to the core principles that allow us to call ourselves a democracy. Are we really prepared to risk that?

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