Democracy Withers in America

Democratic self-government needs some help in the United States. We have grown soft in our assumption that change comes from the orderly, yearly visit to the ballot box. Nothing more is needed from us.

Is that true? Not when you consider the evidence. Our willingness to cede our own authority to our elected officials, to vote them into office and then ignore what they do, has left us with a fragile connection to power. Money governs the electoral process — picks the candidates and runs the campaigns — and the winners at the ballot box know exactly to whom they owe their jobs.

A huge majority of Americans tell pollsters they want politicians to leave Social Security alone, for instance, but because the financial services sector wants a piece of the federal retirement pie it keeps ending up on the table.

We got financial reform, but only in name, health-care reform that leaves corporate health-care companies in charge, a recommitment to state secrecy, and we’re still waging two disastrous — and unpopular — wars, despite two elections in which voters emphatically said we should leave.

It’s not Barack Obama’s fault, however. Anyone who thought Obama, whose ascendancy in the Democratic Party was anything but a challenge to the party hierarchy, would challenge the corporate state just hasn’t paid attention to his history as a politician or the history of the republic.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m angry with Obama and the Democrats. They talked a decent game, but had no intention of playing.

But we cannot blame them for betraying progressive principles if we have not applied the necessary pressure.

Consider the wars. They go on because we have not demanded that they end, have not forced the issue.

“We will not stop the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will not end this slaughter of innocents, unless we are willing to rise up as have state workers in Wisconsin and citizens on the streets of Arab capitals,” Chris Hedges wrote on Truthdig recently. “Repeated and sustained acts of civil disobedience are the only weapons that remain to us.”

We have to march and write and speak out. That’s what history tells us, as Howard Zinn made clear during the early part of the 2008 election season in a piece in The Progressive, as the press got caught up in the blathering nonsense of candidates and the minutiae of horse-race politics:

“The unprecedented policies of the New Deal — Social Security, unemployment insurance, job creation, minimum wage, subsidized housing — were not simply the result of FDR’s progressivism,” he wrote. “The Roosevelt Administration, coming into office, faced a nation in turmoil. The last year of the Hoover Administration had experienced the rebellion of the Bonus Army — thousands of veterans of the First World War descending on Washington to demand help from Congress as their families were going hungry. There were disturbances of the unemployed in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New York, Seattle.

“In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out all over the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the South. Unemployed councils formed all over the country. Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.

Without a national crisis — economic destitution and rebellion — it is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.”

Rahm Emanuel said before the inauguration that Obama would not let a crisis go to waste. The president did, as did a neutered American left. It is up to us on the left to change the dynamic, to make them do the right thing.

Hank Kalet is regional editor for in New Jersey. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2011

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2011 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652