Healing the Democratic Spirit

"Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope?"

-- Abraham Lincoln

The American political system is in disarray. Money governs politics, dictates who is elected and what they will do once in office.

Ordinary people have been locked out of the process in a grotesque perversion of Thomas Jefferson's republican ideal, their interests and concerns swept under the massive rug of corporate privilege. The concerns of average working people -- clean and safe neighborhoods, a living wage and access to quality medical care, good schools and access to college for their kids -- have been sacrificed on the altar of profit, have been turned into sound bites, twisted and deformed to be used by politicians as wedges to separate voters.

In all areas of governance, the voice of the people is being pushed aside in favor of those with affluence and influence. The debate over medical reforms is controlled by the insurance industry, discussion of Superfund reforms is driven by the legal and chemical industries and the big trucking and oil firms dictate transportation policy. We have an economic elite that sees rising wages as anathema to economic stability and a financial sector pushing to get its hands on Social Security.

And our elected officials seem all too happy to keep the gravy train rolling along.

So its no wonder voters seem to have given up: Barely 50 percent of the electorate cast ballots during the 1996 presidential election, and just 39 percent went to the polls in 1994.

The political elite bemoans these figures as a sign of America's apathy; but they do so at their own peril. That's because there is a significant amount of political energy being generated away from Washington and the state capitals, in small towns and rural hollows, in union halls and community centers across the country. The simple fact is, Americans are not as complacent as the powers-that-be want us all to believe.

Examples of these small political insurgencies abound:

In South Brunswick, N.J., where I live, there has been a concerted effort on the part of residents to stop the NJ Turnpike Authority from building a four-lane, limited-access toll highway. The seven-mile road, which would cost more than $300 million to build, would greatly enhance the value of two major corporate parks while chewing through 17 acres of wetlands. Residents are concerned that the road will devastate one of the few remaining undeveloped areas of the township, force long-time farmers off their land and inundate a small historic village near the end of the highway with traffic.

Needless to say, the road, known as Route 92, has the backing of major business and development groups -- and it already has the approval of the Turnpike Authority. But this hasn't stopped opponents from holding rallies and packing public hearings, or from trying to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and deny the state permission for the project.

In West Virginia, rural residents are protesting changes in mining rules that will make strip mining for low-sulfur coal more profitable for the state's mining companies. Under the new rules, according to the New York Times, companies will be able to "dump more of the stripped earth into the hollows and waterways below the mining sites before they would have to compensate the state for the damage."

Residents of the hollows -- especially those near a strip mine operation run by Arch Coal Inc. -- say the plan will destroy their way of life and they are planning litigation against the state. The new law will clog local rivers and either subject residents to noise and dust and the dangers of flying rocks and debris or force them to leave towns in which they have long ancestral ties.

"The bottom line, whether they offer you a fair price or not, is why do I have to move?" Pigeon Creek resident Patricia Bragg told the Times. "As an American, I can choose to live in a hollow, call me a hick or a hillbilly, but that's where I want to live."

Residents across the country are engaged in these kinds of backyard battles, fighting the siting of incinerators and power plants, sludge factories, dump sites and all sorts of other things.

And these battles are lot limited to backyard skirmishes. In New York City, the unions are fighting for changes in welfare-to-work requirements that essentially turn former welfare recipients into indentured servants while driving wages down for other workers in the city.

In Baltimore, Minneapolis and elsewhere, workers have fought for and won living wage laws that require companies doing business with those cities to pay workers a wage that will keep them above the poverty line.

And there have been a host of other attacks on the political powers-that-be, ranging from referendum forcing campaign finance reform and the legalization of marijuana for medical use to health consumers' bills of rights and car insurance reform. And there are groups fighting against the proliferation of sweatshops and others fighting for democratic access to television and radio systems, against mergers that ultimately will lead to higher prices and restrictions on speech and for preservations of undeveloped areas and downtown commercial districts.

These small insurgencies are good news for the long-term health of American democracy and as good an example as can be found that the average citizen knows what is in his or her best interest.

America's best hope for progressive change lies with these groups.

As William Greider pointed out in his book Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy: "Real change, if it comes at all, would likely have to originate with angry outsiders, the citizens who are willing to attack the status quo on its own ground and create alternative examples of how democratic politics ought to function."

It's time America put the energies generated by these solitary fighters to good use. The long-term health of our democracy demands it.

Hank Kalet is a journalist living in South Brunswick, N.J.

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