When I moved to DC at in January 1993, I was a partisan liberal Democrat who thought the Republican Party was the country’s central problem. When I moved away from DC in 1996, I was an unaligned leftist who thought corporate power’s stranglehold on the political system was the country’s central problem. What happened?
At the highest levels of government, the power to decide things has gravitated from the many to the few, just as ordinary citizens suspect. Instead of popular will, the government now responds more often to narrow webs of power — the interests of major economic organizations and concentrated wealth and influential elites surrounding them. These organizations and individuals manage to shape the largest outcomes to the extent anyone does, while they neutralize and deflect what ordinary people think and believe.
The most obvious thing that happened was Bill Clinton’s presidency. I hadn’t been a supporter in the primary, finding him cynical and hollow even for a pol. It was one thing to have a bad position or three; it was another to traffic in right-wing racist populism by flying to Arkansas to preside over the killing of a mentally addled black man. Still, I had hope that he possessed, along with the bad kind of populism, some of the good kind. Alas, it was not to be. He hired Robert Rubin, pushed NAFTA, and the rest is (current) history.
In place of meaningful democracy, the political community has embraced a permissive culture of false appearances. Government responds to the public’s desires with an artful dance of symbolic gestures–hollow laws that are emptied of serious content in the private bargaining of Washington. Promises are made and never kept. Laws and enacted and never enforced. When ordinary people organize themselves to confront the deception, they find themselves too marginalized to make much of a difference.
Another thing that happened was that I got a job at People for the American Way. Getting paid to oppose the Christian Right? Hell, yeah; I’d watched the ’92 Republican National Convention along with everyone else. Yet I came to believe that this kind of reactive, look-at-those-freaks politics was no way to secure rights, much less win a class war. I also concluded that PFAW was weaker for working within the Democratic Party. Among PFAW’s “principles” was the belief that pols shouldn’t claim Godly sanction for their policy views. It just doesn’t matter what position someone claims God backs. This kind of WWJD rhetoric cheapens religion and corrupts politics: at least that was what PFAW said it believed. So when Clinton went into a church and said his crime bill, the one that expanded the federal death penalty, was the “will of God,” I naively suggested we condemn him. My superiors looked at me as if I’d said The 700 Club was quality programming. The partisan game, it wasn’t for me.
The practical result is a lawless government — a reality no one in power wishes to face squarely since all are implicated, on way or another. The clear standards that citizens expect from law — firm definitions of right and wrong, commandments of thou shalt or thou shalt not — are corrupted by a fog of tentative declarations of intent. The classical sense of law is lost in sliding scales of targets and goals, acceptable tolerances and negotiated exceptions, discretionary enforcement and discretionary compliance.
Something else that happened was Waco. No, I’m not suggesting that Janet Reno intentionally killed people. I’m not even talking about the event itself but rather the hearings. I watched, rapt and horrified, as Congressman Schumer, protecting the administration, bullied and insulted people whose children had died. Whose side was I on? Not his, never on his.
The usual story of great powers is that sooner or later, when the glory faded, they sank into social decay and bitterness. That is the usual ending for a political system that persistently ignores reality, and for a people who become alienated from their own values…The present generation and the next, in other words, must find tangible way to reinvigorate the social faith in the promise of democracy. The nation’s sense of its own continuing search for something better is endangered and, without that civic faith, this nation is in deep trouble. If democratic character is lost, America has the potential to deteriorate into a rather brutish place, ruled by naked power and random social aggression.
Another thing that happened: in 1993, William Grieder’s Who Will Tell the People? came out in paperback, and I read it. This masterwork confirmed what I feared to be true about the government, providing fact-based narratives as proof. A polemic, yes, but also a work of reportage that is, sadly, still relevant. I reread it recently and discovered that despite dated period detail, it still vividly and accurately describes the country’s predicament. If anything, it seems understated because the problems he examined have only deepened.
My encounters as a reporter with ordinary citizens have led to optimism about the potential for democratic renewal…Ordinary people do assert themselves despite the obstacles. Rehabilitating democracy will require citizens to devote themselves first to challenging the status quo, disrupting the existing contours of power; and opening the way for renewal.