Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy

by William Greider. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. 464 pp.

Democracy forms the basis of American society - and America is supposed to be world leader in democracy, the model of democracy for new and future governments around the world. Yet all or most of you reading this have the sense that something is wrong here. In the democratic ideal, each citizen has an equal voice in government, representatives are elected who debate and decide issues, based on the interests and input of an informed public, to create a government which implements the consensus opinion of the proper framework of society. Yet how many people, liberal or conservative, feel they really have a voice in government? Do people feel the U.S. government protects their interests and responds to their concerns? In William Greider's 1992 book, "Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy", he analyzes the powerful forces which have taken over the government, and the possibilities for reform. The crisis in democracy, with its position at the base of all public debate, may be more crucial to the direction of society than than any single issue, and if we are to take control of human destiny, democracy must be repaired.

Greider analyzes the deep trends in politics - deeper than party politics, deeper than the daily headlines, to reveal clearly the patterns of power - and how organized money has seized it. The most obvious way in which money influences politics is through campaign contributions and lobbying, and perhaps that is the most direct and powerful. But Greider reveals the entire fabric, showing how money and power are weaved together in secretive ways, behind-the-scenes manipulation of the public will, at every step of the process. Money enters where the fight begins - at the beginning of the debate on any issue, the experts, the polls, the research, and the news are all financed largely by the moneyed elite. To enter the debate, you must be present such "facts" and "research" - which immediately locks most ordinary citizens out of the game. The masses are regarded as uninformed, emotional, and fickle; yet in practice, their instincts - on taxes, on trade issues, on the environment - are correct. If the public interest manages to prevail, despite the lobbying, as in the areas of pollution controls and other safety measures, industry can render the laws ineffective, by keeping the regulators from enforcing them (often with the complicity of the executive branch), or by simply ignoring them, often forcing public-interest groups to sue. Greider's analysis of the S&L scandal and the pattern of tax-shifting during the eighties yields more evidence that government is not working for most citizens. What is left of democracy is the cynical manipulation of public opinion to validate predetermined goals, symbolic gestures to appease popular sentiment, hollow laws, and secret deals.

While we have never had an ideal democracy, many of the institutions which at one time or another fought for the public interest - the Democratic party, organized labor, the news media - have strayed from their populist beginnings, and have either joined with the elite or backed off from the struggle. In their absence, corporations - business and finance - have taken full control of American politics. This is the key to understanding the breakdown of democracy - as Greider notes, "Corporations exist to pursue their own profit maximization, not the collective aspirations of the society. They are commanded by a hierarchy of managers, not by democratic deliberation." What we have lost are the mediating voices which make the public sentiments heard.

The breakdown of democracy is apparent in the lengths citizens must go to to have their voices heard. Many have already given up and resigned themselves to their "inferior" status. Even active citizens are generally frustrated, with little or no results to show for their efforts. It often takes extraordinary tactics and dramatic confrontations - human chains to block hazardous waste from entering landfills, large-scale public protests, or consumer boycotts, for example - to win their objectives; means which should not be necessary in a functioning democracy.

The current struggle also contains a unique challenge. Democracy's newest adversary is what German social critic Wolfgang Sachs calls "the closet dictator" - the fear of falling behind in international competition, which the current power structure has elevated to the organizing principle of politics. "Global competition" is used as the rationale for keeping down wages and corporate taxes, fighting environmental and safety regulations, and laying off workers and sending jobs to the Third World for cheap labor, dragging everyone's economic situation toward the lowest common denominator. For us to regain control over our own political order, our ability to set our own standards, we must develop a new perspective of our role in the global affairs, linking the interest of the American public with that of the rest of the world's citizens.

This leaves us at an important moment in the history of American politics. Though the fight to restore democracy is daunting, and many have already surrendered, Greider believes that America still has the potential to reinvent itself and return to the path to a democratic society. The book is compelling, engaging the reader using the sheer power of the forces in conflict and the magnitude of the potential consequences; it is a start to understanding the situation we are in, and the struggle ahead. The struggle requires a broad debate about the structure and direction of our society, a debate of such depth of analysis and breadth of scope that it leads to a clear vision of the future and the energy to put it to action. A popular movement of this magnitude is not easy or quick to build - perhaps the last such movement was the civil rights movement of the sixties. Such a movement requires organizing and mobilizing large numbers of people, and engaging them with the urgency of the situation. The potential is visible in brief glimpses - in the uprising behind Ross Perot's 1992 bid for president (a rejection of the existing power structure), and in some local efforts to organize, but has not had a strong enough foundation - built on the understanding of the present and the vision of the future - to build the endurance and energy necessary to create a renewed democracy. Greider believes that Americans have the potential to rebuild the civic faith. If so, we can again move our society to new levels of sense and justice. If not, America may go down as just "another chapter in the rise and fall of muscular nation-states."

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