"Freedom is participation in power," said the Roman orator Cicero. By
this deep definition, freedom is in short supply for tens of millions of
Americans, a scarcity with serious consequences. This absence of freedom
breeds apathy. Average citizens do not fight for change, even about the
conditions and causes that mean the most to them.
Our lack of civic motivation is the greatest problem facing the country
today. Our beloved country is being taken apart by large multinational
commercial powers. Over two thousand years ago, in ancient Athens, a
fledgling democracy challenged the longstanding plutocracy, using
politics as its instrument. The struggle between these two forms of
government, one tending to place more power with the people and the
other, concentrating power in a few, self-perpetuating hands has been
going on under various guises and disguises ever since.
Democracy, whether representative or more direct, brings out the best in
people because it gives them more freedom, more voice, more lawful
order, and more opportunity to advance their visions of a just society.
In our country, however, there is a gap that needs to be closed: the
democracy gap. It is often said that "power abhors a vacuum." When
people do not claim power, the greedy step in to fill the void. Every
day that capable citizens abstain from civic engagement allows our
society and world to tolerate harm and to decay incrementally. The
converse is also true. The tiny, cumulative efforts to build a more just
society are comparable to the sources for a great river. Similarly, our
efforts, small and large, daily and cumulatively, spread the more noble
sentiments of our humanity toward one another. But it isn't happening
nearly enough to stem the downward slide of justice in our society.
Is it not time for real people to plan for their own futures together?
The balance struck between democracy and plutocracy, between fair and
unfair tax and budget priorities, between investor rights and corporate
managers, between "a government of the people, by the people and for the
people," in Lincoln's immortal words, and a government of the Exxons, by
the General Motors, and for the DuPonts, determines the quality of our
society. It is not coincidental that many centuries ago all the world's
great religions cautioned their adherents not to give too much power and
position to mercantile interests. So too, our greatest presidents issued
warning after warning about "moneyed interests." Franklin Delano
Roosevelt emphasized this in a message to Congress, "The liberty of a
democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power
to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself.
That in its essence is fascism: ownership of the government by an
individual, by a group or any controlling private power." We would do
well to heed this age-old wisdom as we ponder why our corporate and
political leaders assume more and more control over our lives and futures.
This loss of control is felt ever more deeply. A Business Week poll in
the year 2000 found 72 percent of the people believing that corporations
had too much control over their lives. This was before exposure of the
ongoing corporate crime wave that has looted or drained trillions of
dollars from hardworking people. Our leaders have been delivering for
themselves and their circles, not for the people they allegedly serve.
In return, too many people have been too trusting of or too resigned to
their leaders' mass media rhetoric. Our static political system often
leads our elected officials to do the opposite of what they say. Double
talk. With limited choices, people find it difficult to demand more from
their leaders, or to have effective modes of measuring their performance
beyond the blizzard of soothing words directed at them.
Contemplating participation in power in most contexts - environmental,
political, social, economic, technological - invites anxiety. Yet, to
throw up one's hands in defeat guarantees anguish and deprivation.
Individual obligations absorb daily time and attention, of course, but
ignoring our civic obligations, our public citizen duties, profoundly
affects our daily lives as well. Most people have developed their own
rationalization for not entering civil society as an engaged citizen,
such as lack of time or know-how, or concern about slander or retaliation.
A lack of a critical mass of involved citizens on any issue, whatever
the scale, contributes to the "see, you can't get anything done,"
"what's the use," "que sera, sera" syndrome which feeds on its own
futility. So then, what builds civic motivation? A sense of the heroic
progress against great odds achieved by our forebears helps. Think what
stamina and inner-strength drove abolitionists against slavery, women
seeking the right to vote, workers demanding trade unions to counter the
callous bosses of industry, dirt-poor farmers of the late 1800s who,
taking on the major railroads and banks, used their heads, hearts, and
feet to launch the populist-progressive reform movement. These efforts
advanced our country immeasurably. They were efforts by ordinary people
doing extraordinary things without electricity, motor vehicles,
telephones, faxes, or e-mail. They mobilized person-to-person.
What the citizenry should expect of their governments depends in no
small part on how much people know about their governments, their
duties, their commitments, and who has unworthy or craven influence over
them. There is no substitute for voters doing their homework, studying
records, and seeing through the dense mists of fabricated political
advertisements, shams, and evasions. Without such civic engagement, and
without candidates for office who faithfully represent their
constituents, our broken politics cannot be repaired. Whether we think
in terms of justice under law or equal protection of the laws, it is
untenable that artificial entities called corporations are given most of
the constitutional rights of real humans while aggregating powers,
privileges, and immunities that individuals, no matter how wealthy,
could never come close to attaining.
The primacy of civic values, rooted in our Declaration of Independence
and the Constitution, must become our common objective for the common
good. When state governments started chartering corporations in the
early 1800s, these relatively small business entities were not supposed
to be our masters. No one contemplated the emergence of gigantic global
conglomerates using governments and trade agreements for their narrow
ends. Corporations were seen as our servants under the vigilant rule of
law. That's a vision we need to re-create. The people must stand tall so
as to reclaim their sovereignty over big business. Strengthening the
blessings of liberty and the benefits of justice invites us all to these
challenges, both inside the electoral arenas and outside in the civic
Ralph Nader is the author of: The Good Fight: Declare Your Independence
and Close the Democracy Gap (Harper Collins Books).