The Democracy Gap

"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 action arenas.

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