“This is what democracy looks like,” was the rallying cry on the streets at the Battle of Seattle in 1999. Today, it echoes on the winds of change in Egypt and northern Africa. The longing of people for dignity, freedom and control over the decisions of their daily lives is instantly recognizable by people everywhere. It is a longing that has found its way to Madison, Wis.
This cry raises some troubling questions. Some say we already have democracy. After all, Governor Scott Walker was duly elected. So was his Republican majority. Some say, “All those people on the streets are just sore losers.”
Anyone with even a little understanding of history knows the idea of democracy has always been a difficult one. In many ways, our struggles over the last two centuries have been an ongoing effort by the American people to bring the idea of democracy to life.
It took massive uprisings and organizing to get the right to vote extended to all white men, not just those who owned property. It took a civil war to introduce the idea that African Americans were full human beings and another 100 years to make their right to vote real. It took us two decades into the 20th century to extend the vote to women.
Today, the Battle of Wisconsin makes it clear that voting and democracy are not the same thing.
First, there is the problem of elections without substance. The combination of too much money, too little public discussion and too few news outlets ends in individuals being elected and coming to the power of office without any understanding of the will of the people. It allows for a tyranny of a manufactured and manipulated “majority” where the most basic rights of individuals and groups are sacrificed for the interests of those in power.
Basic human rights cannot be decided by majority rule. This country would never have ended slavery, extended voting rights to women or established unions, if we depended on majority rule. All these victories were first won in the streets, challenging the vested interests of those in power.
Now in Wisconsin, we have a governor using a financial crisis to ram through a union busting bill that has nothing to do with money. His plan is to dismantle any sources of people power that could raise questions about his efforts to privatize and sell off the assets of his state. As the New York Times reported last week, buried under the anti-union rhetoric are lines that give the governor the unquestioned power to sell off any and all state assets, without public overview or competitive bidding.
This abuse of power is not new to Detroiters. Our own newly elected governor is pursuing equally anti-union policies, although without the same anti-union rhetoric.
Most notable are those surrounding the creation of emergency financial managers. These managers, appointed at the will of the governor, would have the power to set aside negotiated contracts within a city. They could also set aside any locally elected body of government, including school boards and city councils.
Such powers not only strip unions of their role in protecting workers and giving them a measure of control over their lives. They also strip citizens of their most basic right to elect and hold officials accountable for their actions.
Emergency financial managers violate the basic tenets of democracy. They become the means to impose policies we would never accept — to use and abuse assets we have long nurtured and to transfer the hard-earned wealth of the people into the hands of a few.
That is not what democracy looks like. It’s time for us to create a new, living democracy.
This will require something more from all of us.