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What’s the Biggest Threat to American Democracy?

Originally published on Common Dreams, July 12, 2018

Democracy’s essence is dignity—knowing that we count and have a real voice, in the voting booth, yes, but also in other dimensions of life, including the economic

(Photo by Sam Morris/Getty Images)

We sure hear a lot today about external threats to our democracy, whether it’s Russia’s election “meddling” or North Korea’s nuclear expansion. But a home-bred threat might run deeper still.

Consider this. More than a third of Americans polled by the finance company LendEdu say they’d forfeit the right to vote in exchange for a 10 percent raise. Whoa…I had long assumed that such a sad choice would be tempting only in the poorest societies.

Learning that so many Americans would trade their voice for bucks could help wake us up to one simple truth: Political democracy, i.e. elected government answering to the people, is always vulnerable when citizens feel economically powerless. Put another way, political democracy without citizens’ economic empowerment can’t endure.

By “economic empowerment” I mean two things.

First, when casting a vote, we feel confident we can choose representatives who will pursue public policies protecting us, and that includes guarding us from exploitative wages as well as shady corporate practices, including those costing millions of us our jobs and savings in the 2008 Wall Street debacle.

Second, “economic empowerment” is what some of us experience first-hand in workplaces protected by a union, for example, or in the thousands of US cooperatives, such as Ace Hardware, or in the 2,500 firms American incorporated as “B corporations” whose charters commit a firm to considering workers’ well-being, among other social goods.

Yet on Election Day 2016 many voters—likely feeling neither form of economic empowerment—settled for a “strongman” who promised protection but, as we have now seen, lacked commitment to the rules and norms of democracy required to secure our interests.

If indeed many voted out of a sense of desperation, it’s easy to understand.

Workers’ wages have barely budged in almost half a century and poverty is so deep that half our newborns depend on public aid to eat. Meanwhile, CEO pay has soared sixteen-fold. So, while there’s vast evidence that our money-driven politics along with voter manipulation help to explain the 2016 election, our rigged economy, denying most Americans a voice in their economic well-being, also helped give Trump an edge.

Bottom line: Political democracy is forever in danger absent an understanding of what democracy requires well beyond politics.

Democracy is a culture that lives or dies on whether it’s creating three conditions throughout our public lives that have proven to bring forth the best in our species and to keep the worst in check: One, the wide dispersion of power; two, transparency in public affairs; and, three, a culture of mutual accountability in contrast to the blame-the-other culture fomented today.

Yet America is rushing headlong in the opposite direction. Consider democracy’s first condition, widely distributed power. It’s increasingly absent in both political and economic arenas. One-half of 1 percent of the population contributed about two-thirds of the $6.4 billion cost of the 2016 election. And now, just three Americans control more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of us do.

And, how did we arrive at such obvious affronts to democracy?

Long taught by market-fundamentalists of the Right that seeking the public good is risky because all we can count on is our selfish nature, many believe our only choice is to hand over our fate to a “free market” driven by self-interest. It, we’re told, will sort winners and losers—fairly.

But wait…in our extreme version of a market, one rule drives all: Do what brings highest return to existing wealth. So, wealth accrues to wealth accrues to wealth. Yet the myth of a free market hangs on. It tells that if we don’t make it, it’s our fault; bringing on a culture of blame and shame: All that’s needed to set us up to embrace a president telling us whom to blame.

So, what’s the big lesson?

Democracy’s essence is dignity—knowing that we count and have a real voice, in the voting booth, yes, but also in other dimensions of life, including the economic. Thus, the denial of dignity is arguably greatest threat to democracy.

And the good news?

A grassroots democracy movement focused on creating fair political rules is now becoming a “movement of movements,” uniting economic, political, racial justice, and environmental dimensions of our lives.

Take Democracy Initiative for example. In just five years, it’s already brought together nearly 70 organizations representing roughly 40 million Americans, from the AFL-CIO to NAACP to Sierra Club. Their diverse core passions, and those of so many more, are uniting to fight for democracy, as it touches all parts of our lives.

Or jump to a state…gutsy North Carolina. Building on earlier organizing, the Moral Mondays movement developed what it calls “fusion politics,” uniting 200 organizations representing two million citizens around a 14-point agenda—including both voting rights and economic empowerment through, for example, livable wages. Now the approach is taking hold in a dozen other states and has gone national as the Poor People’s Campaign.

And in cities, too, this weaving together of our lives is underway. Across the Bay from San Francisco, citizens of Richmond, CA, 80 percent of whom are people of color, had lived for more than century under the heel of Chevron Oil, notorious for denying citizens a real voice by stacking the city council.

That is, until the Richmond Progressive Alliance drew together United Steel Workers with immigrant rights and environmental justice activists into a local “movement of movements.” By 2004 the Alliance was strong enough to win council seats. Ten years later, its city council slate with a few hundred thousand dollars defeated the three-million-dollar, Chevron-backed candidates.

With unity among diverse citizen interests, the Council has been able to lift Richmond’s minimum wage to among the nation’s highest and to enact public financing for its seats.

Weaving together democratic political and economic advances, these three stories offer real hope that it’s possible to address the desperation showing up at the polls in 2016.

Thus, the lesson at the heart of our current crisis?

Democracy can’t be sliced up into parts because human beings cannot be—that is, we cannot trust that we have a real voice at the polls while feeling voiceless in our economic lives. Dignity is dignity. From this commonsense premise, we can unite to address the biggest internal threat to democracy.

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