Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy

"Science," the Greek word for knowledge, when appended to the word "political," creates what seems like an oxymoron. For who could claim to know politics? More complicated than any game, most people who play it become addicts and die without understanding what they were addicted to. The rest of us suffer under their malpractice as our "leaders." A truer case of the blind leading the blind could not be found. Plumb the depths of confusion here.


Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:19 am


In Ronald Reagan's White House, it was the office of vice-president that was designated as the chief fixer for aggrieved business interests. Industries that were unhappy with any federal regulations, existing or prospective, were instructed to alert George Bush and his lieutenants. The power of the White House would be employed to intimidate and squelch any regulatory agencies that seemed upsetting to American business.

The official language was less blunt, of course, but the meaning was made clear to every lobbyist and corporate CEO when Bush was appointed chairman of the President's Task Force on Regulatory Relief in early 1981. In collaboration with the Office of Management and Budget, Bush was empowered by executive order to review and suspend -- and effectively throttle -- new regulations emerging from every agency and department of the federal government. C. Boyden Gray, the vice-president's counsel, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce what to expect: "If you go to an agency first, don't be too pessimistic if they can't solve the problem there. If they don't, that's what the task force is for."

Bush's office and OMB became a shadowy court of appeals where Republican business constituencies could win swift redress -- without attracting public attention or leaving any record of what had transpired. In most instances, the corporations had already lost the argument somewhere else, in Congress or during the long public rule-making process or in lawsuits. Vice-President Bush privately turned them into winners.

The auto industry managed to kill a package of thirty-four air-pollution and safety regulations, including the one for air bags. The auto companies fed their ideas to James C. Miller III, executive director of the Bush task force, who had been a regulatory consultant to General Motors just before he entered the White House. The Chemical Manufacturers Association contacted C. Boyden Gray, whose old law firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, represented CMA. In a "Dear Boyden" letter, a CMA vice-president urged Gray to scotch a new EPA regulation on pretreatment of industrial chemicals that are dumped into public waters. The rule had been nine years in the making, first authorized by the Clean Water Act of 1972. The Bush task force suspended it and told EPA to give the matter further study.

The White House apparatus killed, stalled or watered down hundreds of regulations and boasted of the billions it had saved private industry. Warning labels on children's aspirin were abandoned for the drug companies. Safety rules for underwater divers were weakened for the offshore oil drillers (George Bush's line of business before he entered politics). Cotton-dust controls were blocked for the textile industry. Industrial air pollution standards were set aside for the steel industry. And so on across dozens of fields of federal law enforcement. [1]

The White House interveners, intent on secrecy, usually communicated their demands orally to the regulatory agencies. As one said, the absence of any written memos or letters "leaves no footprints." Nor did they ever explain who exactly was demanding the changes. Bush's aides were not discreet, however, about bullying civil servants. James Miller, the task force director, boasted that prudent regulators would not question OMB's power to recast things, for fear of losing their jobs.

"You know, if you are the toughest kid on the block, most kids will not pick a fight with you," Miller said.

The presidency cannot be counted upon to uphold law because the White House has become the capstone of lawless government -- an institution that rewrites law behind closed doors for the benefit of the few who have political access. Irregular as it seems, the White House's centralized control over the law's actual language has been broadly accepted by the political community as a convenient "solution" to the stalemated politics of governance. As a practical matter, this irregular new use of power became institutionalized during the last decade and the White House fixes continued unabated when George Bush became president himself.

These unpleasant facts provide the keystone for our larger examination of the breakdown of democracy. The presidency itself has been transformed into something quite different from the civic expectations. Instead of the bully pulpit where a national leader can speak for the broad public interest, the presidency has become the last step in the charade.

In the age of mass media, the president is shielded from scrutiny by qualities that other politicians cannot claim -- the mythic powers of his office and his ability to broadcast the largest and most deceptive messages of all. In modern government, starting in the New Deal, the White House accumulated an imbalance of power over the legislative branch because it was always seen as the great protector of the national interest and of the weak and defenseless. Now, the protection is regularly employed on behalf of the powerful.

In principle, regulatory reform could have been an important function when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. After years of tortuous hearings and litigation, scores of major new regulatory rules were nearing completion. The Bush task force might have undertaken a serious study of the conflicting goals and unfilled promises that Congress had produced.

But this "reform" initiative was driven, not by principle or disinterested analysis, but by a cocky contempt for whatever the regulatory agencies had decided. Lawmaking, in a real sense, would be done in the privileged setting of the White House, cloaked by the executive privilege that protects the president's advisors from public scrutiny. The laws would be reshaped, quite literally, to satisfy the very parties at whom they were directed.

Environmentalists and other reformers naturally protested, joined by anxious members of Congress who understood the power implications. But they couldn't change much. "OMB operates in secret and it's undemocratic," said David Vladeck, a lawyer with Public Citizen. "You have this very important rule-making process that's open and accessible. Then at the end of the process it's subverted by the fact that most of the important decisions are made in secret and nobody knows who influenced the decision.

"Regulations sometimes go into the black hole of OMB and never emerge again. Rules were completed years ago and haven't been heard from since. Other regulations go into OMB looking like trees and come out looking like rose bushes. It's an anathema to democracy to have all these decisions made on the basis of a record the public never sees."

OMB continued to exercise its irregular powers just as Zealously once Bush became president himself. During his first year in office, OMB changed, returned or scuttled 24 percent of all new regulations -- a slightly higher rate of tampering than occurred during the early Reagan years, according to OMB Watch, a public-interest monitoring group. The leading targets were Labor, HUD, Education and EPA.

Furthermore, Vice-President Dan Quayle succeeded Bush as personal appeals judge for business friends of the Bush-Quayle administration. Quayle became chairman of a Presidential Council on Competitiveness, which promptly ordered EPA to kill an ambitious new regulation on recycling -- a pollution-prevention measure the Bush administration had boasted about a year earlier as proof of its commitment to the environment. What happened? An administration source told Michael Weisskopf of The Washington Post: "There was the strong sense that they needed to give business something. Business has a lot of concern that we lost our commitment to deregulation. [2]

Quayle's operation was as secretive as Bush's and has tampered with or killed new provisions in law for preserving wetlands, reducing power-plant pollution, protecting workers from formaldehyde (an OSHA regulation ten years in the making) and reducing toxic emissions. The promises made in the new Clean Air Act were swiftly unraveled by White House deal making. "This is not only horrible policy, it is clearly illegal," Representative Henry Waxman, a chief architect of the clean-air legislation, complained.

How does Dan Quayle pick his regulatory targets? The same way George Bush did -- business picks them for him. OMB Watch reported: "While the council seems to involve itself in virtually every controversial health, safety and environmental regulation that makes its way through the federal bureaucracy . . . Quayle himself has said that he consults most often with business leaders who can tell him better than economists, 'how the clock is ticking,' and the council's executive director has said, 'When they [industry groups] feel like they are being treated unfairly, they come to us.'" [3]

Business lobbyists and executives, not surprisingly, defend the White House intervention since OMB has become a useful tool for them in the tangled politics of regulation. Most members of Congress, despite partisan divisions, are quite willing to tolerate this irregular form of lawmaking. In 1990, Congress declined to enact legislation proposed by Senator John Glenn and Representative John Conyers of Michigan that would have modestly circumscribed OMB's freewheeling power to rewrite laws. The White House's private intervention provides another safety valve for clients and Congress will not be held responsible. Senators may occasionally rail at OMB for gutting a law, but they can also send disgruntled constituents to OMB for relief. [4]

"OMB does their dirty work for them," said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch. "Then when OMB does something outrageous, like on the asbestos standard, they hold oversight hearings and get a lot of press. It's a charade. That's the way the game is played."

If Democrats in Congress have been passive on the issue, it is partly because the Reagan and Bush administrations were doing aggressively what the Carter administration (and Nixon's and Ford's) had attempted to do more timidly. Aping the antiregulation critique from business academics in the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter's Council on Wage and Price Stability defined federal regulation as a major source of inflation and began reviewing new rules and arguing with agencies over whether they needed to be so stringent. The White House advisors lost the arguments at least as often as they won, in part because Carter himself was ambivalent.

Carter's aides, like Reagan's, responded mainly to industry complaints, not broad principle, but with somewhat less certitude that business was always right. At one point, policy analysts from Carter's Domestic Policy Council were wearing respiratory masks around the Executive Office Building, trying to demonstrate to OSHA that this was a cheap and easy remedy for the brown-lung disease afflicting textile workers. Their stunt did not succeed.

Douglas Costle, then the EPA administrator, observed that in his arguments with the Carter White House over pollution standards, "I would say that probably three out of every four [White House] comments on our rule-making were cribbed right from industry briefs." [5]

The rationale for White House control is usually stated as a principle of sound management. "My perspective is entirely presidential," said Stuart• E. Eizenstat, Carter's domestic-policy advisor and now a lawyer for corporate interests. "I want a president, whether Republican or Democratic, with the ability to control executive agencies. The president, as CEO of a trillion-dollar corporation, ought to have the management tools to control."

The trouble with this metaphor is that government is not a business enterprise. It has powers to coerce or penalize (or reward) that belong to no private institution. It has obligations, as well, that are unique -- including the Obligation to uphold the law. Managing government to save money for industrial corporations versus enforcing a new environmental law is a political question, not an argument for business economists, and, in a democracy, it is supposed to be settled in the regular order of political decision making.

The centralized control in the White House, with no public access or accountability, conveniently escapes those obligations. It also short-circuits all of the other processes by which the law is supposedly fashioned, both in Congress and in the Executive Branch's laborious rule-making procedures.

Even Eizenstat, an advocate of White House control, concedes the dilemma: "There is this problem, no question about it, of going through a full-blown regulatory process in the agency with a full public record and then having the president come in with a club at the end to decide it. It's not fair to let some unseen hand get into the cookie jar at the last moment."

The notion that the president personally decides these questions is, of course, a fiction. More typically, the regulatory laws are being rewritten by anonymous political advisors and eager junior analysts, who may have strong ideological biases in favor of business but very little experience in the complex fields of government they are now presiding over.

Among the thirty-two desk officers reviewing regulations in Reagan's OMB, a quarter had graduated from college less than five years before, half less than ten years before. Nearly half of the regulatory analysts had no federal agency experience at all; another 31 percent had none in their area of responsibility. Typically, they had studied economics or public administration at an East Coast university. These young people heard regularly from business lobbyists and sometimes sought out business's opinions, but they were not confidants of Ronald Reagan. [6]

A young policy analyst who was making large judgments on environmental law in the Carter White House acknowledged, in so many words, that he was winging it. "Since I never knew what decision the President would make or would have made if an issue ever got to him, I had no choice but to pursue my own vision of what was good," the analyst told an academic interviewer. [7]

The other popular argument for White House control is that only the president or his agents can impose rational priorities on the scattered actions and impulses of the various regulatory agencies, whose bureaucrats have a self-interested incentive to augment their own power. Since the private economy cannot afford the cost of unlimited regulation, it follows that someone should make broad choices about how much is too much.

Out of this logic, the practices of cost-benefit analysis have flourished. The Reagan administration was the first to require all agencies to produce a "Regulatory Impact Analysis" for every new rule they promulgated -- presumably to determine what society would gain and what it would lose from each new regulation.

Instead of broad priorities, the system of analysis produces its own bizarre inconsistencies and favoritism. The techniques for making these judgments are so sloppy and so vulnerable to special-interest manipulation that the notion of rational decision making has become a bad joke among government insiders.

A Labor Department "Regulatory Impact Analysis," for instance, calculated the reduced costs for employers and government if affirmative-action enforcement was limited to large firms. But the analysts did not examine the losses for women and minorities that would result from nonenforcement. The Department of the Interior's RIA on leasing Alaskan oil reserves acknowledged that local Eskimos would suffer while the nation's energy consumers benefited, but the analysis did not bother to quantify the Eskimos' loss. A General Accounting Office study of fifty-seven Regulatory Impact Analyses conducted under OMB guidelines found twenty-three RIAs that made no effort whatever to calculate the benefits of the proposed regulations.

In other words, under the guise of disinterested analysis, OMB is employing a heavy tilt toward business interests and against any new regulation that would cost them money. The analytic process, in fact, has created a web of skewed facts that OMB casually accepts or even encourages -- twisting the data to fit a desired political conclusion.

The Department of Agriculture, for instance, counted higher wheat prices for farmers as a benefit for the national economy in its justification for federal price-support regulation. But the Department of Labor counted lower wages for construction workers as a national economic benefit too, justifying its effort to weaken wage standards on federal construction projects. They cannot both be right, unless one believes that farm incomes are somehow superior to labor incomes. In terms of political preferences, that is what the Reagan administration did believe. [8]

All of these examples have one consistent threat -- ideological bias. OMB's behavior, in case after case, is not only strongly guided by the business lobbyists linked to the president's political debts, it is also driven by an underlying ideological assumption that the laws themselves are wrong-headed and ought to be neutralized as much as possible. This is a respectable position in the legislative debate and regularly articulated by free-market conservatives, but it is also the position that lost when the regulatory laws were enacted. The White House has the power to reverse it.

When the Food and Drug Administration attempted to assert control over new health claims that some food manufacturers were making for their products -- a practice regulated since FDA's creation eighty years ago -- an OMB desk officer complained that it was "antithetical" to the administration's free-market principles. Rather than regulation by FDA, she proposed, "Let the marketplace, not the government, set the agenda for the types of claims that will be made."

When business interests were ambivalent about a new regulation, the OMB analysts sometimes actively solicited opposition. An executive of Fieldcrest, asked to comment on new mandatory commercial reporting requirements for the 1990 Census, requirements her company supported, complained: "It is my fear, however, that the Office [of Management and Budget] has already made its decision in this matter and has polled members of the industry seeking justification for a negative finding." [9]

The most telling evidence of OMB's political favoritism for political clients is revealed when industry changes its mind about a new regulation. In case after case, the OMB analysts dutifully change their minds too.

The food industry opposed the new FDA regulation on health claims in advertising until it began to fear that an aroused Congress might enact something worse. When the food manufacturers dropped their opposition to the FDA proposal, so did Bush's OMB. The textile industry spent years successfully forestalling cotton-dust regulation through the White House until it decided that federal regulation might be a good idea, after all. When the textile industry accepted cotton-dust controls, so did the Reagan White House. The chemical industry, likewise, flip-flopped on the question of OSHA's "right to know" regulation for hazardous substances, once it became clear that many states were enacting their own tough measures. The Office of Management and Budget abandoned its objections too.

The law, in other words, has been reduced to a continuing political contest -- its meaning always subject to eleventh-hour fixes. Every president naturally responds to his own constituencies and his own ideological preferences; White House fixes did not begin with modern government. But what is different and without precedent now is that the shadowy practices of backroom politics have become institutionalized -- and even exalted -- under the rubric of rational governance. The scandal of these White House manipulations of law is that they provoked no scandal -- no fervent inquiries by the press and no general sense that something deeply abnormal had crept into the American idea of democracy.

Stuart Eizenstat, in defending OMB's new powers, argued that environmentalists and other reformers waste energies attacking the White House oversight machinery. Instead, he suggested, they should concentrate on electing the kind of presidents who will be sensitive to upholding the environmental laws rather than serving corporate interests. But, I asked, doesn't that sound as if the law is up for grabs? Eizenstat erupted in exasperation at the naivete of my question.

"Of course the law's up for grabs!" he responded. "The law's always up for grabs. That's why you win elections and appoint judges. That's why Reagan appointed five hundred federal judges. The law is not an inflexible instrument like a cannon that can be lined up and fired. It's a flexible human instrument that responds to political power.

"That's what having political power is all about, for chrissakes. When you have the power of the presidency, you have the capacity to put people in place who will be sensitive to upholding these laws. When you lose that authority, you're left with futile rear-guard actions."

This is not what Americans expect or deserve from their government -- that the laws will change with the election returns. Nevertheless, Eizenstat is correct: The law is up for grabs.


Even the White House does not get the last word, since, as many of the cases have illustrated, any aggrieved party can still sue. OMB's supposed ability to settle regulatory disputes in a rational manner has been tested again and again in federal courts during the last decade. More often than not, the White House judgment was found to be in error -- that is, inconsistent with the original laws. "We never want to go to the courts," said David Vladeck, the litigator for Public Citizen. "This is our last choice. But the courts are our Maginot Line against industry."

"Many of the cases we win today we win before very conservative judges who are very attuned to the concern about courts overstepping the line between law and policy," Vladeck said. "But they just overturned an OSHA regulation of formaldehyde on the grounds that it had no scientific justification -- it was the regulation OMB told OSHA to issue. These judges are very conservative but they're also honest and they too object to that kind of lawlessness."

For the last twenty-five years, it is true, the federal courts have served as the powerful arbiter that enforced legal deadlines on reluctant regulators or brushed aside specious protests from the regulated industries. Scores of court orders and decisions have been issued to uphold the terms of modern regulatory laws, most often in response to citizens who sought strong enforcement.

But pushing political questions off onto the courts is not a democratic solution. It may work well enough for citizens who are lawyers or who can afford to hire them, but it inevitably denies representation to most citizens. Judicial lawmaking encourages brokered decisions, negotiated deals done at tables where only the litigants are represented. Federal judges themselves are not answerable to the voters.

Besides, as the history of regulatory law enforcement demonstrates, fashioning law by litigation doesn't seem to work very well. It produces years, even decades of delay and uncertainty but often ends in laws as muddled as the originals passed by Congress.

Liberal reformers, who are effective litigators themselves, mostly ignored the democratic contradiction when the judicial remedy was working for their causes. Environmentalists and consumer advocates found an open door and sympathetic hearing before a federal judiciary that was mostly appointed by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Now the majority of federal judges are conservatives, appointed by Reagan and Bush, and they are gradually closing the door.

"In the early eighties, we were finding the courts to be very receptive," said David Doniger, lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "You'd almost go in with a calendar rather than a brief and say, 'The law says this is supposed to happen in six months or a year,' and you'd get a court order. More recently, we've had more trouble. The appeals court in the District of Columbia is being more aggressive in saying, if there is no explicit deadline, we're going to assume Congress did not intend one and we'll give the agency as much time as it damn well pleases."

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the natural venue for legal challenges against federal agencies, has itself become something of a political battleground, where the ascendant conservative majority argues with the receding liberals over the court's role in enforcing regulatory laws. Chief judge Patricia M. Wald, one of the liberals, used the same metaphor as David Vladeck but with a different twist: "The [liberal] traditionalists still hold, but like the Maginot Line, the strength of their dedication and the limits of their endurance is in some doubt." [10]

The Supreme Court, now dominated by a majority of Reagan conservatives, is, likewise, changing the ground rules -- bluntly warning active litigators like the NRDC that they will be less welcome in the future if they challenge Executive Branch interpretations of the law. The Reagan conservatives are advancing behind the general principle that political decisions should be made by accountable political officers of government, not by unelected judges. It also happens, however, that this principle is compatible with the judges' own ideological biases. The conservative justices are generally hostile to federal regulation, especially if it offends business interests. If the federal judiciary was once dominated by liberal biases dressed up as legal doctrine, it is now captured by conservative biases in the same clothing.

The conservative critics are offended, down deep, by the modern legal doctrine, both judicial precedents and often the regulatory laws themselves, that has given legal standing for citizens at large to intervene, including advocates from generalized "public-interest" groups. The conservative legal strategy reveals which side of the struggle the judges are on. They would like to push the citizens and their public-interest advocates out of court and severely limit or even abolish their right to sue (unless citizens can demonstrate that their own personal injury is at stake in the regulatory issue). The regulated companies would naturally retain their standing to sue since they are directly affected. Former D.C. Appeals Judge (and rejected Supreme Court nominee) Robert H. Bork put their argument plainly:

"These last two decades, it has come to be thought that individuals can go to court to assert their own parochial views of the public's legal rights. This is contrary to the traditional rule that a citizen cannot sue a prosecutor to require him to enforce law in a particular way or even to enforce the law at all. Courts recognize 'prosecutorial discretion,' which means that important aspects of policy are left in the hands of Executive Branch officials who are accountable only to their superiors and to legislative oversight." [11]

A less attractive way of stating Bork's point on "prosecutorial discretion" would be to say: If the president decides to not enforce a law in order to please an industrial client, that's his business. Citizens have nothing to say in the matter unless they can prove they are going to be personally poisoned as a result. If they don't like it, they can write their congressman or try to elect a new president. Bork's doctrine sounds like a jurist's version of "the law is up for grabs."

The federal courts, nonetheless, are gradually moving toward the Bork view of things. In an important 1984 decision, Chevron U.S.A. v. NRDC, the Supreme Court held that an agency's definition of a regulatory law should be accepted as a "permissible construction" that will not be second-guessed by federal courts so long as it does not clearly violate an explicit statement of intent from Congress. Thus, the Executive Branch -- led by OMB -- will be given far more latitude to decide for itself what the law really means.

As one of the losing lawyers in Chevron, David Doniger, not surprisingly, thinks the decision was a damaging precedent. "EPA defined the sources of air pollution, as the law required," Doniger explained, "then, by changing the definition in 1981, it excepted 90 percent of the sources -- boilers, blast furnaces and so forth. We brought that up to the Supreme Court and said this is crazy. They did define the sources but nobody would accept that as a reasonable definition. The Supreme Court was almost petulant. They said that, since the term was never defined in the original law, they could not decide what Congress meant and they accepted EPA's definition as a reasonable construction. Reasonable meant: not off the wall. There wasn't anybody in government who expected to win that case and we had no idea we would lose."

An aggressive minority on the Supreme Court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, is trying to shrink the ground for private citizens even further. Justice Scalia argues that when courts examine congressional intent, they cannot look beyond the language of the statute itself. Thus, the frequent practice of consulting committee reports or reading the floor debate on congressional amendments would be abandoned.

Judge Wald warned that this is really a way to ignore the context in which Congress acted and to let judges tease their own meanings out of the words in a statute. "Several [Supreme 'Court] opinions this past term that eschewed legislative history replaced it with what sometimes looked like a free-form romp through the 'structure' of a statute or its 'evident design and purpose,'" Wald wrote in 1990. "The phrases 'Congress must have meant this or that' or 'Congress probably did this for that reason' appear often in such opinions without apparent source other than the writing judge's mindset."

Her conservative colleague on the D.C. appeals court, Judge Laurence H. Silberman, embraced the new standard enunciated in the Chevron decision but conceded that it implies a "notion of statutory plasticity" -- law whose meaning is flexible, from one administration to the next. This permissive doctrine is being promoted by the same conservatives who espouse a strict-constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, based on the original intent of the Founding Fathers. [12]

The real power shift, however, is not to the courts but to the president. The largest losers will be not only citizens but also their elected representatives in Congress. In practical effect, the so-called conservatives are tampering with the fundamental balance of power set forth in the Constitution -- shifting the ability to write law from the Congress to the Executive Branch or, more accurately, to anonymous Executive Branch political advisors and policy analysts.

In an era when Congress seems permanently controlled by Democrats, conservative thinkers have decided that the presidency, since it is usually held by Republicans, is the nobler branch of government (a generation ago, when the presidents were liberal, conservative thinkers espoused the opposite view). Modern conservatism, while preaching platitudes about local control, has become a force for centralizing the power of government still further -- the same ideological reflex that conservatives once denounced in liberalism.

"There's no limit to the courts removing themselves from issues," Doniger warned, "and at some point our system breaks down. You could have executive decision making with no judicial review. The consequence is a shift of power. Not only are the courts giving up power but they're empowering the Executive Branch at the expense of Congress."

In the extreme case, if this doctrine prevails, the elected representatives could be reduced to a hortatory assembly -- passing laws that are no more than righteous pleas to the president, asking him to do the right thing. The chief executive would effectively retain the power to respond or ignore the legislative expressions, as he wishes. This imbalance of political power would resemble the arrangement in underdeveloped nations with authoritarian regimes, but no one mistakes those governments for democracy.


The deeper governing maladies that undermine democracy cannot be resolved by judicial fiat or administrative tinkering. The habits of hollow laws and random nonenforcement are deeply embedded in the political culture and are fundamentally political problems. If these can be solved at all, the solutions will likely be found only in politics.

The ambivalence of modern politics involves a deep ideological confusion about the nature of government and, as Lowi said, "the problem of power." In one dimension, the old conservative nightmare of big government came true and now sprawls in tangled reality before a disenchanted public -- a government without limits or priorities or the standards for establishing either. [13]

This proliferation of government activity in the private sphere did not lead to the pluralist sense of justice that liberal reformers sought when they set out to address the claims and grievances of myriad groups and interests. On the contrary, the government's decision making now crudely replicates the same injustices of status and wealth and power found among private citizens and institutions in the society at large. That is the nightmare facing liberals -- old liberal reforms that now work to defeat liberal values.

Conservatives, however, were corrupted in the process too. Despite their nostalgic rhetoric about small government, the conservatives' principles are now largely defined by their clients. Over time and with superior resources, conservatives have learned to manipulate the system in behalf of monied interests more efficiently -- and brazenly -- than the liberals who preceded them in power. Conservatives have perfected the politics of symbolic action first popularized by liberal presidents and taken it to audacious levels, employing deft public relations to mask the compromised laws and special-interest fixes.

Though I have focused mainly on regulatory laws and the power of corporate interests to neutralize them, the debasement of law and governing principles is a much larger problem that, indeed, spreads across the governing landscape. The same compromised standards are displayed, less distinctly, on the spending side of the federal government. A generation of politicians in both parties has learned the art of broad symbolic gestures -- enacting programs that do not and usually cannot fulfill their slated purposes. Loose-jointed discretion and interest-group favoritism permeate the federal budget and the tax code as well.

This casual use of governing power sows its own public resentments that eventually come back to haunt the politicians. In every important instance, the government is not spending enough to fill the needs it claims to address, but the general public imagines that these domestic programs are a wildly generous giveaway of tax dollars. The poor, for instance, especially the black poor, are thought to be blanketed in federal handouts. Yet even the best-known federal programs -- food stamps or welfare -- fall far short of serving the universe of citizens who are in need of help.

To take the starkest example of this public confusion, the majority of the people who are officially poor -- more than 60 percent of them -- receive no cash assistance from the government whatever. Yet popular resentment assumes the opposite. Nearly 40 percent of the poor receive nothing at all from the government, neither cash nor other kinds of aid. It is difficult to understand how welfare checks have undermined the work ethic among the poor, as conservative scholars claim, when most poor people receive none. [14]

The federal budget is littered with such unfulfilled commitments to different groups of almost every kind, not just those in poverty, and new ones are added annually. The impulse to legislate in this manner is by now bipartisan, and every year Congress and the president agree to extend the Charade in some new direction or another. People clamor for it. Politicians wish to respond. Very few public officials have the nerve to insist that, if the government is not serious about addressing the problem, it ought not to legislate at all.

Just as the New Deal era fostered the exceptionalism and special-interest deal making that now permeate government, the New Deal also produced an opposite model of how government should use its power -- Social Security. The Social Security system succeeded and endures, both politically and fiscally, because it was created as a universal program, not an interest-group deal. Despite minor internal contradictions, Social Security makes a promise that it has kept for more than fifty years -- everyone pays in and everyone is entitled to receive benefits.

Applying the same standard elsewhere-designing universal programs with a conception of social purpose broader than targeting a single afflicted group-is much more difficult, of course, and would no doubt eliminate many marginal programs. But it is the only road that leads to a sense of equity as well as an effective government.

Most industrial nations of western Europe, after all, have largely succeeded in following that principle, whether for health care or family-allowance payments or social protections. The well-developed "safety net" systems in Germany and France, for instance, are not only far more generous than America's and more equitably administered, but they also enjoy nearly unanimous political support, from the left to the right.

To confront the random lawlessness in the regulatory government, some obvious remedies are suggested in the misshapen institutional arrangements. The idea of a centralized regulatory review by the Executive Branch is defensible, for instance, only if it is brought out in the daylight and formalized so that everyone can participate. Since no chief executive will ever surrender the confidentiality of executive privilege, this necessarily means removing the OMB review mechanism from the secrecy of the White House itself. A regulatory oversight agency might still be answerable to the president, but not as a place for private fixes.

Congress, likewise, needs a mechanism, however crude at the outset, for facing squarely the conflicting trade-offs and ambiguities it has written into law. No single legislative committee can digest these questions objectively, since it might be asked to throttle its own baby. A joint congressional committee for regulatory review, as Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution has proposed, could ask broad questions and force the conflicts and fuzzy mandates back into the arena where they belong -- the lawmaking body of government. If government is going to make trade-offs between business profit and human life, it at least ought to make them in a public debate.

The federal courts could become a radical and positive influence in forcing this sort of reform -- by refusing to enforce laws that are designed to be unenforceable. The conservative judges, instead of protecting business or centralizing power in the executive, ought to develop legal doctrine that confronts the problem of lawlessness directly. If a law is so vague and meaningless that regulations cannot be rationally drafted for it, then courts could throw the law back to the people who wrote it -- the Congress. This would produce political embarrassment and eventually greater self-discipline among the lawmakers. It would also short-circuit the long-running sagas of litigation and nonenforcement that are now so commonplace.

The regulatory agencies themselves might be given similar leverage, an ability to declare honestly in some public forum that Congress has given them a legal obligation they find impossible to fulfill. A necessary corollary to that innovation would be a stronger protective mechanism for civil servants so that agency professionals could disclose, without fear of political reprisal, that the law's original meaning was being subverted by political insiders on behalf of their clients. In everyday reality, these new powers would probably be seldom invoked -- by either the courts or agency administrators or civil-service professionals -- but their mere existence would be therapeutic.

Administrative reforms such as these, however, cannot by themselves erase the permissive culture that fosters the deception and deal making in the first place. These attitudes and reflexes have been formed over two generations of American politics; escaping from them will not be accomplished easily or any time soon. Neither political party has the institutional capacity, much less the ideological inclination, to confront the permissive culture in a seriously critical manner. A modest beginning would be for them to acknowledge what the public already grasps -- the status quo is a lawless swamp.

The fundamental solution must originate with citizens outside Washington, for it requires nothing less than to change the political culture itself. Politics has to develop a fierce, new governing impulse to displace the old one -- a skeptical perspective toward the reigning assumptions about how government is supposed to govern. Only the people can bring this into the arena and impose it on the governors.

I would describe this impulse as a kind of functional conservatism -- as distinct from the corporate interest-group conservatism practiced by contemporary Republicans and most southern Democrats. This temperament would have to dig through the tangle of empty laws in search of the deeper principles that most Americans will endorse. It would have to ask, case by case, if the government really intends to use its legal authority to change things or merely wishes to make pleasing gestures.

Politicians following this new perspective would need the stamina to resist dubious banners and the self-discipline to reject inflated claims that do not correlate with broad purposes or have any plausible chance of actually being achieved. This would be nasty work for a political community used to making indulgent gestures and, against the facts of present behavior, it is very difficult to visualize. Still, the old order is failing and people everywhere recognize it. The next step must be to mobilize the political imagination -- and courage -- to construct a new order in its place.

If government were serious about environmental protection, for example, it would direct its authority at the sources of pollution, not the symptoms -- the production processes and products that throw off the billions of pounds of harmful substances every year. It would ban outright the use of some chemicals or force a radical reduction in other pollution emissions by mandating new technological processes for industry, agriculture, transportation and other sectors. If companies refused to change their own processes, the government might underwrite the creation of high-tech waste-treatment centers and compel industries to use them for a fee.

The principle behind this example is that government ought to use its coercive powers only if it is serious about achieving results. Once the chemical and oil industries began paying the real price for producing their hazardous wastes, they would have a strong incentive to reduce their pollution, an incentive more reliable than public relations. The federal tax code, to cite another example, now subsidizes the exploitation of virgin materials, trees, minerals, raw land, with generous tax preferences while government at the same time is supposedly promoting recycling. If government were serious, the tax incentives would be reversed -- to penalize the exploitation and reward the frugal use of resources. [15]

Is the government serious about compliance with the law? Corporations are not the only flagrant abusers of the permissive law but they are the most important ones. If the government were serious, it would create a standardized system for penalizing corporate offenders at the place where they feel real pain -- the bottom line. Ralph Nader has proposed a set of reforms for government procurement that would effectively close the window to companies that repeatedly violate laws or defraud the government on contracts.

A broader discipline could be applied to virtually all business enterprises through the U.S. tax code. A corporation that accumulates a record of antisocial behavior, including criminal violations, would be forbidden to cash in on the lucrative tax exceptions that are enacted to subsidize various business sectors. Why should other taxpayers augment the profitability of a company that, year after year, chooses to violate or evade the law?

Withdrawing tax privileges in a systematic way is another example of political remedies that speak directly to power -- applying the government's public authority to private behavior in a way that will produce real results. Such a negative tax incentive would swiftly alter the cost-benefit calculations that corporations make on whether to comply with new environmental or health and safety laws. Once the practice of abusing the law carries real costs -- with real dollar signs -- compliance may seem like a more logical choice.

These and similar ideas, of course, are exceedingly difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to envision in the present politics of the nation. That is because these ideas speak directly to the power relationships that envelop government and have deformed democracy. Anyone who operates successfully within the status quo will have little incentive, it is true, to disturb the present realities. That incentive has to come from the people.


Asking politicians to be more honest or courageous is an empty proposition by itself. The political system will not suddenly become self-disciplined or righteously skeptical of its own well-worn habits. None of the above ideas will be remotely possible unless the governing elites at the national level, including both political parties, feel threatened by some larger political force or the federal government in all its branches perceives a larger challenge to its dominance.

As it happens, the random stirrings of such a crisis are already visible in the vast deterioration in respect for federal authority. Federal law is now widely dismissed, both by aroused citizens and by local and state governments, as incoherent or unwilling to act meaningfully on public problems.

In some areas, citizens are using state legislatures as a bulwark against Washington, trying to prevent the worst outcomes that flow from the hollow laws enacted at the national level. In other instances, citizens skip over government altogether to confront powerful interests bluntly on their own turf. These shifting lines of struggle are still indistinct but perhaps foretell a historic reversal in popular political attitudes.

For two generations in American politics, Washington was the place where progressive reformers came in search of justice, whether it was civil rights or economic reforms, educational aid or environmental protection. The federal government's reputation as the most reliable source of social and economic justice has been destroyed, particularly during the last decade of Republican presidents but more profoundly over the last twenty-five years. As Professor Lowi predicted, interest-group liberalism "was almost inevitably going to produce a crisis of public authority." The crisis appears to have arrived, expressed by the mutual contempt between the people and those who govern the nation.

Engaged citizens of many different persuasions have concluded that, given the power realities that grip the national government, they must seek redress elsewhere, however limited or inadequate it might prove to be. On the whole, these are not the small- government conservatives following the anti-Washington rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, but people who call themselves liberal or progressive. They include as well countless citizens who wear no particular ideological stripe, but are simply seeking government action on the public problems they care about.

The power to govern still largely resides in Washington, but its centralized authority to decide things unilaterally for the nation is under challenge on many fronts. No one understands this better than corporations, which recognize the threat to their own political power and have largely reversed their own historical hostility to federal power. Conservative pundits still prattle on about the "new federalism," but conservative business interests now regularly lobby to defend Washington against rival centers that are trying to decide things for themselves.

Business sectors, it turns out, want to keep decision making consolidated at the federal level, where they have a better opportunity to manage the outcomes, whether the issue is product-liability lawsuits or pollution standards. Having gained substantial control over their old nemesis -- the big government built by liberalism -- industry now regularly defends big government against its smaller competitors.

This new struggle is found everywhere and on many different fronts. The state of Maine enacted a statute banning low-level radioactive wastes from landfills in the state -- trying to counter the federal government's decision to deregulate these substances as harmless. As Washington stalled, Hawaii and Vermont passed the first laws in the nation to control chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that threaten the atmospheric ozone. Portland, Oregon, banned plastic cups. Alabama prohibited out-of-state hazardous wastes from being trucked to a huge chemical dump in the state; industry sued, backed up by the federal government. When Iowa enacted a landmark ground-water-protection law, followed by Arizona and Wisconsin, the food industry lobbied Washington to preempt the states' efforts to regulate agricultural chemicals (the Bush administration endorsed the industry's demand). While Congress dallied for a decade over new clean-air legislation, eight New England states had already adopted California's tougher air pollution standards. [16]

These challenges to federal domination and many others like them have the potential to scramble the old lines of political conflict that for two generations delineated the standard liberal-conservative assumptions about politics. The battlegrounds are at least shifting in provocative new directions. The new battle lines, in effect, reflect people fighting back -- trying to accomplish something real in public affairs, despite the deformed power relationships and other obstacles.

The story of the democratic condition is not told by government alone, because there is always the other side of the two-way mirror -- the people. The next section of this inquiry turns in that direction -- citizens at large who are engaged in their own irregular politics, struggling to be heard and to force power to listen. Many Americans have given up on democracy in Washington, but they are still looking for it elsewhere.
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The nature of democracy's breakdown is visible not only in the corridors of Washington, but among the people too. Citizens have been distanced from the formal structure of governing power and they know it. Many are demoralized and resigned to their inferior status. Powerlessness also corrupts.

Others who still care about public questions have invented their own irregular methods for speaking to power. People will play the hand they are dealt and do the best they can with it. But, in the modern scheme of American politics, even active citizens are holding a very weak hand. Many have decided that if anything is going to be accomplished, it has to be done outside regular politics and in spite of government. Some assume the role of perennial guerrillas, staging daring raids on the established political order. The assaults occasionally rattle the centers of power but never manage to topple the fortress.

These citizens' attitudes and .actions powerfully confirm this book's argument that the political system we call democracy has lost substantive meaning. They can testify from experience to all the many elements of decay that have been identified as the "realities of power."

They see the major political parties in comfortable alliance with one another, not in principled competition. They know, from tangible experience, how the mystique of information-driven politics is used against them, disparaging their claims and pricing them out of the debate. They perceive the client-representative relationships of Washington as partnerships between government and the powerful economic interests that are arrayed against them. These citizens do not perhaps know the precise ways laws are manipulated, but they certainly perceive the murky barrier of symbolic law and false promises that makes it so difficult for ordinary people to penetrate the reality of governance.

All these factors and some others have incapacitated the citizens of this democracy, rendered them ineffectual as citizens. They are cut off from the real decision making in government and unable to speak to it coherently or find reliable representatives who will speak for them. People do the best they can in these debilitating circumstances, but inevitably many have absorbed their own distorted assumptions about what it means to he a citizen in a working democracy.

A generation of frustrated aspirations has led many citizens to separate themselves from the formal system of power and dwell in righteous isolation, contemptuous of all traditional ways of connecting with government. They no longer believe in elections as an effective lever of power for citizens. They distrust the elaborate machinery of governing. Many no longer believe that federal legislation itself makes much difference; they have seen too many reform laws eviscerated by the powerful economic interests.

Indeed, in many realms, the authority of federal law has become the enemy of active citizens -- taking issues away from them and concealing the action deep inside the Washington labyrinth. Cut off from the real decisions, lacking the resources to compete with the insiders, citizens at the community level lose contact with the content of public issues they care about and, as a consequence, their political activism sometimes loses coherence and energy. To overcome this, many have developed their own bluntly practical strategies for how to do politics-rough and direct confrontations with power.

Rehabilitating American democracy thus requires much more than reforming the government. It means that citizens at large must also reinvent themselves. The political culture that fractured governing authority and allowed political institutions to become irresponsible has done the same to the citizenry. The modern methodologies of government have taught people to think of themselves as one more "interest group" -- focused narrowly on this or that particular concern, but unable to imagine a larger role for themselves in the power relationships. These deformities, like the government's, are deeply embedded in the society and will also not be susceptible to quick, easy remedies. Some Americans are already working on it, however, trying to restore themselves as citizens in order to repair the democracy.

It is this lively but neglected territory of politics, the weaknesses and strengths of active citizens struggling for democratic meaning, that is explored in this next section. Their stories reveal, above all, the disconnectedness that prevents them from entering into any kind of enduring, responsible relationship with those in power.

This chapter concentrates on their strengths -- the varied ways in which citizens do sometimes manage to acquire a limited measure of power, despite the barriers thrown up in their path. Their victories are real, but often amount to a negative form of power -- popular vetoes over what the governing elites have decided in their behalf.

Not all Americans suffer equally from the deterioration of politics, and Chapter Eight, "Political Orphans," explains how the imbalances of power penalize one sector of citizens more harshly than all others. They are the working-class people who used to be protected and represented by powerful secondary mediating institutions -- organized labor and big- city political organizations. The story of how labor unions were stripped of their representative powers is an essential strand in the story of how citizens were incapacitated in politics.

Chapter Nine, "Class Conflict," turns directly to the citizens' own debilities -- the attitudes and approaches that condemn them to a weak position in politics. Just as governing circles are ruled by outmoded and self-defeating mythologies, so are many of the citizens who engage in irregular politics.

The final chapter of this section, Chapter Ten, "Democratic Promise," reveals a hopeful alternative vision-a portrait of citizens who are trying to reinvent democracy from the ground up. In a number of unexpected places, citizens are acquiring real power by coming together and patiently developing their collective political voice. These citizens are a living model of democratic meaning -- people speaking to power in a coherent manner. They provide an optimistic example for others, but also a rebuke to the atrophied political institutions that have failed.

Above all, these stories of politics have a redeeming message that is more important than all the subsidiary complications: Behind the empty shell of formal politics, the nation is alive with democratic energies. People are still pursuing the universal impulse for political self-expression. Disconnected from power, they are still searching to find it.


At the Highlander school in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, where black citizens trained for the civil rights movement a generation ago, students of a different sort assemble each month for instruction in political organizing and agitating. Most are white and not poor, though they generally come from the less prosperous comers of America, rural counties and urban working-class neighborhoods. Most are already engaged in the irregular politics of their communities and anxious to learn more about how it's done. The weekend training sessions are called STP, a title that is left open to playful interpretations. Save the Planet. Stop the Poisoners. Shoot the Politicians.

At dusk on a Friday evening in late August 1990, a group of nineteen citizens gathered in a wide circle of rocking chairs in Highlander's rustic conference room and began to educate one another with personal stories of victory and frustration. They had traveled from nine states, points as distant as Brooklyn, New York, and Jonesboro, Arkansas. A young folk singer from Pineville, Kentucky, provided a mournful version of "I am just a weary pilgrim going through this world of sin."

Highlander was founded in the 1930s by radical Christian social activists whose training workshops for labor and black organizers were frequently denounced (and persecuted) as "Communist-inspired" by southern segregationists. The mountain training center endures, a staff member explained to the circle, as "a school for people to learn how to act to exercise their rights, which is what we think democracy is all about." The civic battleground is no longer racial equality, but the injustices of life-threatening pollution.

Larry Wilson, a community leader from Yellow Creek, Kentucky, opened one discussion by reporting some of the insights gleaned from previous STP sessions. "Last group decided, since we're doing what EPA should be doing, we ought to bill the government for our work," Wilson said. "So we all sent EPA a bill. As screwed up as EPA is, they may pay us."

From Greenup County, Kentucky, an elderly war veteran named Daniel Thompson reported on GROWL, a citizens group trying to block a huge nine-hundred-acre landfill believed to be designed for the garbage of New York and New Jersey. "Those hearings they have are just a laugh," Thompson said. "The one we had, people said the hearing officer fell asleep two or three times. . . .

"I think the people in New York's got in mind to make eastern Kentucky and the southern states their dumping ground. If they win, we ain't going to have no water fit to drink because even EPA says there's no landfill that doesn't leak. They may get it -- I don't know -- but they'll surely know they've been in a fight."

Deborah Bouton, from Murphysboro, Illinois, reported gloomily on the hazards of a local Superfund site created by a military installation and EPA's plan to install a mobile incinerator for the cleanup. "I'm here because I desperately need some encouragement," she said. "I need to hear some success stories. I approach friends and try to get them to come to meetings, but their apathy is so profound. It's like there's nobody home."

Bob Greenbaum, a home-repair contractor from Cleveland, Ohio, described a fight against a new incinerator planned for a poor neighborhood "where the people have about as much political influence as my dog." A wealthy suburb, he said, was persuaded to join the fight because its citizens might 'be at risk too if the wind is blowing the wrong way. ''I' in for environmental fundamentalism," Greenbaum declared. "Start a lot of big brushfires everywhere you can and let the regulators try to put them out."

James Ramer, a hospital administrator from Jonesboro, Arkansas, recounted how he became politically activated. "We had one landfill that hit us before we knew how things worked," Ramer said. "We thought EPA was supposed to protect people." The others interrupted with cynical laughter. "Seriously, we did, " he said. "So we lost that one. Then they came in with the second landfill and we nailed that one. . . .

"The governor brushed us off so we got mad and we organized an environmental task force statewide with twenty-one hundred members. We're becoming a political force. The governor can't wall us off in one comer of the state. We're popping up all over the place."

The lengthy discussions at the STP school are about politics, but not in the esoteric euphemisms that cloud Washington debates. These people do not say "pollutants." They talk about the "poisons" in their communities. They do not analyze the statistics of risk assessment. They talk about people they know who died or children afflicted with cancer in their hometowns. The official language of environmental regulation -- terms like "interim permits" or "sanitary landfill" or "state-of-the-art technology" -- sounds to them like purposeful double-talk.

"These people are already radical," Larry Wilson said, "but they're saying things here for the first time to real folks like themselves -- things they've never had the nerve to say to their conservative folks back home. It's kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous. Saying something out loud that you've been thinking has a cleansing effect and hearing someone else say it has a strengthening effect. It makes it easier to say it over and over again when you get back home."

The rough-hewn political sophistication of these "witnesses" is obvious. Collectively, these people already know quite a lot about how government really works and, if policymakers ever listened to them in earnest, they would hear a brutally explicit diagnosis of why politics and government have failed. From practical experience, these citizens have mastered many of the procedural formalities and dense technical details, but they have also glimpsed the real power relationships underneath. That is why they are so alienated.

Public-spirited reforms enacted in the last generation (including public hearings and formal access to decision making for ordinary people) have only deepened their skepticism. They can see for themselves that the democratic form is not the reality. "At public hearings," one of them observed, "most public officials act like they're protecting hidden interests, like the decisions have already been made somewhere else."

James Ramer went further. "The politicians have pretty well quietly insulated themselves from all the critical issues," he explained. "By turning the decisions over to boards and commissions who are beholden to the industrial interests, the politicians protect themselves from the blame."

"We're playing by their rules," Wilson said. "The system was invented by the people who are poisoning us. The rules say they get to argue over how much cyanide they can put in our coffee, how much poison they can put out before they have to take responsibility for it. That's not a system we can ever win in."

The STP schools, perhaps by design, produce predictable tides of conflicting emotions among the students, some of whom are meeting other community activists for the first time. First, there is elation, listening to the others tell stories of their inventive tactics and occasional victories. This is displaced by despondency as they turn to analyzing the political forces arrayed against them: the federal government, local politicians, the corporations and their hired cadres, the scientific community, sometimes the media, sometimes even their own communities.

In a role-playing exercise, the STP students assumed the parts of the industry spokesmen and government officials attempting to convince a community that the new landfill or incinerator poses no health hazards and promises lots of new jobs. With disturbing ease, the activists found they could expertly mimic the condescending language and scientific bromides that have been used against them. The exercise provoked nervous laughter, then subdued reflections on their own weakness.

After many hours of talk, a renewed sense of anger surfaced -- anger that swiftly hardened into audacious political statements. "The law is not on our side, it just isn't," Bob Greenbaum said. "It's our government even though it isn't serving us. We need to seize the moral high ground and ask moral questions. Who made this choice that put us at risk?"

"There are already enough laws on the books right now, if they were enforced," James Ramer said. "I think the only way we're going to do it is to get hold of the power, which is the political power. Even though rich people have the most power, if we seize the political system out from under them, that's when it's going to happen. We have to develop enough clout so the governmental machinery can't be bought off."

In that sense at least, their self-conscious identification with the civil rights movement is accurate enough: These citizens are also utterly distant from power. They are scattered voices expressing hopes and fears for their families and communities, but utterly beneath the notice of the larger structure of formal politics. In their hopeful moments, these citizens also imagine that they are quietly building a political movement -- a movement for environmental justice -- while political elites dismiss their fears as irrational and disparage their demands as "misplaced priorities."


Firsthand experience with how government responds to ordinary citizens can serve as a powerful organizing tool. A vast network of indigenous environmental organizations has "popped up" from the grassroots during the last decade -- as many as seven thousand, some estimate -- fighting everything from industrial smokestacks to groundwater pollution. These citizens were not drawn to environmental activism by abstract ideology or aesthetics, but by their own experiences. They did not come from the well-educated managerial classes that produce so many members for the larger environmental organizations. On the whole, these citizens come from the most alienated and passive ranks of society, middle America, where politics seems remote and pointless. [1]

Typically, these people saw their homes or communities threatened in tangible ways. They turned to the government for help and were confronted by bureaucratic indifference or political sleight-of-hand. The disillusionment eventually led them to ask larger questions about power and the nature of democracy, but also to entertain more ambitious conceptions of their own citizenship.

Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director of the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, a national organization that supports and advises thousands of grassroots groups, explains:

"Generally, people at first have a blind faith in government. So when they go to EPA or the state agency and show them that there is a problem, they think the government will side with them. It takes them about a year before they realize the government is not going to help them. They see the agencies studying them to death. That's when they become really angry -- radicalized."

Gibbs went through the same learning process herself back in 1978 when, as a young housewife and mother, she organized the neighborhood families who were living on top of a chemical swamp known as Love Canal in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York. "When I started, I believed democracy worked," she said. "I believed everything I had learned in civics class. What I saw is that decisions are made on the basis of politics and costs. Money."

Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal activists became the model for thousands of other communities because they figured out how to play politics "very rude and very crude," as she put it. The governor of New York came to address their complaints and delivered what Gibbs described as a "kiss-the-baby" speech. When it was their turn to ask questions, the mothers flooded the stage with their three-year-olds and four-year-olds. Then they turned to the governor and asked if he intended to protect these children from the deadly chemicals. Surrounded by toddlers, the governor capitulated on the spot.

"Although we won, that was really scary to me," Gibbs said. "My God, do they make all their decisions this way? All you need to do is make it politically advantageous for these guys to do what you want, regardless of whether it's right or moral? So much for civics class."

As thousands of other citizen activists have discovered, rude and crude politics works more reliably than the system's formal processes. Instead of obeying the rules, they stage dramatic confrontations with the people who have power. Citizens chain themselves to the gates of landfills. Or they block incoming dump trucks with caravans of their own cars and pickup trucks. They "blow up" public hearings with noisy disruptions and walkouts. In Braintree, Massachusetts, fifteen hundred people formed a hand-to-hand protest across a river bridge to protest a hazardous-waste incinerator. In Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a school bus filled with women and children blocked a Browning-Ferris landfill entrance for three hours. In Sumter, South Carolina, the local American Legion commander was arrested in community civil disobedience. These flamboyant tactics all won their objectives -- after reason and politeness had failed. [2]

"The movement is outside the system," Gibbs explained, "because that's the way to win. If you work within the established system, doing the right thing, more often than not you will lose. The system is put together by the powers that be so they will win. To be outside means not to accept that we will lose.

Many of these activists are convinced they are risking personal retaliation by challenging powerful corporate interests, a fear that is not entirely groundless. Some of them have been hit with multi-million-dollar defamation lawsuits filed by waste-disposal companies, a counterattack designed to silence them with huge legal bills (the activists call them SLAPPs -- "strategic lawsuits against public participation"). In an internal memo, a Union Carbide executive invoked the Red scare by warning his fellow managers that Lois Gibbs's organization has "ties into labor, the communist party and all manner of folk with private/single agenda." [3]

Nevertheless, William Ruckelshaus, the CEO of Browning-Ferris Industries and former EPA administrator, has a politician's grudging respect for the grassroots activists -- perhaps because his own company, second largest in the waste-disposal industry, has gone up against them on many local fronts and often lost.

"They are the most radicalized group I've seen since Vietnam," Ruckelshaus said. "They've been empowered by their own demands. They can block things. That's a negative power. But it's real power. Right or wrong, you can't bull your way through that kind of opposition."

Across many issues beyond environmental protection, Ruckelshaus observed, the dissolution of governing authority is underway -- driven mainly by public distrust. "I think what's happening," he said, "is that people are taking back the power to govern. It's not just symbolic power, it's real power."

Among political elites, including some of the respectable environmental organizations, the community environmentalists are regarded as irresponsible and dismissed with the tired cliche "not in my backyard." In fact, the movement for environmental justice has embraced a public-spirited goal that is more positive and ambitious than the government's -- to stop the corporations from dumping their stuff in anyone's backyard. [4]

Gibbs describes a plausible strategy for accomplishing this -- "plugging the toilet" of the industrial system -- a strategy that is based on an analysis of corporate economics, not good intentions. What policy elites mistake for random irrationality in the grassroots agitators is actually their different way of understanding the power relationships. The activists recognize that political outcomes are not determined by the rationalistic policy processes that elites promote. Do federal regulatory laws have the promise of solving the environmental problem, given their compromised condition in the web of corporate political influence? At the grassroots level, based on their own observations of how the system works, the answer many citizens give is no.

The relevant power, the citizens would say, does not reside in the political system, but in the private corporations that finance and manipulate the politicians. So these citizens have worked out their own strategy for achieving environmental progress -- a strategy that, realistically enough, targets corporate power. Given all that has occurred, their approach seems at least as "rational" as trying to enact new regulatory laws. Lois Gibbs explained:

"When companies have proposed new hazardous-waste landfills, our folks have come out and said, no, you can't put it there. As a result, there has not been a single new hazardous- waste site opened in the last ten years. Without passing any new laws or regulations, without getting into the debate, we have stopped the expansion of hazardous-waste sites in this country. In Colorado, BPI has the last landfill that's been approved, but the reason people lost in Colorado is because they turned to the scientists and did their objections within the system. You can't win within the system.

"Our aim is to change the discussion within the boardrooms of major corporations. That's where we will win ultimately, not in the government agencies or Congress. Our strategy is basically like plugging up the toilet -- by stopping them from opening new landfills, incinerators, deep-well injection systems and hazardous-waste sites. What happens? Industry is still generating the same amount of chemical waste and, because disposal facilities are limited, the cost of storage and disposal climbs many, many times. That's the American way -- scarcity raises the price.

"In the boardrooms at some point, there's going to be this discussion: 'Hey, ten years ago, our disposal costs were X and now they are multiplying and so is our liability and so is the public-relations damage.' That's when real change will come. All they understand is profit and loss. When the cost is high enough, corporations will decide to recycle wastes and reclaim materials, to substitute nontoxics in their products, to change their processes of production."

It is entirely plausible that these scattered groups of citizens, employing their practical strategy of cost pressures, may succeed where government has failed. As if to substantiate Gibbs's power analysis, William Ruckelshaus announced in the spring of 1990 that Browning-Ferris was going to get out of the hazardous-waste business. BPI would concentrate on the other, less dangerous forms of waste disposal and try to sell its new site in Colorado to some other operator. Hazardous waste, Ruckelshaus explained, was losing money. [5]

Active citizens of any sort are always, of course, a small minority of the population, since they are committed to public affairs at a level of intensity most Americans would probably never reach, even if democracy were functioning. A 1986 study measured the political sophistication of American adults and found an activist core of 5 percent, including the regular cadres within political parties. A fifth of the citizenry, 20 percent, was described as "totally apolitical." The rest were said to be "marginally attentive to politics."

Karen Paget, a political scientist at the University of California, estimated that fifteen million people are engaged in as many as two million citizen organizations, ranging from neighborhood drug patrols to national groups like ACORN, which has seventy thousand members organized in poor and low-income communities in twenty-six states. "Though there is no precise definition of a citizen organization," Paget wrote, "even a narrow conception would disclose phenomenal growth in the last two decades." [6]

In some crude fashion, however, these activists speak for a broader public too, serving as self-selected representatives without the benefit of elections. For them, developing political influence depends crucially on sustaining credibility among the passive citizens who merely sit and listen. Ralph Nader is disparaged by the elected apparatus of politics, but he has continuing influence because he accurately voices the complaints of a much broader audience.

On some matters, the unelected representatives are more trusted than the elected ones. A Washington Post poll, for instance, asked citizens to rate the different political voices they hear on environmental issues. The environmental groups came in first: 63 percent favorable; 20 percent unfavorable. Local governments finished second, EPA was third. Business leaders finished last: 33 percent favorable; 45 percent unfavorable. [7]

Ronald Reagan made an ironic contribution to the dramatic growth of irregular politics, not because he preached antigovernment volunteerism, but because his administration's hard- headed assault on federal programs and laws clarified the power relations for people. The fix is in in Washington, they concluded. Nothing will be done there. Why pass laws when the other side has no intention of observing them? Let's try something else. So people turned in other directions, lobbying state and local governments for reform or inventing disruptive new ways to apply "rude and crude" politics to a wide variety of issues, from housing to taxation.

The very structure of federal laws, however, including environmental laws, has had the long-term effect of weakening citizen politics by making issues more remote. Leon Billings, an environmental consultant, served as staff director of the Senate Public Works Committee during the reform years of the 1970s when all the landmark environmental laws were enacted. He has regretfully concluded that federal legislation like the Clean Air Act of 1970 had the unintended consequence of smothering political energies at the grassroots level. Might the nation have made more actual progress on clean air, Billings wonders, if the federal law had not intervened?

"Adopting national air ambience standards in the Clean Air Act was the biggest mistake we ever made," he confessed. "Citizens-for-clean-air groups were beginning to get local governments to adopt tougher standards around the country, much tougher than anticipated, and industry wanted to get out from under these local and regional activists who were coming after them everywhere. The Clean Air Act brought the fight to Washington where industry could manipulate thing much more cleverly.

"The federal law short-circuited the activism. It took away the forum for local activists and they had to become involved in much more technical arguments, an arena where industry is strong and citizens are weak. Once policy issues become engulfed in the federal bureaucracy, the public loses the ability to influence these decisions because local electronic and print media simply lose interest in the issues. The story is suddenly distant and difficult to cover in a local newspaper. There's no local agitation because it's now a 'national issue.'"

If citizens at large seem "dumb" to political elites, including their own elected representatives, it is partly because they have been cut off from knowing and understanding the real arguments. But the citizens' new tactics also condemn them to a more or less permanent state of isolation. They may succeed at delivering potent messages to those in power, but this does not get them any closer to developing a relationship with the formal structure that decides things.

Karen Paget, formerly an official for federal domestic-social programs in the Carter administration, offered this sympathetic critique of nonelectoral citizen politics: "To be sure, community organizations can playa crucial role in fostering participation, strengthening a democratic ethos, and in making government work. But claims that suggest such organizations can replace the state or the polity are as misleading as the notion that they could eradicate poverty."

The isolation from power leads to strategies that are oppositional and often narrow or essentially negative. Community organizations can target an offending corporation or veto a government project. But they cannot enter into the ongoing political debate on larger matters like the federal tax code or the national economic policies that fundamentally influence the future of their communities. They can stop a chemical waste dump or postpone the closing of a local plant or perhaps even ban a harmful product from the marketplace. But they cannot reach the government decisions that allow these things to happen in the first place. Citizens may block things, but it is much harder for them to build anything.

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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:23 am

PART 2 OF 2 (CH. 7 CONT'D.)

In recent years, the two "hottest" citizen organizations in America have been Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Both have grown almost frantically, especially among younger people. Both have a brash, direct style that cuts through all the political fog with action that is clear and accessible to individuals. "An organization like Greenpeace was considered a terrorist organization ten years ago because of its tactics," Leon Billings remarked, "and now it's becoming the mainstream." When Amnesty or Greenpeace scores a hit, people can see concrete results from their political engagement. Something actually happens -- which is more than one can count on from the normal channels of politics.

Both Greenpeace and Amnesty also do what political parties used to do -- educate citizens for politics. Amnesty staged a worldwide campaign to connect young people with human- rights politics by sending Sting, Bruce Springsteen and other rock stars on a global concert tour. Music was the draw but the concerts also delivered a mild education on the issues.

High school kids wrote personal letters to political prisoners and to foreign dictators, asking them to stop torturing people. The political prisoners wrote back. Sometimes so did the dictators, evidently unaware that these politically astute Americans were children.

"When we get someone into our organization," John G. Healy, Amnesty's executive director, explained, "we try to turn them into a human-rights activist. We teach them policy and the hardline issues. We're a democracy ourselves, an organization of people who actually write their own policy. It's very direct: You're a political prisoner, we work for you.

"We work just as Greenpeace does. They see a toxic problem, they put a flag down. When we see a political prisoner we put a flag down. We're both dangerous to the U.S. government because we eliminate the government's ally and friend -- business -- from the argument. We say the same things to the government's closest allies as we say to its enemies. In Amnesty, we say there should be a single standard in the world for human rights. That's a dangerous idea for a superpower."

Yet where does all the youthful energy turn, once it has freed a political prisoner? Despite Amnesty's many successes, Healy is gloomy about the prospects for political development. He sees idealistic citizens, young and old, confined to "direct-action" hits on narrow objectives.

"I'm so despondent about American politics," he said. "Everyone's lost their curiosity and imagination. In Germany, the Greens came out of Amnesty International -- all the Green party leadership was trained in Amnesty -- but in America there's no way to feed into politics. There's no place to attach. What would they attach to? I don't know.
"We're almost teaching people antipolitics. If you're a people's movement, you don't bullshit. You don't hype. You don't make glib and easy comparisons. So, if you become one of our leaders, you'll never get anywhere in American politics. Because you'll talk substance, you'll tell the truth. That's the last thing you need to succeed in American politics."


Many citizens in search of political leverage have decided to skip government altogether and confront corporations on their home turf -- in the marketplace. Consumer boycotts are not a new pressure tactic, of course, but the form has been elaborated and multiplied many times in recent years.

McDonald's was vulnerable for its "clamshell" packaging, Burger King for buying cattle from ranches created by destroying rain forests, and StarKist tuna for killing dolphins. Each of them folded without much of a fight. As a spokesman for H. J. Heinz, owner of Starkist, explained to The Wall Street Journal: "The idea that the company could be branded as the largest slaughterers of dolphins in the world seemed to us to be dramatically opposed to where the company wanted to position itself as health-conscious and caring." [8]

Because these companies all live or perish by their brand names and the wholesome images their TV advertising has created in the public mind, they are most vulnerable to accusations of antisocial behavior. The smart corporate response, in many cases, is to surrender cheerfully.

According to Boycott News, an irregular newsletter, there are now as many as three hundred boycotts a year. Demonstrators dumped Miller beer on the street to protest Philip Morris's campaign support for right-wing Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Black demonstrators targeted Nike shoes, demanding more employment for black executives. Led by conservative preachers, grassroots boycotts aimed at TV sponsors or convenience stores selling Playboy have had some success at removing "blasphemous" materials from public view. Boycotts are spreading because they sometimes work.

"Most people don't have faith in government's ability to do these things," said Steve Beers, an Austin, Texas, activist. "They're not going to go through the process of petitioning the government and working in elections in order to get the government to do something. Frankly, the dollar bill is a lot more effective franchise. It gives people something powerful but very easy to do. If you go to the grocery store, you can choose."

Corporations are not exactly helpless giants, however. When a campaign targeted Folgers coffee for its economic connections to the war in El Salvador, Procter & Gamble struck back on the bottom line. The boycotters bought TV time on a Boston station for a commercial attacking Folgers. Procter & Gamble responded by canceling all of its advertising on the station -- sending a chilling message to every other broadcaster in America. None has since been willing to run the anti-Folgers spot and risk the same result.

A more fundamental weakness of boycotts is that consumer pressure can't easily reach beyond the shelf of brand-name goods. One of the most ambitious boycotts targets General Electric for its manufacture of nuclear weapons, but the only consumer in the bomb business is the U.S. government. The campaign attempts to get around this barrier by promoting a boycott of everything GE makes and sells, from light bulbs to high-tech hospital equipment. INFACT, the Boston group that launched the effort, claims to have deprived GE of $50 million in sales, partly by persuading church-related hospitals to stop buying GE medical technology. For a company with annual revenues of $55 billion, even this loss would not constitute grave injury.

The other weakness is the randomness of the boycott campaigns, which hit here and there in narrow and sporadic fashion. The overall effect of these campaigns is broadly educational and raises the awareness of ordinary consumers, especially about their own contribution to environmental problems. But it also requires the politically conscious to take a lengthy list of forbidden products with them when they go to the supermarket. Indeed, a little guidebook called Shopping for a Better World is available for those who wish to express their political convictions at the checkout counter.

Denis Hayes, organizer of the original Earth Day in 1970, has launched Green Seal as an attempt to institutionalize the political power of consumers by creating a standard label for environmental concerns, covering everything from egg cartons to autos. "What we find over time is that, no matter what the laws said, they were just compromised beyond belief, and even the compromises were then delayed and weakened with exceptions and exemptions," Hayes said. "In recent days, we have found we can't even get the good laws passed.

"At which point, people start saying, okay, it would be a whole lot easier to do this with federal laws, but at least they can't stop us from doing it ourselves. Consumers can make a real difference. More importantly, Green Seal gives people more involvement than simply sending a check to the Sierra Club. Out of that, maybe we can begin once again to build a movement from the ground up and begin to assert ourselves in the political process in a way that isn't just Tweedledum and Tweedledee."

In the meantime, consumer boycotts like Green Seal confirm the general distrust of government and business to do the right thing. The Gallup Poll, in a survey commissioned by Advertising Age, asked consumers whom they would most trust to design environmental labeling for products -- a government agency or corporations or private environmentalists.

"We won," Hayes said.


In 1988, while conventional politics concentrated on electing a new president, an organization called Voter Revolt pulled off an epic David-and-Goliath victory in California. Supported by contributions from two hundred thousand Californians, the group sent college students out to knock on 1.1 million doors. The result was enough signatures to put a radical proposition on the ballot that fall -- a mandatory 20 percent rollback in California's sky-high auto insurance rates.

The insurance industry responded by spending more than $60 million to defeat Proposition 103 -- millions more than George Bush spent in his entire nationwide campaign to become president. Voter Revolt, unable to afford a single TV spot, won.

On election eve, volunteers stood by freeway entrances and held up cardboard signs: "Nader: Yes on 103." Ralph Nader's endorsement of the initiative helped voters cut through the confusion of scare tactics and counterproposals thrown up by the insurance industry's campaign. But Nader's credibility also connected with a general anger that the political system had declined to address: Californians were paying as much as $6,000 a year for car insurance. People did not need Ralph Nader or Voter Revolt to tell them they were being ripped off.

Voter initiatives were invented by Progressive reformers early in the twentieth century for exactly this situation: a way for citizens to free government from the heavy embrace of special interests and to write laws themselves, enacted by a direct vote of the people. Initiative campaigns have always been a staple of California politics, but in the last fifteen years the device has become the most active (and most expensive) arena for the state's political action. The approach now flourishes in dozens of other states and cities nationwide, on every issue from taxes to helping the homeless.

California voters, for instance, have applied real political leverage on the federal government through their state's initiative process. Proposition 65, an environmental measure approved in 1986, requires safety labeling on products -- warnings of cancer- causing ingredients, for instance -- that goes far beyond anything Washington has dared to consider. Since California is the largest marketplace in the country, companies will have to comply with the state law in order to sell in that market. No longer protected by weak federal standards, some companies changed their products -- replacing the toxic contents with benign substitutes. [9]

"Congress seems to be atrophied and so are the state legislatures," said Albert H. Meyerhoff, a San Francisco lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If we've learned one lesson from the 1980s, we've learned that you can't trust the federal government to protect the food supply.... EPA has become the Environmental Placation Agency."

The modern rebellion-by-referendum was launched by fed-up conservatives who in 1978 proposed California's now-famous "Prop 13," an initiative that imposed rigid ceilings on state taxes and government spending. Left-liberal groups next began to harness voter discontent on environmental degradation and a long list of other neglected social concerns.

In dozens of states, both liberal and conservative activists are simultaneously popularizing the technique of direct lawmaking, mutually motivated by a deep distrust of elected legislators and governors. In California and elsewhere, the two ideological camps more or less merged behind the cause of imposing term limitations. on state legislators. A Los Angeles Times survey found that 53 percent of Californians believe their state legislators routinely take bribes from special interests. [10]

Yet left and right are attempting to reform the public sector in roughly opposite directions: The tax-cutting initiatives sponsored by conservatives aim to shrink government's capacity altogether, while the liberals are trying to make government actually do something. In 1990, both sides mostly lost their issues. Environmental measures like the omnibus "Big Green" proposal in California were rejected by wary voters as overly ambitious, but so were most of the tax-cutting measures that conservatives sponsored in many states. [11]

The basic weakness of voter initiatives (and also their great virtue) is that enacting laws by referendum skips over the hard part of representative democracy. Lawmaking is supposed to be a deliberative process of conflict and resolution -- debate, negotiations and compromise -- that requires all sides to face the contradictions in their own positions. At least that is the ideal. Packaging laws by popular vote evades this obligation-the accountability embedded in the legislative process itself.

Anyone with enough money to collect the necessary qualifying signatures can get a proposed law on the ballot without ever having to address the arguments against it or the people who might be injured. In California, the business of gathering citizen signatures costs as much as $1 million for a statewide referendum and has spawned its own industry of professionalized consultants. Every year, ballot propositions consume more campaign spending than the contests for California's top elective offices.

Furthermore, as California's eminent pollster Mervin Field has explained, the referendum approach to governing generates its own form of class bias, given the atrophied condition of electoral democracy. The minority who actually turn out to vote are dominated by the well-educated, propertied classes and, because of the low election turnouts, they can impose their values and political objectives on the passive majority. Prop 13, which launched a "taxpayer revolt" nationwide, was supported by just 27 percent of the California electorate. A companion proposition, enacted the following year, was supported by only 16 percent of the California electorate.

"Taxpaying voters," Field wrote, "represent a declining proportion of all taxpayers and are, increasingly, a different breed of people. They are older, much more white than the rest of the population, they earn more, they have accumulated more wealth, and have different needs than the large majority of taxpayers who happen not to vote." Conservatives might argue that similar class biases are embedded in many of the environmental ballot measures -- imposing "green" values that appeal to a certain stratum of economically secure citizens. [12]

In the modern political condition, however, many .popular ideas must bypass the state legislatures (or the Congress) in order to get on the political agenda. "The government is deadlocked, the people are not represented, " Bill Zimmerman, a founding organizer of Voter Revolt, explained. "If you can threaten the legislature credibly with an initiative, you're much more likely to provoke the legislature to do what you want.

"We're supposed to have a government of checks and balances, but we need a check on government for the people because their original check -- elections -- has been invalidated by modern campaigning, the high-tech, high-cost campaigns that merely manipulate voters."

However, Voter Revolt's auto-insurance measure, Prop 103, did not produce a substantive victory for the angry voters who enacted it into law. After the referendum, the insurance industry sued and persuaded a court to invalidate the 20 percent rate rollback. A new insurance commissioner was elected in 1990, as prescribed by Prop 103, but the winner was closer to the insurance industry than the proconsumer candidates who lost. The short- term consequence of these setbacks, Zimmerman conceded, was to deepen public cynicism.

"But the battle isn't over yet," Zimmerman said. "We have another insurance proposition in circulation for June of 1992. It says, if rates aren't reduced, the state will create a nonprofit agency that sells auto insurance at a reasonable price. We've already done our own poll and it's 61 percent approval."

Initiatives by themselves will not alter the balance of power, Zimmerman agrees, but like consumer boycotts, they might help to foster a political mobilization of citizens.

"It's not that one initiative either works or doesn't work," he said. "It's that one victory launches a political force and then you've got to fight like crazy to keep it alive and try to cross the threshold where the reform becomes real. You start with radical initiatives that people want, that state government will never do itself and that can work. Then you can start to build a political force, not with rhetoric and ideology, which nobody buys anymore, but with results."


In many matters, as these examples suggest, the politics of American governance now resembles the rough comedy of a Punch and Judy show. Without a coherent center for collective decision making and shared principles, political conflict becomes a series of rude and crude ambushes. People stage surprise attacks on public policy, then find themselves hit by body blocks or below-the-belt punches. Everyone feels bruised and disappointed, even the powerful.

Over the last two decades, using their superior resources and political skills, business interests succeeded in neutralizing the force of many federal laws and even capturing the democratic arena where national policy is determined. Now, however, corporate interests appear to be particularly distressed by what they have wrought -- a governing system that responds to their desires before the public's, but still cannot quite protect them from the people's hot breath. Corporations frequently find themselves cross-checked by the irregular tactics of the citizen guerrillas.

In many states, governors and legislatures have become more responsive to the home- grown agitation and, even in supposedly conservative states, they sometimes take up the citizens' complaints and build legal barriers against the offensive federal policies. In Alabama, the Republican governor closed the notorious hazardous-waste site at Emelle to out-of-state waste. In Texas, the Democratic governor ordered a temporary ban on opening any new chemical dumps or expanding old ones.

Business interests now turn routinely to the federal government and demand that it protect them from these unruly folks. The distress of corporate interests is quite real, though ironic, considering how they systematically accumulated political power to contain this sort of disruption.

The president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, Larry Thomas, issued a dire political alert in 1990 to the plastics manufacturers: Forty-nine states are considering or have already enacted laws that ban or restrict plastic products. Individual consumers are avoiding plastics out of concern for health and environment. Organizations like the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes are attacking the industry's "recycling" standards as fraudulent.

"The image of plastics among consumers is deteriorating at an alarmingly fast pace," Thomas wrote. "Opinion research experts tell us that it has plummeted so far and so fast, in fact, that we are approaching a 'point of no return.' ... There is a growing consensus among plastics executives that we must immediately undertake a major program of unprecedented proportions to reverse this fast-moving tidal wave of growing negative public perception." [13]

A similar sense of alarm was expressed in the food industry. Despite the official assurances periodically issued by such federal regulators as the EPA, the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, the food industry is also suffering a rapid loss of public confidence. A 1989 survey conducted for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association for major food retailers, found that nearly four in ten consumers do not think the food sold in their supermarkets is safe to eat.

"Who is setting food policy today?" FMI President Robert O. Aders asked plaintively, in a speech to the Produce Marketing Association's convention. "Are the critical decisions being made in the halls of government or in the aisles of the local Safeway or IGA? Environmentalists would grant that authority to the supermarket. It's a clever strategy and it could succeed without decisive countermeasures." [14]

Private interests, Aders warned, "are assuming the government's role in testing for pesticide residues ... [and] supermarkets advertise that their produce has no detectable residues and consumers respond. The fact that such an ad message has any clout at all is cause for concern among food regulators. It shows a lack of faith in the government systems to safeguard the food supply."

While Aders blamed the industry's problems partly on inflammatory accusations, he also candidly acknowledged the central cause -- the breakdown of government. "Government inaction or slow action or indecision creates the void," he explained. " ... We need a more coordinated [federal] system where the overriding concern is the safety of the food supply -- a system that instills confidence in consumers that the food they eat is safe."

EPA, he noted, declares that a cancer-causing pesticide poses an "unreasonable risk," then allows the chemical to remain in use for another eighteen months. Federal regulators promise to "expedite" the removal of dangerous food contaminants, but "expedite" turns out to mean eight or ten years or longer. "That's a long time," Aders said, "even in the time frame of scientists and bureaucrats. And completely unacceptable to consumers."

Corporate interests are now stuck in the ironic position of trying to prop up the federal government's authority. Yet the underlying source of this problem -- government inaction and the loss of public confidence -- is business's own political behavior. If people have stopped taking the federal government's word as reliable, that is partly because corporate lobbyists subverted the objectivity and integrity of government agencies. If federal law no longer functions in a convincing manner, that is precisely the result that corporate interests intended.

In short, companies that are now afflicted by chaotic political assaults have only themselves to blame. If corporate interests genuinely wished for citizens to defer once again to the authority of the federal government, they would reform their own way of doing politics. This does not seem a likely prospect, to put it mildly.

Instead, business interests are concentrating their political influence on a different goal -- nullifying the citizens' political energies with the force of federal law. On issue after issue, alliances of corporations and business sectors are lobbying to enact preemptive federal laws or regulations that will establish Washington as sole authority to govern in those areas. Conflicting state laws, they claim, are creating a "legal balkanization" that Washington must supersede.

"The reason Lincoln went to war was to keep the Union whole," Geoffrey Hurwitz, government-relations director of Rohm and Hass, the chemical company, told the National Journal.

His metaphor does not seem too extreme. In terms of national policy on chemical wastes, for instance, a Kind of-civil war has broken out -- especially in the South, where so much of the dangerous industrial refuse is produced and eventually buried in the ground. State governments, egged on by local activists, are blocking the hazardous-waste developments approved by EPA or superimposing their own more stringent standards on top of federal law.

California's voter initiative on product-warning labels, likewise, would be nullified if business can persuade Congress that Prop 65 is an unnecessary nuisance. Thomas J. Donegan, vice-president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, complained: "In effect, you are letting California call the shots [on product labeling] that ought to be called by the federal government in regard to a consistent policy." [15]

A coalition of eleven trade associations, worried about marketplace intruders like Green Seal as well as state laws, petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to produce official federal guidelines on such marketing terms as "recycled" and "compostable." Lever Brothers, Procter & Gamble and Kraft General Foods were prominent in the business alliance, which ranged from the advertising industry to retail packaging. [16]

Autos, drugs, retailing, chemicals, food, insurance, waste disposal, plastics, general manufacturing, small business -- all these sectors and others have lobbied for federal preemption in one form or another, sometimes with success. "The business community has tamed the federal regulatory beasts," explained Bruce Silverglade, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "so now the cry for further deregulation is synonymous with a cry for preemption."

This posture naturally requires the conservative business leaders to abandon their traditional position -- the defense of states' rights -- and to argue, with flagrant hypocrisy, that only the government in Washington can resolve these difficult social questions.

On the other hand, their adversaries -- the environmentalists and other citizen reformers -- have also had to reverse their old political logic, now that they see state and local governments as their best hope for real change. The Advocacy Institute and Congress Watch issued their own political alert to the grassroots:

"Citizen advocates are fighting and winning battles at the state and local level-battles for clean indoor air, warnings on hazardous products, the disclosure of toxic hazards. But while they are winning on one front, their gains are too often eroded on another, preempted by laws that do little to accomplish their stated goals, but choke off effective regulation at local levels of government." [17]

Given their pious sermons about returning power to the states, it requires a wrenching political flip-flop for conservatives to embrace the business position. Many of them, nevertheless, nimbly overcome the awkwardness and vote for federal preemptions. Liberal Democrats are, likewise, caught in the middle: They are ideologically disposed to uphold the supremacy of federal authority, yet many of their most active constituencies are now pulling them in the opposite direction.

This struggle defines a new faultline in American politics. Some sincere conservatives oppose the business campaigns for federal preemptions as a matter of principle and, when conservatives join with liberal votes in Congress, the corporations find it most difficult to prevail. On the other hand, business appears to be winning gradually on scattered fronts, at least more than it is losing.

During the 1980s, the era when Ronald Reagan was supposedly turning over power to state and local governments, the enactment of federal preemptions on business regulation and health and safety laws actually accelerated, according to the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. So much for the "new federalism." [18]

The dissolution of federal authority -- people taking back the power to govern, as William Ruckelshaus put it -- is an untidy process and essentially negative in the sense that it will indeed create a crazy-quilt system of conflicting laws, at least in the short term.

Yet this disorder flows inevitably from the existing realities of power. As local activists would say: What else can we do? If Washington will not listen or act, then democratic energies will seek redress wherever they can find it. The national industrial system will have to cope with that chaos, like it or not, so long as it uses its political power to abort effective law at the national level.

Business interests, of course, are not exactly impotent at the state and local levels either, but decentralized politics at least multiplies the points of attack for citizens as guerrillas. When citizen reformers find a sympathetic state legislature or an attorney general ready to pursue strong enforcement, they can at least create new points of leverage -- start some "big brushfires," as Bob Greenbaum put it, that will excite public opinion and complicate politics for their more powerful adversaries.

In this struggle, as with other political issues, the corporate interests have one big advantage: They will come back, year after year, making the same arguments for federal preemption. They have the resources and patience to stay with it until they get their way. Meanwhile, the citizens who have gravitated to other political arenas in search of victories discover they must still fight a rear-guard battle in Washington -- trying to keep the feds from nullifying the victories won by their grassroots politics. The system, as Lois Gibbs observed, is designed for them to lose.

It was not always thus. The American system, as everyone knows, has always fallen short of its democratic ideals in different ways. But, a generation ago, the ordinary people who lack social status or economic advantages did have a much stronger claim on the political system, mainly because they were represented by powerful, permanent voices. The decline of organized labor, as we shall see next, created an entire class of Americans who are effectively orphaned by politics -- the working people who are most in need of equitable representation.
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:27 am


The quality of democracy is not measured in the contentment of the affluent, but in how the political system regards those who lack personal advantages. Such people have never stood in the front ranks of politics, of course, but a generation ago, they had a real presence, at least more than they have now. The challenging conditions they face in their daily lives were once part of the general equation that the political system took into account when it decided the largest economic questions. Now these citizens are absent from politics -- both as participants and as the subjects of consideration.

These citizens are not the idle poor, though many hover on the edge of official poverty and virtually all exist in a perpetual condition of economic insecurity. These are working people -- the many millions of Americans who fill the society's least glamorous yet essential jobs and rank at the bottom of the ladder in terms of compensation. A large segment of working-class Americans has effectively become invisible to the political debate among governing elites. They are neither seen nor heard nor talked about.

Their absence is a crucial element in the general democratic failure of modern politics. There are different reasons why this has occurred, including all of the deformed power relationships already discussed. But, above all, they are missing because in the past the weak and disorganized segments of society always depended on strong mediating institutions, such as organized labor, to speak for them, to make certain that their particular grievances were included in the whole. When those mediating agents lost power, these people were abandoned too, with consequences more starkly unjust than the injuries done to any other class of citizens.

This loss of power, as the evidence will demonstrate, was not entirely an accident of history or the result of ineluctable social change. The laws that protected the rights of workers to organize and defend themselves in politics have been systematically disfigured by political manipulation, much like what happened to other kinds of law. The governing system, likewise, displays the same cynical penchant for symbolic responses to the plight of working people that it has demonstrated in other areas. And the most difficult irony to grasp is that reforms enacted a generation ago to help the very poor are part of what obscures today's working-class citizens.

Like other citizens who have lost power, the humblest working folk have figured out how politics works in the modern age. They know that their only hope is "rude and crude" confrontation. To illustrate this reality, we turn to a group of citizens in Washington, D.C., who are utterly remote from power -- the janitors who clean the handsome office buildings in the nation's capital. In a sense, they clean up each night after the very people and organizations that have displaced people like themselves from the political debate. While they work for wages that keep them on the edge of poverty, their political grievances are not heard through the regular channels of politics.

Like other frustrated citizens, the janitors have taken their politics, quite literally, into the streets of the nation's capital.


In late afternoon on a warm June day, while the people in suits and ties were streaming out of downtown office buildings and heading home, a group of fourteen black and Hispanic citizens gathered on the sidewalk in front of 1150 Seventeenth Street Northwest and formed a loose picket line. They were the janitors who cleaned this building every night and, though hardly anyone noticed or cared, they were declaring themselves "on strike" against poverty wages.

"Fire me? Don't bother me one bit. Can't do worse than this," Lucille Morris, a middle-aged black woman with two daughters, said. She was passing out picket signs to hesitant coworkers, most of them women. "Hold 'em up'" she exhorted the others. "Let 'em know you're tired of this mess."

Others grinned nervously at her bravado. An older Hispanic woman dressed in work clothes started into the building and was intercepted by one of the strikers. "She says she's just going in to use the bathroom," Leila Williams reported, "but she's coming back out." Williams, a sweet-faced grandmother who lives with her sixteen-year-old grandson in one of the poorest wards of southeast Washington, was wearing a bright red union tee-shirt that proclaimed: "Squeeze Me Real Hard -- I'm Good Under Pressure."

"No one is working -- this building isn't going to get cleaned tonight," the organizer from the Services Employees International Union announced with satisfaction. "And nobody's going to get fired," Jay Hessey reassured. "The company can't find enough people to do these jobs at this pay."

"I've been here eleven years and I still get the same pay the newcomers get -- $4.75 an hour," Lucille Morris said. "We be doing like two people's work for four hours a night. We don't get nothing in the way of benefits. You get sick, you sick. You stay out too long, they fire you."

"One lady been here for fourteen years and she still get five dollars an hour for doing the bathrooms," Leila Williams added. "They give you another quarter an hour for doing the toilets. When we pass inspections, you know, they always treat us. They give us pizza or doughnuts, like that. We don't want no treats. We want the money."

The SEIU, a union that mainly represents people who do society's elementary chores, launched its "Justice for Janitors" strategy nationwide in 1987 and has staged scores of similar strikes in downtown Washington as well as other major cities. Because of the way federal government now regulates the workers' right to organize for collective action, regular union-organizing tactics have been rendered impotent. So the workers mostly stage symbolic one-night walkouts to grab attention.

The real organizing tactic is public shame -- theatrical confrontations intended to harass and embarrass the owners and tenants of the buildings. The janitors will crash the owner's dinner parties and leaflet his neighborhood with accusatory handbills. They will confront the building's tenants at social events and demand help in pressuring the owners.

They, for instance, targeted Mortimer Zuckerman, the real-estate developer who owns The Atlantic magazine and U.S. News & World Report, with a nasty flier that declared: "Mort Zuckerman might like to be seen as a public citizen, responsible editor, intellectual and all- around good guy. To the janitors who clean his buildings, he is just another greedy real-estate operator." They hounded Zuckerman at important banquets and even in the Long Island Hamptons at celebrity softball games, in which he is a pitcher. [1]

The owners and managers of some five hundred office buildings in Washington have developed an efficient system that insulates them from both unions and higher wages. Each owner hires an independent contractor to service the building and the competitive bidding for contracts is naturally won by the firm that pays the least to the janitors. About six thousand workers -- most of them black or Hispanic -- are left without any practical leverage over the arrangement. When the union signs up workers and demands its legal right to bargain for a contract in their behalf, the building owner promptly fires the unionized cleaning contractor and hires a new one who is nonunion. Old janitors are fired, new ones are recruited and the treadmill continues.

This management device keeps janitors like Lucille Morris stuck permanently at the same wage level year after year, hovering just above the legal minimum required by law, a wage level that provides less than $10,000 a year at full-time hours.

But these janitors do not even get full-time work from their employers. By doubling the size of the crews, the contractors can hold the workers to a four-hour shift each night and, thus, legally exclude the janitors from all of the employee benefits the firms provide to full- time employees -- health insurance, pensions, paid vacations, paid sick leave. The law protects this practice too.

In order to survive, these women and men typically shuttle each day between two or three similar low-wage jobs, all of which lack basic benefits and other protections. Some of the janitors, those who are supporting families, qualify as officially poor and are eligible for food stamps, public housing or other forms of government aid. In effect, the general taxpayers are subsidizing these low-wage employers -- the gleaming office buildings of Washington and their tenants -- by providing welfare benefits to people who do work that is necessary to the daily functioning of the capital's commerce.

In another era, this arrangement might have been called by its right name -- exploitation of the weak by the strong -- but in the contemporary political landscape that sort of language is considered passe. Exploitative labor practices are subsumed under the general principle of economic efficiency and the consequences are never mentioned in the political debates on the great social problems afflicting American cities. The government may authorize welfare for the indigent, but it will not address the wages and working conditions that impoverish these people.

In another time, unions might have been able to achieve a larger political remedy for these conditions -- increases in the minimum-wage law or labor laws that truly protect collective bargaining rights and prevent the profitable abuse of part-time workers. In the present political climate, labor is too weak and divided for such a straightforward assault.

The way is now blocked by others, including the array of Washington policy experts who speak on the subject of economics with scholarly authority. They have assured the political community that it would be counterproductive to address this matter concretely as a political issue, that the minimum-wage issue is no longer relevant to the modern economy. It is these voices that dominate the larger political debate, while the janitors cannot make themselves heard.

For the city of Washington, the political neglect constitutes a social irony, for many of these janitors live in the same troubled neighborhoods where the vicious street combat over drugs occurs. The community is naturally horrified by the violence among the young drug merchants and, without much success, has deployed both police and National Guard to suppress it. Yet the city is oblivious to the plight of the janitors -- the people who are working for a living, trying to be self-supporting citizens and must live in the midst of the dangerous social deterioration.

Economists might not see any connection between these two social problems, but any teenager who lives in one of the blighted neighborhoods can grasp it. One group of poor people, mostly young and daring, chooses a life of risk and enterprise with the promise of quick and luxurious returns. Another group of poor people, mostly older men and women, patiently rides the bus downtown each night, and in exchange for poverty wages, they clean the handsome office buildings where the lawyers and lobbyists work. When the janitors stage their occasional strikes, they are harassing the very people who have helped block them out of governing issues -- the policy thinkers, the lawyers and lobbyists and other high-priced talent who have surrounded the government in order to influence its decisions.

By coincidence, one of the tenants at 1150 Seventeenth Street, where they were picketing, was the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank that produces policy prescriptions for the political debates of Washington. When the service-employees union organizers approached AEI for support, their request was brushed off, but AEI has had quite a lot to say about minimum-wage laws and their supposedly deleterious effects. In recent years, AEI has published at least nine different scholarly reports arguing against the minimum wage. This position faithfully represents the interests of AEI's sponsoring patrons -- the largest banks and corporations in America. [2]

But the SEIU organizers insisted they were not trying to make an ideological point by picking on AEI. The real target was the building owner, which operated a dozen downtown buildings in a similar manner. Besides, they explained, most of the ostensibly liberal policy groups in Washington are no different, from the janitors' point of view.

Indeed, the next strike was planned against another building, also owned by the Charles E. Smith Management Company, which served as the home of the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank that specializes in studying the afflictions of the urban poor. The Urban Institute, though presumably more sympathetic to the working poor, has also published scholarly pamphlets questioning the wisdom of laws to improve their wages.

The Urban Institute scholars are regarded as a liberal counterpoise to such conservative institutions as AEI but, in fact, the liberals are financed, albeit less generously, by the same business and financial interests that pay for the conservative thinkers -- Aetna Insurance, $75,000; Chase Manhattan Bank, $15,000; Exxon, $75,000; General Electric, $35,000; Southwestern Bell, $50,000 and so on. The commonly held illusion in Washington politics is that supposedly disinterested experts contend with each other over defining the "public good" from different viewpoints. Yet many of them get their money from the same sources -- business and financial interests.

Like other tenants, officials at the Urban Institute insisted the janitors' pay was not their problem. It was a dispute for the cleaning contractor or the building owner to resolve. The SEIU organizers Were twice turned down in their efforts to meet with the Urban Institute's officers, so they went out to picket their private homes and tried to crash the institute's banquet for its board of directors.

"Isn't it the same kind of issue any time you pass someone on the street who's homeless?" asked Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the institute who is an authority on the "underclass" and related social questions. "It's hard to get involved as an individual in all these microdecisions to change the system. It can't be done at that level. Laws and policies have to be changed."

But these weren't exactly distant strangers one passed on the street. They were the very people who cleaned the office each night, carried out the trash, vacuumed the carpet and scrubbed the sinks and toilets.

"Actually, we never see them," Sawhill allowed. "I do sometimes see them, I admit, because I hang around late, but most people don't."

The janitors, it is true, were mostly invisible. Despite several years of flamboyant efforts, the janitors' campaign had gained very little presence in the civic consciousness of Washington. Public shame is not a terribly reliable lever of political power. For one thing, it only works if widely communicated, and the major media, including The Washington Post, had largely ignored the fractious little dramas staged by the janitors.

"People are yawning at them," said Richard Thompson, president of General Maintenance Service, Inc., the largest employer of low-wage janitors. "If there were really a justice question, people in this city would react. There are a lot of government and city government folks who wouldn't stand for it." [3]

The janitors thought they would embarrass both local politicians and congressional Democrats when they targeted a strike at the new shopping complex in Union Station, which is owned by the federal government. Instead, the janitors were fired and commerce continued without interference from the government. Though the Democratic party is ostensibly sympathetic to people like the janitors, Democrats also rely on the real-estate industry as a major source of campaign money.

After an hour or so of picketing on Seventeenth Street, the janitors got into vans and drove over to a museum at New York Avenue and Thirteenth Street where a local charity was holding its annual fund-raising gala. The strikers had no quarrel with the charity, but they did wish to embarrass David Bruce Smith, a young man who is an officer in his grandfather's real-estate company and was serving as chairman of the benefit dinner.

The women in red tee-shirts and the union organizers spread out along the sidewalk and began giving handbills to any who would take them. "Talk with David Bruce Smith," the leaflet asked. "The Janitors Deserve Some Benefits Too!"

The encounter resembled a sidewalk parody of class conflict. As people began arriving for the event, an awkward game of dodging and ducking ensued between the black janitors and the white dinner guests in evening dress. Women from the charity dinner stationed themselves at curbside and, as cars pulled up for the valet parking, they warned the arriving guests about what awaited them. The black women came forward offering their leaflets, but were mostly spurned, as people proceeded swiftly to the door.

"Look, we are a charitable organization and this is political," a man complained bitterly to the union organizers. "People are going to see this and say, what? Are you trying to embarrass me? They're coming here to enjoy themselves."

Jay Hessey reminded him of the constitutional right to petition for redress of grievances. Three D.C. police cars were on hand in the event the janitors violated the law by blocking the doorway or waving placards. It's unfair, the official sputtered, to target an organization that is devoted to charitable activities. It was unfair, the janitors agreed, but then so is life itself. Some people get valet parking. Some people get an extra quarter for cleaning the toilets.

As tempers rose, Hessey stood toe-to-toe with the angry officials and rebuffed them with an expression of utter indifference to their distress. Hessey's colloquial term for the janitors' rude theater -- "In your face" -- was the essence of their politics. Cut off from the legitimate avenues of political remedy, the janitors had settled on what was left. Like it Or not, fair or unfair, people were going to consider, at least for a few uncomfortable moments, the reality known to these janitors.

Most of the guests followed instructions and darted past the demonstrators to the door, but this greatly amused Lucille Morris and Leila Williams and their companions. It had taken considerable Courage for these black and Hispanic cleaning women to stand on a sidewalk in downtown Washington and confront well-to-do white people from the other side of town. Once they were there, the women found themselves enjoying the encounter.

It was the white people who turned grim and anxious. Without much success, the black women followed couples to the doorway, urging them to read the handbills. An elegantly dressed woman in silk turned on them and snapped: "You know what? For three hundred dollars, you should be able to enjoy your evening!"

When a mother and daughter streaked past Leila Williams, refusing her handbill, she called after them: "All right, ladies. But you might be standing out here yourself sometime."

"That's right," another janitor exclaimed. "The Lord gave it all, the Lord can take it away."

Their exercise in public shame was perhaps not entirely futile. The elegant woman in silk evidently thought better of her harsh words to the black women because, a few minutes later, she returned outside and discreetly asked them for a copy of their leaflet. She mumbled an expression of sympathy and promised to help, then returned to the banquet.


The janitors may lack formal educations and sophisticated experience with finance but they understand the economic situation well enough.

They know, for instance, that unionized janitors in New York City or Philadelphia will earn two or three times more for doing the very same work. They know that in Washington the federal government and some major private employers, like The Washington Post and George Washington University, pay nearly twice as much to janitors and also provide full employee benefits. They know, because the union has explained it for them, that janitorial services represent a very small fraction of a building's overall costs and that even dramatic pay increases would not wreck the balance sheets of either the owners or the tenants.

The problem, as they see it, is not economics. Their problem is power and no one has to tell the janitors that they don't have any. Collective action is the only plausible means by which they can hope to change things. But even the opportunity for collective action has been gravely weakened for people such as these.

The janitors' predicament provides a melodramatic metaphor for a much larger group of Americans -- perhaps 20 million or more -- who have also lost whatever meager political presence they once had. These are not idlers on welfare or drug addicts, though they often live among them. These are working people, doing necessary jobs and trying to live on inadequate incomes.

These Americans have been orphaned by the political system. They work in the less exalted occupations, especially in the service sector, making more than the minimum wage but less than a comfortable middle-class income. Most have better jobs and higher wages than the Washington janitors -- office clerks, hospital attendants, retail salespeople -- but are trapped by similar circumstances. Among health-care workers, for instance, one third earn less than $13,000 a year. Some occupations that used to be much higher on the wage scale -- airline stewardesses or supermarket clerks -- have been pushed closer to the low end by the brutal giveback contracts that labor unions were compelled to accept during the 1980s.

The incomes of the group I'm describing range roughly upward from the poverty line (around $10,000 for a family of three) to somewhere just short of the median household income of around $35,000. "Working poor" does not accurately describe most of them but then neither does "middle class." The poor still suffer more in their daily lives, of course, but even the poor are represented in politics by an elaborate network of civic organizations.

If one asks -- Who are the biggest losers in the contemporary alignment of governing power? -- it is these people who are economically insecure but not officially poor. During the last generation and especially the last decade, they have been effectively stripped of political protections against exploitation in the workplace. Neither party talks about them or has a serious plan to address their grievances. In the power coordinates that govern large national questions, these people literally do not exist.

The consequences of abandonment are profound and extend to many other conflicts beyond work and wages. On issue after issue from taxation to environmental protection, these are the people who suffer most regularly from political neglect. When EPA did nothing to enforce the law on toxic air pollution, these people absorbed the results -- the increased cancer rates in their neighborhoods. When the Labor Department allowed the law on occupational health and safety to become a scandal of nonenforcement, these were the people who suffered the injuries and disease. When Congress and a series of presidents played "bait and switch", with the tax code in order to reward the wealthy, these working people were the taxpayers who were penalized most unjustly.

How might their voices be heard? Only utopians imagine a democracy in which each and every one of these people is someday able to appear in person before the higher forums of government, where the larger questions are debated and decided. Most citizens, regardless of status, have neither the forensic skills nor the time and inclination to participate at that level. That is not what they want or expect from politics.

For most people, democratic expression requires the strength of collective action -- a mediating mechanism that will listen to them and speak faithfully on their behalf in the official forums. It is such institutions that accumulate power from their organized numbers, that hold a place for people in the debates and serve as surrogate spokesmen and intelligent monitors of the politicians. This ingredient is the heart of what these people lack and what they have lost.

The voice they lost was the voice of labor. Over the last twenty years, organized labor's political power has declined disastrously -- a fact that is central to virtually every economic question fought out in contemporary Washington politics. Labor unions, notwithstanding their rigidities and autocratic crust, were the core liberal force within the old Democratic party and committed their considerable political resources to other progressive causes, including both the civil rights and environmental movements. Their weakness has weakened many other causes -- especially the ranks of unorganized workers.

In another era, the urban political machines also spoke for many of the citizens who work in unglamorous jobs, but those organizations are now mostly defunct. People moved to the suburbs. Racial antagonism divided and weakened their representation. Political structures that effectively served struggling workers when the workers were Irish or Jewish or Italian are now much less effective when the workers are black or Hispanic or Asian. Labor unions do still try to organize and represent lower-tier workers but most of these people are not union members and the labor organizing is frustrated by both legal and cultural barriers.

A generation ago, leaders of the AFL-CIO could think of themselves, with only slight exaggeration, as full partners in the power elite that governed America. Now, they have lost their membership or, rather, they were kicked out of the club. Unions are mostly reduced to rear-guard battles -- fighting cheap-labor imports or defending the pensions of retired workers or competing expensively with each other for membership jurisdiction.

Like other mediating institutions that lost authority, organized labor saw its influence dissipate for many reasons, because of both complex changes in the society and its own stubborn refusal to adjust to change. More than those reasons, however, labor unions were decimated by two things: the global shifts in corporate economic structures and the political confinements imposed on workers by the law itself.

The ability to move industrial production from high-wage, unionized locales to cheaper nonunion areas -- first to the South and then, more important, to foreign labor markets -- devastated the major industrial unions representing auto and steel workers, machinists, electrical workers and others. They lost millions of members and also much of their contract-bargaining power. In real terms, measured against inflation, the wages of America's premier industrial workers are declining too.

But the economic forces squeezing labor were complemented by politics and the force of law itself. The rights that labor's political power first won for workers in the reform era of the 1930s have been steadily disfigured and shrunk. The machinery for enforcing labor rights still exists in the federal government, but functions now as a device for impeding collective action. It is yet another self-correcting mechanism in politics that has been corrupted to other purposes.

A union like the SEIU that organizes a majority of workers at a worksite mayor may not ever see a contract with the employer. If the company chooses, it can undertake years of litigation and, in the meantime, the workers may well be fired. One in fifteen people who tries to organize a union at a workplace loses his or her job. The threat alone is enough to impede others from trying.

Over three decades, the AFL-C10 did not shrink in size, but it did not grow with the economy either. The AFL-CIO's 14 million members were roughly one third of the workforce in the 1960s, but only 17 percent by the 1990s. Given the legal risks of union organizing, the growth sector in American labor is now public employees, since, in most instances, they can't be fired for signing a union card.

The National Labor Relations Board has been converted by business appointees into a regulatory agency that adeptly protects management by stalling and suppressing workers' grievances. In the first 150 days of the Reagan administration, the NLRB reversed eight major precedents. Its probusiness decisions in union-representation cases soared to 72 percent, compared to 46 percent in the Carter administration and 35 percent under Gerald Ford. The backlog of undecided cases grew from eight hundred to seventeen hundred -- effectively nullifying the workers' complaints by postponing a remedy for years and years. [4]

While unions were crippled, work itself was also reorganized in many fields to undermine the leverage of individual wage earners. "Contracting out" and hiring "part-time" workers who receive no employee benefits have mushroomed as standard labor practices of business, cost-cutting techniques used by even the largest corporations. By 1989, nearly a fifth of the workforce held at least one part-time job. The so-called "temporary" jobs with no employee benefits tripled during the 1980s.

As labor law was compromised, companies figured out, as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan wrote, that "they could violate the Wagner Act [enacted in 1935], fire workers at will, fire them deliberately for exercising their legal rights and nothing would happen.... Maybe, after three years of litigation, the employer might lose, and have to pay a few thousand bucks, if that much: a cheap price, though, for keeping out the union." [5]

By comparison, while U.S. labor was shrinking, Canadian unions grew in the same period from 32 percent of Canada's workforce to nearly 40 percent -- mainly because the process for gaining collective recognition is simpler and more direct in Canada. In most western industrial nations, the density of organized labor has increased since the 1960s -- a fact that refutes the familiar arguments about labor unions impeding international competitiveness. West Germany, admired for its productive efficiency, has a workforce that is 43 percent unionized.

"European workers enjoy more power, both economically and politically, than their American counterparts," said Michael Merrill, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University. "They have higher real wages, a stronger and more comprehensive social 'safety net' and a greater degree of political representation than U.S. wage earners do." [6]

Indeed, the astonishing irony of American labor's political condition is that even struggling workers in eastern Europe, bravely led by Solidarity in Poland, have been able to pursue forms of collective action that are not available to workers in the United States. Americans who cheered the triumph of Solidarity perhaps did not realize that the sane tactics are illegal in the United States. If an American union adopted Solidarity's methods -- seizing the plant with sit-down strikes or forming an interfactory strike committee to coordinate a general strike across different industries -- it would be held in contempt and pinned down with injunctions and huge fines. If the tactics persisted, the leaders would doubtless be jailed and perhaps workers too.

These rights were either traded away in exchange for federal labor-law protection or gradually taken away through court decisions and legislation. Labor has tried periodically to win back some of the protection by political action and launched a new effort in 1991 with a measure to prohibit hiring striker replacements in wage strikes.

Its prospects are not good. In 1978, despite the fact that labor provides major funding for Democrats, the Democratic Congress refused to pass labor-law reforms that would have removed some of these barriers. The stereotype of aging white labor bosses still makes it relatively easy for politicians, even Democrats who get so much of labor's money, to scorn them, but the stereotype is no longer accurate. The rank and file of the labor movement is more thoroughly integrated by both race and gender than any other institution in America, except perhaps the armed services or the Catholic church. Furthermore, labor's goals are the very measures that would deliver the most direct relief to the struggling service-sector workers on the bottom rung -- workers who are overwhelmingly racial minorities and women.

One crucial fact has been obscured by the long decline of labor as a political force: Millions of American workers want to join a union but, for all these reasons and others, they can't. According to regular surveys conducted by the University of Michigan, 30 percent of the workforce consistently expresses a desire to be represented by a union contract protecting their working conditions and wages. When that number is added to the 17 percent of the workforce who are already union members, it provides a rough measure of how much the power relationships in politics have been distorted. Roughly half of the working population identifies with labor's interests, yet labor is confined by law and politics to a position of weakness.

The statistics also confirm that the yearning for collective expression is alive and widespread, though effectively blocked. Labor is in retreat and unable to defend its own members from further loss, much less the weak and unorganized workers. Yet these two groups represent half of the nation's workforce -- the people who are not heard.


In the spring of 1989, various Democratic senators complained privately that Teddy Kennedy was forcing them to cast a "money vote" that might hurt them with campaign contributors but wouldn't accomplish anything since President Bush was' sure to veto the measure anyway.

The "money vote" was Kennedy's proposal to raise the federal minimum-wage floor modestly. Roll calls on such business-labor issues normally follow the obvious party division, but Democrats also feel the underlying tension of voting against business interests that have the power to finance a Republican opponent in their next campaign.

"A senator tells himself: You got an antibusiness reputation and you better work on it," Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas explained. "When it's a money vote -- minimum wages, mandatory health insurance, the capital-gains tax -- and you're perceived as antibusiness, you have to think about it. Even if you know you're not going to get their money, you think about keeping them quiet. You won't get their money but you can at least tranquilize them."

By 1989, the federal minimum-wage law had not been changed in a decade and, given the yearly erosion from inflation, the real value of $3.35 an hour had fallen by roughly one third during the 1980s -- one reason, among others, why the lowest-paid tier of workers was falling behind so drastically. Kennedy proposed only to restore the lost ground -- no more than that -- by raising the minimum in three stages to $4.55 an hour.

Even that proved to be too ambitious for political consensus. After much back and forth and a presidential veto, Congress settled on $4.25 an hour by 1991. The final deal was brokered between labor leaders and the White House so that no one would be embarrassed when President Bush addressed the AFL-CIO fall meeting. The wage increase, as the reluctant senators had predicted, was not enough to make much difference to anyone. [7]

Despite the elaborate complications piled onto the subject, the arguments about job losses and so forth, the straightforward effect of raising the minimum wage is not disputed among economists. Overall, it produces a net shift in incomes from employers to employees, from companies to workers. The secondary effect, if the wage floor is raised significantly, is to push up wage levels for jobs that are above the minimum but compete for workers in the same labor pools.

Thus, this approach is a very direct way to reorder the imbalance in rewards generated by the private economy and get money to those who need it most, not just poor people but the vast ranks of workers, such as the D.C. janitors. The people who pay for this are not the taxpayers, but the business owners and, to some degree, the consumers who have benefited from the cheap labor. Instead of spending public money to compensate for private injustices, it uses public authority to direct private behavior to just results.

Labor and business both understand these effects well enough and that is why they will always be on opposite sides of the question. For different reasons, neither wishes to speak too clearly in public about the underlying transaction. Instead, the issue was treated by all sides as a familiar anachronism and the congressional debate was spiritless and predictable, smothered in false pieties from both sides. Republicans made speeches that sounded like canned material from the Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers. Democrats gave speeches that sounded like boilerplate from the AFL-CIO. Neither side talked about the millions of workers like the D.C. janitors who were paid somewhat above the federal minimum but would benefit directly if a serious measure were passed.

While organized labor is always the main locomotive driving minimum-wage politics, this time it was following more than leading -- repeating slogans that no longer stirred its energies. "Kennedy got it in his head to pass a bill and we went along," Rex Hardesty, chief spokesman for the AFL-CIO, acknowledged.

Throughout the Reagan years, labor had been wary of trying to increase the federal minimum wage for fear the outcome would be the enactment of the so-called "training wage" for youth that Republicans and business always push. Creating a subminimum would permit employers to hire teenagers at cheaper wages for the training period, then fire them and hire new ones, thus displacing older workers whose incomes support families.

For the major industrial unions, the minimum wage had never been a core issue, but in the past they always lent their muscle to their poorer cousins, unions like the SEIU, the garment workers' union, the food and commercial workers' union and others that represent the weakest workers. This time, given the new realities of American incomes and global economics, the heavyweight unions were fighting on other fronts that seemed more crucial to them. The AFL-CIO supported the Kennedy bill, but not with its old vigor.

The transformation of labor wages in the last two decades has opened up a new divide between the economic self-interest of industrial unions and the plight of those unorganized service workers at the bottom of the ladder. Both are losing ground, but the bottom tier is falling faster. This divide provides another explanation for why the political voice for those people has weakened.

"When the minimum wage was 50 percent of the average manufacturing wage, as it used to be, you could really push the wage structure up from the bottom," said David Smith, New York City's business development commissioner and a former aide to Senator Kennedy. "But, when the minimum wage is now only 26 or 27 percent of the manufacturing wage and there are virtually no minimum-wage workers in factories except for the garment industry, the gap between labor unions and the working poor is wider. If we push up the wages of cleaning people and security guards and nursing-home attendants by $1.50 an hour, we're still not bumping up against the bottom of the industrial wage structure."

If Congress were to raise the federal wage floor substantially, bringing it back to a level around 50 percent of the manufacturing wage level, the 20 million or so workers now dispossessed by politics would benefit enormously. Even though most of them earn more than the minimum, the action would inevitably create upward wage pressure in their labor markets too. Yet such action is highly unlikely so long as organized labor's power is atrophying and its rear-guard battles are concentrated elsewhere. That describes the vicious circle the janitors and others are caught in -- their only champion is weak and distracted.

During the Senate debate, Republicans needled Kennedy by asking him why, if he wished to help the downtrodden, he didn't propose a minimum wage of six dollars or seven dollars. Kennedy danced away from the debating trap, but it was actually the right question. A steep increase in the wage floor or a shorter work week for everyone would be most disruptive to existing economic relationships, too controversial for even ardent liberals to endorse, but if the political community were serious about attacking the grosser inequities of American life it would require such disruptive measures.

The minimum-wage law is one of those inherited forms that endures from previous reformers, but only as an empty shell. The original purpose has been lost in politics, but the measure still gets passed with appropriate fanfare -- and even the conservative president's signature -- because it satisfies old bromides and looks like an enlightened act of social conscience. In the real world, nothing much is changed.

If politics ever approached the subject seriously again, the old form could itself be drastically revised. Labor's original purpose in promoting the federal wage law was, in part, to prop up wages in the impoverished South and thus slow the migration of industrial union jobs to cheaper labor markets. That purpose has been obliterated by the changed economy and global production. Therefore, it is now possible, for instance, to draw up a more sensible and flexible version of a federal wage standard that allows for the disparities in regional or rural labor markets, just as federal pay standards now accept that a federal employee in Washington, D.C., needs more income than one in Mississippi.

A modernized minimum wage, furthermore, could redefine the coverage to distinguish between part-time jobs mostly filled by teenagers and the jobs that are filled by those millions of service workers suffering from inadequate incomes. Middle-class teenagers do often fill the jobs in fast-food restaurants. They do not generally work as nursing-home attendants or security guards or janitors.

Some low-wage jobs, it is true, might be driven overseas in search of cheaper labor if the federal minimum were raised substantially. But the overwhelming preponderance of these jobs, especially in the service sectors, are not portable. Companies cannot hire people in Mexico or Indonesia to clean office buildings in Washington or harvest crops in Florida or answer telephones in New York City. A redefined minimum-wage law could make some distinctions between what work is portable and what is not. It would attack especially the exploitation in jobs that are not going anywhere, but are essential to daily life.

The minimum-wage debate in 1989 did not talk about any of these questions or even hint at any of these possibilities. Instead, the discussion was almost exclusively about the "poor" -- as officially defined by the federal government -- and whether raising the minimum wage would help them or hurt them.

Republicans spoke for the "poor" by opposing the minimum wage on the grounds that a higher wage floor would eliminate some low-wage jobs, as 'indeed it would. Democrats argued for the "poor" by pointing out that several million full-time minimum-wage workers are officially poverty-stricken, as in fact they are. Nobody talked about those millions who are a bit higher on the wage ladder who might also benefit from a higher floor.

Like the janitors in downtown Washington, not only have the "nonpoor" been rendered invisible, but their identity has been perversely distorted in the public-policy debate. A critique of the minimum-wage bill published by the Progressive Policy Institute, another Washington think tank, pointed out that 85 percent of the minimum-wage workers are not "poor" and, indeed, many are suburban teenagers working in hamburger joints. With facile arithmetic, the institute's policy thinkers described an economy in which it seemed that most of the crummier jobs are actually filled by middle-class white kids.

The institute's report had a devastating impact in Washington political circles. After all, if "progressives" are against the minimum wage, then who can be for it? In this case, "progressive" was a slight misnomer since the institute is aligned with center-right Democrats trying to move their party rightward and it is financed by wealthy business contributors from Wall Street and elsewhere. Among the institute's "progressive" board members was Robert Kogod, president of the Charles E. Smith Company, the same Washington real-estate company targeted by the striking janitors, the same firm that paid its workers $4.75 an hour, with an extra quarter for cleaning toilets. [8]

The unintended effect of the federal government's so-called "poverty line" is to obscure the existence of the vast pool of struggling families who are above the line -- the officially "nonpoor" -- and to push them out of the political equation. Just as affluent Washington does not see the black and Hispanic janitors in its midst, the political community as a whole cannot see this class of exploited workers. So long as basic economic issues are defined by the government's narrow and misleading statistics on "poverty," the minimum wage and many other effective reform measures will indeed sound anachronistic.

When liberal economists invented the so-called "poverty line" in the early 1960s, it was a brilliant stroke of political imagination. By devising a quantifiable definition of who was poor, they made the vast deprivation in American society instantly visible to others. The public was shocked by the numbers and politicians could proceed to make decisions about government programs based on crisp estimates of how many millions would be lifted out of "poverty."

Over the years, the poverty statistics steadily became less meaningful. The measure was never realistically adjusted to rising living costs, but it remains the focal point of political debate -- the 13 percent or so who are identifiably impoverished in the midst of fabulous wealth. Helping the "poor" is considered virtuous, even among Republican conservatives. Helping the "nonpoor" is thought to be. wasteful or even fraudulent. In fact, most of the so-called "welfare cheaters" denounced by politicians and the public are actually low-wage working people who collect food stamps or other federal benefits on the sly, even though they earn a bit too much to qualify as officially "poor." [9]

The official recognition of "poverty" has become an especially cruel instance of old reforms that imprison the politics of the present. The "war on poverty," leaving aside its failures and successes, left behind a deformed perspective in public policy that is oddly disconnected from the present realities. Instead of defending the livelihoods of working people who do not make enough money, politics focuses primarily on the most disabled and disaffected group below them -- people who either cannot or will not fill the low-wage jobs their neighbors do every day. A convenient ideological stalemate has developed around this perspective, in which the liberal experiments prove ineffective while conservatives will not discuss any alternative that might disrupt business clients.

The illusion that doomed the "war on poverty" was the assumption that education and training could "solve" the problem of poverty, and this illusion still reigns in the higher realms of politics, shared by liberals and conservatives alike. The problem of poverty is presumed to reside in the poor people themselves, not in the structure of wages available in the private economy. It is assumed that the personal weaknesses of the poor must first be repaired in order to prepare them for better jobs and higher incomes.

This reasoning perversely focuses political attention on the most impaired people -- the hardest cases -- and skips over those virtuous folk who are already working, doing society's dirty jobs for the rest of us every day. The training-and-education approach is popular, however, and much less controversial because it does not disrupt the private labor markets. The ethic of self-improvement and personal effort is central to the American experience and almost everyone believes in it.

"Fixing up" poor people, however, even when the federal programs succeed, does not alter the structure of the wage ladder in the slightest. Some people may climb up, but someone else must still do the same jobs, the ones that pay too little to support families. The logic of this, though generally evaded, is inescapable. Imagine that education programs were so universally successful that everyone in the society was someday magically brought up to a level of higher education and awarded a college degree, even those cleaning women in D.C. If everyone were transformed into computer technicians or lawyers, then who will sweep the floors and clean the toilets? Someone has to do it.

Since politicians will not confront these wage questions in the private economy, they turn instead to the public treasury for relief. Aid is delivered in various forms to people to make up for the shortcomings in their incomes. Since those programs mostly only reach the officially "poor," political sentiment has turned to another approach that will reach some of the low-wage workers -- an earned-income tax credit that gives a cash rebate to those who do not earn enough to support families. Even younger Republican conservatives, anxious to demonstrate their social conscience, have embraced the idea. Among its political virtues, the earned-income tax credit is discreet -- a subsidy that other citizens don't see.

But using the tax system has the same effect as the other forms of federal welfare that are provided to workers: The net effect is to subsidize the low-wage employers by relieving them of the responsibility for paying living wages. Instead of the office-building owners and their tenants, the burden of providing for the janitors is shifted to the general taxpayer (and may ignite considerable resentment if people ever figure it out). When the federal tax structure was progressive, placing the heaviest tax burden on those with the most income and wealth, the tax-credit approach had much merit. Now it adds injustice -- a discreet transfer of money from one group of struggling wage earners to another group just below them. [10]

Most obviously missing from the political debate are the people who will be most affected by these decisions. Their experience and understanding are not present and they cannot be heard through the layers of expert opinion and old political formulas. If the janitors found a political voice, it might or might not alter the decisions, but it would certainly blow away many of the illusions. If they could be heard, what would the janitors say to the politicians? They might say what Lucille Morris said: We're "tired of this mess." And what Leila Williams said: "We don't want no treats. We want the money."


After many weeks of pressure and rude confrontations, the D.C. janitors found that some people do respond to the tactics of public embarrassment. After twice rebuffing them, officials at the Urban Institute agreed to support the janitors' plea for better wages. Mortimer Zuckerman also evidently had a change of heart, for his real-estate company abruptly agreed to bargain with the union for contracts at three buildings. The Charles E. Smith Company retreated too after the expressions of community concern generated by the janitors' appearance at the charity dinner. [11]

These breakthroughs for "Justice for Janitors" might be taken as heartwarming evidence that "the system works," as Washington political columnists like to say. But the real meaning was the contrary. The janitors' union, like others, has figured out that the way politics gets done nowadays is not by electing people to office or passing bills in Congress. Politics gets done by confronting power directly, as persistently and rudely as seems necessary.

For all its weaknesses, the irregular methodology exemplified by "Justice for Janitors" has become the "new politics" of the democratic breakdown. Other labor unions, large and small, have adopted similar strategies designed to "shame" corporations into accepting decent labor relations. They confront prominent shareholders at public gatherings or testify against the companies at zoning hearings and before government agencies. They assemble critical dossiers on a corporation's environmental record that will shock the public and drive off consumers. These and other corporate-campaign strategies are sometimes effective in forcing a company to respond to its workers. Like the "Justice for Janitors" campaign, however, the tactics are driven by the workers' essential weakness, not the potential power that lies in their collective strength. In the present circumstances, what else works?
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:32 am


An unpleasant fact of contemporary politics is that many conscientious citizens have created their own barriers to power. They have become "citizens" of a purified form -- free to speak frankly on the public issues they value, but utterly disconnected from the power structure where those issues are decided. Disenchanted with the muck of formal politics, demoralized by the existing alignments of power, people keep their distance on principle. They do this for many good reasons, but the withdrawal itself guarantees their weakness.

In other words, citizens with the best intentions have been so battered by events that their own idea of citizenship becomes miniaturized and confused. They have been taught by the realities of modern government to do politics based on the narrow premises of interest groups, organized around isolated issues. As a result, their own experience is fractured into small pieces, their civic values divided into artificial subcategories. Many have lost the capacity to think more expansively about the possibilities of politics.

On one level, the confusion leads to a random politics of theatrical display or attempts to mimic the mass-marketing prowess of the powerful economic forces in opposition. On another level, it promotes an idealized -- an unrealistic -- conception of what individual citizens are supposed to do in order to make the system function in a democratic manner. Just as politicians evade hard choices, some engaged citizens manage to avoid their own contradictions. They fasten on moralistic themes and. pretend that self-interest is an illegitimate motive for political expression. They presume to speak for everyone, but evade the deeper conflicts of class within their own ranks.

The confusion of contemporary citizens is traceable, in part, to a surprising source -- the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was, after all, the greatest triumph for citizen politics in our time. Yet, as a powerful political experience, it left many citizens with the wrong message.


The memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., still looms over the modern political landscape as the heroic model for how powerless citizens can make themselves heard. King, of course, stands in memory as the icon for a much broader political experience -- the civil rights movement and all of its disparate aspects -- in which the least-advantaged citizens rose up and changed the nation. The movement's methodologies, the moral tone and tactics were so dramatically triumphant that they are now endlessly copied and elaborated, often unconsciously, by citizens of every class and color.

The essential political fact facing black citizens was that electoral politics was a closed door for them. The civil rights agenda had some northern political support, but it was never going to win an election anywhere in the South. Indeed, both in Congress and across the southern states, the nation's formal structure of electoral democracy was the principal barrier to change -- resistance supported by racial prejudice and the indifference of the white majority. The black millions in the South were disenfranchised; the racial caste system was enforced by terror and by law itself.

So black Americans had to invent different ways to move the majority -- irregular events outside the system. At Montgomery, Alabama, and Greensboro, North Carolina, and Oxford, Mississippi, and hundreds of other places, vastly different approaches to power were tested by brave individuals and groups. Over many years, the competing approaches were refined and gradually coalesced into a cohesive political movement, strong enough to overcome the status quo. The civil rights movement, it is true, did not entirely achieve racial equality, much less economic justice for the impoverished black people at the bottom. Still, as a profound expression of the democratic promise, it surpassed anything accomplished by electoral politics in modern experience. [1]

At its core, the power of this political upheaval was rooted not in its tactics or even King's great sermons, but in what people believed about themselves. Gradually, one by one and then collectively, black people attained heightened self-awareness, and that new sense of themselves led to courageous political expression. The legislative victories they eventually won confirmed this new self-awareness, rather than the other way around. In other words, this was not the political system doing something for people. The people did this for themselves. The distinction is a crucial point to grasp -- essential to understanding the full, rich promise of democracy and also its frequent disappointments. [2]

The elusive, redeeming paradox of American democracy is that people are made powerful, despite all of the political obstacles, when they come together and decide that they can be powerful. The thought flickers like a small candle in contemporary politics, held aloft hopefully by countless advocates. Its truth is regularly confirmed in the experiences of ordinary citizens.

More than two decades after Selma and Birmingham and the other dramatic victories, a black auto worker in northern Ohio grumbled to me about the fear and passivity among his fellow auto workers.

"People don't understand," Lessly Holmes complained, "the ultimate power is in their hands."

Holmes was talking specifically about the auto workers who were unwilling to go up against General Motors, but he also spoke to the larger context of American politics. ''The ultimate power is in their hands. " His words echoed Tom Paine's famous declaration: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

Lois Marie Gibbs, a leader of the grassroots environmentalists, expressed the same conviction: "People have more control than corporations if they choose to use it. The problem is getting people over that feeling that they can't change things. More and more, as people win these small fights, they do feel empowered."

The largest legacy of the civil rights movement is its power as a living example of what can happen when passive citizens mobilize themselves. It stands also as a constant rebuke to contemporary Americans: If the oppressed and isolated black citizens in the South could accomplish this, why are other Americans so inert and helpless?

Beyond the inspiration, however, the movement has probably taught a generation of Americans the wrong lessons about how to do politics. In contemporary citizen politics, it sometimes seems that people emulate the civil rights movement in order to re-create its original handicaps. Black people in the South, after all, started their struggle with the starkest disadvantages -- utterly isolated from political power, through no choice of their own. They had to invent ways to overcome those obstacles, but their tactics are now copied by people who are not so handicapped. Those who attempt to duplicate the movement's style and method usually discover the results are no longer triumphant.

King's genius, for instance, was moral theater. The civil rights movement created a drama of conflict, sometimes including civil disobedience, that compelled distant bystanders to take sides (even if only in the privacy of their own thoughts). Sweet-faced school children marching into a storm of fire hoses and police dogs presented the reality of racial segregation, via television, to even the most indifferent Americans. They could no longer claim innocence.

Once confronted by the harsh moral question, people longed to be relieved of the burden of the discomforting contradictions. The formal political system eventually responded. The civil rights movement did not defeat the local sheriffs and politicians who were enforcing segregation laws; it leveraged the national guilt.

A similar drama of moral guilt underlies much of the irregular politics that has flourished in the decades since the 1960s. From antiwar demonstrators to Christian antiabortion activists, many groups have attempted to create a moral message to incite the larger public. The approach seems especially suited to groups like the gay-rights movement -- people who were likewise reviled and isolated -- because their cause also poses an elemental demand for justice.

But moral claims become hopelessly splintered and confused when citizen groups try to channel them through the larger complexities of governance. Environmental activists may save dolphins by harassing StarKist -- dolphins, after all, are objects of universal human affection -- but public outrage is not so easily harnessed to the dense task of rewriting federal regulations or the difficult class issues embedded in government economic policy. Moral outrage simply does not reach the fine print of hollow laws or bureaucratic deal making and can be easily deflected into false victories. Meanwhile, the public audience hears so many competing moral claims, it may instead feel benumbed or skeptical.

the politics of moral drama, furthermore, leads invariably to a preoccupation with the news media -- even dependency on them -- since the political dramas will have no meaning whatever unless someone transmits them to a larger audience and to embarrassed authorities. To capture the media's wandering eye, frustrated causes find themselves escalating the terms of theatricality to the level of bizarre stunts or ersatz versions of civil disobedience. Police everywhere are now quite familiar with the routine of mass arrests and do not use dogs or fire hoses. What was once a stirring event has been reduced to a paperwork problem.

In the competition for attention, the outlandish and fraudulent drive out what is sober and real. A handful of self-styled guerrillas, one faction within Earth First!, gained far more celebrity for their vague threats of environmental sabotage than all of the substantive struggles underway by grassroots environmentalists across the country. Political voices expressing serious ideas are eclipsed by the street action that displays simple rage, since rage is always more videogenic.

Mass-media politics worked powerfully for the civil rights drama, but it is a trap for most citizens' political aspirations because it defers to someone else's judgment -- the news media's -- to decide what qualifies as authentic political expression. By depending on stunts and celebrity to attract the press and television, people are essentially surrendering to the media -- and sometimes making themselves look clownish in the process.

J. Hunter O'Dell, one of King's early lieutenants in the movement, recognized the fixation with media developing among civil rights activists and lamented the consequences.

"We all recognize that technologically this is a media age," O'Dell wrote. "But it was disastrous for us to rely primarily upon these corporate forms of mass communication to get our message and analysis out to the public.... In the end, it means a new kind of addiction to media rather than being in charge of our own agenda and relying on mass support as our guarantee that ultimately the news-covering apparatus must give recognition to our authority."

O'Dell's point is that the civil rights movement acquired its "authority" to articulate large political aspirations, not because network television came to Selma or Birmingham, but from the hundreds and even thousands of meetings in black churches, week after week, across the South over many years. The dramatic spectacles that appeared on TV were the product of those mobilizing sermons and dialogues, not the other way around.

The movement's organizing processes, O'Dell noted, contained all of the functional elements of a responsible political organization -- mass education and communication as well as continuing accountability between the leaders and the supporting throngs. "The power of any movement for democracy," O'Dell emphasized, "is always dependent on such reciprocal relations between the mass of people and their leadership."

These elements are missing, it seems, from much of the irregular citizens' politics that tries to emulate King's heroic model. Activists hold press conferences or arrange dramatic events to prod the political system. But patiently built reciprocal relationships between leaders and followers, the laborious tasks of education and communication, are often not even attempted. To be blunt, there is a hollowness behind many of the placards and politicians know it.

Succeeding generations of political activists, it often seems, copied the glamorous surfaces of the civil rights legacy -- the hot moments of national celebrity that are so well remembered -- while skipping over the hard part, the organizational sinew that was underneath. In many organizations, of course, real relationships do form and flourish, especially in the groups that arise indigenously in local communities. The further one gets from the grassroots, however, the more likely it is that national leaders are only distantly connected to their own followers or accountable to them.

Many prominent organizations, from labor unions to national environmental groups, have "memberships" that have never met and never will meet. People become "members" in many citizen organizations simply because they sent in a check -- perhaps as their own weak gesture of connectedness or just to get a young canvasser off their doorstep.

Some citizen organizations pull together impressive coalitions of allied groups that are united behind their agenda, but these coalitions exist only as lengthy letterheads. Some popular causes appear in politics (or disappear) as no more than a packet of press clippings -- news stories artfully generated by activists pretending to represent vast throngs.

Elected politicians are generally on to this. They are aware of the shallow connection in much of citizen politics and they resent it: These self-appointed tribunes can arouse public opinion on various issues, but where are their troops? Whom do they really speak for? And whom do they answer to?

The organizational weaknesses are well known to the participants of citizen politics and the subject of continual introspection and exhortation among them. To do more is necessary, they agree, and developing deeper roots consumes considerable effort. Yet the task seems overwhelmingly difficult, given their limited resources and the other obstacles. Instead, they take up one thing at a time -- one scandalous situation or another -- and dramatize it sufficiently to create at least temporary visibility in politics. Sometimes, it works.

In that regard, citizens behave like creatures of the modern governing system, as much as politicians do. The post-New Deal administrative state defines political opportunity in terms of interest groups, so, in order to proceed, citizens organize themselves in the same manner. They define themselves by the policy language of a particular issue, whether it is arms control or child care or abortion, then stand on that narrow ground. In fact, once they have defined themselves this way, they are stuck on that ground, unable to speak beyond it.

People adapted to the confines of interest-group politics find it hard to think seriously about a more inclusive kind of politics. Instead, they often nurture the frail hope that, somehow, someday, a moment of spontaneous combustion will occur in American society -- a flash of public consciousness and anger -- that miraculously produces the cohesion to unite people of diverse interests and outlooks in genuine collective action. In the meantime, waiting for the miracle, they concentrate on the small contests that might actually be won.

Spontaneous combustion is an extremely unlikely event and the model of Martin Luther King misleads his many imitators most profoundly in this regard. The purposeful cohesiveness achieved by the civil rights movement cannot be easily duplicated by others, regardless of their issue, because what naturally united people in that movement was a single overarching fact -- the fact of race. Black citizens, whether they were schoolteachers or sharecroppers, funeral directors or dishwashers, did not need to he told that they had shared interests. The fact of racial discrimination was the everyday burden in all of their lives.

If that point seems obvious, then and now, what is less obvious are the political benefits that flowed to the civil rights movement because of this unifying fact. First, there was no necessity to parse out difficult political arguments between public morality and personal self-interest: The two were fused perfectly. For black people, self-interest was inseparable from their larger moral claim, the demand for justice. Their political task was to demonstrate to the white majority that this would be true for them as well.

In his lofty manner, King actually preached to both morality and self-interest. The white South, he explained, could cleanse its soul, but it would also be freed for self-development. King was right about that in many dimensions, including the economic development of the impoverished South that, as many white southerners now recognize, was made possible by the civil rights movement. Very few other political causes, however, have the capacity to reconcile the tensions between self-interest and morality so easily or universally.

The unifying fact of race served the civil rights movement in another, even more important way -- it was the cloak that covered conflicting class interests within the movement's own ranks. All blacks, regardless of their educational or economic status, would gain something if their political mobilization succeeded. That was enough to smother difficult arguments about goals and priorities that might have divided their own ranks.

In hindsight, it has become obvious that, while all blacks benefited, they did not benefit equally. Legal liberation opened vast opportunities, North and South, for black Americans with middle-class skills and aspirations. It did little to alter the bleak prospects for millions of black citizens at the bottom of the economic ladder. In his last years, after the great legal victories, King himself turned to confront the underlying economic questions, but by then the movement was splintering. Some former allies in the white political structure turned hostile once King's sermons began to address basic questions of wealth and poverty and economic power. From the other side, the "black power" militancy derided him as a middle-class reformer who had done nothing for the truly oppressed.

Other political causes that aspire to mobilize a broad assembly of Americans face the same divisive fundamentals -- the conflicts of class, the natural tension between moral claims and self-interest -- but without the benefit of a unifying cloak. Both barriers are formidable and help to explain why so many politically alert citizens do not really try to develop a broader political base for their enterprises. To overcome these obstacles, active citizens would first have to talk out quite a lot among themselves, searching for the common perceptions that might dissolve their deep differences.

Instead, they mostly stick to their own narrow issue -- a grievance that arouses like-minded citizens -- and ride its energy as far as it will take them. In time, if they are successful, they will acquire some real influence in public affairs. But they will still not have many people marching in the ranks, a fact that every observant politician will discern.

Faced with these barriers, other citizens withdraw even further from political engagement into a kind of exclusionary fundamentalism. Enormous energy is devoted to discussing millennial visions of what the society should someday look like, but no effort is made to connect the vision with people or everyday political action.

Scores of organizations, on left and right, devote themselves to this sort of "soft" politics -- drawing up plans for the distant future, whether the focus is on moral reform or world peace or designing an economy in harmony with the natural environment. Books and pamphlets filled with their provocative ideas are produced in abundance, but mainly consumed by people who already share the vision.

To create a democratic reality with any substance, active citizens have to engage others across these various boundaries. They have to search for real bridges that connect one class perspective with another in common goals. They have to define goals that fuse the broad moral meaning of their politics with the visible self-interest of everyday citizens. This undertaking would put them at the messy center of a democratic dialogue -- the arguments between ideas and values and the real experiences of real people. It would entail taking up the burden of teaching and listening and searching patiently for collective resolutions.

Genuine democracy is very difficult to do, regardless of the issue or context, and citizens understandably shrink from a challenge that is so hard. Because it is so daunting, many retreat instead to a kind of moral high ground, from which they can implore and incite their fellow citizens, while hoping for the miraculous day when collective action might spontaneously arise.


If one single governing issue aroused general public anger and promised to unite people across party or class lines, it was the savings and loan bailout for which taxpayers were providing hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet, the efforts of some alert citizens to mobilize the anger into political action mainly demonstrated the impotence of the classic tactics of moral theater and public outrage. The Financial Democracy Campaign rallied others in coalition, staged dramatic demonstrations in dozens of cities, and testified intelligently before congressional hearings. And on the whole, it was ignored.

On Valentine's Day in 1991, the FDC demonstrators appeared on the sidewalk at chosen locations in twelve cities and began handing out heart-shaped red lollipops stamped with the message: "I'm tired of being played for a sucker." In Washington, D.C., their target was the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency presiding over the vast billions of the savings and loan bailout. "No more sweetheart deals," the placards declared.

At several locations, a country singer identified as "S&Lvis" entertained reporters and curious onlookers with the lyrics of "Bailout Rock," a song mocking the rescue of banks and S&Ls at the expense of the taxpayers. "When the party ended and the smoke had cleared! The biggest banks were bigger, the rest disappeared."

Bureaucrats at the RTC offices in Washington came out on the sidewalk to listen and were so amused, they asked for extra lollipops to give to their colleagues inside. In Abilene, Texas, small-business owners joined the protest because their bank credit had been cut off. In Baltimore, Maryland, the low-income members of ACORN turned out to picket because of the rotten housing available to inner-city black families. In Los Angeles, hotel and restaurant union workers picketed because high-flying financial deals had destroyed many of their jobs. The financial scandals, in theory at least, represented a rare moment of opportunity for political reformers to unite people with disparate interests around a common cause.

Thanks to the Financial Democracy Campaign, Capitol Hill was flooded with brown paper bags sent in by citizens -- "Don't Leave Us Holding the Bag." The politicians, in fact, were quite nervous about the public anger -- fearful that it would turn up on election day in unexpected forms of retaliation.

None of this, however, did much to divert the political system from its usual behavior. Client-representative relationships held firm in Congress and the Bush administration. The press likewise played its accustomed role -- ignoring the citizens who were trying to be heard. The bailout agency continued to award lucrative deals to favored banks.

"The real decision making at the RTC didn't miss a beat," Tom Schlesinger, the Financial Democracy Campaign's chief organizer, conceded. At forty-two, Schlesinger had spent fifteen years of his life in the laborious politics of community organizing; he has an idealistic commitment to politics but no fanciful illusions about what lollipops and song might accomplish.

Like the civil rights movement, the Financial Democracy Campaign was attempting to foster moral education on a vast scale -- teaching scandalous facts that would mobilize the public anger. But this issue was far too complex to be captured in street theater. It was also not going to wait for Americans to wake up and get smart.

"Our objective," Schlesinger said, "is to take our slingshot and hit Goliath in the ankle or the wrist -- and then keep reloading." Then what? "Then we hammer on the people who have power in this country," he said. "As a first step, no more sweetheart deals for bankers. As a second step, reverse the drift of government policy and start making the financial system respond to what the public wants and needs from it."

Educating people on specific outrages, however, does not necessarily lead them to a larger conception of the problem or their own potential. Their anger may temporarily grow, but will remain incoherent if it finds nothing solid to attach to -- no organizational framework to provide a continuing relationship to the realms where issues are decided. Unlike many citizen activists, Tom Schlesinger understood the weakness in what he was doing.

"What we're doing is very, very far away from real power," Schlesinger said, "and is blinkered by all the habits and shortcomings we've brought with us in the last twenty years, trying to do special pleadings in grassroots politics."

Over time, he suggested, a larger political structure would have to emerge, an organizational framework that could mobilize citizens across a much broader front of issues. But no one imagined this stage of political development was at hand. Even the most engaged citizens, Tom Schlesinger observed, find it hard to think of politics in those larger terms.

"By and large, our folks don't have a sense of the main chance -- of seizing the moment and changing the country," he explained. "Obviously, some of us have grandiose thoughts like that. But given our limited tools and resources and personal shortcomings, I'll be as surprised as the next person if we even come close to changing the country."


Ralph Nader, though obviously less influential than Martin Luther King, has been another important political model for active citizens -- the man who singlehandedly inspired a generation of resourceful watchdogs for the public interest. Nader's own story provided an exemplary tale of what one person might achieve -- a solitary individual who came to Washington fresh from law school, armed only with his own intelligence and idealism. With this humble start, Nader succeeded in spawning an extraordinary system of active citizens- tens of thousands of people examining and challenging the government on behalf of consumers and the broader public interest.

Nader also relied on the media, but his basic technique was critical analysis -- assembling the damning facts about government and industry. Nader's investigations were always guided by values most Americans share -- honesty and openness, fair dealing and respect for human life -- and the shocking revelations repeatedly shamed the government. His style of dramatic exposure has been mimicked endlessly by others, including the environmental movement, and with great success.

The strength of dedicated individuals, it turns out, is not a substitute for the power of "organized people." Because of him and like-minded critics, the government reluctantly amended its processes, opening decision-making channels to citizen participation and providing more detailed accountings of its deliberations. But, as he evidence has demonstrated, the reforms did not succeed in altering the long-term balance of power. Once monied interests countered with their own escalation of political resources, citizens were trapped again in a position of weakness. Nader and other public-interest activists were depicted by business apologists as tiresome scolds.

The core of Ralph Nader's politics was an exalted idea of the individual and what individual citizens could be expected to achieve. If the government will not enforce the law, he argued, then citizens must do it themselves and become prosecutors for the public interest.

The idea is now embedded in many federal statutes. The major environmental laws all include provisions for citizen-initiated enforcement. The tax code provides bounties for those who turn up large-scale evasions. Rewards are paid to those who "blow the whistle" on cheating in government procurement. Since 1986, for instance, 274 lawsuits have been initiated by citizens charging government contractors with fraud, mainly in defense, and have recovered $70 million for the government. When the savings and loan scandals proliferated, Nader's Public Citizen proposed yet another version of the same approach -- citizens empowered to prosecute financial fraud, consumers organized as the watchdogs of financial institutions. "Citizens should insist," Michael Waldman wrote, "that they be given the tools to enforce the law themselves." [3]

The watchdog approach to politics engages the energies of thousands of citizens and produces regular victories, some of them quite spectacular. But this approach is based on an idea of citizenship in which individuals are supposed to share responsibility for fulfilling the government's duties. The idea usually defines citizens in the narrow role of aggrieved consumers and assumes that ordinary people are capable of functioning as the equivalent of bank examiners.

"It's like serving on a jury," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Citizens are responsible for enforcing the law -- that's citizenship.... The concept of citizen involvement means it has a purity that cannot be corrupted."

The intent is certainly noble, but the net effect may be further dislocation in the relationships between government and citizens. Once the responsibility for enforcement is shifted to private citizens, some agencies are happy to let them do the hard work of challenging violators. When public-interest lawyers win a court order for enforcement, the political heat is directed at them, not at the government officers who failed to do their duty in the first place.

Furthermore, only a relative handful of private citizens are equipped to carry out this form of citizenship -- those with the leisure time and professional skills. Once again, the less educated and less articulate, the people who must spend their energies supporting their families, are left out.

The notion that citizens will bring "purity" to government is another problem: Some do and some don't. Any mechanism created for citizen participation will also be available for manipulation by any other interest group, whether its motives are self-interested or public- spirited. If everyone has to be a watchdog in order to make government work, then the foxes will also volunteer to serve.

The public-interest movement, in fact, revived the civic values of the Progressive reformers from early in the century (reformers who were themselves well-educated middle-class professionals and managers). They distrusted politics in general, just as Nader does, and wished to keep government insulated from its messy influences. The Progressives tried to create a sanitized democracy that would adhere to principles of good government, but they were disdainful of the party mechanisms that gave ordinary people representation in the debate. Their high-minded brand of individualism became a weak substitute for collective accountability.

In public-interest lawsuits, the inevitable bargaining over final decisions often gets left to the capable few who have the capacity to undertake this work, especially those people with law degrees. Whether virtuous or otherwise, these agents bring their own particular values to the table and their own class biases, which mayor may not harmonize with the larger public that cannot be present and has lost reliable representation.

Nor should citizenship require people to do the government's work for it. Government, in theory, is constituted to do the things that citizens individually cannot do for themselves, including making the laws and enforcing them. Assigning that function to individuals is not a solution to the democratic problem, but a subtle form of resignation -- another way of accepting that the political system will never perform responsibly and that citizens will never be able to make it do so. If ordinary people are supposed to do the work of government, why, they may ask, are they paying taxes?


Citizens remain weak because their inherited ideas of how to do politics allow them to evade the class conflicts within their own ranks. The environmental movement, though its broad values are almost universally shared by the public, is unable to mobilize its potential impact because it cannot resolve its own differences.

The movement is splintered into many different pieces, including different social classes that do not even talk to one another, much less try to work out a common political agenda. On one end are Ivy League lawyers, urbane and well educated and completely comfortable in the inner circles of government. On the other end are the thousands of home-grown neighborhood activists, utterly skeptical of government and engaged in "rude and crude" politics at the factory gates.

A few years ago, Lois Marie Gibbs of the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes tried to build some bridges across this social chasm. She organized a series of roundtable discussions and invited thirty or so community activists from the grassroots to meet with Washington-based lawyers and lobbyists from the so-called Big Ten, the leading national environmental organizations.

"It was hilarious," Gibbs said. "People from the grassroots were at one end of the room, drinking Budweiser and smoking, while the environmentalists were at the other end of the room eating yogurt. We wanted to talk about victim compensation. They wanted to talk about ten parts per billion benzene and scientific uncertainty. A couple of times, it was almost war.

"We were hoping that, by seeing these local folks, the people from the Big Ten would be more apt to support the grassroots position, but it didn't work that way. They went right on with the status quo position. The Big Ten approach is to ask: What can we support to achieve a legislative victory? Our approach is to ask: What is morally correct? We can't support something in order to win if we think it is morally wrong."

Most of the citizens drawn into grassroots environmental activism are unusual; they come from the social ranks that are least active politically, people who are poor or who are familiarly described as "working class." On the whole, these "middle Americans," as sociologist Herbert J. Gans called them, are the most disaffected and culturally inclined to practice "political avoidance." They are wary of elections and formal politics and even large civic organizations, cynical about government at all levels. Instead of political activism; Gans noted, they normally concentrate their energies on nurturing and defending their own small, private spaces -- family or church or immediate neighborhood. [4]

On the other hand, most of the citizens who lead the major environmental organizations are the offspring of the affluent managerial class, people who feel at ease in the higher realms of politics and skilled at the rationalistic policy analysis. Many are idealistic professionals, committed to large intellectual conceptions of the environmental problem but not personally confronted by the risks of poisonous industrial pollution.

These class distinctions were playfully delineated by Outside magazine when it published a consumer's guide to the environmental movement. Citizen's Clearinghouse: ''Typical member: quit the church choir to organize toxic dump protest." Natural Resources Defense Council: "Typical member: Andover '63, Yale '67, Harvard Law '70, Pentagon anti-war marches '68, '69, '70." Environmental Defense Fund: "Typical member: lawyer with a green conscience and a red Miata." Conservation Foundation: "As connected as they come and is quite friendly with many less-than-pure corporations like Exxon and Chevron." [5]

The environmental movement is a complicated spectrum of tastes and aspirations, ranging from the aesthetics of bird watchers to the radicalized politics of angry mothers. All share a generalized commitment to the environmental ethic, but have very different conceptions of what that means and how to accomplish their goals. These differences are rooted in their economic classes. An environmentalist who graduated from an Ivy League law school is more likely to believe in the gradual perfectability of the legal system, the need to legislate and litigate.

However, if one lives on the "wrong 'side of the tracks," downwind from toxic industrial fumes, these activities look pointless and even threatening. The idea of passing more laws seems a futile diversion. There are already plenty of laws. The problem is political power. "It's not illegal to build an incinerator and it's not illegal to poison people," Lois Gibbs said. "Poor people know that they need to organize and fight to win." [6]

The corrosive consequence of this underlying conflict is lost political power -- a popular cause that is unable to realize its full strength because it cannot reconcile its own internal differences. "It does hurt us," Gibbs agreed, "because we don't have any people lobbying on the Hill, while the Big Ten lobby could turn out the people -- if they were connected to the grassroots. But they don't have the constituency we have. They don't want to dirty their hands, dealing with these people from the grassroots."

Some leaders in the major environmental organizations recognize the same dilemma. Richard Ayres, chairman of the Clean Air Coalition formed by the Big Ten groups, sees Washington-based lobbyists like himself trapped between the grassroots demands for fundamental change and a political system that will not even consider them. The Big Ten works for incremental victories and, when even those are watered down by Washington politics, the grassroots activists become even more disenchanted. Young people sign up for Greenpeace, not the Audubon Society.

"If the central government won't respond to a situation, it drives the moderates out," Ayres said. "People far from Washington are saying we ought to be doing recycling and changes in the production processes that will prevent pollution. But we're caught in the middle, having to say: 'We can't do that. Congress won't touch it.'"

Major organizations in Washington cannot easily align with the fervor of the grassroots environmentalists: This would threaten their own standing within the political establishment. When a GE lobbyist wanted to cut a deal on CFCs in the new clean-air legislation, he phoned a lobbyist from the NRDC to see if his organization would go along with the compromise. That's real power -- having a putative veto on insider negotiations -- but it is usually quite limited. The Big Ten groups have such influence only so long as they adhere to the constricted terms of the Washington regulatory debate.

"If I represent an industry, I can always get into the argument in the Executive Branch or Congress by nature of the fact that I have money," Curtis Moore, former Republican counsel for the Senate environmental affairs committee, explained. "But if you're an environmental group, you can't get into the argument unless they want to let you in. And they're not going to let you in if they think you're crazy, if you don't think in the same terms they do. So you have to sound reasonable or you won't even get in the room. And you don't find many people in the major environmental groups who are willing to be seen as unreasonable."

Moore's point is crucial to understanding the compromised performance of citizen politics. The admission ticket to the debate is: "You have to sound reasonable. " The broad ranks of citizens whose own views have become "radicalized" by experience, as Lois Gibbs put it, will always sound "unreasonable" to the governing elites. They not only won't get a seat at the table, but may conclude that the Big Ten environmentalists are in collusion too, bargaining settlements with government and business behind closed doors.

Grassroots leaders, for instance, attacked the League of Women Voters for accepting grants from Dow Chemical and Waste Management to finance educational projects on hazardous wastes. The LWV in New England sponsored a series of conferences at which environmentalists and business representatives discussed their differences on key policy issues, but community-based leaders were not invited. "We were told that grassroots people are too ignorant or too hysterical to be able to participate meaningfully," Lois Gibbs complained. [7]

The grassroots suspicion of collusion between big-name environmentalists and industrial polluters is not entirely imaginary. When the CEO of Waste Management wanted to lobby EPA Administrator Reilly in 1989 to block state-enacted restrictions on hazardous wastes, he arranged a breakfast meeting through a mutual friend -- the president of the National Wildlife Federation. The industry lobbyists warned Reilly that a "balkanization" was being fostered in many states by the grassroots agitation for tougher restrictions and the federal agency must "make its presence felt." Reilly, himself the former president of the Conservation Foundation, obliged. [8]

Class conflict is, of course, a persistent theme in popular politics throughout American history. Differences of culture and class have always set citizens against one another, separating the people who, in theory, ought to be allies. Racial antagonism remains the most divisive barrier between people, white and black, who have common interests. Differences of region and religion are now much less influential than in earlier eras, but the differences of income and economic perspective are greater now than they were a generation ago. The inability of people to confront and overcome the class biases that divide them is one of the oldest failures of American democracy.

Eras of popular reform usually fail to produce genuine change, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has argued, because they nearly always embody unnatural marriages of conflicting class interests. "Middle upper strata [of citizens] may have an ideological commitment to political reform, but they also have an economic interest in not permitting reform to alter significantly the existing distribution of income and wealth," Huntington wrote. "The poorer classes, on the other hand, may have an interest in substantial economic change, but they lack the ideological motivation to make that change a reality and, indeed, they are mobilized for political action by appeals to values which guarantee that major economic change will not become a reality." [9]

Citizens from the lower economic ranks seek to preserve the independence of their own community institutions and are skeptical of grand causes that intrude, especially if these seem to be controlled from above. Middle-class reformers, on the other hand, are willing to use governmental power on behalf of good-government reforms, but not in ways that will change power relationships in the economic order. "Upper-class and upper-middle-class hypocrisy combines with lower-class cynicism to perpetuate the status quo," Huntington concluded.

This bleak view wrongly presumes an endless stalemate for democratic possibilities, but it does accurately describe the present reality, both in the environmental movement and in many other public-spirited reform campaigns. Middle-class reformers, whether they are environmentalists or consumer advocates, tend to focus on perfecting the processes of government, not changing the underlying arrangements of power. Grassroots advocates have the advantage of being able to see the underlying power realities more clearly and are therefore willing to confront power directly. But they are handicapped by their own lack of access to the debate -- and their "unreasonable" attitudes.

The other great obstacle within the environmental movement has been the inability to reconcile bedrock tensions between its moral claims and economic self-interest. The civil rights movement could finesse this conflict because of the unifying fact of race. The environmental movement has mostly tried to smother it with righteousness. Everyone wants to advance the environmental ethic, of course, but the underlying conflict is about jobs and profit and economic growth versus environmental protection. This is not a question the mainline organizations have wished to face directly, nor have many of the grassroots advocates.

Penny Newman, a community activist who led the fight against the notorious Stringfellow acid pits in Riverside, California, observed: ''Too often the only time community-based environmentalists meet the workers is when we are protesting against corporate practices and the workers are bused into public hearings to advance the company's agenda -- so that the company can orchestrate the conflict between workers and the community."

In the Los Angeles basin, for instance, enforcement of the increasingly stringent air- pollution standards needed to free that city of its terrible smog will directly threaten scores of furniture-making factories that release highly toxic fumes in the air -- and also employ seventy thousand workers, most of them Mexican-Americans. The companies, especially smaller firms that cannot afford new emissions-control systems, threaten to close down and move their production to Mexico. Some of the upper-class environmentalists regard this as an acceptable solution since, after all, many of the furniture workers were themselves migrants from Mexico. Send them all back to Mexico -- the jobs and the people.

Again, low-wage workers wind up paying the price for everyone else's well-being. Groups like the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles are trying to mobilize an alternative approach that speaks for both the low-income communities and their workers -- that represents both their environmental complaints and their economic interests.

"Industry begins the battle with a captive army of workers whose livelihoods are in some way dependent upon the production of toxics and who are predisposed to believe company claims that environmentalists are well-to-do, anti-working-class crybabies," wrote Eric Mann, director of the Los Angeles Strategy Center. "Workers may argue in turn that if life is reduced to a battle between one self-interested force (the environmentalists) attempting to take their jobs versus another self-interested force (corporate management) attempting to 'save' their jobs, then they have no other self-interested option but to side with corporate power." [10]

Community organizers in many places are trying to break out of this self-defeating conflict by synthesizing the community's overall concerns -- the right to protection from industrial poisons and the requirements for promoting stable economic prosperity. This approach entails a much more complicated politics, of course, but it has the virtue of facing the buried conflicts more honestly.

An environmental politics grounded in the perspectives of communities would undoubtedly lead to different kinds of public policies -- transitional assistance to threatened workers or small businesses, for instance, or government-sponsored centers for treating hazardous wastes in a serious manner. It would encourage people to ask the larger strategic questions about the production processes themselves. It would assume from the start, as grassroots activists say, that the poisonous stuff should not be dumped in anybody's backyard.

If any of the major environmental groups were to realign their own politics with these positive energies emanating from the grassroots, they would necessarily have to rethink their own policy priorities and methods -- and listen respectfully to what these people from the communities are trying to say. Inevitably, this would put at risk the environmentalists' good standing as "reasonable" participants in Washington politics. But they would also discover a source of new political strength -- the power that comes from real people.


There is one other, distasteful explanation for why many citizen organizations, including the major environmental groups, are disconnected from the politics of ordinary people and hesitant to advocate far-reaching solutions. That explanation is money. Many citizen groups depend on tax-exempt contributions from foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals to finance their political efforts. The dependency guarantees that they will never move beyond a purified version of citizenship. In truth,' much of what passes for "citizen politics" on both right and left would disappear if the wealthy benefactors withdrew.

Under the federal tax code, tax-exempt grants are fully deductible for the donors only if the recipients stay clear of partisan politics, and many organizations accept these limitations on their politics. They may develop "educational issues" or create "civic projects" for citizens, but they cannot take these concerns into the arena of accountability that matters most to those in power -- elections. Thus, the tax code itself fosters a limp kind of interest-group politics for citizens -- the same splintering that in government has proved so debilitating to democracy.

The law thus draws an unnatural circle around the political ambitions of citizens at large -- especially the citizens who are the weakest and most dependent. Every organization that relies on tax-exempt contributions lives constantly with the complications of what it can or cannot do; many flirt at the edges of what the Internal Revenue Service would allow. "Every local project that I've ever been involved in," community organizer Arnie Graf said, "has had a lawyer who was a friend and was always telling us, 'Oh, my God, you're going to get in trouble. You say you're nonpolitical but look what you're doing.'"

The tax-exempt financing provides still another means by which wealth -- including corporate wealth -- defines the political agenda for others. In the arena of public affairs, private wealth exerts enormous influence over the scope and direction of what citizens will undertake because the giving is conditioned by the giver's own sense of what is an appropriate political cause. Though a few foundations are famous for launching provocative and even radical causes, the overall effect of political charity, as one might expect, is mostly conservative -- guaranteed to preserve the status quo. Charity is another form of political power.

Many citizen organizations expend enormous energy packaging "proposals" that will appeal not necessarily to people at large, but to foundation officers and very wealthy citizens. These projects will be accountable not to rank-and-file members but to the sources of financing.

Corporations, including the major polluters, have discovered, for instance, that they can buy into the environmental movement itself through tax-deductible contributions to the mainline organizations. Waste Management, Inc., the largest waste-disposal company and a company frequently fined for its environmental violations, has donated more than $1 million to various environmental groups in recent years. The company's generosity bought its CEO a seat on the board of the National Wildlife Federation. The National Audubon Society, which got $135,000 from Waste Management, expected its corporate gifts to top $1 million in 1989, up from $150,000 a few years earlier. The Conservation Foundation received money from Chevron, Exxon, General Electric, Union Carbide, Weyerhaeuser, Waste Management and a long list of other corporations during the year before its president, William Reilly, became EPA administrator. [11]

Naturally, the companies depict these gifts as a tangible way to affirm their commitment to the environment, but in the usual manner of Washington connections the money also builds political bridgeheads -- access to the opposition camp. Some of the Big Ten groups are leery and keep their distance from certain corporations; others take the money and curry favor with the corporate donors.

"American philanthropy is a system of 'generosity' by which the wealthy exercise social control and help themselves more than they do others," wrote Teresa Odendahl, an anthropologist who examined the lives and attitudes of several hundred wealthy philanthropists. Most major contributors, she found, are guided by a very narrow conception of democracy and "do not believe that the common people constitute the source of political authority." [12]

To escape from dependency, citizens would have to learn to depend on their own financial resources (as some already do) or to take only contributions that impose no limits on their political vision. Ultimately, only a general reform of the fraudulent distinctions in the tax code will remove the special political influence that private wealth derives from its charity.

In any case, money is never going to be a reliable source of political power for unorganized citizens. The other side will always have more of it and politics based on the generosity of others can never attain maturity or independence. The political strength of citizens can only be aggregated by assembling the collective aspirations of the many into a coherent, reliable whole. This is the daunting challenge of democracy and it is difficult to do in any era. But it is not impossible.

In fact, there are many citizens who are already doing this in different parts of America and with 'tangible success. They are building their own political organizations and formulating their own political agendas and acting on them. They are accumulating real power because their political aspirations have been authenticated. not by experts or opinion polls, but by the authority of real people.
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The maldistribution of power in American politics -- embedded in the governing processes, reinforced by inequalities of private wealth, protected by the existing relationships -- is not the last word. In scattered places, a vibrant minority still believes in the idea of democracy and acts as though its promise is still possible to fulfill. Where would one find these faithful? In the most unlikely places.

Some are in the drug-ridden neighborhoods of Queens and the South Bronx or the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Some are in the Mexican-American neighborhoods of East Los Angeles. Others live in the west side wards of San Antonio and the black neighborhoods of Houston and the border towns strung across south Texas. Some are in Jersey City and Baltimore, Memphis and Prince Georges County, Maryland, suburb to the nation's capital.

They are not running anyone for public office or even thinking about doing it. For them, democracy means building their own political organizations, drawing people together in a relationship that leads to real political power. In a sense, they are reinventing democracy from the ground up, starting in their own neighborhoods.

In Brooklyn, people first came together in 1978 as East Brooklyn Congregations, sponsored by Catholic and Protestant churches, a synagogue and two homeowners' associations. After years of patient conversations and thousands of meetings, they were, among other things, building homes for real people. Their Nehemiah project has built two thousand moderately priced houses in Brooklyn. Their accumulated political clout arranged a patchwork of public and private financing that provided low monthly mortgage payments for the buyers.

In Southern California, three allied organizations turned out seven thousand people to lobby Sacramento in a successful campaign to push up the state's minimum wage.

In Texas, a statewide network of ten such organizations has won state legislation for health care for the indigent and $100 million in financing to build sewer and water systems for impoverished migrant-worker settlements in the Rio Grande Valley.

In Baltimore, a citizens' organization called BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) canvassed neighborhoods on their political priorities and drafted its own agenda for the city -- education, housing, jobs -- then collected endorsements from seventy thousand citizens. One political candidate embraced BUILD's agenda as his own and he became the first black mayor of Baltimore.

These victories and many others, though real and substantial, do not quite capture the essence of what these people are attempting: the reconstruction of democratic values in their own lives. Jan Wilbur, a leader in a multiracial Houston organization known as TMO (The Metropolitan Organization), expressed the idea at a meeting of the ten allied Texas groups:

"While the Founding Fathers spoke those values, they did not live out those values. What we're trying to do has never been done before. We're trying to make those values that we've heard all our lives into something real. That's radical and new."

Father Leo J. Penta, a priest who is active in the East Brooklyn organization, described the organizing process as "weaving a network of new or renewed relationships" among alienated and powerless people. The undertaking begins, he said, with "the wounded and struggling institutions which mediate relationships: families, congregations, churches, workers' organizations, civic and cultural associations." The objective is "to establish islands of political community, spaces of action and freedom in the sea of bureaucrats, political image mongers and atomized consumers." [1]

Skeptics, of course, dismiss this sort of politics as hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the age of mass media and high-tech campaigns. But what these people from different parts of America have come to understand is a basic idea nearly lost in American democracy: Politics begins in personal relationships. Indeed, without that foundation, politics usually dissolves into empty manipulation by a remote few. People talking to one an other -- arguing and agreeing and developing trust among themselves -- is what leads most reliably to their own political empowerment.

That is the core of what's missing. In an earlier era, the kind of community organizing these people have undertaken would have aroused immediate suspicion and probably hostility from existing political parties. But that no longer happens. Arnold Graf, an organizer who helped to launch several of these organizations, described the reality:

"When I'm out organizing in a community, I always feel like I'm in a vacuum. There's nothing to hook up to. There's no political party or labor movement. We're trying to imagine what all those organizations would do for people because none of them exist. People are just out there -- lost.

"In places like San Antonio or Baltimore, we are as close to being a local political party as anybody is. We go around organizing people, getting them to agree on an agenda, registering them to vote, interviewing candidates on whether they support our agenda. We're not a political party, but that's what political parties used to do."

All of these organizations and a number of others are linked by a national organization and a common heritage -- the inspiration of Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation. Alinsky created a national team of organizers in 1940 to help low-income communities discover their own political power. He is another important model for contemporary citizen politics, like King or Nader. The community-organizing approach to politics lost favor after the 1960s, partly because the federal government borrowed loosely from Alinsky's ideas and corrupted them in the "community action" programs of the war on poverty. The notion that the government could sponsor citizen organizations in opposition to itself -- or that entrenched power would allow them to succeed -- was a doomed concept from the start.

A University of Chicago sociologist, the charismatic Alinsky developed his own version of "rude and crude" politics during the 1930s and, for several decades, showed poor people in Chicago and other industrial cities how to use confrontational strength against City Hall and the political establishment. Alinsky-style organizations multiplied for a time but many did not endure, especially after his death in 1972.

The Industrial Areas Foundation lived on, however, and contrary to popular impressions, it has flourished, though its methods are now quite different. During the two decades when conventional politics was atrophying, the IAF organizations began to grow rapidly as its conception of democracy spread to more and more communities. IAF organizers launched a dozen or so organizations between 1973 and 1985, then doubled that number in the next five years. It now has twenty-four organizations in seven states, encompassing twelve hundred congregations and associations with nearly two million members, plus another five or six communities that are in the formative stages. By 1996, it hopes to be operating in fifteen or sixteen states. [2]

Alinsky's radical conviction is still the core premise. He believed that the ignored and powerless classes of citizens are fully capable of assembling their own power and leading their own politics. But the modern IAF has transformed Alinsky's fractious style into a deeper and more patient understanding of human nature. It does not start out with a "policy issue" or political purpose. It starts with conversations in people's homes. It does not spring itself on a city or town, but begins by establishing relations with the enduring community institutions that people rely on -- churches and synagogues and civic associations, from Catholic bishops to black Baptist ministers. The modern IAF, unlike Alinsky, espouses a political doctrine that is rooted in the language of the Gospels.

Edward T. Chambers, an Alinsky protege who is now IAF executive director, explained the approach to the Texas Observer:

"Our culture is very simple. We' start with family, a congregation. We start with the teachings of the Bible. We start with basic values that are given us. Then we try to practice a genuine democracy -- not the artificial democracy of the sound bite."

What exactly does that mean? "You believe that men and women are the most precious treasure this country has," Chambers said, "and the most important thing we can do is to develop them, let them grow, let them flower, let those talents flourish." [3]

This version of democracy still makes house calls -- thousands of "house meetings" held in private homes -- where organizers get to know people and their ideas for the community and, in passing, scout for those who will become the community's leaders. The organization, as it develops, gives the people a regular place to meet and discuss their ideas with others -- a place that belongs to them, not to someone else. Conventional politics no longer fulfills either of these functions, but then neither do most of the prominent organizations in citizen politics.

In other words, this politics starts with people -- not scandalous revelations or legislative crusades, not candidates or government agendas, but ordinary people. The overriding political objective, whatever else happens, is to change the people themselves -- to give them a new sense of their own potential.

One Alinsky principle, known to all IAF members as "the Iron Rule," is frequently invoked during their meetings: "Never do anything for someone that they can do for themselves. Never." The organizations, for instance, are launched with financial aid from the sponsoring parishes and churches, but the members must immediately develop their own capacity to be self-sustaining and financially independent.

Their concept of the political arena echoes the theology of Paul Tillich -- a realm ruled by both power and love. "The world as it is -- that's power," said Ernesto Cortes, Jr., the lead organizer for the IAF Texas network. "The world as it should be -- that's love."

A citizen schooled in democracy understands that he or she must live comfortably with both forces. "We learn that power and love go together," Cortes explained, "that they are conjugal, that they both come of the need to form relationships." In a sense, that is a more erudite way of saying that self-interest and competing moral claims must become fused in order to produce effective political action. The definition also provides a way to escape the confinements of "purity" that the modern political culture has taught citizens to accept for themselves. [4]

This language has a resonant quality for contemporary America because, in general, Americans are obsessed with the question of "relationships." The bestseller list is dominated by how-to books on the subject; television talk shows and popular experts endlessly examine the dimensions of personal loneliness, alienation, addiction and the frayed bonds of kinship. The popular obsession with relationships, however, is usually grounded in a narrow and egotistical context -- repairing one's relationships with husband or wife or lover, with children or parents, even with one's own true self.

The IAF theology of politics asks people to think of relationships in a context larger than themselves. Politics, after all, was originally understood as a process through which people would work out the terms for living with one another -- the shared rules and agreed-upon commitments of the social order. A successful family that is bound together by trust and loyalty and mutual purpose can be thought of as an intense microcosm of a larger society that has developed the same capacities. If families are wounded and struggling in modern America, so too is the political order.

The two realms -- the personal and the political -- are, in fact, intimately related, since much of what decimates contemporary family life originates in the matters that are decided by the larger political realm. The isolation that haunts Americans in their social lives is not really very different from the alienation that also undermines American politics. It is possible that Americans will be unable to repair their damaged personal relationships without eventually facing their deteriorated political relationships too.

"What we're trying to do," said Ernie Cortes, "is to draw people out of their private pain, out of their cynicism and passivity, and get them connected with other people in collective action."


On a weekend in June 1990, 150 community leaders from across the state of Texas met for a day and a half in a San Antonio hotel to discuss and refine what they called their "vision paper" on public education. The first draft had been written a year earlier, based mainly on experiences in Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and other places where IAF groups were working with school systems and particular schools on various self-improvement projects. The San Antonio meeting was one in a series of continuing deliberations, intended to sharpen the document further.

The meeting had a second purpose, which was to ratify plans for a huge statewide convention in October when the Texas IAF network would turn out ten thousand people and formally declare itself" a new power in Texas public life." It had taken sixteen years to reach this point, starting in 1974 with a feisty San Antonio organization called COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service). COPS endures and is now the largest and most experienced among the Texas network's ten organizations. The rally would also mark the fiftieth anniversary of Saul Alinsky's creation, the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Statewide candidates from both parties would be invited to attend the celebration and experience an "accountability night. " This is an IAF ritual in which the politicians are required to sit and listen, while citizens stand at the rostrum and do most of the talking. The network's agenda, including the education "vision paper" and others on jobs and housing, would be made public. Both Republican and Democratic candidates would be asked to endorse it.

"You really feel empowered when you see the politicians come to our accountability night," Marilyn Stavinoha of San Antonio explained to some women from Dallas. "Instead of politicians talking to us, we talk to the politicians."

At the planning meeting at San Antonio, community leaders would talk earnestly about these matters for many hours, but not in a manner likely to excite much outside interest. Democracy at this level is simply not very newsworthy. It lacks the sense of conflict that makes "news" in other political arenas, the stories of winning and losing. No angry voices are ever raised. The people arrive at a consensus on things, yet there are never any votes taken -- no climactic moments or soaring orations, no drama whatever. That is not what these people come for nor what they take home.

Before the community leaders convened, Ernie Cortes gathered the seventeen other IAF organizers, who are each responsible to specific communities, for a pre-meeting meeting to critique the preparations. Afterward, the organizers would meet again to critique the meeting's outcome. In IAF doctrine, the organizers submit to a self-conscious process of arduous accountability. Where are people? Do they understand? Do they really agree?

Are the organizers comfortable, Cortes asked, with the quotas assigned to each organization for getting people to the October rally? As he went down the list, the quotas elicited some groans and sarcastic asides, but no dissent. Transporting thousands of citizens across the vast state of Texas is itself a formidable task, but IAF would have to fill the arena in San Antonio (or make it seem full) for its rally in order to make its point.

"The question is how much do we want to put in this," Cortes said. "It means raising money. It means building momentum. It means this would be our big political event of the year, where we literally use all of our political capital to get the candidates to the meeting." An organization-by-organization tally of what seemed doable produced a total of eighty- eight hundred. "Okay, that's short," he said, "but that will be hard to do."

What do the organizers think of the new draft of the "vision paper" on education? Sister Pearl Caesar, a nun who is an organizer for the Metro Alliance in San Antonio, thought it was very good. "It tells you where we want to go," she said. Others were mildly critical. Too wordy, too repetitious, too specific.

Cortes explained the purpose once again. "The reason we're doing this document is to have a tool to build a constituency at the local level, " he said. "The audience is you, the key leaders in the organizations, educators and others around the state, legislators and editorial writers. None of these are original ideas. It's a synthesis, but it's an implicit attack on some things."

Ernie Cortes, one might say, is a mellower, Mexican-American version of Saul Alinsky. He has the same charismatic quality -- a mixture of the cerebral and the tough -- but Cortes seems less brusque and manipulative than the legendary Alinsky. His manner is more patient with other people and, indeed, more democratic. A few years ago, Cortes was awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" fellowships and he has become a minor legend among political activists because of his brilliant organizing work in Texas. Slightly balding and pot-bellied, with stringy gray hair, he often has a scowling expression that can seem, oddly, both menacing and sweet.

Ernie Cortes likes to think of himself as a teacher. He dropped out of graduate school at the University of Texas to become a political organizer among migrant workers in the Rio Grande Valley, but he lives for ideas as well as action -- a rare type in politics who devours books on an awesome scale (history, economics, philosophy, politics). Cortes sees the IAF organizations as a university for the people -- a school for democracy where they learn how the world around them really works. [5]

Politicians in Texas probably see the organization in a less benign way. The IAF network is a strange new force in their midst -- potentially capable of disrupting their own power relationships because it includes so many real people. Something is being built in Texas politics that does not respond to the usual alignments of money and influence. The politicians may not understand the theological talk about "love and power" but, when IAF speaks to power, they listen respectfully. After all, those are live voters going to all those IAF meetings.

When IAF started in San Antonio in 1974, its style was by necessity hard-nosed confrontation. Andres Sarabia, a computer technician at the local Air Force base who became the first president of COPS, described the anger felt by the powerless Mexican- Americans on the west side of town. The city was run by the anglos on the north side and the west side's most modest pleas for public service -- street lights or decent drainage -- were ignored by City Hall. ''I'm not a Republican or a Democrat," Sarabia still likes to say. ''I'm Angry with a capital A." [6]

"The issue then was recognition," Sarabia recalled. "We were considered Mexicans. There was a statement made: 'Leave them alone, they're Mexicans. They'll be dead in six months because they'll get drunk and kill each other. They can't organize themselves.'"

To get the establishment's attention, COPS organized "tie-up" actions at banks and department stores -- overwhelming clerks and tellers with a flood of Mexican-American customers. "People would try on clothes and fur coats and not buy anything -- even the sisters," Sarabia remembered. "They had fun. People used to have fun at these actions. It struck me as tragic -- here we are doing this to have fun."

The local business elite eventually got the message and, sure enough, City Hall did too, but only after some brutal conflicts. The people who held power accepted that the Mexican- Americans on the west side would have to be given a share too. Over the years, COPS has won many issues and lost some, but its presence fundamentally redirected the flow of political power in the city.

As the people won tangible victories through their new organizational power, they also recognized the connection with electoral power. The voter turnout among Mexican- Americans in San Antonio has risen steadily ever since -- a fact that contrasts with those campaigns of empty exhortation mounted periodically by national foundations to encourage voting.

"You have to teach people at a very local level that voting makes a difference right in their own neighborhoods," Cortes said. "In that sense, we are doing what a political party used to do -- giving people a reason to vote. " In 1981, for the first time, the inner-city wards of San Antonio outvoted the anglos on the north side.

The other IAF organizations that developed later in Texas were usually less confrontational than COPS because the word spread among Texas politicians that it was easier to talk with these people than ignore them. "When somebody is willing to deal with you, for you to be confrontational, you're being a bully," Cortes explained. "We're trying to teach people politics. Politics means negotiating and being reciprocal and thinking about the other person." [7]

Nevertheless, entrenched political power usually does not yield recognition without a fight, whether in San Antonio or East Brooklyn or El Paso. When Ernie Cortes was organizing along the border, someone fired a shot into his home one night. Utility companies warned their employees not to mess with these new-fangled political organizations. The Houston Post ran a series of stories "exposing" the dangers of these agitators.

"We go right for the center of power -- governance -- and there's always someone in power who fights you very hard and they get nasty," Arnie Graf explained. "Once you fight for three or four years -- and I mean really fight and things get really tense and polarized -- then it's easier to get to the table and negotiate things. Once you have that fight, then they look at how to accommodate you."

Of the 150 community leaders who gathered in San Antonio to discuss the "vision paper" on education, many had already been through such "fights" to establish their own presence in local politics. Others were still learning the rudiments of power. The hotel conference room was nearly filled with IAF people who had come from all over Texas. They are known simply as "key leaders" in their community organizations -- black, white, Mexican- American, middle class and working class and poor. There appeared to be more women than men, with a few priests and nuns and black ministers scattered among them. After the greetings, Cortes immediately called a fifteen-minute recess so the groups could caucus their own members. When the meeting resumed, a roll call of the organizations followed -- a procedure that used up most of the evening.

City by city, town by town, leaders introduced their delegations and designated members delivered progress reports on local projects. Fort Bend Interfaith had persuaded local school superintendents to let them do a school-by-school assessment and so far they had talked with forty principals. El Paso reported good news (a higher number of students who achieved a B average) and bad news (the business community was very slow in raising the money promised for scholarships).

Valley Interfaith, representing border towns such as Brownsville and Harlingen, had raised more than $10,000 from member dues -- twelve dollars a family. Dallas Interfaith, still in the formative stages, had signed up fifty-one sponsoring congregations, with financial commitments of more than $100,000. Port Arthur, with seven black delegates present, was just beginning the same arduous groundwork and eager to learn from the others.

Jean Marcus gave a more detailed account of the "parental empowerment" project that ACT (Allied Communities of Tarrant) had pursued in Fort Worth schools for four years. "We've become active on eight campuses," she said. "We have schools with a lot of very low-achieving students and we have schools with high levels of violence. Without parental involvement, we aren't going to be able to turn those schools around."

At the middle school where ACT first concentrated, the children's achievement scores had already risen from last in the school district to third. "We help the parents to identify their self-interest," Marcus explained. "They already know more than they think they know about what's wrong with the schools. As they become more active in the schools, parents become more active in the community at large."

The organization is also a university, as Cortes said, and the next day the 150 leaders were taught a succinct history of public education in America, from Horace Mann's "common school" to the "factory model of schools" that has prevailed in the twentieth century. Sonia Hernandez, a former leader of COPS and now a national education consultant, was the teacher, providing a larger framework for people to think about their own schools and the troubling questions about whether their own children are being prepared for the work of the future.

Schools are also about political power, Hernandez explained. "If teachers don't have power," she said, "guess who else doesn't have power -- parents. So we wind up in conflict with each other and neither of us has the power to change things."

The review of the education document was, above all, orderly and good-natured. Each delegation was given responsibility for a particular section and they studied it overnight, then came forward the next day to comment and lead the discussion. The contents of the "vision paper" were a collection of old and new ideas about school reform, ranging from school-based management to greater parental involvement to new methods for accountability.

Some people wanted a stronger "moral statement" in the preamble. Others worried that the emphasis on "competitiveness" sent the wrong message to kids. A spirited exchange developed on the nature of work in the future and whether schools were preparing children for the next generation of jobs.

Father Rosendo Urrabazo, a key leader from San Antonio, brought the discussion back to its central purpose -- political action. "We have people trained now so they feel comfortable going into City Hall and talking to the officials," he said. "But they don't feel comfortable going into the schools. What we did in City Hall, we have to do now in the schools."

The only discordant note was quickly smothered by Cortes. A priest rose to speak in behalf of the "school voucher issue" -- a means of providing public financing for struggling parochial schools -- and one mother seconded his plea. The public schools are hopeless, she said, and parents need help getting their kids out of them. Cortes responded with a soliloquy on Thomas Jefferson and the need for a unifying "common culture" in America -- a diversion that seemed to close the subject.

Outside in the lobby later, Cortes bluntly warned the priest to back off, lest he provoke an argument that might break up the multidenominational coalition. "I told the monsignor it was not in his interest to push the voucher issue," Cortes said, "because we would have to fight him on it. The first thing we have to do is demonstrate our commitment to the common school, to preserve the common culture, or we're going to wind up with a fractured, two-tiered country and that won't be good for any of us."

The "voucher issue" was not mentioned again. Strange as it might seem to anticlerics, an organization that is greatly dependent on the Catholic church was deliberately deflecting a political issue that is most important to the church-in order to preserve its broader political purposes. Such trade-offs are the natural consequence of collective conversation.

When the education discussion concluded, Cortes reminded the delegates: ''This paper is not finished. Go back to your communities and review it. Form an education committee and critique it and come back to us. Are we on the right track in developing a teaching document for ourselves to use?"

Meetings, then more meetings, hours and hours of talking and listening --the process of building political relationships can be almost as exhausting as tending to personal relationships. But the IAP's procedures for fostering deliberation clearly succeed for these citizens. The San Antonio meetings posed a tantalizing question: Is this what the dialogue of a genuine democracy would sound like?

The discussion certainly did not resemble the fractious debates of a town meeting, where everyone pops off on whatever subject moves them. There was no debate to speak of. The format was highly structured and, ultimately, designed to avoid random digressions and encourage consensus. Ernie Cortes was the principal teacher, but also essentially the leader. One could imagine that an audience of hyperactive citizens, full of strong opinions and personal agendas, might rebel impatiently.

Yet it seemed to work. At least, the process worked for the people who were in the room, who had come great distances to join this discussion and dozens of other meetings like it. What did they get from the exchange? A sense of participation and also a sense of sharing in power.

The format, for one thing, is subtly but rigorously all-inclusive. One way or another, before the discussions were over, literally all the people in the room -- even the most awkward and shy -- were required to be on their feet, facing the entire assembly to make some small contribution to the dialogue, if only to give their names and express solidarity with what their own community leaders had said. For the inexperienced and least articulate, the meeting itself was the teacher.

Beyond the personal transformations, the dialogues also yielded the feeling that something important had been accomplished. Agreement had been reached on important matters. The participants knew that they had collaborated in developing a consensus with very different people from many different places and that the consensus would be put to political use in the future.

The "relationships" that have formed around a set of political ideas will be more important than the details, for as these people understand, the relationships are the source of their political power. It was the desire for this consensus, not a thirst for conflict, that brought these people to the meeting. Year after year, it is why they keep coming back.

On October 28, the months of meetings and countless hours of talk came together in an impressive demonstration of political purpose. The arena in San Antonio was filled with ten thousand people, the newspapers reported, and respectful politicians attended to hear from the people. "Coalition Jells into New Force," one headline declared. "Meeting Signals New Texas Politics," said another.

Clayton Williams, the Republican candidate for governor, did not show (though he met separately with the network's leaders). Ann Richards, the Democratic candidate and the eventual winner, did appear and enthusiastically endorsed the IAF network's agenda on education, housing and jobs. Richards promised, as governor, to consult them regularly (and, once in office, she has).

Were the headlines right? Was this new political force for real? Ernie Cortes demurred slightly.

"If I believed my press clippings, I'd say we are a major political factor," Cortes said. "Off the record, I'd say we're not quite there yet. But I believe we're on the threshold. It's in the interest of the political establishment to let us look strong, so they don't look too greedy. It's not in their interest to let us be so strong that we can stop them from doing what they want to do. We haven't got that kind of power yet. But I think we can get it."


The resonant language of love and power, the earnestness and dedication of the IAF organizations, tempts some to romanticize these citizens into something more than they are. The IAF organizations, from East Brooklyn to East Los Angeles, are succeeding on their own terms, but they are still a long, long way from the centers of power. Their politics delivers on its promises to people and that is why these organizations survive and flourish. But there are still many, many obstacles before them.

These citizens have not overcome all of the barriers to democracy but, one by one, they are at least trying to confront some of them in a straightforward way. They may reasonably be regarded as a living model for the democratic promise not yet realized in America. It is also not unreasonable to imagine them as the vanguard, perhaps one of many, for the restoration of American democracy.

The skeptical questions about a politics that originates with people are obvious. Door-to- door politics takes time, for instance, years and years of it, but established power does not wait for citizens to get themselves in motion. This tension is felt by the IAP members themselves: Their organizing processes cannot be rushed without subverting the integrity of the human relationships, yet political events are deciding important questions right now.

In a society conditioned by technology to expect instant responses, the IAF methodology assumes that human development requires patience. Their strategy for gaining political power requires, above all, heroic patience and an abiding optimism about the country -- a belief that gradually, community by community, the public's voice can be reconstructed in American politics.

In the media age, that approach is widely regarded as obsolete -- even reactionary -- since it ignores the reality of mass-communications technology and its supposed blessings. But the IAF groups stubbornly insist that the only way to overcome the alienation fostered by the modern political culture is by doing politics the old way -- face to face, precinct by precinct. But can the politics built on personal relationships ever make itself heard in the clamor of mass communications? The IAF has not, as yet, found a way nor has it really tried, since it does not wish to dilute its deeper purposes by getting drawn into "sound bite" politics.

The quality that makes the IAF organizations so distinctive is their relentless attention to the conditions that ordinary people describe in their own lives. Their authority is derived from personal experience, not from the policy experts of formal politics. Most other varieties of citizen politics start at the other end of the landscape -- attaching to the transient storms of "public opinion" or "policy debate" that play out abstractly on the grand stage of high-level politics. IAF gives up short-term celebrity on "hot issues" in order to develop the long-term power of a collective action that, is real.

In fact, because of its obvious strength, IAF is frequently invited to join the coalitions assembled by other citizen groups for campaigns on major national issues, but it nearly always declines, partly because of what IAF leaders see as hollowness in many of those campaigns: Real people are absent from the ranks. The IAF leaders are also wary of using their people as fodder in someone else's crusade. Other citizen groups typically try to form working alliances with the politicians in power and generally define their Own goals in terms of what seems possible within the reality of Washington politics. These practical compromises, IAF leaders believe, effectively cut out the "unreasonable" voices of people at the community level.

"We have to build a strong constituency of people who care about things that are important and who free themselves, both spiritually and practically, from either party so that both parties will want them," Cortes said.

Like all other citizen politics, the IAP organizations face the daunting barriers of class conflict and racial differences, but at least they are confronting those obstacles in different ways. The organizing successes to date confirm Saul Alinsky's original conviction -- that the poor and powerless can be drawn out of their passive anger and mobilized into effective political action -- but it is not yet clear that the same techniques would succeed with other kinds of communities. The process, after all, mainly teaches racial minorities or low-income neighborhoods the sense of political entitlement that already comes naturally to the white middle class and upper middle class -- a belief in one's right to be heard on public issues, the self-confidence to speak for oneself.

By itself, the personal enhancement of the disaffected classes is valuable, but insufficient. Alinsky himself conceded, late in life, that "even if all the low income parts of our population were organized -- all the blacks, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian poor whites -- if through some genius of organization, they were all united in a coalition, it would not be powerful enough to get significant, basic, needed changes." [8]

Unless an organization can learn to build bridges across the class divide, it will never attain the kind of political girth that might threaten the status quo. In various places, IAF organizations are already at work on the bridge building. Some of the Texas organizations, for instance, are truly diverse, with memberships that leap across the usual lines of race and class. Many white middle-class members, drawn by their Christian or Jewish faith and progressive civic values, have a conscience-driven commitment to their communities and a sense that this is the only politics that produces anything meaningful.

Cortes does not think the IAF Texas network will achieve full status as a major power in the state until it succeeds at creating a presence among the white blue-collar workers in East Texas and elsewhere -- people who have common economic interests but are in social conflict with blacks and Hispanics. The organizers are looking for such openings.

In Phoenix, Arizona, the IAF organization (Valley Interfaith Project) was deliberately founded across class lines -- bridging both sides of town. It encompasses Hispanic neighborhoods on the south side of the city and white working-class and professional neighborhoods on the north side. Many white people are drawn to participate, organizer Peter Fears explained, by a sense of the deteriorating quality in their lives -- crime and pollution, overdevelopment, traffic jams and the rest. The good life is crumbling and, unless citizens mobilize themselves, the political order will do nothing to stop it.

Such organizing ventures will seem wildly idealistic to cynics who are familiar with the present context of racial and class antagonism in American politics. Still, American political history suggests that this kind of politics, difficult as it is, is the only kind that leads to genuine change. Eras of great reform usually began with the emergence of new political demographics -- either newly arrived immigrants who finally found their voice in American politics or large sectors of citizens who had been held down by the system. Their political strength crystallized when they bonded with others unlike themselves with shared political goals.

In history, it is the least powerful, the outsiders, who have often been the principal agents for democratic growth. Therefore, if democratic regeneration is to occur in the years ahead, it is likely to be led by people such as these -- women and men who are now the weakest and most disregarded citizens, the politically orphaned -- rather than by middle- class reformers with professional skills. Mexican-Americans or blacks, Asian-Americans or working-class whites -- these are the people most injured by the decay of democratic representation and the people who have most to gain by restoring equity to politics. It is perhaps the case that the democratic promise waits for them.

One other crucial barrier stands in the way of groups like the IAF: They cannot at present reach beyond their own boundaries. Vibrant democracy has always been easier to accomplish in localized settings, closest to the people, but that is not sufficient to address the present breakdown. In order to imagine a restored democracy, one has to imagine a politics beyond cities and states that can speak convincingly to the national government in Washington.

In other words, how can people create a political presence that links them to large and complicated issues like taxation or the savings and loan debacle? The IAF organizations, like almost everyone else in America, are a long way from establishing that kind of link to power, though they are taking small, careful steps toward the higher realms of politics.

This is absolutely essential. The harsh fact is that the fundamental well-being of San Antonio or East Brooklyn is not determined at City Hall or even ultimately at the state legislature in Austin or Albany. The fate of these communities, their families and parishes, is embedded in a web of distant governing decisions in Washington where elite influence is concentrated.

In their cautious, deliberate manner, the IAF organizations are trying to develop channels with which to speak in unison on larger national or regional questions. For the last couple of years, Andres Sarabia and key leaders from the other cities have been meeting regularly in Washington with their congressional delegations, exploring the landscape of national legislative politics, trying out modest proposals and establishing relationships with those in power.

These contacts are only a first step and IAF now intends to expand its national base more rapidly. Cities in virtually every region of the nation have urged the organization to come in and help repair local politics: The pace of growth depends partly on recruiting able organizers who truly grasp the human dimensions of this politics. Arnie Graf, who is recruiting for the expansion, explained the strategy:

"Generally, our hope is that by 1996 we would be in twice the strategically located states as we are now and that would give us the capacity to develop either the regional or national base to look at national policies. If we were in the right fifteen or sixteen states, we wouldn't have to be in all fifty states. That would give us enough clout to be able to affect policies, whether it was through political parties or corporations."

With Texas, Arizona and Southern California already well launched, for instance, when IAF adds a presence in Colorado and New Mexico, it will have the beginnings of a common regional base -- one that can talk collectively to the region's congressional delegations and also to economic enterprises based in the Southwest. At the very least, it will have a platform larger than the boundaries of communities or even states. Coherent and authentic citizen politics takes time.

What would the IAF communities talk about if they develop a strong voice in national politics? Organizers already know the answer, because the same concerns arise again and again in community dialogues. These are: the terms of work and wages, the precariousness of family incomes.

"In some areas, where there is no hope, we've brought people a certain measure of hope," Arnie Graf reflected. "However, we're not bringing them better incomes. It's our feeling it's all going to be short-lived if we can't do something about getting people a family wage that's livable. What is the wage that a family needs to survive and live well? We have to aim at the incomes of families. We know this about ourselves: We have to look at the large issues and we can't do that from a seven-state base."

Ernie Cortes envisions that, as the Texas network develops a stronger presence, it can begin addressing large economic issues from the perspective of workers. Some of the ideas may be small and pedestrian, some may be large and radical.

"We can then raise questions about work, which raises questions about investment patterns," Cortes said. "Can we create some fundamental institutions that allow reinvestment in communities? If we all come to a conclusion that the cost of capital is a serious impediment to economic development, then we're going to have to have a new institution to provide low-cost capital.

"People also ought to have some say-so about the conditions in which they work. One of our ambitions down the road is to create some workers' associations that would deal with issues like job safety and workmen's compensation. We don't want to get under the NLRB, but we think we're in a position to negotiate with corporations about an American perestroika. We are talking now to a major company about restructuring work, with schools in the plant. Workers need to be paid in accordance with the things they control. They get demoralized when they have no control and produce lousy products. If you have intelligent management of the economy, these things are possible."

These political ideas are all cast well into the future, not tomorrow or next month, not even next year. But they exist as possibilities -- a political program that goes to what most people would say is the heart of the matter, work and family and incomes. The fact that some citizens are getting a handle on politics in order to force these matters into the political debate is perhaps the most hopeful evidence of all.

If they succeed, they will inevitably confront the underlying power relationships in government and, thus, provoke stern resistance. But what makes these ideas plausible, if they do someday invade the narrow national debate surrounding government, is that they will not enter as abstract policy prescriptions. They will have originated from the experiences of real people and real people will be gathered behind them.


The tragic quality of contemporary democracy is that circumstances have alienated the most conscientious citizens from the principal venue for speaking to power -- elections. Even the most active citizens' groups have lost faith in the idea that elections are the best means for making government accountable or advancing the public's aspirations.

American democracy is thus burdened with a heavy irony: The nation is alive with positive, creative political energies, yet the democratic device that grants citizens their sovereignty is moribund. Elections exist like a vacuum jar at the center of the political disorder: the most interesting and important action flows outside and around them.

When citizens set out to influence governing decisions, they usually begin with the assumption that electoral politics is inoperable or a trap. The three popular models for citizen politics -- Saul Alinsky, Ralph Nader, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- all began by distancing themselves from the most direct and legitimate source of political power. This is a fundamental handicap.

Most of the barriers to electoral politics are well known: the daunting cost of entry, the disconnectedness of mass-media political messages, the manipulative marketing techniques of campaign strategists and, above all, the gargantuan flood of money that pays for all these. Mere citizens -- even if they recognize a plausible motive for participating in this contest -- will find very little they could afford to contribute. Political power, as Ernie Cortes likes to say, comes from either "organized money" or "organized people." In the electoral arena, the money is organized, the people are not.

The citizens who do exert important influence on elections are usually organized around the most narrow objectives and often then in a defensive crouch. The National Rifle Association is famous for exerting negative influence because the issue of gun control arouses deep emotions and class resentments that mobilize its members. The NRA can frighten incumbent representatives, with both its votes and its money, though it cannot legislate much in a positive manner. The antiabortion forces, likewise, rallied crucial swing votes on the margins of close contests and that was intimidating to many elected representatives, until the tide turned against them. The League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups exert some electoral influence by targeting their campaign contributions on worthy contestants. The pro-Israel lobby works its will much more powerfully in the same manner.

The entry points for citizens, in other words, are quite narrow: either through money, the more the better in order to compete with other interests, or through an intensely organized focus on a single issue. Elections do not work for those who are unwilling or unable to squeeze through those gates. For those who wish for a broader dialogue between the governed and the governors, the electoral route seems barren.
All the electoral barriers are real and formidable, yet they do not fully explain the vacuum. In many instances, it is not simply that active citizens are shut out, but also that they have deliberately chosen to stand apart. The formal handle exists for citizens who wish to share in the governing power, yet many shrink from using it. Why do they turn their backs on the lever that is available and potentially the most powerful?

The blunt answer in some instances, of course, is that, if they participated in elections, they might lose. For some frail causes, it is wiser to stand aloof, claiming to represent the people's unrealized political aspirations, than to submit those claims to an up-and-down vote by secret ballot. Opinion polls, whose results are easily manipulated, have become the surrogate elections for groups that do not wish their true strength to be tested with the voters.

In other cases, the investment of time and energy in the tedious mechanics of the electoral process itself often seems counterproductive -- not the best use of people and limited resources. In San Antonio, for instance, COPS put together the equivalent of a full-scale precinct organization in order to campaign for a citywide referendum on reforming city council districts. It won the referendum, but the organization was exhausted by the effort. "It's very mechanical," said Arnie Graf, "and it doesn't get at what politics is really about. It doesn't allow people to talk about the broader issues."

A less tangible, but possibly more important factor that separates citizens from electoral politics is their own sense of purity -- the conviction that elections are corrupting (or at least perceived as corrupt by the general public) and that righteous causes will lose their glow if they become entangled in the fortunes of mere politicians. For years, people have implored Ralph Nader to run for office -- if only to provide a substantive alternative to the dross of party candidates -- but he never took the suggestion seriously. Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, explained why:

"Ralph's presumption is that, if he runs for office, he would lose power because he would then become dependent on the political processes and so forth. So he's willing to rely on less resources and be called a 'national nanny' and lose some battles in order to remain independent."

Sister Christine Stephens, an IAF national organizer and a leader in the Texas network, expressed a similar reluctance; "We think the work of being a citizen is too important to be corrupted by [electoral] politics. Once the person gets in there, they can be corrupted. Even the best people will lose their soul. The most we can do is keep a countervailing force to keep the balance even."

Nader, nonetheless, took a first, exploratory step into electoral politics in the early presidential primaries of 1992 -- offering voters in New Hampshire and Massachusetts a chance to protest the regular order by voting for him. "I am campaigning for an agenda, not for elected office," he said. Many more such ventures, led by many different insurgents, would be needed to restore the public's voice in elections.

Electoral politics, in its present format, reduces the role of citizens by attaching them to a single candidate's fortunes, not to a political program they helped develop. ''I'm not interested in teaching people how to be appendages in anybody's movement," Ernie Cortes said, "because, in the final analysis, a political campaign is a movement. It's built around a single candidate. It will evaporate when he or she gets elected."

On a local level, the IAF groups move deftly around the edges of elections with their "accountability nights" and politicians usually get the message; These are real voters facing them. IAF does not run candidates or endorse them, but it does register people to vote and those voters do not need a TV commercial to learn that a candidate has ignored the community's agenda. If citizen organizations create a new framework for how people think about politics, Cortes argues, then electoral results will follow, not the other way around.

The objections all have practical validity to those citizens struggling to generate an authentic politics. To working politicians, however, the reluctance of citizens seems overly precious -- people who want to have it both ways. They wish to influence government, but not to get soiled by the muck of politics. They want to become powerful in the public arena, but without themselves being responsible for the awesome machinery of government. A purified citizen who is above electoral politics, one might say, is someone who has not yet come to terms with the psychological burdens of accepting responsibility for the government's coercive powers.

The disjunction between voters and elections is itself a central element of the democratic problem -- another expression of the damaged relationship between people and authority. Elections are the most visible, most legitimate means of maintaining those relationships and the only sure way to establish accountability to the governed and to develop a general trust in those who are given the power to govern. People who want responsible government are bound to be disappointed so long as they turn away from this central mechanism of power.

A genuine democracy will not likely develop until the two realms are reconciled -- the irregular citizens and the formal structure of power. After all, like the two-way mirror, democratic accountability runs both ways -- between those in power and those who put them there. This requires a reliable organizational framework that at present does not exist -- a viable political party that provides the connective tissue between the people and the government.

Conceivably, the steady development of citizen organizations like IAF may eventually create a workable substitute and heal this breach. It is not far-fetched, for instance, to imagine that a decade hence a broad alliance of citizen-based political organizations may have formed that can effectively exercise the power of "organized people" once again in elections. The vanguard is visible now. In the best circumstances, this enterprise will take time -- years of patient rebuilding by people everywhere.

In the meantime, the machinery of power is held comfortably in other hands. The principal political institutions that dominate conventional politics -- the two major parties and the media -- once provided the connective tissue that linked citizens to government but, in different ways, each has abandoned that responsibility. It is to those familiar structures of politics that we will turn next -- the main institutions that surround both the electoral process, where the power to govern is legitimized, and the governing process, where the power is exercised. Each of these, in different ways, has lost its connection~ to ordinary citizens and each has gravitated toward the powerful elites that dominate the politics of government.

The models of democratic politics that some citizens at large have already created mayor may not succeed someday in salvaging democracy. But, in the meantime, they exist as a living rebuke to the important political institutions that have failed.
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:41 am




The empty space at the center of American democracy is defined ultimately by its failed political institutions. At the highest level of politics, there is no one who now speaks reliably for the people, no one who listens patiently to their concerns or teaches them the hard facts involved in governing decisions. There is no major institution committed to mobilizing the power of citizens around their own interests and aspirations.

The principal mediating institutions of politics do still function in a formal sense, of course, but in different ways each has lost the capacity to serve as authentic connective tissue between government and citizens. In different ways, the major political parties and the news media have instead gravitated toward another source of power -- the elite interests that dominate government.

This section directly confronts the failure of those political institutions and explores why each, in its own way, falls short in its responsibility to democracy. The analysis begins with the hollow reality of the Democratic party and how economic interests that are most hostile to the party's main constituencies manage to influence the party's direction from the top down. Chapter Twelve, "Rancid Populism," examines the Republican party and how its mastery of modern communications enables it to hold power with an illusory program based on alienation and resentment.

The press fails its responsibility too and Chapter Thirteen, "Angle of Vision," explains the deep economic and social transformations that led the "news" away from the people it once spoke for and into alignment with the governing elites. The political impact of the mass-media culture, explored in Chapter Fourteen, "The Lost Generation," is more paradoxical and, in some ways, more hopeful. While television trivializes complex political action, its imagery is also relentlessly populist in its directness -- and brutally accurate in its own unsettling manner.

The empty space left by the failure of these mediating voices has been partially filled, however. It is held by the powerful political organizations called corporations. The final chapter of this section, Chapter Fifteen, "Citizen GE," illustrates the institutional reality of corporate power by examining the awesome reach and capabilities of one corporate political organization, the General Electric Company.

The distorted power relationships that dominate government and have cut out citizens are embedded in all these political institutions. At its core, the democratic problem is a problem of institutional default on a massive scale.


The Democratic party traces its origin, with excessive precision, to the twenty-third day of May in 1792 when Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to George Washington. His letter described political alignments that were already visible in the young Republic -- the yeomanry versus the Tory financiers. Jefferson urged President Washington to rally the people in a party that would defend democracy against the corrupt ambitions of monied interests. His text is uncannily appropriate to the politics of the late twentieth century. [1]

While historians recognize the letter as a milestone, it was Andrew Jackson, thirty years later, who mobilized the constituencies of farmers, workers and merchants into a vigorous, effective political party known forever after as the Democrats. The dual heritage is observed by party stalwarts every year at their Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners.

If Jefferson's letter is taken as the true birthday, then the party would celebrate its bicentennial in the presidential election year of 1992. When this point belatedly occurred to some staff officials at the Democratic National Committee, they began to discuss what they might make of the event. The Democratic party's perennial disorganization has always been part of its charm. If the Republicans were approaching their bicentennial, they would have already sold ads to the Fortune 500 for a souvenir program guide.

The discussion at the Democratic National Committee followed these lines: If the Democrats were to stage a two hundredth birthday spectacular, whom should they invite? Naturally, staff officials thought first of the direct-mail lists stored in computers -- the people who give money to the party more .or less regularly. Then, of course, they would include all the elected officials, state, local and national, who call themselves Democrats. Why not, someone suggested, also invite the many thousands of people who are active in party affairs -- the "regulars" who serve on county committees or tend to the mechanics of election precincts or campaign operations, the legions of people who faithfully rally around the ticket?

But, it was asked, who are these people? Where are their names and addresses? The DNC staffers searched the party's files and discovered that such lists no longer exist. The Democratic party headquarters did not know the identity of its own cadres. It no longer kept the names of the people who ostensibly connect it to the millions of other citizens who are only nominally Democrats, by virtue of registration. The DNC could not even say how many Democratic "regulars" there are.

Thirty years ago, lists of names -- county by county, ward by ward -- were the muscle of party politics and a principal source of power. Many were hacks and ward heelers, hanging on to public jobs by doing political chores, but many were also skillful organizers at the humblest level, adept at pulling people into politics by talking to them, listening to them. Political careers, from the courthouse to the national legislature, even the White House, were built on these cadres.

The old lists presumably still existed, but not at party headquarters. They were believed to be in permanent storage at the National Archives -- boxes and boxes of index cards from the 1950s and 1960s with the names and addresses of the people who, in that day, made the party real. In the age of television, big money and high-tech candidacies, the "regulars" of party politics have been rendered irrelevant.

The Democratic party, as a political organization, is no longer quite real itself. The various strands of personal communication and loyalty that once made it representative and responsive to the people are gone. It exists as a historical artifact, an organizational fiction. Its inherited status -- "the oldest political party on earth" -- is the principal basis for its influence, since any candidate who calls himself a Democrat will automatically enjoy certain legal privileges not available to unaligned opponents.

The party's preferred status in the electoral arena is no longer justified, since the Democratic party no longer performs the basic functions of a political party. It acts neither as a faithful mediator between citizens and the government nor as the forum for policy debate and resolution nor even as a structure around which political power can accumulate. It functions mainly as a mail drop for political money.

"If you go to the voter files and ask people who are registered Democrats if they are party members, they wouldn't know how to respond," Michael McCurry, communications director at the DNC, said. "They don't go to any meetings or participate at all, except maybe -- maybe -- to vote." While 42 million Americans are registered as Democrats, many of them would vigorously deny that they are "party members." Like candidates who run on the party label for convenience, voters would say their registration is a matter of historical necessity, not conviction. Since the two major parties, given their preferential status, are bound to dominate the outcome of elections, one might as well sign up as a Democrat or a Republican.

If one inquires further about the true membership of the Democratic party, a reasonable surrogate is provided by the people who contribute money regularly, sending in their checks year after year, whether for $25 or $1,000. "If you're willing to part with your hard- earned cash in exchange for a newsletter or whatever, that probably qualifies as party membership," McCurry said. "Of course, the number of people who actually go to meetings and take part in debate is much smaller."

By that yardstick, the national party of Democrats is a very small organization indeed -- roughly 100,000 people. The DNC knows the number with some precision because 100,000 is the normal response rate for its direct-mail solicitations. It sends out about 400,000 letters to the names in its computer files and usually gets money back from about one fourth. In presidential election years, the response goes up sharply -- 350,000 in 1988 -- but even that group is preciously small for a nation with 180 million adults. Amnesty International, by comparison, has 450,000 dues-paying members in the United States, whom it keeps engaged in tangible political activities such as its letter-writing campaigns.

The Republican National Committee has a much broader popular base750,000 contributors in 1989, 1.2 million during the '88 election season -- but even the GOP numbers are unimpressive for a national political party.

The IAF network of community organizations represents 400,000 families in Texas alone and counts more than 2 million in its nationwide base of organizations. The National Rifle Association, with 2.5 million dues-paying members, is larger than both major political parties combined. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a lobbying group for the elderly, has 10 million members (who each pay ten dollars in dues). Its larger rival, the American Association of Retired Persons, has 32 million members (who pay five dollars a year). The National Parent-Teacher Association has 6 million members. The AFL-CIO unions have 14 million members. The Roman Catholic church, the largest organization in America, has 55 million members.

America, in other words, is a nation of active joiners and givers, as it always has been, and Americans will part with their dollars rather freely if given a plausible reason to do so. They just don't give their money to political parties.

What is it that makes these other organizations different and more convincing to people? Some of the organizations promise to provide direct political representation, a voice in the larger arena on specific matters. Unlike the Democratic National Committee, most know the names of their own cadres and can turn out their troops, quickly and massively. Some of the organizations provide people with valuable services, from economic protection to spiritual solace, from informative newsletters to insurance coverage. One way or another, all of these other organizations promise to take responsibility for their adherents.

The Democratic party does not really make that promise, aside from the rhetorical flourishes in its direct-mail solicitations. Given its weakened vitality, the party would perhaps not be believed if it did. Instead, the Democratic National Committee promises to pursue a narrower goal -- winning elections for Democratic candidates. That objective no longer excites most Americans, not enough to open their checkbooks.

The most revealing fact about the Democrats' "party members" is their age. Among the DNC's 100,000 regular contributors, the average age is seventy years old. On the whole, these elderly loyalists are the remnants of the old "regulars" -- people who probably formed their attachments to the Democratic Party forty or fifty years ago, when it stood for a clear set of ideas and represented well-defined segments of the American public. "The thing that is frightening," McCurry said, "is that it's old and getting older."

Thomas "Lud" Ashley, a former liberal Democratic congressman from Toledo, Ohio, and now president of a powerful financial lobby, the Association of Bank Holding Companies, reminisced gloomily about what has been lost -- the party's mediating capacity with citizens. The American system is no longer a democracy, Ashley attests, because "democracy is based on accountability and it's not there now.

"It may be nostalgia, but, when I was elected [in 1954], we didn't count on television," the former congressman reflected. "We counted on what had existed for one hundred years -- a political organization. Toledo wasn't Chicago, but we had precinct captains and twenty- two ward chairmen and there were monthly ward meetings that you went home and talked to. They were robust, well-attended meetings -- half business, half social. The business took forty-five minutes or an hour and then it was 'let's get into the beer.'"

"What you talked about wasn't how much you'd done about getting somebody's goddamn Social Security check or getting their uncle into the Veterans Hospital. What you talked about was public policy. What people thought about things. What they wanted done. Like, are the blacks going to move into the Polish neighborhood? Or why are some federal funds going to the downtown area when they are needed in the neighborhoods? These were Polish, Hungarian, Czech communities and there was a helluva lot of interest in what was going on in eastern Europe.

"Certainly, Vietnam was a ball-breaker. I was pro-Johnson at the time and, Christ, I had my head handed to me. For the first time in twelve years in Congress, I was booed and hissed and practically driven from the hall. So I just had to look at the War from the standpoint of my constituents. That's real accountability and I responded. I had to -- if I was going to run again.

"There's no longer the necessity for that. There's no political infrastructure to go back and report to. Members go back now and report on TV. And the local press doesn't have the slightest idea of what you're doing on public policy unless you get caught in a scandal."

The modern Democratic party does provide modest mediating services to a limited number of citizens, but only in relation to the amount of money contributed. The DNC operates an elaborate hierarchy of "donor councils" for individuals and political interests who wish to buy memberships in' the party -- $1,000 for young people, who are mostly former congressional aides active as junior lobbyists; $15,000 for corporations that want to belong to the Democratic Business Council; $5,000 or more for the wealthy individuals and lobbyists who wish to serve on the National Finance Council. The Democratic Labor Council is for unions, who are still the party's most important financiers. The most gilt- edged circle is composed of the party's three hundred "trustees" -- people who give or raise $100,000 each.

In exchange, these citizens are provided social entree to the Democratic leaders in Congress, influential committee chairmen and their key staff officials. "We like to think we give very significant benefits," said Melissa Moss, one of the DNC's fund-raising officials. "We have an annual meeting where we cover very substantive issues, roundtable discussions, quarterly meetings in the Capitol with congressional leaders. What we try to do is have a flow of ideas and let them have input into the key players, People are motivated for many reasons. Obviously, there are lobbyists who want to have as much contact as possible with key members. Others are private citizens who just want to be active."

The Democratic National Committee is weak because it performs only one function that matters to other politicians: It holds a national convention every four years to nominate someone for president. Even that event has lost most of its meaning, since nominating conventions are no longer suspenseful dramas. Because of state primaries and the decline of powerful local organizations, the outcome is already decided weeks or months before the delegates arrive to cast their votes.

Still, this is the only moment when the Democratic party exists tangibly as a national organization, and the convention gives the DNC leverage over the independently constituted state parties: If the states want their delegations seated at the national convention, they must pick them according to the national party's rules, The rules are decided, ultimately, by the 404 members of the Democratic National Committee, most of whom are longtime party activists, state chairs or people closely identified with labor, racial minorities and other constituencies that still regard the DNC as an important place from which to influence the party's direction.

Most of the state-party structures, though once important power centers themselves, are now as atrophied as the national organization. "A lot of state parties have devolved into dinner committees or debt-management committees or very small-bore local operations to pick judges and that sort of thing," said Paul Tully, the DNC's director of organization. A few states have stronger organizations -- Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, New York -- but none is what it used to be.

The power of the state parties was gradually enfeebled by the same forces that weakened the national party -- social changes that broke up the old neighborhoods and new electoral techniques that enabled individual candidates to invent their own self-centered political parties. The influence of television, among other agents of social change, obliterated the ability of the party "regulars" to mobilize voters and, in that sense, liberated politics from the control of the old machines.

But, in exchange, television politics requires huge amounts of money. Thus, a candidate who knows how to get his own money is free to design his own political agenda, however vacuous, and sell it to the voters, however deceitfully, and enter public office without any obligations to the permanent political structures -- local, state or national parties.

Every state as a result now has "networks" of money and activists assembled around individual politicians -- senators or governors who reached public office largely on their own. New Jersey has a Bill Bradley network for the senator. In Texas, there is a Lloyd Bentsen network. In Virginia, there is a Chuck Robb network. These personal affiliations are much more potent than the formal party organizations and cooperate with the party only if it serves their leaders. For the last few years, under DNC Chairman Ronald H. Brown, organizer Paul Tully has been working on fostering a higher level of mutual enterprise -- encouraging the states to build cooperative campaign machinery that works for the whole ticket.

"We act as a cajoler, seducer, nudge, donor," Tully said. "The old DNC was tied to an age when the old urban organizations were the center of things, with close ties to the AFL- IO. The DNC was the traffic cop among the big fiefdoms, rather than an organization that created its own agenda. It did what we call 'glue politics' or somebody else might call 'grease politics.' Even in a much more homogeneous party like the Republican party, there's a constant adjusting process that goes on, among personalities and so forth. But by necessity, that's inward looking. That's not looking at voters and elections and the problems of the country."

If the national committee functioned as an outward-looking agent, trying to connect with voters and their problems, it would probably be more reform-minded (and liberal) than the Democratic party reflected in Congress. Many of the DNC's members came of age in the 1960s and entered political activism through civil rights or the antiwar movement or the presidential campaigns of Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. They started out, like Tully, as insurgents against the old order. If they had the power to do so, the membership of the Democratic National Committee would likely commit the party to a much more aggressive agenda than the one the public now hears from congressional Democrats.

But they do not have the power. The DNC, because it does not attempt to connect with people in any meaningful way, is utterly dependent on the politics of money. The party headquarters is located on the top floor of the Democratic party's building on Ivy Court, a few blocks from the Capitol, but it is not the most important entity in the building. Downstairs are the congressional campaign committees, one for the Senate and one for the House. Both raise far more money and are directly connected to real power -- the incumbent members of Congress. Why should a lobbyist dump a lot of money on the national committee, when he can give it straight-out to the people who will decide his issues?

"The congressional party is the only lifeline we've got to money and legitimacy," Mike McCurry explained. "The DNC -- the party as a party -- does not have an independent base it can rely on. So whatever we do on substantive issues is done with a very close eye to what the reaction of the congressional leadership will be. Because they can shut us down very quickly." [2]

In fact, when DNC Chairman Ron Brown intruded on some issues in a way that was offensive to the Democratic leaders in Congress, he was told, rather harshly, to back off. Brown declared his strong opposition to the Republican proposal for cutting the capital- gains tax -- a perfectly orthodox position for the party of working people -- and Representative Daniel Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, reacted angrily. Rosty stayed away from the DNC's fund-raising dinner, a nasty signal that communicated his disapproval to every tax lobbyist in town. Brown was, likewise, rebuked by the party's Senate majority leader, Senator George Mitchell, and Senator Bentsen, chairman of the Finance Committee, when the DNC aggressively embraced another idea that might appeal to average voters -- cutting the regressive payroll tax for Social Security.

Everyone understands the power relationships: The congressional leaders control access to the money because of their intimate relationships with lobbyists and interests. If the Democratic party began to act like a real political party, the money would be cut off.

"A DNC chairman who gets a little too far out front," McCurry said, "can get slapped around."


When political polls ask voters to describe the Democratic party, the most frequent answer is "the party of average working people. " That used to be the overwhelming response, expressed by 50 percent of the electorate, but according to McCurry, this is now an answer given by only 13 percent. Still, it remains the single strongest element in the party's public identity.

The Democrats might more accurately be described now as "the party of Washington lawyers" -- lawyers who serve as the connective tissue within the party's upper reaches. They are the party establishment, to the extent anyone is, that has replaced the old networks of state and local political bosses. But these lawyers have no constituencies of their own and, indeed, must answer to no one, other than their clients.

Democratic lawyers who have reached this plateau are mostly veterans of past administrations or old presidential campaigns, though some served as aides to key congressional leaders. They move easily in and out of the various power centers in the Democratic Congress, dispensing political advice on the direction of the party and specific issues and also distributing that important commodity -- campaign money. Many major law firms have formed their own political action committees, so that the various strands -- party strategy, issues, money -- conveniently come together in one location. These lawyers speak, naturally enough, with a mixture of motives -- for the good of the party, presumably, but also for the benefit of the clients who are paying them.

Thomas "Lud" Ashley, the former Ohio congressman, speaks of this realm with some contempt, though he functions comfortably within it himself. Ashley served twenty-five years in the House, in the time when local political organizations still had vitality and elected representatives were compelled to listen to them. That system of accountability, he observed, has disappeared and the well-connected law firms have become an unsatisfying substitute.

"Tommy Boggs practically invents a fundraiser for someone and then he invites the member of Congress to attend," Ashley said. "There are half a dozen law firms in town that do that -- raise money and lobby. If you ask who is the Democratic party, it's those law firms. Either they go to the members and offer to raise money or the member goes to them and says, 'I'd appreciate it if you will handle my Washington fund raising,' and the collection is all taken care of for the member.

"You put the money out and you collect at the other end. You have access and more than that. Access is really a cowardly word because the legislation is the bottom line. Believe me, the money is not directed at access. It's directed at the bottom line."

Has the party of Jefferson and Jackson been reduced to the political machinations of six Washington law firms? Not quite, but Ashley's point is only modestly exaggerated. When I asked other old hands in Washington to take a stab at naming "the six law firms" who form the establishment of the Democratic party, none of them hesitated or argued with the premise. They had only marginal disagreements about which firms ought to be included.

The ubiquitous Robert Strauss of Akin, Gump, a Texan who was party chairman in the mid-1970s and U.S. trade representative in the Carter administration, was on everyone's list. The news media dubbed him "Mr. Democrat" and often seek his thoughts on party affairs, though Strauss is closer to the Republicans in the White House and to Republican corporate interests than to any bread-and-butter Democratic constituencies. His firm represents everything from Drexel Burnham Lambert to the Motion Picture Association of America, from McDonnell Douglas to AT&T. When George Bush appointed him ambassador to Moscow in 1991, it was widely understood that Strauss would be busy arranging deals for American business to develop markets and resources inside the newly liberated republics.

Others on the list of Democratic influentials would include Tommy Boggs, son of the late House floor leader, and his firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow (Ron Brown, the party chairman, is a lawyer-lobbyist in Patton, Boggs); Harry C. McPherson, Berl Bernhard and Lloyd C. Hand of Verner, Liipfert, law partners who served in government during the Kennedy-Johnson era; J. D. Williams, former Senate aide from the early 1960s, and his firm of Williams and Jensen; Charles T. Manatt, a Californian appointed national chairman by Jimmy Carter, and the Los Angeles-based firm of Manatt, Phelps; Patrick J. O'Connor, a former party treasurer and "money guy" for Hubert Humphrey, and the Minneapolis- based firm of O'Connor and Hannan.

To be less arbitrary, the list could be expanded to include selected influentials from other law firms -- Stuart E. Eizenstat, who was Carter's domestic policy advisor, or Joseph A. Califano. Jr., who was Lyndon Johnson's, or Richard Moe, who was Vice-President Walter Mondale's chief of staff, and some others. Older lawyers like Lloyd N. Cutler or Clark Clifford have been influential insiders for so many years that they have acquired the patina of statesmen, although the elderly Clifford looked more like a statesman-fixer, thanks to the BCCI banking scandal.

"Those guys really are the establishment," Mike McCurry said, "and the establishment argument is: Don't rock the boat, stay in the mainstream where everything flows smoothly."

Their accumulating political influence is largely a matter of default -- reflecting the decline of other structures within the Democratic party. Stuart Eizenstat, the former Carter aide, explained:

"If you ask me where the power centers are in the party, my answer is there aren't any. They don't exist. There's an utter vacuum of power. The New Deal coalition no longer exists. All that's left are small pieces -- a small Jewish piece, the black piece and small intellectual-labor pieces."

Ambidextrous lawyers try to fill the breach. Eizenstat, for instance, lobbies for clients and also works energetically in the role of party advisor. Among others, his Atlanta-based firm, Powell Goldstein, represents high-tech companies, housing developers and the major banks (including Lud Ashley's trade association). Eizenstat sees the political counseling as his conscientious duty to the party, not as a means of enhancing his influence, but the two roles inevitably enhance each other.

"I've spent the last two days calling as many leadership people as I could, advising them on how to handle the budget summit," Eizenstat said. "I do my piece and others do theirs, but it's extremely diffuse. I'm constantly asked privately to come to the Hill and work on things. I worked on [George] Mitchell's maiden speech as majority leader. I worked on [House Speaker Tom] Foley's state of the union response. Dick Gephardt [House majority leader] sends me drafts of his speeches."

While he is on the phone with the key players, Eizenstat sometimes does bring up other matters -- the particular political interests of his clients. "I had to make some calls for high-tech clients and get a sense of what impact the budget process will have on them," he said. "I said, as I always do, that I'm calling on behalf of such-and-such client. Then I say: I want to take my lobbyist hat off and say, 'Here's where we ought to stand as a party on this budget situation.' I don't feel any qualms about doing that."

Eizenstat is perhaps more sensitive than most to the potential for conflict, but he does not regard this as a problem for the Democratic party. "I've felt I could take my client hat off at any time and give my unvarnished views," he said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a relationship between my advice to the Democratic party and my client list."

Eizenstat's client list, nonetheless, does sometimes put him on the opposite side of issues that matter greatly to important Democratic constituencies. When organized labor was pushing for a workers' right-to-know law on toxic chemicals, Eizenstat lobbied for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), trying to weaken the measure. "That did raise some hackles with the AFL-CIO," he conceded. "I didn't oppose the bill, I tried to improve the bill." [3]

When Congress enacted the new clean-air legislation aimed at acid rain, Eizenstat represented an Indiana public-utility company, one of the sources of the pollution. The company, Public Service Indiana, liked his work so much that it made him a corporate director. "Now we've got a good one-two punch on the board of directors," a PSI official said, "good Republican clout and great Democratic clout." [4]

When public-interest reform groups urged Democratic senators to stop the White House's secret manipulations of regulations at OMB, Eizenstat lobbied to kill the measure. He represented a business coalition including aerospace, electronics, construction, computers, the NAM and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. When the largest commercial banks pushed for further financial deregulation, Eizenstat lobbied on their behalf. His firm's banking clients include Chase Manhattan, Citizens & Southern of Atlanta and the Association of Bank Holding Companies, the trade group for the major multinational banks.

Eizenstat's client list is typical of the influential Democratic lawyers, though he is perhaps more punctilious than some others about avoiding the more flagrant intraparty conflicts. It is quite routine for these important Democratic advisors to represent Republican corporate interests on economic issues in opposition to Democratic constituencies. Except for a few labor-union accounts, these lawyers do not speak for the "average working stiff" because they have been hired by his boss.

Tommy Boggs made his reputation as an effective lobbyist in the late 1970s when he persuaded Congress to provide a loan-guarantee bailout for Chrysler, a cause pushed by the United Auto Workers as well as the company. A decade later, Boggs was on the other side -- representing Japanese auto imports. The Automobile Import Dealers Association successfully hammered Chrysler and the UAW on trade issues and its Autopac pumped $2.6 million into 1988 congressional races, money that Boggs helped direct to the right places. "We basically pick our customers," Boggs explained, "by taking the first one who comes in the door." [5]

When the United Mine Workers confronted Pittston Coal in its 1988 showdown strike over health benefits, J. D. Williams of Williams and Jensen championed the company side. The Pittston strike was pivotal in the coal industry because the company had walked away from the industrywide contract obligations with the UMW and, if Pittston won, other companies would likely follow. Williams and Jensen, flanked by influential Republican lobbyists, became a clearinghouse for the coal industry, whose ultimate objective was to strip retired coal miners of guaranteed health benefits. Williams and Jensen financed an ostensibly objective study by an independent research institute to attack the soundness of the mine union's pension fund. As J. D. Williams once joked to an audience of fellow lobbyists: "If I get desperate enough, I can usually argue a case on the merits." [6]

When many active party members at the grassroots were campaigning against human-rights abuses in Central America, the Democratic firm of O'Connor and Hannan was doing political public relations for ARENA, the right-wing party implicated in the "death squads" of El Salvador. The firm's lobbying was designed to keep foreign aid flowing to the right- wing government, and it succeeded, despite the murder of six Jesuit priests by the Salvadoran military. Local Democrats. on the Minneapolis City Council were sufficiently offended by the connections to cancel the city's legal contract with O'Connor and Hannan. [7]

Bob Strauss, because his firm is so large and diverse, is often in a position where he seems to be counseling both sides in the political debate. As a high-minded statesman, "Mr. Democrat," Strauss played the advocate's role for raising taxes and cutting federal benefit programs and coaxed the two parties to come together for their grand budget summit. But, while Strauss played statesman, his law firm was busy lobbying specific tax issues on behalf of selected industries, from alcoholic beverages to mutual insurance companies. Indeed, while Strauss served on the National Economic Commission, two of his own clients, AT&T and Pepsico, filed comments with the same blue-ribbon group. The law firm dismissed any possibility of conflicting loyalties. "Strauss is clearly doing this as a public servant," his partner, Joel Jankowsky, explained. [8]
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:42 am

PART 2 OF 2 (CH. 11 CONT'D.)

On trade issues, the lines of loyalty become particularly tangled. When the Democratic party geared up to enact tough trade legislation, hoping to defend American jobs, influential lobbyists like Strauss were advising the party's leaders on the broad politics of the issue, while their firms simultaneously represented the Japanese manufacturers who stood to lose if the legislation proved to be too tough. Fujitsu, the computer maker, paid Akin, Gump nearly $2 million over three years to assure that it would not be one of the losers.

For that matter, the party's national chairman, Ron Brown, also lobbied the 1988 trade bill on behalf of twenty-one Japanese electronics companies -- Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Toshiba and others. As party chairman, Brown has continued as an active member of Tommy Boggs's firm, while insisting he does not personally lobby the government for the firm's clients. [9]

The most notorious episode in which the party's lawyerly establishment ganged up on one of the party's major constituencies involved Frank Lorenzo's campaign to break the labor unions at Eastern Airlines. With a cynical understanding of how Washington works, Lorenzo deployed a virtual galaxy of Democratic influentials as his lawyers and lobbyists, hired to fend off the political counterattacks from the machinists', pilots' and stewardesses' unions. Lorenzo's team included J. D. Williams, Berl Bernhard, Robert Strauss and Tommy Boggs. David Sawyer, campaign consultant to many Democratic candidates, took care of the advertising campaign against the unions. For good measure, Lorenzo hired three former aides of Senator Teddy Kennedy, hoping to influence an important labor ally.

For all that, the Democratic lobbyists did not prevent Democrats in Congress from enacting labor-backed legislation to force Lorenzo into mediation. But the lobbyists won anyway -- by persuading the Republican president, George Bush, to veto the bill. In the end, after Lorenzo racked up $12.7 million in legal bills, his hardball antiunion tactics failed. Eastern Airlines was destroyed and thousands of jobs along with it. The Democratic lawyers and lobbyists had to go to bankruptcy court to collect their fees. [10]

The political clout of the well-connected lawyers is actually strongest on the many public matters where no such visible conflict develops. As Lorenzo's fight demonstrated, they cannot always prevail if they go head-to-head against a fully mobilized constituency like organized labor. But they act like silent watchdogs for various economic interests on a vast range of public issues where citizens are not aroused -- insuring that Democratic lawmakers do not intrude on their clients' turf.

If one asks, for instance, why the Democratic party never did anything during the 1980s to confront the various abuses and instabilities unfolding in the financial system, a power analysis of the party establishment might provide the answer. These Democratic lawyers and lobbyists represent many diverse sectors of the economy, but none more comprehensively than banking and finance. The nation's leading banks and brokerages have assembled a formidable team of Democrats to protect them from hostile legislation:

Bob Strauss (Drexel Burnham, Morgan Stanley, Texas S&Ls), Chuck Manatt (California S&Ls, the California Bankers Association, First Bank System), J. D. Williams (First Boston), Richard Moe (Morgan Guaranty), Berl Bernhard (Investment Company Institute, the trade group for the mutual-fund industry), Joe Califano (Bankers Trust, Fannie Mae), Stuart Eizenstat (Chase Manhattan, Association of Bank Holding Companies), Lloyd Cutler (Citibank, Bank Capital Markets Association), O'Connor and Hannan (Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, Securities Industry Association), Tommy Boggs (American Express, Bear Stearns, Chicago Board Options Exchange, Paine Webber).

Given their client list, one may assume that these party advisors were not counseling the Democratic party to make a political issue of the reckless behavior that characterized Wall Street in the 1980s. They did not urge Democrats to go after Michael Milken's junk bonds and the leveraged buyouts that cannibalized companies or the gutted financial regulations that produced bank failures and taxpayer bailouts or the high interest rates and debt crises that devastated small business, farmers, labor, housing and manufacturing.

One may reasonably assume that, whenever the subject of these financial disorders came up in private political discussions, the lawyers faithfully defended the behavior of their clients and the status quo that proved so costly to the nation. These party counselors would have no incentive to address the financial disorders or even acknowledge that they existed, since their own clients were profitably engaged in exploiting the disorderly conditions. The power to define the outlines of a public problem, as we have seen in other matters, is usually the power to define its solution. The power to keep an issue off the public agenda is just as valuable.

The financial system was further protected by its money, which many of these same lawyers routinely dispense to Democratic campaigns. Anomalous as it may seem, Wall Street is a major source of financing for the party of working people. "Harry Horowitz was Michael Milken's money guy," a congressional staff aide explained, "and, if you started looking in everyone's Rolodex, you'd find Harry's name in every one of them. Because he was the guy you went to when you wanted Drexel's help raising money. The financial industry has this whole infrastructure of money people -- and it's the easiest, quickest way to raise $250,000."

"The dependence on Wall Street money really suppresses argument," Mike McCurry explained. "If you have come back from your fifth fundraising trip of the year, where you schlepped up and down Wall Street with your tin cup, then you listen to these guys making their arguments about the efficiency of financial deregulation and so forth, you begin to say, yeah, they've got a point."

The influential law firms are only part of the money network, of course, but a growing segment. Legal Times found that by 1988, 157 law firms had established their own PACs. Common Cause estimated that the Washington lawyers in both parties have spread around nearly $5 million in recent years. More than 70 percent of each major party's contributions now come from corporations, according to Charles R. Babcock of The Washington Post. [11]

The most pernicious effect of campaign money is probably not on the legislative roll calls, but in how money works to keep important new ideas off the table -- ideas that might find a popular constituency among citizens, but would offend important contributors. Robert Shrum, a campaign consultant to many Democratic candidates, has witnessed many campaign-strategy sessions where new ideas were discreetly buried.

"It costs so much to get elected and re-elected," Shrum said, "that the system inhibits anyone from taking positions that will be too controversial and will make it more difficult to raise money. Do people in a campaign say that directly? No. What they say is: 'What's the responsible position on this issue?' That's a code word for fund raising. Even when it's not consciously used as a code word, that's the effect."

However, the process of giving and getting the money is more casual than many critics imagine and generally not defined by concrete bargains of quid pro quo. A congressional aide described a typical transaction:

In the morning, one of these Democratic bank lobbyists called on the senator's staff to plead the case for repealing federal regulations on commercial banks. Since the senator is a liberal Democrat and, as the lobbyist knew, almost certain to oppose the banks, the conversation was strictly informational and relaxed. In the afternoon, quite by coincidence, the senator's staff telephoned the same lobbyist, in the process of trying to raise campaign money for a struggling congressional candidate, an underfunded challenger who was not likely to win.

Though he had no interest in the race, the lobbyist cheerfully agreed to make a contribution and even volunteered to call some other Democratic lobbyists to raise money. It was no big deal, just a bit of back scratching among people with mutual political attachments. The exchange was done, not in return for particular favors, but "for the good of the party."

The popular image of rank bribery misses the supple essence of how political money works. Though explicit bribery does sometimes occur in these transactions, the exchanges are more routinely among friends -- not buyers and sellers, but people with shared interests in the long-run political prospects.

The way to understand political money is to think of it as building "relationships." Just as the IAP community organizers try to weave new political relationships through personal contact and meetings, the lawyer-lobbyists use their money to nurture their relationships with politicians and party. Nobody is buying anybody -- these are old friends. When money passes among friends, they need not ask what it is for. It is for friendship -- the bonds of loyalty and trust.

None of these various political transactions poses any questions of legality or even personal ethics for the Democratic lawyers themselves. This is how they make their living; political influence is what they sell to their clients.

The ethical problem belongs to the Democratic party. Relying so intimately on Washington lawyers for the party's sense of direction necessarily obscures the grievances of distant constituencies. It blocks awkward questions about large public problems that involve private clients -- who is being served and who is being injured? -- and leads the party off toward harmless distractions. For disappointed constituents, who are distant and unorganized and unrepresented, the arrangement understandably smells like betrayal from the top down.


Because it operates without a superstructure based on organized people, the Democratic party has ceded another important function of political parties to organized money -- the process of developing the big ideas that will form the party's public-policy agenda and campaign strategy. In theory, the two are the same: A political party is supposed to find out what its adherents want as a program for government, then translate those goals and ideas into slogans that will communicate them to the electorate and persuade a majority of voters.

In Democratic circles, the process mostly works backward. Party leaders talk obsessively about how to package the right slogans -- the words and phrases that might have won the last election -- but they seem awkwardly shy about developing the content of how they would actually govern. The confusion is natural for• any party out of power, denied the centralizing focus of the presidency, but for Democrats it is compounded because they still do hold power in Congress -- where every splinter of congressional influence clings to its own narrow governing agenda.

Practically speaking, informal exchanges among the party's congressional leaders are often the only time when the party attempts to devise a "national program" of policies and election themes. Even this process is quite random, driven by the need to prepare important speeches or party responses to the Republican president's initiatives. Many voices will be heard in these discussions, from the AFL-CIO to the Black Caucus, but the inner circle of consultants always includes "party elders" like Robert Strauss or Stuart Eizenstat or Richard Moe.

"A set of players always put themselves in play on the words that are going to come out of Tom Foley's mouth," said one party strategist who participates himself. "Eizenstat and Moe and these other guys will show up and you don't know whether it's their clients talking or their intellectual vanity or their own presidential strategic knowledge. They always give the same advice: 'Don't cut defense because you'll look soft on defense.' 'Don't try to do anything big because you'll look like big spenders.' This reflects the limits of their imagination, not crass motives."

The Democratic establishment is understandably burdened by its own past and tends to dwell on what went wrong in the last presidential election: The Republican party has accumulated a thick stratum of experienced managers from winning campaigns for the White House (the late Lee Atwater, the 1988 campaign manager, counted more than twenty-five people in the Bush campaign who had each worked in at least three presidential contests). The Democratic party leadership, meanwhile, is counseled mainly by people who devised strategy for the losers. They worked in the White House when Lyndon Johnson launched the war in Vietnam. They helped Jimmy Carter design his re-election strategy. They were advisors to the disastrous campaigns of 1984 and 1988.

Preoccupied with their old mistakes, they dwell upon the value-laden issues -- race, crime, abortion, national defense -- that drew millions of Democrats from the ranks of the white working class to the Republican ticket. What they seldom discuss, however, is a coherent economic program and the issues relevant to work, wages and the precarious living standards of ordinary families. New policies in these areas would give disaffected Democrats a real reason to vote Democratic once again, but would also conflict with the interests of the financially powerful important clients.

Beyond the level of these informal conversations, the larger task of policy formulation for the Democratic party is mostly left to others -- the private realm of think tanks and sponsored research. Washington is a perpetual stage for self-important conferences and policy bulletins, announcing "new ideas" or exhuming old ones, debating ideological distinctions or proposing new language that might connect with the public's anxieties.

These materials are rich in intellectual argumentation and statistical proofs, but inclined toward an abstract, rhetorical version of politics. They provide the fodder for an enjoyable kind of parlor politics -- a running debate that attracts scholars and journalists and some politicians. But the participants tend to view politics pristinely, as an earnest search for correct ideas, not as the fierce struggle for power.

Everyone might be said to have a voice in this dialogue, given the variety of think tanks and front groups. The Children's Defense Fund mobilizes for children. The Economic Policy Institute articulates economic ideas and arguments on behalf of labor. Inevitably, however, the process of policy formulation is dominated by wealth. It requires lots of money, so monied interests naturally can do more of it.

"I call it America's second party system," said political scientist Thomas Ferguson. "All of the thinking about policy that political parties are supposed to do has been off-loaded onto the foundation world. It's very expensive. You have to have a pile of money, you have to be able to maintain it over time. Left-liberal organizations depend on tax-exempt money too, so there's no longer an independent base in the American public for formulating policy ideas."

In theory, as Ferguson pointed out, a political party is supposed to help ordinary citizens overcome these cost-of-entry barriers. The cost of gathering information and developing policies is prohibitively high for most citizens; when the party assumes the responsibility, it spreads the burden among many and thus reduces entry costs for all. American political parties instead delegate the policy process to others, letting them pay for it and, therefore, shape it.

In addition to the established think tanks, most of the "policy commissions" created in recent years to feed new ideas to the Democratic party were invented and manned by figures from the old establishment. The policy papers they produced were predictably unprovocative, reflecting the conservative reflexes of their patrons. Their bland ideas proved to be highly perishable. One of these groups, the Center for National Policy, was run by Kirk O'Donnell, former aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who after the 1988 election left the center to work as a lobbyist in Bob Strauss's law firm. Working for Akin, Gump would be "most exciting," O'Donnell declared with unintended irony, because the law firm's policy agenda "is as broad as the center's." [12]

The lawyer-lobbyist establishment launched a more ambitious effort to redirect the Democratic party when Robert Strauss and others raised corporate money to finance the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of elected politicians dedicated to returning the party to the "mainstream." The council promoted southern business conservatives like Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and Charles S. Robb of Virginia as presidential prospects and issued policy papers on what it deemed to be "mainstream" ideas.

The boundaries of the "mainstream" were defined by the DLC's donors from corporate America -- ARCO, the American Petroleum Institute, Dow Chemical, Prudential Bache, Georgia Pacific, Martin Marietta and many others. At its 1990 conference in New Orleans, as Paul Taylor reported in The Washington Post, the audience was decidedly not enthusiastic when some speakers called for tax cuts for working people, since the majority of the conference audience was composed of corporate lobbyists, many of whom were not even Democrats. [13]

The DLC's main objective, however, was an attack on the Democratic party's core constituencies -- labor, schoolteachers, women's rights groups, peace and disarmament activists, the racial minorities and supporters of affirmative action. Its stated goal was to restore the party's appeal to disaffected white males, especially in the South, but the DLC discussions did not focus on the economic decline afflicting those citizens. Instead, it promoted the notion that Democrats must distance themselves from the demands of women or blacks or other aggrieved groups within the party. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and his provocative economic agenda aimed at workers, white and black, was a favorite target of the Democratic Leadership Council and, on Capitol Hill, the DLC was sometimes waggishly referred to as "the white boys' caucus."

Thus, in addition to all its other organizational weaknesses, the Democratic party is divided by nasty ideological combat between the party's Washington elites and its rank-and-file constituencies -- the people at the grassroots who are most active in Democratic politics. The establishment's quarrel was with the party's own voters. The people they belittled as "activists" and "interest groups" were the very people who cared most intensely about public issues and who formed the faithful core of the party's electorate, win or lose.

The Democratic establishment did not wish to initiate a dialogue with these citizens, only to make them go away or at least keep their mouths shut. The party elite had no intention of sharing its own policy deliberations with Democrats at large or trying to re-engage people in governing politics by rebuilding the organizational connections that have been lost. The elites wished only to form a governing consensus around the supposed "mainstream" -- their mainstream, the one they have already formulated in Washington.

The stubborn and resourceful citizens at the grassroots remain a nettlesome presence in Democratic politics because they do sometimes succeed in disrupting the high-blown policy consensus formed by the elite circles. Be cause they are real voters and capable of mobilizing other real voters, they Can sometimes compel the politicians to address their cause, especially in party primaries when the voter turnout is so weak.

The despised activists are like the organizing cadres of the old politics, except that these new "regulars" operate freelance across the electorate. They, are detached themselves, without any formal party structure for debate and compromise, without any way to form relationships of accountability and shared responsibility with those in power.

Their sort of active engagement was once regarded as an asset, the kind of indigenous energy that a functioning political party sought out and nurtured. In the contemporary Democratic party, the "regulars" at the grassroots are regarded as an impediment to governing.


Nothing is likely to change until people decide to change it. This is a truism of democracy, but it has special application to the deterioration of the Democratic party and, ultimately, to the deeper dimensions of decay in the governing processes. If the public's voice has been lost, it cannot be restored without a political party to speak for it. Citizens cannot hope to rediscover their connection to power without exercising the collective power that is available to them through elections.

None of the deeper problems of government described in this book, whatever plausible solutions may exist, are likely to be addressed until this sort of political development occurs. Someone will have to invent a genuine political party that takes active responsibility for its adherents. This is an awesomely large project, of course, for it literally means trying to construct piece by piece, in the fractured modern society, the personal and institutional relationships that might draw people back into the process of democratic governance.

The Democratic party, given the legacy of Jefferson and Jackson, seems a likelier candidate for this sort of renewal. Its advanced state of deterioration makes it vulnerable to change. The Republican party, on the other hand, contains its own reform energies and also has a better intuitive grasp of modern political circumstances. Neither party, however, is going to undertake this regeneration on its own -- since democratic renewal would radically threaten all of the existing power relationships in American politics.

To visualize what is required, contrast the hollow organization called the Democratic party with the vibrant and fast-growing political organizations that the Industrial Areas Foundation has fostered in Texas and Brooklyn and Baltimore and many other places. Imagine, for instance, that the Democratic party decided to do for people what the IAF organizations have already succeeded in doing -- that is, talk with people face-to-face and listen seriously to what they say about politics.

The political parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the empty politics of TV commercials, but nothing on authentic human conversations. Imagine, for instance, if the Democratic party devoted a few million each year to party building from the ground up -- talking and listening to real people in their communities, hiring organizers to draw people out of their isolation and into permanent relationships with organizations that would speak for them, that they themselves could steer. Imagine if some of the patience -- and the respect for ordinary people -- of the IAF's organizations were borrowed by the Democrats.

If a political party started such a dialogue with people in many places, it would no doubt hear the hot discontent of unfiltered public opinion on virtually every subject (including the complaints recounted in this book). This would not exactly be news to elected politicians, since they already collect that information continuously through polling and focus groups and other techniques. But opinion polls and even focus groups are marketing techniques, not conversations. They are designed, not to produce responsive government, but to manipulate voters and harvest enough votes to win elections.

In order to be genuine, a renewed political party would have to start the dialogue with a radically different purpose -- taking responsibility for the party" s adherents, rather than simply winning elections for the party's candidates. Winning elections and attaining power is essential, of course, to achieving anything for people, but the integrity of a political organization is determined by which of these goals it puts first. As most people understand, the Democratic party (and the Republican party, as we shall see) is now devoted mainly to using people as a means to its own end -- winning the elections. Not surprisingly, once people see through this, they do not stick around to become loyal cadres for the long term.

Aggregating the political power of organized people requires an institutional commitment to remaining loyal to them, a commitment they can believe and trust. That would necessitate building a permanent, enduring presence with intimate ties to citizens and communities, not an organization that comes and goes in election seasons. It would require an organization that delivers something real in return for the people's presence.

What would a real party give people? A forum for democratic conversations, a place to say things about public concerns and a place to teach about them, a structure around which political consensus could develop its power. Ultimately, it would also have to promise something larger -- a viable channel by which these voices could be carried upward in the structures of power and taken seriously. A political party with these qualities would not have allowed the savings and loan disaster to be evaded, then dumped on the taxpayers. A political party committed to its own adherents would not have stood by silently while elected politicians jimmied the tax code to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

The old party system, of course, was itself far short of genuine democracy, often corrupt or closed to outsiders. But, before its neighborhood cadres were eclipsed by television and big-money politics, they did provide real connections for many people. The party's organizational strength drew upon the permanence of church and neighborhood and union affiliations and other secondary mediating institutions that are now weakened too. Creating a new place for people in politics, one that is truly open to all, is now much harder to accomplish, given the alienation and social distance that have developed.

But no one really knows what might come forth from citizens if a political party set out to create a serious structure for communication and accountability, since neither major party has ever tried it. Judging from the enormous political energies already randomly at work around the nation, the cynics might be surprised by who turns up at the meetings.

Most people, understandably, will not come just to hear more talk. To be real, the party would also have to begin doing real things for people -- even the kind of humble services that ward heelers once provided constituents, though these chores would not necessarily involve the usual patronage and street repair issues.

A local political organization might, for instance, undertake the responsibility of overseeing federal law enforcement in its community -- assuming the role of permanent watchdog and thereby spreading the costs among many people. Do the federal agencies actually enforce the labor and environmental laws in the community or don't they? If not, why not? It would be most disruptive for a local political party to start asking such questions or showing up at all those regulatory hearings alongside the citizens who are trying to get the government to listen.

Or a local party might become a willing civic agency that volunteers to assist a community with its tangible problems, large or small. Millions of citizens, for example, lack health- insurance coverage for emergencies; the party might arrange pool coverage for those who need it. Labor unions help their young members find bargain rates for mortgages; a political party could do the same. In recent years, the Industrial Areas Foundation's network of community organizations has built four thousand homes across the nation for people who could not previously afford to own one. If that seems trivial compared to the scale of the nation's housing crisis, it is four thousand more homes than the Democratic party has built.

At the Democratic National Committee, Mike McCurry once urged his colleagues to undertake what he calls the "service approach" to politics. He envisioned a national party that would help state and local organizations engage themselves in the most pedestrian civic enterprises -- from helping the PTA with its book sale to cleaning up abandoned buildings to working at a car wash for the church remodeling fund. The idea, he said, would be to foster a permanent pool of volunteers called Democrats "so that when people are trying to accomplish something, they would say: Call the Democrats, they always have people."

McCurry's colleagues didn't get it. "Their reaction," he said, "was, 'What would that have to do with winning a campaign? Why should we go out and do bake sales with the Girl Scouts when our problem is getting votes?' If it's not hard-core politics, they're not interested."

The deeper obstacle to reforming the Democratic party from the ground up is that no one who now shares power in the party structure, however marginally, will be in favor of it -- not elected senators and representatives who are secure in their seats, not the lawyer- lobbyist establishment in Washington, not major constituencies like organized labor nor even many of the reform groups that surround the party and interact with it.

All of these players have their own discontents and insecurities with the present arrangement, but none has much incentive to seek radical changes. Expecting them to lead the way to democratic renewal is asking them to put their own power at risk, to make themselves accountable to other citizens in new and potentially threatening ways.

Real change, if it comes at all, would likely have to originate with angry outsiders, the citizens who are willing to attack the status quo on its own ground and create an alternative example of how democratic politics ought to function. This makes the challenge even more daunting, of course, because all the usual barriers argue the impossibility of such an undertaking. The history of third parties in American politics, for instance, is that they do not gain power, though they do sometimes create important momentum for new ideas and aspirations. The accumulated protections of incumbent Democrats, from the special- interest money to the campaign laws that favor them, are all formidable barriers to insurgents, whether they attack from inside or outside the party.

The vulnerability of the Democratic party is obvious, however, in terms of the party's own atrophied organizational structure. There are no people left. In many locations, the party organization is tended by a graying cadre of aging loyalists who perform the mechanics and not much else.

The seeds of insurgency are also visible and scattered throughout the party in many places. They are the people who have come into party politics as outsiders -- especially women, blacks and Hispanics -- and who want the Democratic party to become something more than a mail drop for corporate donations. They are the restless dissidents in organized labor who are fed up with feckless Democrats who take labor's money, then abandon workers on the key economic issues. If the Democratic party regenerates as an organization, it will likely occur because those people have decided to seize control and raise their own concerns to higher visibility.

"In most parts of this country," McCurry said, "anyone who walked in the door with enough people could take it over and do what they wanted. The oldtimers would probably welcome the new blood because they're dying off themselves."

If people undertook such challenges and won control of the county committee, what would they win? Not much of anything, in present terms, since the local and state party organizations have no power either. The only purpose would be to make those organizations into something different -- real assemblies of people. Elected Democrats, kept in power by their own political networks, might well react indifferently or hostilely at first. But they would be compelled in time to listen respectfully to a party organization that begins to speak authentically for their own constituents.

Despite the conventional wisdom, my own analysis is that the political status quo is also highly vulnerable to a concerted electoral assault from citizens. The rising popular resentment aimed at all elected incumbents demonstrates the potential for such an effort.

Certainly, many incumbents do feel insecure, despite their comfortable victories in the past. In the 1990 elections, for instance, some senators and representatives who had grossly outspent their opponents by margins as large as eight to one or ten to one found themselves in dangerously close contests, winning by a few thousand votes over unknown opponents.

All politicians, regardless of their ideology or personal competence, understand the same basic thing about power: Losing the election is what matters in politics. Everything else is mood and methodology and fine talk. Any force that threatens politicians with defeat or even raises the percentage of risk can accumulate power.

If not losing the election means raising lots of money in advance, then power flows to the sources of money. If not losing means yielding to the specific demands of a single-issue organization, the gun owners or retirees or antiabortion forces, then those groups will gain some power. If• not losing means responding to the agenda proposed by a democratic organization of voting constituents, then most incumbents will try to respond to that too -- if not for lofty democratic reasons, then because they do not wish to become former incumbents.

Political power, in other words, flows to the new margins -- to the new voters or interests that intrude on the status quo. They may not yet represent a majority but their assembled numbers can force a decisive shift in political behavior if they threaten to disrupt the settled assumptions about what wins or loses an election. This effect is especially true for elections in a representative assembly like Congress, though obviously less so in the broader national contests for the presidency.

In Congress, the power exerted by a relative handful of intruders radiates rather quickly through the entire membership as other politicians calculate the implications for themselves. In my observation, nothing captures the attention of senators and representatives more firmly than the shock of seeing four or five of their colleagues blindsided in an election -- defeated by a popular issue no one had anticipated or by an assembly of citizens no one had taken seriously. Typically, regardless of party or political persuasion, the members try to adjust quickly to this new threat, if they can, so that they will not be the next target.

In other words, politicians do respond to the danger posed by newly engaged voters, if only to protect themselves. Conscientious citizens, entering the electoral arena in a purposeful way, would have to pick their shots carefully, but they would not have to organize the entire Republic in order to begin leveraging change in the political system.

The truly difficult part would be to develop focused political objectives that resonate authentically with the army of fed-up citizens -- the political ideas that people could call their own and would march behind confidently. In order to accomplish that, citizens would have to get serious about power themselves. Do they really want to be engaged with governing power and take some responsibility for it or don't they?
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The contemporary Republican party seems brilliantly suited to the modern age, for it has perfected the art of maintaining political power in the midst of democratic decay. The party of Lincoln has become the party of mass marketing, applying marketing's elaborate technologies to the task of winning elections. From this, it has fashioned a most improbable marriage of power -- a hegemony of monied interests based on the alienation of powerless citizens.

As men of commerce, Republicans naturally understood marketing better than Democrats, and they applied what they knew about selling products to politics with none of the awkward hesitation that inhibited old-style politicians. As a result, voters are now viewed as a passive assembly of "consumers," a mass audience of potential buyers. Research discovers through scientific sampling what it is these consumers know or think and, more important, what they feel, even when they do not know their own "feelings." A campaign strategy is then designed to connect the candidate with these consumer attitudes. Advertising images are created that will elicit positive responses and make the sale.

To understand the basic approach, one has only to watch an evening of television, not the programs but the commercials. There are wondrous things to behold on TV -- cars that turn into sleek panthers and stallions, or that take off and fly like jet airplanes. Beers that magically produce jiggling young women in bikinis. Basketball shoes that allow small boys to soar like gazelles. There are patriotic soaps and talking toilets and phallic deodorants. In this dimension of reality, a presidential candidate who is actually a cowboy on horseback seems quite plausible.

The essential transaction in modern marketing is that most products are separated from their intrinsic qualities -- since most brands are basically not that different -- and imbued with fabulous mythical attributes that attract buyers. Consumers understand (at least most do) that cars will not fly and that underarm deodorants do not increase sexual potency. Still, the advertising's fantasies provide as good a reason as any to choose one brand over another that is just the same.

"Increasingly people buy a product not because of its benefits but because they identify, or strive to identify, with the kind of people they think use it," Karen Olshan, a senior vice- president of BBDO, explained to a business-magazine writer. Paula Drillman, executive director of strategic research at McCann Erickson, emphasized that consumer emotions are a more reliable basis for selling than the "rational benefits" of the product itself.

"Rational benefits are vulnerable," she explained, "because with today's technology it's easy to knock off a competitor's innovation quickly or play on his marketing turf. Emotional bonds, on the other hand, are hard to break." [1]

The same logic has now become the prevailing rule for political competition in the media age. Campaign consultants and managers describe the electoral process in the same dispassionate -- and amoral -- terms. Elections are for selling, not for governing and certainly not for accountability. The selling depends, not on rational debate or real differences, but on concocting emotional bonds between the candidate and the audience.

"We had only one goal in the campaign and that was to elect George Bush," Lee Atwater, Bush's 1988 campaign manager, told The New York Times. "Our campaign was not trying to govern the country."

"Campaigns are not for educating," GOP consultant Douglas Bailey told The Washington Post. "They're for linking up with the public mood." [2]

No one gets educated in election seasons -- neither voters nor candidates -- because provocative new ideas may disrupt the formation of emotional ties. Discussing the actual content of governing issues simply complicates the message. "Pollsters are so good that it is possible to know at every minute what people think," Doug Bailey told a Washington seminar. "No political leader needs to guess at what the people think about any issue and, therefore, there is no need ever to go out and lead." [3]

In this realm, Democrats have had to overcome certain cultural disadvantages. Their political experience originates., for the most part, in old-fashioned organizational settings, labor unions or protest movements or good-government causes. Republican managers came from backgrounds in public relations, advertising and corporate management, all of which are familiar with the contours of advertising messages. Democrat Mike McCurry described his party's handicap: "Our idea of politics is to go out and build coalitions among different groups and so you don't get 'Big Think.' You get 'Big Think' from the corporate culture of mass communications."

Much of what currently passes for strategic planning within the Democratic party is actually a forlorn discussion about how to emulate the Republican party's mass-marketing skills. As Democrats learn to catch up, the content and relevance of election campaigns naturally becomes even less satisfying to those expecting a serious debate about governing agendas. The conduct of contemporary electoral politics is like what would happen if an automobile company decided to fire its engineers and let the advertising guys design the new model. The car they package might sell. It just wouldn't run very well.

The familiar problems that afflict political campaigns and elicit much earnest commentary in the news media -- the mushrooming costs and the rise of negative "attack" ads -- are actually mass-marketing problems that originate in the domain of commercial advertising. In the last decade, according to The Wall Street Journal, the average cost of a thirty- second spot on prime-time television went from $57,900 to $122,000 -- even though the networks' primetime audience was shrinking. A major advertiser like Budweiser beer spent three dollars a barrel on its marketing in 1980 -- and nine dollars a barrel ten years later., This marketing inflation swallows up campaign treasuries too and puts an even higher premium on a candidate's ability to raise money.

Given the soaring costs, every commercial advertiser is haunted by the same question about the TV spots: Is anyone actually getting the message? The American audience is now overwhelmed by random bursts of advertising -- 300 messages a day for the average consumer, 9,000 a month, 109,500 a year. A TV spot may be shocking or funny or even visually beautiful, but it won't sell anything if the viewer cannot even remember the name of the sponsor. One survey found that 80 percent of viewers could not remember a commercial's content one day after seeing it. Some corporate sponsors are now using encephalograms to measure the brain waves of sample viewers in order to find out which commercials actually agitate the psyche; perhaps brain scans will be the next emerging technology in political campaigns as well. [4]

Politicians face the same dilemma as the beer industry: They are spending more and more money on messages that get weaker and weaker in terms of eliciting a reliable response from voters. That is the primary reason for the proliferation of negative ads in campaigns -- the need to be heard, not the declining morals of candidates. Negative attacks are more exciting and, therefore, more memorable to viewers. They deliver provocative information that is more likely to stick in the minds of the audience -- the buyer-voter who is besotted each evening with glossy appeals for his loyalty. Politics is merely following the negative trend in commercial advertising, where more and more companies are sponsoring their own "attack ads" on the competing products.

"Given the distaste most voters have for politicians," Democratic consultant Greg Schneider explained, "it is immeasurably easier to make your opponent unacceptable than to make yourself acceptable."

Exhortations to conscience from the press are not likely to reverse this trend. So long as political communication depends so singularly on expensive mass media, the competition for attention will drive the most high-minded candidates to explore the low road -- because it promises a more efficient use of scarce advertising dollars. Republican campaign managers seem to understand this better than Democrats,' especially during presidential campaigns.

As an organization, the Republican party shares many of the Democrats' problems: a client-based Washington establishment, a very weak party structure and the same preoccupation with political money. Republicans also lack connective tissue -- people in communities who are reliably linked to the people in power. Paul Weyrich, a conservative reformer who is president of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, remarked: "The difficulty with the Republican party is that in large areas of the country, it doesn't exist."

But the Grand Old Party is more successful than the Democrats at raising political money and at deploying it. "The Republican National Committee has more influence than the Democratic Committee," said lobbyist Chuck Fishman, "because it puts together more money and assistance for campaigns. Industry gets calls. Then Republicans in Congress are invited to the industry dinners. You're getting the money and they're getting your vote and everybody's happy. That doesn't happen at the DNC."

The Republican party is less burdened than Democrats by the ethical implications of these money transactions. After all, it is the party of business enterprise. From Lincoln forward, it has always defended propertied wealth and corporations against the political claims of workers and others, so there is not the same tension of implicit betrayal when Republicans collect huge treasuries from business interests or wealthy individuals and institutions. Indeed, if the Republican party exists mainly to defend and enhance the monied interests, it has been a spectacularly effective political institution in recent years.

The more challenging question about the Republican party is how it manages to accomplish this -- since the political results seem to pose a democratic contradiction. It wins national elections, often overwhelmingly, yet it is the party that most faithfully represents the minority, namely wealth holders. The Republican hegemony of the 1980s demonstrably benefited the few over the many -- in private incomes and tax burdens, as well as in the distribution of public services. Yet its electoral success was undiminished, at least at the presidential level.

Nor can the contradiction be explained as public ignorance, since the public knows that the GOP is the party of money. In a New York Times/CBS survey, conducted in the midst of the 1988 presidential election, 64 percent of the electorate identified the Republican party as the party of the rich. Only 20 percent said it treats all classes equally; only 9 percent described Republicans as the party of the middle class. Furthermore, most people seem to have a roughly accurate sense of what Republican economic policy accomplished during the 1980s. They at least know their own tax burden grew while corporations and the wealthy enjoyed huge tax cuts. [5]

How does the GOP overcome this handicap? The Democratic party helped substantially by retreating from its own position as the party of labor and the "little guy." When there are no dramatic differences of substance between two candidates or two parties, the impact of the fantasy qualities concocted in TV ads grows even stronger. After all, one deodorant is pretty much like any other. The buyer who relies on sexy advertising images to choose his deodorant is not different from a voter who chooses a candidate on the same basis. Since the politicians all sound alike, he may as well vote for the guy with all the American flags.

Republicans have also succeeded through marketing themes that connect powerfully and positively with the deepest national values: patriotism; America's singular sense of itself in the world; our faith in individual work and enterprise; our abundant optimism. This success, however, still does not get at the heart of the explanation.

The party of money wins power in national elections mainly by posing as the party of the disaffected. From its polling and other research data, it concocts a rancid populism that is perfectly attuned to the age of political alienation -- a message of antipower. "I think power is evil," said Lee Atwater, the Republican campaign manager who became national party chairman. The basic equation of Republican success, he explained in an interview shortly after the 1988 election, is: "us against them."

"Simply put," Atwater said, "there is constantly a war going on between the two parties for the populist vote. The populist vote is always the swing vote. It's been the swing vote in every election. The Democrats have always got to nail Republicans as the party of the fat cats, in effect, the party of the upper class and privilege. And the Democrats will maintain that they are the party of the little man, the common man. To the extent they're successful, Republicans are unsuccessful." [6]

The term "populism," so abused in modern usage, is now applied routinely to almost any idea or slogan that might actually appeal to ordinary people. In history, the Populists of the late nineteenth century constituted a specific citizens' movement that was rich in democratic promise and farsighted ideas. Calling themselves the People's party, the farmers of the South and Middle West revolted against both major parties and the emerging dominance of corporate capitalism. They fell short of power themselves, but their far-sighted ideas lived and many were subsequently adopted in government. By that historical standard, there is very little in the trivial sentiments of modern politics that qualifies as genuinely "populist." [7]

When the term is used now, it usually means to convey not ideas, but a political mood -- resentment against established power, distrust of major institutions and a sense of powerlessness. In this period of history, it is perhaps not an accident that so many of the effective political managers are southerners. The South understands alienation better than the rest of the nation. Feelings that were once peculiar to a single section of America -- the defeated region within the nation -- have now taken over the national mood. The winning strategies of modern Republicans owe more to George Wallace than to Barry Goldwater.

Uniting alienated voters into political coalition with the most powerful economic interests has a distinctly old-fashioned flavor of southern demagoguery, since the strategy requires the party to agitate the latent emotional resentments and turn them into marketable political traits. The raw materials for this are drawn from enduring social aggravations -- wounds of race, class and religion, even sex.

The other party's candidate is not simply depicted as unworthy of public office, but is connected to alien forces within the society that threaten to overwhelm decent folk -- libertine sexual behavior, communists, criminals, people of color demanding more than they deserve. The Republican party, thoroughly modern itself, poses as the bulwark against unsettling modernity. The TV political hucksters, utterly amoral themselves, promise to restore a lost moral order.

None of this is ever said very directly but is communicated superbly in the evocative images of TV commercials -- pictures that do not need words. The method might seem overly coy to an earlier generation of racial demagogues, but the meaning does not elude an audience fully experienced at reading symbolic images on TV.

George Bush's "Willie Horton" became the topic at every dinner table in 1988, just as Atwater hoped, and was actually the most interesting event in the long, dreary presidential campaign. Is this an issue of prison furloughs for convicted murderers or is it really about black men raping white women? Two years later Senator Jesse Helms won re-election in North Carolina with a devastating commercial called "White Hands" -- white hands replaced by black hands. Is this an argument about affirmative-action "quotas" or is it really about white people who resent uppity black people? No one can ever settle these arguments, any more than one can prove that the Budweiser commercials exploit adolescent sexual craving to sell beer.

These Republican messages build bridges across class lines. They give people who are not themselves well-to-do and do not share the economic interests of traditional Republicans a reason to join the party of money. The Republican party cannot win without them, as it well knows, so it must assemble a set of ideas that will attract millions of voters from the lower middle stratum of the economy -- disaffected Democrats with conservative social and religious values -- who are persuaded to see their old party as "them" and the GOP as "us."

The millions of Democrats drawn to the Republican ticket in the 1980s "are always looking for a reason to come home," Atwater explained. "If they could maintain that, well, you know, finally here's a Democrat, not a lot of difference between him and Bush, they could say: We get to vote Democratic again. So we felt like, if we didn't get out and draw the differences, we'd lose. " The differences between Michael Dukakis and George Bush were the hot images constructed for the 1988 campaign -- the "Harvard-boutique liberal" who was soft on Willie Horton and didn't even believe in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Race is only one of the bridges, though surely the most powerful. A generation ago, the alien force threatening American values was communism, and the GOP, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, sought to expose the "traitors" lurking within the society -- mostly, it seemed, within the Democratic party. In the turmoil of the 1960s, the bridge was expanded to include drugs and crime and the disturbances of cultural change. In the 1980s, all those themes endured and Democrats were portrayed, not simply as wrongheaded opponents, but as enemies of the-American way of life.

"Now we have a way of dividing America," Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House Republican whip, told The Washington Post. He was referring to the "value-laden" issues of crime, drugs, education and corruption, which he attributed to the failures of Democratic liberals. "These people are sick, " he told The Wall Street Journal. "They are destructive of the values we believe in." [8]

The basic problem with the Republican electoral strategy is that it does not have much to do with governing, especially at the federal level. American politics has always been rich in demagogic diversions and empty appeals to nativist emotions; both parties share that history. The modern Republican hegemony, however, is most striking in the divergence it fosters between elections and governing.

Millions of voters are persuaded to cross the bridge, but they do not get much in return on the other side. Once in power, the Republican government serves the traditional Republican economic interests. The aggravations of modernity, meanwhile, persist. The fears of crime and race and decaying moral values do not abate. They merely accumulate for exploitation in the next election.

Much of what agitates the disaffected voters is either beyond the reach of the national government or contrary to the Republican purposes. The president, it is true, may introduce a "crime bill" or announce a "war on drugs" or criticize a new civil rights measure designed to protect racial minorities. But the governing responses to these public anxieties are mostly symbolic, like the TV ads that stimulated the emotional connections in the first place. Politics speaks to these social concerns endlessly, but it cannot deliver much that would actually change things without intervening profoundly in the private social fabric -- which the Republican government has no intention of doing.

To act seriously would mean provoking a serious opposition among other party constituencies -- especially the young people who are voting Republican in impressive numbers but have libertarian views on the social issues. Pornography cannot be banished without a change in the meaning of the First Amendment; abortion cannot be fully prohibited without an amendment to the Constitution. The first "war on drugs" was launched by Richard Nixon in the early 1970s and lasted for several years; it petered out when law-enforcement officers started arresting the children of prominent Republicans.

The Republican hegemony, therefore, depends upon a more subtle form of betrayal. The party's method deliberately coaxes emotional responses from people -- teases their anxieties over values they hold important in their own lives -- but then walks away from the anger and proceeds to govern on its real agenda, defending the upper-class interests of wealth and corporate power. Government, as we have observed, is assumed to be rational and expert; the raw emotions of people are unscientific and distrusted.

The Republican government, aside from empty gestures, has no serious interest in resolving the anger it has aroused. After all, popular anger is the political commodity that it uses, again and again. Everyone in Washington understands this, Democrats and Republicans alike, and there is a professional admiration for the way in which Republicans ignite bonfires of public passion, then coolly walk away from them, without repercussions. George Bush ran against the "Harvard-boutique liberals," then appointed Harvard people to six Cabinet-level positions, plus many other second-rung government jobs. No one really minds. Everyone knows it was just a slogan.

The reason the Republicans succeed at this may be that cynical citizens do not expect much more from politics. Certainly, most voters who took the bait do not express great surprise when a succession of Republican governments fails to deliver meaningful responses to their discontent. Voters, as savvy TV viewers, are perhaps wise enough to understand that the pictures that aroused their emotions have no real connection with governing decisions, that nothing much will actually happen in Washington to deal with their fears or anger. Possibly, people are entertained by Republican politics in the same way they are entertained by the mythological qualities that emanate from the commercial advertising. If all politicians are alike, corrupt and unreliable, you might as well vote for the one who got the patriotic music right, the one who at least talked about your anger, your fears.

People know elections, like television commercials, are not real. All that the campaign images provide them is an imagined moment of aroused feeling -- a transient emotional bond with those who will hold power, a chance to identify with certain idealized qualities, but not an opportunity to connect with real governing power. If manipulated voters do not feel cheated, it is because the Republican party gives them a chance, as the perfume commercial says, to "share the fantasy."


"Ralph Nader and I rode on the same airplane recently and we talked at length and we agree about everything," said Paul Weyrich, a leading figure among the social conservatives in the Republican coalition. "Nader and I have the same contempt for officeholders and the process by which both parties get together and screw the public. Unlike most Washington-based people, we are in constant touch with the grassroots. Nader and I spend about half of our time on the road and, as a result, we know what the little guys are thinking.

"Both Nader's base of support and mine, though ideologically different, are the lower middle class. The difference is their perception of who's responsible for the mess. Nader's people would tend to blame big business and corporations. My people would tend to blame government and maybe labor unions. My view is they're all to blame."

Paul Weyrich, a conservative Catholic from Wisconsin, is one of those who helped build the bridges that led millions of working-class Democrats into the Republican party, and he now recognizes their growing sense of disenchantment. As founder of the Free Congress Foundation in the early 1970s, Weyrich mobilized both Catholics in northern cities and southern Protestants, evangelicals and fundamentalists, around conservative social issues- abortion, pornography, family and others.

"My father tired a boiler, shoveled coal in a Catholic hospital," Weyrich said. "He was a German immigrant. My relatives worked in foundries in Racine. I understand these people, I know the language they can understand. They felt invaded by societal forces -- liberal forces, future shock. They felt threatened and threatened enough to become active and to switch parties."

The "populist" swing vote has been critical to the Republican hegemony. Lance Tarrance, a GOP pollster from Houston, studied the Republican electorates in the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections and described their ideological and social components: 67 percent were establishment conservatives with orthodox probusiness views, 26 percent populist, 7 percent libertarian.

But the Republican coalition is under strain from two sources: the disenchantment sown by nearly two decades of unfulfilled rhetoric on the social issues and the glaring divide of economic interests. Weyrich, among others on the right, thinks it is vulnerable to breakup.

"The country-club Republicans can't win without these people," Weyrich said, "but now, all of a sudden, the party is reverting to its old ways and they're heading for a real disaster, believe me. I just spoke to thirty-five clergy in San Diego and, boy, were they tough on the Republican party. 'They just use us. They trot us out every four years for presidential elections, but they don't include us in government. Well, if that's the way it is, we will take a walk.'"

"You have the country-clubbers re-emerging to take over the party and to produce candidates who don't relate to working-class conservatives. This is much more than a single issue like abortion. It's really a class issue.... George Bush has been decent to me, but the party operatives in the states look upon Bush's victory as a restoration of the pre- Reagan Republican party. These are the very people who gave Republicans the name of the 'rich man's party' and go around babbling about capital gains and stuff like that. They make cultural conservatives feel unwanted."

Having exploited the antiabortion movement for fifteen years, Republican strategists began backing away from it in 1989 when they discovered that the electoral benefits of the issue were abruptly reversed. Once the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court actually threatened to recriminalize abortion (and Republican gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia were torn up by the issue), the GOP rhetoric "hanged. The party that had for a decade imposed the antiabortion litmus test on both its candidates and all new federal judges suddenly announced that it was now a "big tent" -- open to diverse views on the subject. Having teased racial resentments in 1988 with Willie Horton, George Bush ended up signing the new civil rights bill in 1991. The religious right, already weakened by internal problems, began to feel orphaned.

While the social issues evoke the strongest emotions, the unnatural nature of the Republican coalition is exposed most clearly on the economic questions of government. In the abstract, the social conservatives have the same ideological disposition toward unfettered business enterprise and smaller government that is espoused by orthodox Republicans. In the practical terms of their own class interests, however, these voters are often on the opposite side from the Republican orthodoxy.

They distrust big business more than government. Tarrance found, for instance, that 85 percent of the populist voters in the Republican presidential electorate supported the labor- backed measure on plant closings -- a notification law that Democrats enacted over White House and business opposition. Among the Republican populists, 56 percent said they want more government loans for college students, not fewer. Paul Weyrich's legions come from more or less the same precincts in America as Lois Gibbs's grassroots environmentalists and they too are the victims of the unenforced federal laws on industrial safety or toxic pollution.

Notwithstanding their populist phrasemaking, most conservatives in Congress faithfully vote for the business position on these divisive issues and others. Republican politicians, for instance, talk endlessly about their devotion to protecting the family (and sometimes even describe Democrats as antifamily), but most of them voted against family rights and for corporate rights when the choice came down to that. The parental leave measure that Democrats pushed for working mothers and fathers was vetoed by Bush as an excessive intrusion on management practices; the profamily conservatives (including Paul Weyrich) limply went along with the business argument.

The deeper split in Republican ranks is about money. "Republicans didn't just suppress the conflict, they camouflaged it," political analyst Kevin Phillips said. "One of the great successes of Reaganomics was selling these things like tax cutting under a populist flag, as if everyone would benefit."

The character of Ronald Reagan -- particularly his videogenic skills -- was important in obscuring the corporate power in the GOP. "Reagan was critical," Weyrich said. "He did not strike social conservatives as being owned by those big business people. Reagan was 50 percent different from the old Republican party, he had elements of populism. Democrats never attacked Reagan on that. If I were them, I would have said, 'This guy may have come from a small town, but remember who owns him -- General Electric and all that.'"

Democrats, if they had the will, could still break up the Republican coalition, Weyrich believes, by defining a stark opposition to Republican economics -- in particular, on the trade issue and foreign competition, the continuing loss of American jobs and spreading foreign ownership of American real estate and companies. "Democrats can sound macho if they attack on that issue because it makes them sound like nationalists, but they don't seem to have it in them," Weyrich said.

The Democrats' reluctance is not simply a matter of will, of course, but of corporate political influence. In that regard, the Democratic elites and the Republican elites look very much alike. But the Republican party elites -- lawyers, lobbyists, corporate managements, fundraisers -- are even closer to the multinational corporations and foreign interests than the Democrats.

For that matter, social conservatives have themselves been quite timid about confronting the economic questions that matter greatly to their own people. Cultural conservatives have published various essays on the "social function of property" and endorsed the idea of increased health and safety regulation, but the leaders have not directly challenged the corporate agenda or its dominance of the Republican party. [9]

A profamily politics that is unwilling to challenge corporate politics is never going to amount to much, since business practices and prerogatives define so many elemental realities in everyday family life. The social conservatives have defined a cramped box for themselves: They are a faction that cares intensely about sex, religion and family (domains that government will always be loath to regulate), but they are unable to speak to the issues of wages, working conditions and job security (family matters on which the government does have the power to make a difference).

A conservative profamily critique of business, as Weyrich acknowledged, is also partly inhibited by money -- the funds that flow to right-wing organizations from corporate contributors. Notwithstanding its role as "populist" spokesman, Weyrich's organization, for instance, has received grants from Amoco, General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank and right-wing foundations like Olin and Bradley. Even the righteous voices of the right are constrained by financial dependency.

"We have to coexist with these people [the Republican fundraisers] because if they put out the word that you're not reliable, your contributors will go away," Weyrich said. "If those guys say Weyrich is a lunatic, they can cut off a portion of your funds."


When Lee Atwater was dying in 1991, he undertook a self-accounting and delivered a remarkable public report. "I committed myself to the Golden Rule," he wrote in Life magazine, ". . . and that meant coming to terms with some less than virtuous acts in my life." Atwater apologized to old adversaries, including Michael Dukakis, whom he had injured with his harshly negative style of politics. He expressed gratitude to old enemies, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, for the human comfort they extended in his hour of crisis.

Atwater's most touching regret, however, was about the spirit of the Republican era he had worked to create. "My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a little brotherhood," he wrote. "The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige, I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty."

"It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul." [10]

Vague misgivings about what the Republican hegemony has wrought were already spreading through circles of party activists before Atwater stated them so poignantly. Kevin Phillips produced a devastating delineation of who won and who lost from Republican economics in The Politics of Rich and Poor, a book that made the facts too clear to be easily denied.

The consequences of Republican rule seemed to be provoking a mild sense of guilt in the ruling party. The Heritage Foundation, source of so many right-wing legislative ideas, began to express an interest in designing social programs that might actually help people. Jack Kemp, former congressman and now HUD secretary, announced his department would conduct its own "war on poverty. " Policy staffers at the White House took up an old New Left theme from the 1960s -- "empowerment" -- and promoted it as the new slogan of thinking conservatives. Empowerment for whom? For the people!

These Republican expressions of solicitude for the losers Were touching in their own way, for they suggested a remarkable innocence about their own party and how it works. Despite a decade of contradictory evidence, many Republicans still liked to think of themselves as a party of ideas and ideology -- the place where robust intellectual debate among conscientious conservatives hammered out the program for governing.

Their egotistical presumption was that, now that the Republican party had completed the main business of straightening out the American economy, it would generously turn its attention to mopping up the casualties. From the evidence of the 1980s, this faith in conservative ideas is most naive. While the Reagan era celebrated conservatism and wore its maxims like political armor, the way the GOP actually governed suggested a quite different understanding of what motivates the party.

The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology. It is a party of conservative clients. Wherever possible, the ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the clients' needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative principles are discarded and the clients are served.

The most fundamental ideological contradiction of the era was the extraordinary explosion of federal deficits and debt during the Reagan years and continuing under George Bush. Nothing else conflicts more profoundly with conservative beliefs about government, for the GOP was always the party of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility (and indeed still limply claimed the mantle). Yet, twelve years after coming to power under Reagan, the supposedly conservative government produced an annual federal deficit of $390 billion.

When all of the fanciful economic argumentation is stripped away, the enormous deficits were provoked by the regressive tax cuts for business and wealthy individuals and by the rapid buildup in defense spending. Both of these actions served important clients in the Republican hierarchy, the defense industry and the wealth holders, and served them well.

Conservative anguish about the deficits was never sufficient to produce the painful action' of actually reducing them, for that would have required the Republican White House to sacrifice its own clients. A third alternative -- cutting Social Security and domestic social programs -- was more appealing to Republicans, but Democrats were defending those clients and, as budget director David Stockman learned to his sorrow, Republicans were never very serious about this possibility anyway. "I have a new theory," Stockman declared bitterly in 1981. "There are no real conservatives in Congress." [11]

Conservative ideology opposes federal regulation of private enterprise, and the Reagan era advanced the cause of deregulation on many fronts -- mostly by making irregular deals with specific industries that amounted to de facto decisions not to enforce the law. Nevertheless, in case after case, when industries pleaded for new federal regulation as a way of preempting meddlesome state governments, the conservative government swung around to the other side and decided in favor of federal regulation.

The true loyalties of the Republican regime were demonstrated most vividly in the continuing series of financial crises. When the small farm banks in the Midwest began to fail in greater numbers in the early 1980s, the Republican administrators articulated a laissez-faire response: Let the marketplace work its will, however painful. But when Continental Illinois, eighth-largest bank in the nation, failed in 1984, the same Republicans agreed that this bank was "too big to fail," and they came to its rescue with a multi-billion- dollar bailout. Subsequently, in case after case, the largest banks in Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere were saved from failure and their largest depositors were protected from loss, while smaller institutions were allowed to disappear.

When some of the largest commercial banks in the nation (fine old Republican names like Chase Manhattan 'and Citibank) were threatened with insolvency, George Bush's White House urged federal bank regulators to bend the rules, and its domestic agenda was preoccupied with enhancing the profitability of banks. When the big money is in trouble, the Republican party finds itself acting like a compassionate liberal.

The Republican governance, in sum, could not be described as conservative in any historical sense of the word. Taken all together, the Republican policies more nearly resembled a right-wing version of the New Deal-intervening massively on behalf of worthy clients. In practical affairs, the government functioned according to principles that were closer to the liberal government of Franklin Roosevelt than to conservative creeds espoused by Robert A. Taft or Barry Goldwater. The difference with FDR's New Deal was, of course, fundamental: The modern Republicans intervened, not on behalf of struggling labor unions or distressed sharecroppers or the destitute elderly, but in order to assist the most powerful enterprises in the economy.

To understand the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter), it is most efficient to look directly at the clients -- or as political scientist Thomas Ferguson would call them, "the major investors." On that level, the ideological contradictions are unimportant. Political parties do function as mediating institutions, only not for voters.

Ferguson, a University of Massachusetts professor, analyzes political parties by identifying the major sources of their financing-the individuals from finance and industry who naturally have the greatest stake in influencing government decisions. "The real market for political parties," Ferguson says, "is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state.... Blocs of major investors define the core of political parties and are responsible for most of the signals the party sends to the electorate." [12]

Thus, in terms of governance, the most meaningful (and interesting) action of American politics is the continuing flow of rivalries and agreements among the contending power blocs in the private economy, not the shifting allegiances among groups of voters.

The Reagan-Bush governance, in Ferguson's portraiture, has been a running contest between two blocs of business interests with very different objectives in government policy. The "protectionists" are centered in old industries, textiles and steel for instance, that are traditionally Republican and anxious for help in the domestic markets. The "multinationals" are manufacturers and bankers as well as exporters, high-tech firms, oil companies, defense manufacturers -- all interested in an aggressive global policy.

The list alone makes it clear which group has more girth and political power, but the Republican regime attempted to serve both blocs, when there was no irreconcilable conflict between them. "In effect," Ferguson wrote, "the Reagan economic coalition always had a huge seam running down its middle ... the 'Reagan Revolution' was a giant banner under which two columns marched in different directions." [13]

For the Republican old guard in heavy industry, the party in power mainly provided temporary relief from long-standing aggravations -- relief from imports, from organized labor, from government regulation and, of course, from federal taxes. The severe recession of the early Reagan years was devastating to manufacturing, but it also smashed labor unions and provided the opportunity for corporate restructurings, free of restraints from the workers. By 1985, the Reagan administration focused its diplomatic energies on driving down the dollar's foreign-exchange rate and, thus, launched an export boom for the domestic manufacturers -- just in time for the 1988 election.

For the multinationals, from Boeing and Citibank to Exxon and General Electric, the political goals were much more substantial and even historic -- maintaining America's role as manager (and occasionally enforcer) in the emerging global trading system anchored also in Japan and Germany. Dating from the New Deal era, multinational corporations and investment banks had once been aligned with the Democratic party, then the party of free trade. In Ferguson's telling, American politics got interesting in the 1970s when the multinationals shifted their allegiance to the GOP.

They have been well served by the new alliance. The U.S. buildup of armaments, which they had promoted, would be a significant token of leadership resolve to the competitor nations who were also allies (as well as an abundant source of contracts for the defense companies). The multinational financial institutions, banks and brokerages, benefited enormously from the rising dollar -- and even from. the accumulating deficits -- because both produced expanded financial activity as the bankers recycled U.S. debt to Japanese lenders. The Third World debt crisis, though it threatened the overexposed banks, became an opportunity for the U.S. government to beat down the resistance in the developing countries to American ownership and deregulated economies.

While the Republican government extended trade protection to some of the old-line industrial sectors, its main energies were devoted to the multinationals -- defending and extending their prerogatives in the global trading system. The close working relationships the Reagan and Bush administration formed with Japan and Germany were integral to this objective -- their governments wanted much the same outcome. But the U.S. strategy gradually turned into dependency, as America's financial position weakened and the nation became indebted to its economic competitors.

Quite apart from the economic injury done to individual classes of citizens, Republican governing -- by and for the "major investors" -- has not led to the general prosperity and economic stability described in the conservative rhetoric. On the contrary, while each influential sector gets what it wants, the economy overall has sunk deeper into debt and failures, dependency and competitive disadvantage.

In other words, what Lowi called "interest-group liberalism" has been transformed by Republicans into what might be called "interest-group conservatism." From labor law to financial regulation, conservatives use the governmental forms invented by liberal reformers to serve their own client interests. Liberals have difficulty coming to grips with this since the economic interventions on behalf of selected sectors or enterprises are consistent with their own governing philosophy.

The deleterious effects are visible for the nation as a whole. The short-run demands of elite interests do not add up to a workable scheme for governing the economy on behalf of the nation's long-term well-being. The powerful win their narrow victories; the country loses. So long as this system is the core of how the government decides the most important questions, ordinary citizens will find ample justification for their discontent.

Organized money versus organized people -- the only way to break out of this governing system is, again, to imagine a democratic renewal that brings people back into the contest. Thomas Ferguson, though quite pessimistic about the prospects, described the outlines of the solution:

"To effectively control governments, ordinary voters require strong channels that directly facilitate mass deliberation and expression. That is, they must have available to them a resilient network of 'secondary' organizations capable of spreading costs and concentrating small contributions from several individuals to act politically, as well as an open system of formally organized political parties.

"Both the parties and the secondary organizations need to be 'independent,' i.e., themselves dominated by investor-voters (instead of, for example, donors of revokable outside funds). Entry barriers for both secondary organizations and political parties must be low, and the technology of political campaigning (e.g., cost of newspaper space, pamphlets, etc.) must be inexpensive in terms of the annual income of the average voter. Such conditions result in high information flows to the grassroots, engender lively debate and create conditions that make political deliberation and action part of everyday life."

Those "conditions" for effective citizen control of government are what is missing from both political parties and from American democracy. So long as citizens remain unorganized, they will be prey to clever manipulation by mass marketing. So long as people must rely on empty TV images for their connection to politics, then, as Ferguson concluded, nothing can "prevent a tiny minority of the population -- major investors -- from dominating the political system."
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:48 am


If the political parties were real and functioned reliably on behalf of people, then the news media would matter much less in politics. But the distinctive quality of our contemporary political landscape, as everyone recognizes, is the rising influence of the press and television as principal gatekeepers for the dialogues of political debate. What matters to the press matters perforce to politicians. What the press ignores, the politicians may safely ignore too. What the newspapers tell people, whether it is true or false or cockeyed, is what everyone else must react to, since alternative channels of political information are now weak or nonexistent for most Americans.

The power of the press is another source of popular discontent, since these private corporate organizations seem to have an unchecked influence over the direction of public affairs. The glare of media can wrench politics this way or that, from trivial distractions to important exposes, but politicians and many citizens resent the arbitrariness of the choices. Who elected the reporters and editors? Why should they be able to set the political agenda according to their own peculiar tastes and interests?

That familiar complaint is not the heart of the matter, however. The press has always served American democracy as an important and controversial mediating voice for citizens, a corrective mechanism that both speaks to power and sometimes checks its abuses. What may really distress citizens in contemporary politics is that, for all the clamor of the news, the mechanism is not functioning, at least not for people distant from power.

Like the other primary political institutions, the press has lost viable connections to its own readers and grown more distant from them. Because of this, it speaks less reliably on their behalf. As an institution, the media have gravitated toward elite interests and converged with those powerful few who already dominate politics. People sense this about the news, even if they are unable to describe how it happened or why they feel so alienated from the newspapers that purport to speak for them.

This chapter sets out to explain the deeper economic and social forces that caused this to happen. The story is a kind of illustrated tour of how the rich, contentious variety of the free press has been transformed into a voice of dull sameness, a voice that speaks in narrow alignment with the governing authorities more often than it does in popular opposition. In its own way, the press has also failed its responsibility to democracy.


The city room of the Cincinnati Post, where I worked as a young reporter a generation ago, was a comfortably chaotic place, with the desks jammed together in clusters and stacked with piles of old newspapers. In some ways, it resembled an industrial space more than a business office, for pneumatic tubes and piping were exposed overhead and the wooden floors were swept and wet-mopped like a shop floor. People worked in shirtsleeves and the large windows along one wall were always open in summer since the building was not air-conditioned. The Post's composing room was adjacent to the editorial department, a few steps away through an open portal, and the heat and hot metal fumes from the printers' typecasting machinery sometimes drifted into the newsroom.

The reporters were mostly Irish, German Catholic or Jewish, Cincinnati's leading ethnic groups, with names like Halloran, Rawe, Hirtl, Feldman and Segal. There were also a few "country boys" from across the river in Kentucky. These reporters affected the wisecracking irreverence expected in newspapering (and a few were closet alcoholics), but most were churchgoing, family men.

They were smart and resourceful in their work and their quickness was regularly tested by the newspaper's relentless deadlines -- eight editions each day, starting early in the morning and running until the "stocks/racing final" in late afternoon. A fire department bell in the comer sounded the fire alarms for the entire city and someone on the city desk would count the bells to determine the location.

Few of these reporters (or their editors, for that matter) had been to college; it was unnecessary for newspaper work in those days. They typically started as "copy boys" and relied on their own wit and common sense to become "journeymen." They also knew quite a lot about Cincinnati, Ohio. Most had grown up there and some remained in the neighborhoods and parishes of their childhood. There was no social distance between the newsroom employees and the Post's printers and pressmen -- they were all working class. Some printers and reporters drank together or went to the same churches. Some reporters and editors had cousins or brothers working in the back shop.

Two decades later, I was working in a very different newsroom on a much larger newspaper in a more important city. This city room was furnished with endless carpeting and sleek lines of color-coded desks, potted plants and glass-box offices, climate-controlled air and computers. The newsroom at The Washington Post might have passed for an insurance office or the trading room of a Wall Street brokerage. But it was different, above all, because it was staffed with a different class of people. The reporters and editors at The Washington Post, with few exceptions, were college graduates and many (like myself) had graduated from the most prestigious Ivy League universities -- Harvard, Yale and even Princeton. Some held graduate degrees in law, economics or journalism.

Reporters at The Washington Post spoke -- and could report and write -- with a worldly sophistication that would have benumbed (and probably intimidated) the old hands I had known briefly at the Cincinnati Post. These educated reporters were "smarter," but only in the sense of knowing many more things about the world, more "serious" only in that chasing fires was no longer what mattered to newspapers. In culture and incomes, The Washington Post reporters were securely middle class and above, well read and well paid. They did not know any of the printers or pressmen who worked downstairs, much less socialize with them. Some had only the dimmest notion of how their own newspaper was produced each night.

The contrast I am making between these two experiences provides a metaphor for what happened generally to the press over the last thirty years. In the broad sweep of the last generation, educated young "journalists" displaced the quick-witted working-class kids who had merely been "reporters." A trade that had once been easily accessible to the talented people who lacked social status or higher education was converted into a profession. This did not happen only at top-rank newspapers like The Washington Post, but generally throughout the news media, even at the smallest small-town dailies. Journalism became a credentialed discipline that spawned its own educational system and categories of specialization and, eventually, its own celebrity.

What happened in newspaper city rooms -- the upward mobility that transferred the work from one class to another -- was not so different from what happened in some other fields over the last several decades, except that the political implications are more profound. The press is a commercial enterprise, but its function is integral to the political life of every community and, ultimately, to the nation's politics.

As a young reporter, without knowing it at the time, I was glimpsing the end of something important in American public life and the beginning of a broad social transformation, in which I would be a minor participant. Because I was personally involved, readers will recognize that it is especially difficult for me to be objective on the subject of the media. But I am describing the outlines of the transformation, not to indulge nostalgia for my own youthful experiences, but to try to explain what it is about the modern media that so regularly disappoints citizens -- and to get at why the press, for all of its accumulated sophistication, falls short in its own responsibility to democracy.

The truth is that the Cincinnati Post of the 1950s was not a very good newspaper, especially by latter-day standards. In my youthful enthusiasm, I would have strenuously denied this at the time; I worked there two summers during college as a "vacation replacement" (before the loftier term, "intern," had been invented) and was enthralled by the place. As a newspaper, nonetheless, the Post was parochial and shallow, with a short attention span and a charming randomness in its coverage. Its front page was dominated by the "breaking news" of violent crimes or large calamities -- industrial fires and plane crashes. It specialized in stories of impish surprise -- little bits of human comedy that had no larger purpose than to startle or amuse or warm the heart. Except for war and major earthquakes, it did not care greatly about the rest of the world.

The Post was imbued with an uncritical hometown pride and obsessed with establishing a "local angle" to the news, however tenuous. When the Andrea Doria sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1956, an enterprising rewrite man managed to interview several of the rescued survivors by ship-to-shore telephone (an amazing feat of technology, we thought then). Since these people were Cincinnatians, the Post's banner headline smugly proclaimed that the sinking of the Andrea Doria was actually a Queen City story.

For all its shortcomings, the Cincinnati Post had one great redeeming quality. Like its reporters, the newspaper was frankly and relentlessly "of the people" and it practiced a journalism of honest indignation on behalf of their political grievances. Some of these were pedestrian complaints and some were quite shocking abuses of public office. But there was never any doubt in the tone and style of the Cincinnati Post that it meant to speak for a certain segment of Cincinnatians -- mainly those who did not have much status or power themselves. When the Post took up their cause on some matter, it would hammer on it day after day, story after story, until someone in authority responded.

This focus came naturally to the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Along with Hearst, Pulitzer and a few others, E. W. Scripps had invented the format for the working people's newspaper at the turn of the century. The "penny press" was cheap and sensational but also served as an implacable civic troublemaker. The Scripps-Howard lighthouse insignia still proclaims a resonant credo for democracy: "Give light and the people will find their own way."

In Cincinnati, the Post's daring investigative reporting early in the century broke up the old Republican machine. The newspaper has championed reforms of municipal government that endure. In a town that is naturally conservative and Republican, the Post was liberal- Labor and mildly Democratic, though it mainly saw itself as a reform-minded watchdog. When one reporter nervily asked the managing editor about his own party affiliation, he replied: ''I'm a Democrat when the Republicans are in and a Republican when the Democrats are in."

Like other institutions of that era, the newspaper reflected the sensibilities and biases of its audience. The Post spoke up for civil rights long before racial equality became a national cause, but there were no black reporters in the city room and there was not much coverage of the black community either. Women were mostly confined to the women's pages or took the role of "sob sister," writing syrupy prose about the bleeding-heart side of the news. The newspaper was seldom critical of the police because the reporters and photographers were very close to the police. It wasn't just that the cops fixed their parking tickets: In the larger scheme of things, policemen were on the same side as the reporters. They were working class too and some of the cops were relatives.

The Cincinnati Post's various qualities made an especially strong impression on me, I suppose, because I came to its city room from the other side of town-the comfortable Republican suburbs of managers and professionals -- where families invariably read the Times-Star, the Taft family newspaper, which was reliably Republican and conservative in its perspective. During my summers at the Post, I was given a brisk, egalitarian education in social reality -- the human dimensions of a city that I hardly knew existed. Where I grew up, labor unions were the dull-witted behemoths who were destroying the American economy; now I was working among engaging, clever union people who routinely volunteered as generous instructors in their craft. As readers may infer, the Cincinnati Post taught me things as deep and lasting as what I learned during the school year at a prestigious eastern university.

As the city room's most junior reporter (still called a "cub" in that day), I was frequently sent out on the nastiest, least desirable assignments -- bloody accidents or second-rate homicides -- and, for the first time, I saw the grimmer precincts of the Queen City, white and black. My political education involved not only encountering the fetid slums and poverty, but also coming to terms with the passivity and powerlessness among the people who lived there. I was sent out to do stories on obscure neighborhoods with no other purpose than to demonstrate that the Post cared about them.

In other words, the Cincinnati Post, like many other similar newspapers in other cities, deliberately cast itself as a representative voice. In imperfect fashion, it functioned as an important strand in the community's web of political accountability, alongside political parties, unions and civic associations. It unabashedly identified with the people who were least likely to be heard on public issues and those citizens were invited to identify with it.

Most of those working people's newspapers are gone now, eliminated by the forces of a shrinking marketplace. The daily newspapers that were closed during the last thirty years were mostly afternoon papers, the ones tailored to blue-collar folks who went to work too early in the morning to read an A.M. newspaper. The afternoon papers that remain, like the Cincinnati Post and many other Scripps-Howard and Hearst papers, are mostly bland shadows of their former selves, shrinking and struggling. A once robust political voice has been reduced to a grumpily conservative sigh of resentment.

What was lost was the singular angle of vision. Newspapers do still take up for the underdog, of course, and investigate public abuses, but very few surviving papers will consciously assume a working-class voice and political perspective (the Philadelphia Daily News is an outstanding exception). The newspapers that have endured and flourished, often as monopolies, were mostly morning papers and they moved further upscale, both in their readership and in their content, responding to the demographics of the market. Their reporters all went to college.

It wasn't the college kids, of course, who did in the old newspapers but the revolution in communications technology, led by the brilliant glow of television, which decimated the loyalty of their readers. The revolution isn't over yet. Daily newspapers of every size and kind continue to struggle with the erosion of their audiences and many will continue to fail.

The consolidation of newspapers promoted blandness and social distance. As the shrinkage eliminated the peculiar and distinctive voices, the remaining papers naturally tried to incorporate abandoned readers into their own circulations. Cities that once read staunch Republican and Democratic newspapers and perhaps one or two others are now confined to one or two papers that politely try to speak for everyone.

Trying to hold the mass audience's loyalty, newspaper editors have retreated from identifying with any single part of their readership -- especially the lower classes where reader attrition is greatest. This strategy has not been especially successful in halting their decline. But newspapers have adopted an angle of vision that presumes an idyllic class-free community -- a city where everyone has more or less the same point of view on things.

The working people who made up the audience for old newspapers like the Cincinnati Post -- who felt represented by them -- disappeared into the mass audience. Their own presence in the community (and in politics) became less distinct (and less powerful). Some argue conveniently that economic progress and social change simply eliminated the working-class perspective, even among union members. These people, it is supposed, all moved to the suburbs and became middle class and even Republican.

Many of them, it is true, did move to the suburbs, and the social forces that eroded the solidarity of labor unions or urban political machines also undercut the loyalties of newspaper readers. But, in stark economic terms, this class of citizens still exists, though socially fragmented. Their political grievances have not changed; their injuries, as we have seen, have grown larger. Yet they are now less visible to others and underrepresented in the public debate. Roughly speaking, they are the same people whom I have described at various places in this book as the politically orphaned.


If Hearst and E. W. Scripps invented the old newspaper format that is dying out, it is only slight exaggeration to suggest that Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, invented the new format that succeeded them. Other editors and other newspapers, of course, also found innovative ways to connect with the changing newspaper audience, but none more brilliantly and successfully than Bradlee at the Post. As it happened, I was also working in that city room when the most interesting changes occurred.

Television had stolen not only immediacy from newspapers but also the hot emotional content of the news. Newspaper reporters might still write melodramatic "sob sister" prose intended to evoke the pathos of violin music (I wrote many such stories myself), but nothing in print was ever going to match the TV camera's close-up of the grieving widow or the "film at eleven" of burning factories and dead bodies. Heartbreak and violence now belonged to video; the newspapers would have to find something else to sell.

Editors like Bradlee (and publishers like the Post's Katharine Graham) perceived that the future belonged to quality -- depth and national scope and intelligence -- combined with provocative new forms of surprise. While many other papers were trimming back in the 1960s to cope with shrinking readership, The Washington Post went aggressively the other way, expanding and deepening its editorial staff, adding new categories of specialists and talented generalists. Publishers who made the same strategic choice -- the Knight-Ridder newspapers, for example -- generally survived the shrinkage and flourished.

The changing economics of newspaper audiences was a perfect fit with the coincident rise of the credentialed journalists, The first wave of the new generation, of which I was a part, was more escapist than political -- well-educated, middle-class young people who were, somewhat irresponsibly, attracted to the fun of newspapers. At least that was my impression. Many of us were trying to elude the predictability of our own upbringing -- the grayness of law school or business careers -- and we escaped it in the luxurious variety and informality of newspaper life. In the conformity of the 1950s, the city room seemed a small retreat where minor eccentricities were still tolerated. A reporter would be poorly paid but, as I used to joke, you did not have to wear a hat or carry a briefcase.

Not so many years later, we realized with bemusement that we were now very well paid anyway -- upwardly mobile in spite of ourselves -- and some reporters even started carrying briefcases (though no one by then was wearing hats). The subsequent waves of well-educated young people coming into journalism seemed more purposeful and serious than we had been, even vaguely political in their intentions. By then, the unschooled Irish kids were mostly gone from newsrooms and bright, young graduates, even from the Ivy League, gravitated to careers in the news• media. It seemed the place where one could "make a difference," as the more earnest ones explained.

By their nature, most of these new journalists were more liberal than those they had displaced, at least in social outlook. Certainly, they were more cosmopolitan and less religious, more tolerant of the unfamiliar and experimental. But they were not necessarily more skeptical of power than the reporters I had known in Cincinnati.
They were probably more comfortable dealing with people in authority, given their own backgrounds, but not necessarily more critical. Nor were the new reporters necessarily more liberal on the bedrock economic questions of work and incomes than the working-class reporters they had replaced. Like most people, for better or worse, they innocently reflected the sensibilities and biases of their own origins.

This exchange of classes is reflected, inevitably, in the content of the news, and I have always thought it is a central element feeding the collective public resentment that surrounds the news media. People sense the difference, even if they cannot identify it. Conservative critics usually call it a "liberal bias" in the press, but I think it may be more accurately understood as social distance. The new reporters know much more about many things, but many of them do not grasp the social reality those old hands in Cincinnati understood.

Under Bradlee, The Washington Post succeeded simultaneously on two levels. It became celebrated and influential for its elite status as the provocative newspaper of the nation's capital. But the Post prospered in commercial terms because it also connected with its local audience more effectively than any other major newspaper. The Post's daily circulation reaches 51 percent of the metropolitan area's households (70 percent on Sunday). If that does not sound very impressive, it is the highest penetration rate in the country among major metropolitan dailies. In part, this success is a function of the city's demographics: The Washington area has not only the highest average income in the country, but also the highest level of educational attainment (even so, the Post's penetration rate has also declined slightly, despite its virtual monopoly).

The Post's strategy for developing loyal readers is as low-brow as the huge quantity of comics it prints every morning and as urbane as the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic. In effect, everyone gets something somewhere in the sprawling newspaper, something that will keep him or her coming back. This balancing act is complicated by geography: The Post's readership area includes not just the predominantly black District of Columbia, but affluent suburbs in two states, Maryland and Virginia. On any given day, white Virginia suburbanites grumble that the Post is preoccupied with blacks in the inner city, while black people in D.C. neighborhoods complain that their communities are ignored. The Post searches constantly for the center ground, but there is no center that can bridge the deeper racial and economic conflicts.

As a result, the newspaper never gets too close to anyone beyond the elite circles connected to the federal government. This distance is reflected in many dimensions, but most clearly in the sociological tone and perspective of the reporting. When The Washington Post examines a matter of community distress, overcrowded prisons, drug violence or suburban overdevelopment, it deploys impressive resources and its method of pursuit will be thorough and cool. In college, its reporters studied sociology, political science and economics, and they are comfortable with academic techniques of inquiry.

The one thing they cannot do is express the honest outrage of a situation. They cannot speak in a human voice that is identifiably "of the people" whom they are writing about. With so many disparate audiences to serve, they are implicitly prohibited from embracing anyone's complaint as their own. They are very strong on digging out the facts, but weak on the intangible dimensions of the human comedy. The Post's angle of vision, reflected in its language and style, resembles a hip social-science professor's -- a fast-moving kind of pop sociology that, seems to look downward on its subject matter.

The distancing techniques that dull local coverage apply in a quite different way to the Post's celebrated existence as a "national" newspaper. In the 1950s and before, the Post had been a predictably faithful tribune of the liberal Democratic establishment and its causes (and a rather shoddy newspaper in other respects). Starting in the mid-1960s, Bradlee instilled an educated sense of irreverence toward power -- an impish, occasionally reckless disregard for the political establishment and its expectation of what properly belonged in the capital's morning newspaper. Bradlee reinvented surprise, in a playfully sophisticated form.

The surprise became part of each morning's expectation: What rules of news might the Post violate next? What powerful institution would it offend? The paper could not match the authority of The New York Times or the thoroughness of its coverage, but it could win attention by occasionally breaking eggs -- cocking a thumb at some sacrosanct institution like the FBI director or the CIA, tweaking fraudulent celebrities or exposing the shadowy power brokers of Washington politics.

While the Post never abandoned the traditional formats of news and news writing, it regularly ignored them. The dull, repetitious voice of "objectivity" gave way occasionally to the evocative and reflective. The narrow agenda of orthodox news stories was frequently interrupted by stories of imaginative insight that cut across familiar subjects in deeper, more original ways. Power was examined, needled and sometimes accused with the brash authority claimed by the paper's well-educated reporters.

Bradlee's own personal chemistry was the primary inspiration, but it would have been out of character for him to articulate any grand principles. By birth and education, Bradlee held inherited status among the most prestigious elites. He was a Harvard classics major and a close friend of President John F. Kennedy. Yet, for whatever reason, he was also viscerally contemptuous of high-born pretensions and poseurs of official privilege. He talked, not like the son of a New England Brahmin, but in the blunt, profane language that had always been the masculine voice of the newsroom.

In that sense, Bradlee's approach -- at least his crude delight in provoking self-important figures -- kept alive the earthy skepticism of the old working-class city room. It also helped, of course, that during this period the nation itself was in turmoil-alive with political and cultural rebellion against the status quo. New voices of dissent were clamoring to be heard and the Post opened its pages to them.

For reporters, Bradlee's city room was an exhilarating (and occasionally harrowing) place to work, highly competitive and opportunistic, without many clear boundaries on what might be acceptable except the ancient rules of newspapers: Get it first, get it right. A French business sociologist who studied the place concluded that Bradlee's management technique was to encourage an "entrepreneurial mode of action," full of risk and adventure, the possibility of glory and also shame. The Post's city room functioned, Jean G. Padioleau wrote, "closer to a free-jazz orchestra than to a military band." That is how I remember it too. [1]

The results were necessarily uneven, fluctuating between the silly and the profound, but the overall effect was a newspaper as exciting, in its own way, as a five-alarm fire. In time, we assumed, the brilliant qualities would drive out the embarrassing ones and the result would be a free-standing newspaper that was both more meaningful to readers and critically inquiring of the powerful. Some of us -- the educated journalists -- earnestly imagined that Bradlee, in his casual manner, was reinventing the meaning of "news."

The apogee of invention was, of course, Watergate, the scandal in which a newspaper brought down a president. The two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, perfectly reflected Bradlee's own contradictory sensibilities -- the coarse, nervy side and the intellectual sophistication -- and they acted out the combination brilliantly in their own reporting. Indeed, Woodward and Bernstein even embodied the two newspapering traditions; One was a Yale graduate from Republican suburbia, the other came from a labor family and started his career as a "copy boy."

Watergate, in addition to its other meanings, became a statement about political power; a thunder-and-lightning announcement that the news media had claimed a new place among the governing elites. The Post's Watergate triumph (and Bradlee's other innovations) spawned a thousand imitators and changed political relationships everywhere. Watergate also, ironically, became the high-water mark for Bradlee's provocative form of newspapering -- the beginning of the Post's retreat to a safer tradition.

Institutions of every kind inevitably mature and level off, especially after bursts of invention and growth, and that was part of what happened to The Washington Post, a natural settling down after the excitement. But the Watergate episode accelerated the process because it conferred greater authority on the Post -- people took it much more seriously after Watergate -- and the newspaper responded, somewhat uneasily, to this new responsibility by taking itself more seriously.

The extreme highs and lows were gradually modulated. The engaging unpredictability of its front page gave way, in time, to a more earnest and orthodox catalogue of news stories, resembling the authoritative gradations that were made each day by the front page of The New York Times. The newspaper gradually became better managed and inevitably more bureaucratic -- more thorough and deliberate in its coverage of important news, but also less adventurous and independent, less surprising and less profound.

After Watergate, the Post's newly established political influence also came under intense attack from other power centers. Though the Post had never been as liberal as its reputation, especially on its editorial pages, a concerted campaign of propaganda and criticism was mounted from the right and corporate interests, portraying the newspaper and its reporters as the nerve center for left-wing manipulation of politics. The Post, it was said, was on the side of social unrest and disorder. Competing elements among the governing elites found opportunities to pay back the newspaper for past injuries.

In effect, The Washington Post became the most visible symbol of the media's new political power and the logical target for complaints about the arrogance and recklessness of unaccountable reporters. Starting with Spiro Agnew, the theme became a staple in politics, as politicians learned how to tap into public resentment of press and television. Since everyone sensed the media's new power, everyone enjoyed the role reversal.

The propaganda attacks alone might not have made much impact on the Post's self- confidence -- Bradlee, after all, lived for controversy -- but a series of events seemed to confirm the thrust of the criticism. One was a tendentious multi-million-dollar libel suit brought by the president of Mobil Oil, who lost in the end but managed to damage the newspaper's name in the process -- and force it to spend millions in legal bills. The prosperous Washington Post could shrug off that kind of expense, but the message to editors at large was intimidating: If you mess with major corporations and their executives, it may cost you millions of dollars, even when your facts are right.

A second event hit closer to home and was much more embarrassing to the Post -- the discovery that one of its reporters had won the Pulitzer Prize based on a story that was totally fabricated. The episode could plausibly be traced to the "entrepreneurial mode of action" that Bradlee had fostered in the newsroom or, as outsiders said, to the Post's hubris. In any case, the incident led to internal reform and stronger management controls over the news.

One other event pushed the Post further toward caution -- the demise of its local competition. When the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Post became a virtual monopoly as a commercial venture. This is a commonplace occurrence in the newspaper business, but it was especially unsettling in the nation's capital. Like business monopolies in any other sector, a newspaper's monopoly both reduces the need for aggressiveness and increases the premium on agreeability. Any business that sits securely astride its marketplace, unthreatened by competitors, will naturally take fewer risks. A responsible newspaper, aware that there are no other voices to counter and contradict its own version of the truth, will usually lower its own voice. [2]

That is what happened to The Washington Post and, indeed, what has occurred generally through the press as more papers closed across the country. On many days now, the "free- jazz orchestra" sounds more like a "military band" that plays "ruffles and flourishes" to important personages and events. The newspaper's distinctiveness has waned. Its insightful forays and provocative examinations of governing institutions are quite rare. As a powerful institution, the Post became "responsible."

In effect, it made peace with power -- the rival elites in both government and business. Both of those realms are occasionally still stirred to anger by something the newspaper does, but the Post has become a much more reliable partner in the governing constellation. Its reporters routinely defer to authority by accepting the official versions of what is true instead of always making trouble. If the government reports that financial disorders are a manageable problem, reporters do not question the assertion. If the government reports the economy is recovering smartly from recession and bankruptcies, that claim becomes the headline.

In the longer view of things, the pattern of consolidation and retreat at The Washington Post is visible throughout the media and for roughly similar reasons. A monopoly enterprise typically uses its political clout, not to challenge authority, but to protect its monopoly. That is how the newspaper industry behaves as it faces the continuing erosion of readership and new competition for advertising revenue from high-tech alternatives. The press uses its political influence to maintain protective barriers. Its political alignments are compatible with its upscale readers and well-educated staff, but also with its own economic priorities.

The Washington Post's preeminent status is beyond challenge. The Post is a well-made and very profitable newspaper, rich in content for every segment of its audience. It prospers and exerts its political influence in conventional ways, not very different from other elite newspapers in other times. Ben Bradlee's inventive city room, which had seemed to promise something different, looked in hindsight like a brief, splendid aberration.


When a newly elected member of Congress comes to town, the first thing he or she discovers is that being a member of Congress is no big deal in Washington. There are 435 of them, plus 100 senators, and many will come and go without ever seeing their picture or their opinions in the major media that matter to the nation's capital. The ambitious ones quickly grasp that the power of the press is the power to make them visible in the crowd.

In the higher realms of politics, the media act as gatekeepers for the political debate. To some extent, this prerogative has always belonged to the press, but its power has been greatly magnified by the shrinkage of competing outlets, the modern mode of information- driven politics and the decline of other mediating voices. Everyone in politics turns to the press, if only to manipulate it or deflect it.

In this milieu, even second-string reporters and editors cannot escape feeling powerful because they are constantly approached, beseeched, inundated with appeals for their attention. The most conscientious reporters cannot possibly digest all of the story ideas and information dumped on them, much less write about them. So they are stuck with the burden of choosing.

In theory, this still ought to produce a rich diversity. Even after newspaper consolidation, there is still a multiplicity of potential outlets for ideas and opinions, both in press and in broadcasting. There is little diversity, however, among the most influential media, many of which rely on the same tired experts for analyses. The range of debate on foreign policy, for instance, often seems bounded by Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara, two ostensibly divided "elder statesmen" who largely agree with each other on the big questions of war and peace. The cranky edge of dissent is missing.

A media watchdog group called FAIR analyzed the guest lists of authoritative figures invited to appear on ABC's Nightline and PBS's MacNeill Lehrer NewsHour and found the circle largely confined to white males of the credentialed establishment. Even supposed critics were usually drawn from within the safe bounds of elite opinion. A similar study of most newspaper editorial pages -- or of the sources on whom most reporters rely -- would likely produce similar results. [3]

In general, this is because the major media incline themselves toward power -- the people and institutions that already hold power or at least seem to be connected to it. The media mainly rely on their judgment of what is important and relevant. Redundancy is much safer than throwing things open to a wild diversity of facts and opinions; it enhances the media's own standing within governing circles and protects them from disfavor.

The sponsored research at Washington think tanks has become a principal source for the ideas that reporters judge to be newsworthy and for the packaged opinions from "experts" that reporters dutifully quote on every current subject. David Ignatius, former editor of "Outlook," The Washington Post's Sunday opinion section, wrote: "It often seems that these large and well-endowed organizations exist for the sole purpose of providing articles for opinion sections and op-ed pages." That, of course, is precisely why they exist.

"I will confess here to a dangerous vice," the Post editor declared. "I like think tanks, and mainly for one simple reason: their members know how to play the game, that is, they know how to be provocative, they can write quickly under deadline pressure and they don't mind being heavily edited." Ignatius mentioned as his favorite sources of opinion the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute. Except for Carnegie, all of these organizations are financed by major banks and corporations as their self-interested and tax-deductible contribution to the democratic debate. [4]

The influence of the think tanks is quite profound. Over time, they have shaped the very language and thought patterns of the media. "Special interests," a term that used to refer to concentrated economic power, utilities or railroads, the steel industry or banking, now refers to schoolteachers, women, racial minorities, homosexuals and similar groups. Frequent commentaries are devoted to describing the privileged position of those groups in American politics.

The sponsored scholars also connect comfortably with the reporters' own intellectual framework -- the ostensible rationality and objectivity of disinterested statistics and abstract argumentation. The press reports everything from electoral politics to environmental protection in the garb of objective academic inquiry. The stories of real people, while often told in compelling detail, are treated as interesting "anecdotes" rather than hard evidence of political failure. When they wish to know what the public thinks, the media usually turn to opinion polling, a measuring device that is also distancing because it reduces public opinion to an impersonal commodity. When the results are in, various influentials are invited to debate what the polling statistics mean.

Modern organizational patterns have made the media less accountable to anyone. A reporter's accountability, to the extent it exists, is largely to his or her professional peers and employer, but also to the authorities who are the sources of news. Within that narrow framework, there is an intense and continuous competition to win the regard of one's rivals and one's sources. The goal is to be first in a very refined sense -- to discover the new facts or ideas that will be the leading edge of changing opinion among the elite groups, to see the new "political trend" just before it becomes conventional wisdom. This competition is largely invisible and meaningless to the audience, but is a central motivation among Washington news people, for it gives them a palpable sense of their own power.

Being first confers a rewarding sense of influencing larger events. Being wrong threatens one's standing in the prestige circle. The news contest, thus, inhibits and ultimately limits diversity, because taking risks means accepting the likelihood of sometimes being different and sometimes being wrong. In the Washington milieu, a self-respecting reporter wishes to be first occasionally, but never to be alone for very long.

This reflex guarantees that most reporters (and editors) are always bunched closely together, searching for glory in small, incremental victories. It also explains why certain ideas and subjects suddenly become "hot" and sweep through the media -- cover stories, special features, a blizzard of comment from the columnists -- then disappear, as the conventional wisdom moves on to the next fashionable topic. Former Senator Eugene McCarthy once likened the Washington press to blackbirds on a telephone wire: One flies, they all fly.

As many citizens suspect, the Washington press operates in an incestuous climate that puts it much closer to power than to its audience -- the numb, gray mass of people who are represented mainly through opinion polls. Given the celebrity that now attaches to some journalists, many justifiably regard themselves as social peers of the powerful figures whom they cover. The social intercourse, they will explain, is really work, an opportunity to learn valuable tidbits, but it is also quite flattering. The old hands I knew at the Cincinnati Post a generation ago would have been dumbfounded by the suggestion that they ought to have an after-hours drink with the mayor. The mayor would have been shocked too.

In Washington, symbiotic social relations are the routine, both formally and informally. Burt Solomon of the National Journal observed the coziness emanating from reporters and politicians at the annual banquet of the White House Correspondents Association and wrote afterward: "By evening's end, it wasn't clear whether Bush & Co. and the press considered themselves natural adversaries, who were pretending to be friends, or comrades in governing, who occasionally affected to be foes." [5]

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times correspondent who covers the State Department, played doubles with the secretary of state in Oman. Brit Hume, who covers the White House for ABC, played tennis with the president. Rita Beamish of the Associated Press jogged with him. The president and his wife stopped by a media dinner party at the home of Albert R. Hunt, bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Judy Woodruff of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Hunt videotaped the scene of his children greeting the chief executive at their doorway.

Andrea Mitchell, who covers Congress for NBC, is often seen in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center because she is -- in the news gossip's euphemism -- the "constant companion" of Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. That is, she lives with him. At a Washington cocktail party, Mitchell got into a spat with White House budget director Richard Darman because it appeared that Darman was lobbying the NBC reporter in order to influence her mate, the Federal Reserve chairman. Mitchell rebuffed the budget director's attention. "If you want to send a signal," she snapped, "I suggest you pick up the phone and make a call." [6]

The media's sense of shared purpose with the political elites was formally expressed in 1989 when leading Washington reporters collaborated with prominent politicians in creating the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. The founding members included Republican and Democratic party chairmen, prominent senators, representatives and professional campaign consultants -- who were joined by "media heavies" from CBS, ABC, NBC, Time and Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and others. The purpose of the center is to educate young journalists on how to cover politics -- thus replicating the incestuous perspectives that have helped to empty politics of its meaning.

Collaboration is not what the public wants from the news media. Barry Sussman, a public- pinion-polling consultant and the Washington Post editor who supervised Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate affair, lamented the press's proximity to power in his book, What Americans Really Think. He cited a Los Angeles Times survey that found 67 percent of the public thinks the press doesn't do enough to keep the government honest. "Instead of seeing the major media as out to get the political establishment," Sussman reported, "most people, when asked, say that reporting on public figures is too soft and that the media are in bed with the leadership in Washington." [7]


In the early 1980s, the Gannett newspapers invented a bright new format for newspapering called USA Today, a paper composed of vivid pictures and graphics and short, easily digestible stories, all consciously designed to connect with the minds of television viewers. Though USA Today was a money loser as a commercial venture, other newspapers copied from it freely, searching nervously for the look that might reverse their own declining readership.

In many ways, USA Today was simply reviving the tone and folksy technique from that earlier era of newspapering -- news with a human voice, stories about simple personal concerns, a newspaper imbued with civic pride and everyday cheerfulness. The new version also captured some of the mindlessness of the old "penny press." USA Today has a foreign editor but no foreign correspondents.

What was missing, however, was the singular political voice. Stories in USA Today speak of America in the optimistic "we" and are strong on national celebration -- but nearly silent on authentic outrage. The newspaper, not unlike television, evokes a mythical nation that has a single, homogenized viewpoint, and the paper shies away from the difficult stories that would disrupt this sunny vision. As a political representative, USA Today is not just neutral but stripped of any awareness of class or economic conflicts. It is as if the cadaver of the old working-class newspaper had been exhumed from the grave and brought back to life, its cheeks rouged with gorgeous color photos -- then lobotomized.

Newspapers everywhere will continue to experiment with the news -- usually by degrading its quality in this manner -- because they are continuing to lose the loyalty of their readers, especially among the young and less educated. None has yet found the magic talisman to secure their future and the long-term outlook is bleak. Newspapers are not going to disappear as a form of communication but they are likely to become far less important to the general public. Newspaper audiences will be confined more and more to elite readers with special tastes and attitudes and political opinions. As that occurs, the press's impact on democracy will likely become even more distorted.

There is one experiment that newspaper editors are unwilling to undertake -- to take responsibility for their own readers. That is, to speak frankly in their behalf, to educate them as citizens, to create a space for them in the political debate and draw them into it. Many editors and reporters earnestly presume that they are already doing this or at least some of it. The erosion of democracy is the stark proof of their failure. [8]

From time to time, newspapers bemoan the ignorance of the general public-citizens who do not know the name of their own senator or hold grossly mistaken impressions about government -- but newspapers would never blame themselves for the ignorance and inertia of their readers. The decline of voting and elections is the subject for regular sermonizing in the press, but newspapers would never accept that their own performance as mediating voices is perhaps implicated in the decay. Notwithstanding the usual civic bromides, newspapers, like other political institutions, run away from their own failure to communicate what matters to citizens, in a timely context that citizens might understand and act upon. How can the news industry congratulate itself with its annual prizes when, all around it, democracy is failing?

The suggestion that a newspaper ought to accept its own responsibility to democracy would be a radical proposition in any newsroom. Newspapers have learned to stand aloof from such questions, in order to protect their pretensions of objectivity. A newspaper that took responsibility for its own readers would assume some of the burden for what they know and understand (and what they don't know and understand). It would undertake to reconnect them with political power and to invent forms of accountability between citizens and those in power that people could use and believe in.

A newspaper trying to represent its readers would have to make some hard choices about what it believes to be true, about what it thinks is truly important in daily life and in political action. Among other things, it would start by recognizing that politics is anchored in government, not in campaigns. The politics of governing decisions, where citizens are weakest, is what matters most to people, not the partisan sweepstakes of winning or losing elections.

A responsible newspaper would try to bring people back into that governing arena or at least to warn them in a timely manner when they are about to be abused by it. A responsible newspaper would learn how to teach and listen and agitate. It would invent new formats that provide a tangible context in which people can understand power and also speak to it.

The media's failures, illustrated across many issues throughout this book, are rooted in this refusal to take responsibility. To cite an easy example, The Washington Post, if it chose, has the power to eliminate the exploitation of black and Hispanic janitors in the nation's capital (described in Chapter Eight) simply by focusing public outrage on their low wages and economic helplessness. To do so, the newspaper would have to confront prominent business and political interests in the capital (and also set aside its own hostility toward labor unions) on behalf of the exploited citizens. Such a crusade would be utterly out of character for the Post and for most American newspapers.

To cite a more complex example, the Post (or any other well-endowed newspaper) might take responsibility in a long-term and consistent way for focusing on the culture of lawlessness in the federal government -- the permissiveness in regulatory law fostered by the capital's political commerce. If it were coherent, this attention could have enormous impact on the government, but it would also put the newspaper in conflict with the city's powerful sector of lawyers, lobbyists and corporate interests.

Or a responsible newspaper might grasp the great divide of political activity described in this book -- irregular citizen politics versus the formal structure of government -- and seek ways to redress the imbalance between the two. People have fled from electoral politics and, one way or another, are trying to do politics out in the streets. The press at least might report on this other kind of politics with more respect and consistency.

No newspaper by itself can be expected to overcome the fundamental realities of power, not even The Washington Post, but a responsible newspaper would understand that all citizens are not equal in American politics. Some of them need help -- both information and representation -- in order to function as citizens in democracy.

Any editor or publisher will feel threatened by this proposition, but so will most reporters. To take responsibility would mean to rethink nearly everything they do, the presumptions of autonomy that protect them from criticism and the self-esteem that is based on prestigious feedback from elites. Reporters would have to reexamine their own methods for defining the content of news as well as their reliance on those in power. Editors would have to experiment and perhaps throw out some of the inherited rules for producing news - the conventions and formats invented by Hearst and E. W. Scripps and even Ben Bradlee -- in order to overcome the political inertia of their readers.

What I am trying to describe is a newspaper that splits the difference, so to speak, between the old working-class papers like the Cincinnati Post and the college-educated sophistication of papers like The Washington Post. I imagine a newspaper that is both loyal and smart, that approaches daily reality from the perspective of its readers, then uses its new sophistication to examine power in their behalf. A newspaper with those qualities would not solve the democratic problem, but it could begin to rebuild the connective tissue that is missing.

Such a transformation would, of course, require editors with different kinds of skills (perhaps more like a political organizer's or a priest's) and reporters who were equipped to do a different kind of news -- stories that began respectfully with what people needed to understand to function as citizens, not with the governing agenda of the higher authorities. What would such a newspaper sound like? How would it cope with the conflicting interests among its own segmented readers? How could it make itself sufficiently exciting -- and needed -- so that people would want to buy it every day? These are terribly difficult questions, even if newspapers wanted to ask them. The inertia of the news media more or less guarantees they will not be asked.

The news business, as Professor Robert M. Entman has pointed out, has no economic incentive to take responsibility for democracy -- and faces economic risks if it tries. To embrace civic obligations that would alter the basic character of journalism might destabilize segments of the mass audience that media assemble for advertisers, the foundation of their commercial existence. Their readerships are already shrinking and news enterprises are not likely to invite more drastic losses by experimenting with their neutral political posture. Only when they become small and enfeebled do struggling newspapers sometimes reach out, in desperation, and try to identify with their readers. By then, it is usually too late. [9]

In the end, the educated city room betrayed its promise. When the quick but unschooled working-class reporters were displaced and the well-educated took over the work, that social dislocation might have been justifiable if the news media were going to serve democracy more effectively, if the educated reporters were using their professional skills to enhance citizens' ability to cope with power in a more complicated world. The educated reporters instead secured a comfortable place for themselves among the other governing elites. The transformation looks more like a nasty episode of social usurpation, a power shift freighted with class privilege.

If the promise was not fulfilled, then what was the point of turning a craft into a profession? Aside from personal glory, what was really gained from all the journalists with college degrees, if they decline to use their skills to challenge power on behalf of their readers? Those of us who prospered from the transformation of the city room are burdened with those questions and naturally reluctant to face them. Educated journalists, it turns out, are strong on the facts and weak on the truth.
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