“Democracy” as a symbol of “freedom” now seems to be the impetus for the Bush administration to export the American system of “democracy’ to places that either never had a democratic government, or whose history, customs and traditions do not jibe with what Jefferson intended. This intention to impose democracy on the rest of the world has an historical precedent, namely, when Henry Ford decided that people could have any color car they wanted as long as it is black. Any democracy, but it has to be the American version.
What makes the activities of American conservative proselytizers alien to Barbar’s comments is the fact that Barber seems to try to weld together liberalism and democracy in his explanation that there is a time “when the middle class grows weary of the problems of minorities and other oppressed groups and begins to sermonized about self-reliance” (Barber 110). The fact that the middle class and its liberal values is disappearing in its political power, that the ownership of private property is now so expensive and limited shows that much has happened in the 21 years since Barber’s book was first published. Liberal democracy has disappeared much like Siegfried and Roy’s tigers.
The fact that America is less and less a participatory democracy, is key. Less and less people bother to vote. A CBS News story seemed to prove young people’s general disaffection with the political process:
“The sharp rise in turnout of 18-to 29-year-olds that those advocates were hoping for seemed lost in the body of post-election coverage. In fact, in the immediate wake of the vote, the general perception was that despite huge mobilization efforts, the youth vote comprised roughly the same proportion of the electorate as it did in 2000, in what some observers called a failed effort on the part of the youth voter activist groups” (CBS 2004 2).
What has been happening is accurately described by Barber: “Politics….abhors a vacuum. Where citizens will not act, judges, bureaucrats, and finally thugs rush ion” (Barber 111). Why such an abandonment of participation in elections and the furthering of democratic (small “d”) ideals? Maybe our nation is too big for individual votes to make a difference. And yet, as was demonstrated recently in the Oregon gubernatorial election, a merely handful of votes decided the outcome. Barber seems to insist that private property ownership is at the base of liberal democracy. Maybe in 1984 this was still a possibility. Today, the so-called democratic process of government in the U.S. is fashioned, honed and defined by special interest groups, by huge financial handouts by major corporations. Private individuals are lost in this disbursement of backing for specific laws and entitlements. While there is a Black Caucus in Congress, there is no “Poor Caucus.”
One can dispute Barber’s reasoning that “Our interdependence as members of the human species requires us to belong- it not to free associations, then to totalistic collectivities” (Barber 112). Times have unfortunately changed. Instead of encouraging phrases like “freedom” “equality of opportunity” and “self-determination” the world is now in fear of frustration on the part of the unemployed and disenfranchised, as in France and the Gaza Strip.
With the focus less on domestic opportunities and forward movement and more on spreading the democratic gospel overseas, is it any wonder that the gap between the current generation and its parents and grandparents is widening. Verba et al (2002) discuss the “socioeconomic status of parents” (419). But that goes back to the 1930s theory of “a chicken in every pot”. The political influence of our parents is now minimal, because we have the Internet and blogs to guide us, rather than the Wall Street Journal or the new York Times. Private ownership is no longer a symbol of “having made it” which was supposed to separate the successful democracy from the dictatorships whose citizens have nothing but fear and deprivation.
Barbar was still hopeful in 1984 that a participatory democracy (which he seems to consider “liberal”) is still workable and meaningful. The awful truth is that we of the current generation do not want, and would ignore those social scientists who think they know what drives humans. In a time when our fathers are downsized and their pensions frozen and age discrimination persists, our mantra is that of Michael Douglas’ character, Gordon Gekko, in “Wall Street”: “Greed is good!” In other words, get it while you can, because nobody is going to make sure you’re secure and comfortable as you grow older. As recent events, such as Hurricane Katrina, have shown, bureaucracy in a democracy slows any reaction time. Verba et al (2002) comment that “The sheer number and variety of government programs imply both that everyone has a stake in what the government does…” (Verba et al 2002 394). The idea of so many governmental agencies “serving” the people makes it seem that more and more ordinary citizens are called upon to serve. The fact, as Michael Brown of FEMA demonstrated handily, participating in government is dependent on contributions to the ruling party. Participatory democracy is difficult for some because they simply cannot see that participation makes a difference or contributes to the good of the nation.
Verba at al (2002) feel that education is somehow important in participatory activities, including politics. The problem with that theory, in practical terms, is that participatory success should not depend on how much you’ve learned in class. But how well you understand and can deal with the needs and priorities of citizens. And more and more of those wants are materialistic: “What can you do for me?” or “Can you keep my husband’s plant from shutting down?” To put it bluntly (which none of the authors do) participatory democracy is neither “liberal” nor “conservative” but financially driven. It is for this reason that so much legislation in the U.S. has “pork” added to it- something for every Congressman’s district. Dollars continue to speak far louder than high ethical standards. Verba et al (2002) sneak in the fact that political volunteerism includes “political contributions” (2). So, materialism runs rampant in our democracy. This is not a domestic phenomenon, but a world-wide fact of political and sociological life. So, when Barber states that “a public life in which all would participate becomes impossible.” (110), it would seem that total participation in public life was never the ideal sought by our Founding Fathers or any political scientist. Instead, what we should hope to develop is a political Darwinism- a survival of the fittest. The fittest to serve, lead, and produce results for the common good.
Neither book, despite tables and statistics and historical precedent, offer a workable means to increasing average citizen participation in the political process, even if it only means going to the polls every other year. However, there has to be a better way than Shumpeter’s who suggests that we should just vote and let those we elect do the rest. However, that results in an elitist, not a democratic, government, something the framers of our Constitution surely wanted to avoid, despite the fact that they themselves were wealthy landowners and professionals. More participation by those now uninterested is needed to provide “liberty and justice for all.”
Barber, B. R. Strong Democracy- Participatory Politics for the New Age Berkeley: University of California Press (1984
Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L. and Brady, H. E.: Voice and Equality- Civic Volunteerism in American Politics Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, (fourth edition, 2002)
CBS News: “Are Young Voters Has-Beens?” Nov 20, 2004