By Ralph Nader
Are the people ready for democracy? This question was leveled by monarchs, despots and authoritarian rulers post-World War II when stirrings for freedom in less developed countries blossomed. We often heard apologists for the western colonial powers—the British, French, Portuguese, etc.—say that the Indians, the Arabs and the Africans were not “ready for democracy.” By that they meant people didn’t have the experience, wherewithal, or desire to do what was necessary to govern themselves.
In our own country, are we ready to revive, repair and reclaim our deteriorating democratic institutions from the 24/7 drumming of corporatism and its corporate state? Not so far!
Congress and state legislatures score very low in approval polls by detached, inactive citizens. Our courts are operating on squeezed budgets and doctrines that obstruct and severely ration justice. Even using the courts is a major burden for most people except for the rich and powerful.
No western country places more obstacles on voters and for third-party challengers. Limited access for third-parties restricts voices and choices at election time. Deep inequalities in income, wealth and power are not improving. We have the second lowest voting turnout among almost three dozen western nations.
It has been said that democracy is not a spectator sport. By definition it must be a participatory duty that we impose on ourselves. Apart from jury duty, too easily avoided, there are no obligatory duties in our constitution. So it is up to us to determine how civically engaged we are going to be to improve our community and country.
Unfortunately, too many people give up on themselves saying that they are “nobodies,” or that “the Big Boys are in control.” Yet these same people know that American history is full of great advances in justice that started with a few ordinary people who made themselves “somebodies.”
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things have improved our society in countless ways. The abolition movement against slavery, the women’s drive to vote, the major protections for workers, farmers, consumers and the environment, advances in civil rights and civil liberties were jumpstarted by those who had a vision of a better society and the energy to want change. Little comes top down without pressure from bottom up.
Curiously, citizen energies rise and fall which is why some scholars have called such declines “justice fatigue.” That is, striving for justice collectively, without backup civic institutions, exhausts people, resulting in long lull periods of inaction between shorter periods of civic activism.
We are gathering at the end of September many civic leaders—giants in their fields for justice—at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC to elevate the scope, intensity and creativity of the civil society which works for all people. (See breakingthroughpower.org.) People are coming to learn, to be inspired, empowered and more connected to initiatives already underway for a better country.
Some people will come to learn how to defend themselves from wrongful injuries and dictatorial, fine print contracts. They will hear about how they can use tort law and courts to achieve justice. Others will come to get their first look at historic leaders who have accomplished greater justice and continue to do so.
They will learn about the Time Dollar currency from legendary professor-advocate, Edgar Cahn. They will hear how community business can be revolutionary, how to organize for safe food, how to influence the Congress and regulatory agencies, and how to form new powerful organizations.
They will discover that one percent or less of the people in Congressional Districts advancing reforms and redirections supported by a majority of the people (see Unstoppable: the Emerging Left/Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State) can overcome corporate lobbyists and foot-dragging legislators who resist citizen initiatives. Taking control of our common assets helps advance the public interests as well. Day Two of the Breaking Through Power mobilization covers the astonishing truth that the greatest wealth in our country is collectively owned by the people. Trillions of dollars of pension, mutual fund monies and savings, coupled with the vast public lands onshore and offshore, and the public airwaves are examples of what “We the People” own but do not control. This day is devoted to reclaiming control over our commonwealth. We should recall that allowing corporations to control what we own has led again and again to disasters. Witness the Wall Street collapse of 2008, the massive soil erosions of our lands, and the fluff, self-censorship and saturation of commercials on our corporate-controlled public airwaves.
The four days of Breaking Through Power will be live streamed by the Real News Network. Go to breakingthroughpower.org, or contact Ticketmaster at 1 (800) 653-8000 to sign up for these memorable events. We can make it happen; you can make it historic.