A Blue Print for Democracy

May 4, 2004

If John Kerry is to win this November he will have to show a way out of the cynicism that has taken over American politics. He will have to address some vision larger than taxes and jobs. He will have to give us a blue print for a return to democracy.

Cynicism is the natural result when the government gives contracts to Haliburton and the Vice President continues to be paid by that company. It is the natural result when the Vice President keeps his energy meetings secret and, when, challenged in court, takes a reviewing judge on a hunting trip. It doesn’t help that the White House for months withheld 9/11 records or that the president still avoids press conferences like the plague. It doesn’t help that the Congress is elected with campaign contributions and passes tax legislation that favors the contributors.

It doesn’t help that the true facts about Iraq were never debated, that what the State Department knew about Shias and Sunnis and what they knew about reconstruction costs was never shared with the American people. If these had been debated they would have shown that getting rid of a petty dictator was not going to be easy or worth the price. Instead, the war decision was made in secret and this month the Secretary of Defense says he was surprised. That same Secretary told the American people before the war that he knew where the WMD were and now he says he never knew. Contradictions like these produce cynicism. The rhetoric about WMD was driven by salesmanship, not by facts on the ground, and salesmanship on such serious issues produces cynicism. Preconceptions and dreams of glory overcame and drove away facts and that produces cynicism.

Cynicism in democracy is like a disease, is like termites in the foundation and John Kerry ought to offer a blue print to get rid of the termites.

A new blue print for democracy would contest the ideology of raw power. It would discourage concentrating power and encourage spreading power out. Massive power breeds arrogance and empire, power for its own sake breeds greed, power for its own sake is what brought an end to the Roman republic. Power for its own sake breeds aristocracy not democracy. Power for its own sake allows Mr. Ashcroft to lock people up on his own decision, deprive them of lawyers, or allows the military to lock people up without recourse to any protections even of the Geneva Conventions. Power for its own sake is primitive and brutal and is not part of any long-term vision for a healthy democracy.

A new blue print for America would address a crisis in governance, not just in Washington, but in board rooms. Today in America corporations make their most important decisions in secret, be it to take jobs to China or destroy the rain forest of Brazil or even to censor news pictures of our war dead, and these decisions affect the survival of our economic life, our very life as a species and our national honor. Yet corporations exist above country, take their profits as if they lived without civic responsibility and expect from the rest of us only that we will not interfere with their right to merge and coalesce and raise their prices.

In a new America under a new vision of democracy corporations would be required to become citizens in every sense of the word. They would be given the responsibility that is equal to the bottom line, as significant as profits. They would be required to step up to the plate of social justice, social fairness, fair pay for all, for women as well as men, for blacks and browns as well as Anglos, for immigrants as well as blue bloods, for the powerless as well as the powerful.

In a new birth of democracy the Constitution would be revived and only the Congress could declare war. In a new birth of democracy the law would be respected and invasions would be in accord with the law, including the law of nations, and not in violation of it, imprisonment would be in accord with the law and not in violation of it. A democracy without law is no more possible than a democracy without truth.

A new democratic blue print will have to earn the people’s trust. Not in our past but in our future and to do this candidates will have to address the real place of democracy in the world and show that we understand its strengths and its limits. Freedom is not just for Iraqis to learn. It is Jeffersonian dogma to realize that every generation of Americans must re-learn it as well. This election would be a good time for this generation to take it on and for John Kerry to raise our sights, to give us hope.