herbert and dobbin: where is democracy at home?

It's been a very long time since I posted a column by Bob Herbert. He's an excellent thinker and writer with a difficult beat: the liberal readers of the not-so-liberal New York Times, who he challenges to step outside their comfortable, 10-degrees-left-of-centre box.
As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.

As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.

In an Op-Ed article in The Times at the end of January, Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities.” Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.

. . . .

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.

On the subject of democracy abroad and at home, Canadian Murray Dobbins has some similar thoughts. Canada's democracy issues, however, are more specific: Stephen Harper and his anti-democratic Conservative government. The US's issues are more structural: the collapse of the entire system. That's fortunate for us. We can still fix things.
As tens of millions of Egyptians celebrated their victory over a brutal dictator and began the task of creating democracy, the story from Canada was of democracy going backwards. For five years under Stephen Harper, Canada has been subjected to a systematic erosion of democracy (as I document here). Canada is not Egypt and Harper is no Mubarak, but he is nonetheless a ruthless autocrat in the Canadian context, too often showing contempt for democracy and the aspirations of the people he governs.

It can hardly be surprising that almost alone among western leaders, Stephen Harper was so grudging in his response to the wonderful victory of the Egyptian people. Rather than praise the millions in the street, Harper actually praised Mubarak: “Canada respects President Mubarak’s decision to step down in order to promote peace and stability in the country.” Damning by faint praise?

The day that Mubarak finally resigned to the deafening cheers of a million people in Tahrir (liberation) Square was also the day that another repugnant example of the Harper government’s casual abuse of power was highlighted. This time, it was a scathing ruling against the government from the Speaker of the House, related to Harper’s decision to eliminate funding to the ecumenical development group, KAIROS. It was a fitting coincidence: KAIROS’s funding was cut due to its alleged anti-Israel bias. Harper’s barely disguised opposition to the revolution in Egypt is linked to his blind support of Israel and the recognition that democracy in Egypt is seen as a threat in the Jewish state.

. . . .

Is it simply that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? In Egypt, years of oppression, brutality, humiliation and the simple lack of any semblance of real government drove the massive support for democracy in the streets. Maybe only the promise of democracy can motivate people in this profound way.

Or have Canadians simply lost faith in democracy as they increasingly lower their expectations of what government can or will do for them? Ultimately we judge democracy by what it delivers — and it used to deliver, and promise, a lot more. Are Canadians more and more just circling the wagons around their individual or family lives, looking for individualist solutions? With wages flat since 1980, 92 per cent of private pension funds in deficit (total $350 billion, almost double the 2003 figure) and holding record levels of debt, this solution must surely look just as bleak as hoping for political change.

Or could it simply be that there are too few venues and opportunities for Canadians to express their dismay at the loss of democracy? After Harper’s second prorogation of Parliament (over the Afghan detainee issue), virtually every political pundit and analyst in the country predicted that no one cared and most couldn’t even pronounce the word. Yet almost overnight (in organizing terms), over 220,000 people signed on to a Facebook page opposing prorogation, and within a few weeks there were simultaneous demonstrations in 61 cities across the country featuring 25,000 people. These were not organized by existing social justice groups or unions (though they came to help) and were as spontaneous as reserved Canadians get. They did care about democracy. They knew — or took the time to find out — what prorogation meant, and they were angry.

This should have been the signal for the Opposition parties to take up the cause, but it wasn’t enough to cut through the cynicism of the political operatives who run the Liberals and the NDP. By their pusillanimous calculations, if an issue doesn’t affect the pocket book (home heating oil), people don’t care. Would hundreds of thousands of people come into the streets if these parties called on them to defend democracy? Probably not. But they might come to the polling booths and rid the country of its own autocrat.

Read more: Bob Herbert, "When Democracy Weakens" and Murray Dobbin, Harper, Autocrat.

No comments: