Democracy = People Power
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Beginning on March 31 (Cesar Chavez Day) and continuing through May 1 (International Labor Day), thousands of recent immigrants, legal and illegal alike, took to the streets with their supporters to signal disapproval of anti-immigration measures then being debated in Congress, most of which would have turned sindocumentos and all who associate with them into felons. Mexican flags joined American flags, along with the flags of a few other nations, to assert the multinational origins of the U.S. population.
The size and passion of April’s rallies took everyone by surprise. Millions turned out in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and even the sleepy border backwater of San Diego. DJ’s on Spanish-language radio as well as Catholic clergy received credit — or blame — for turning out the massive crowds. Advocates for immigrant rights, such as Partha Banerjee, executive director of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, saw these massive public displays as evidence of “a new civil rights movement reborn in this country…. This is not just about the immigrants … it’s about all marginalized, underprivileged people in the United States.” The Civil Rights movement must always be cited as the classic example of an otherwise voiceless populace taking to the streets to change our political system, which they most certainly did.
Among those most surprised by this spring’s marches, not surprisingly, were those who objected to them. The most vitriolic responses came from the pants-wetting Right. Radio Nazi Michael Savage referred to the marchers and their immigrant base as “vermin.” One Faux News reporter wondered aloud why the INS wasn’t on site with helicopters and nets, rounding the masses up for deportation. Columnists and letter writers fulminated on editorial pages. In places like San Diego County where secondary school students left class to participate in demonstrations, seething citizens demanded that they be expelled. Calmer voices asserted that the demonstrators should instead have expressed their opinions through politically approved conduits, like voting or writing letters to congresspeople — even though most of the demonstrators did not have a vote or a representative, either because they were under eighteen or not citizens. Even some sympathetic to the immigrant cause expressed reservations about the student walkouts. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a veteran of similar walkouts during the Chicano Power movement of 1968, maintained that today’s students need to stay in the classroom to learn how democracy works.
Hey, does any adult actually remember his or her high school “social studies” classes? Even in our era of so-called “political correctness,” civics training continues to rely heavily on the memorization of dates and details, hagiography of the Great White Fathers, and respect for authority and tradition — all aimed at perpetuating the myth that the ultimate expression of personal power is the vote. Without at all denigrating the value of a formal education — don’t leave home without it — training for democracy in school means sitting still, following the rules, and listening to your betters tell you how free you are. Indeed, that is all that democracy means to too many Americans.
Let us grant that immigration remains a problematic issue, pitting the business Republican (who favors cheap labor) against the xenophobic Republican (who does not want more brown people living around him), and the Democrat (who worries about cheapening the value of labor) against the Democrat (who welcomes new citizens and new potentially Democratic voters) — not to mention those who do not belong to the two official government parties. At stake is the issue of how much control a nation-state can exercise over its borders in a global age when products, capital, and jobs can cross them freely.
But immigration is not the real topic of this essay. “People Power” is.
People Power (translated from the Greek demokratia) has a long history. Even in the ancient Roman Republic, the increasing gap in wealth and power between the average citizenry and the ruling class, embodied in the patrician Senate, resulted eventually in a series of urban riots that brought Rome to its knees and instituted some reforms, such as the creation of the office of consul to represent the people’s interests. Unfortunately, under the subsequent Empire, power once again drifted upward; the consuls became Caesars, who attempted to numb the masses with “bread and circuses” — id est, a half-full belly and mass entertainment. It worked for a while.
All empires followed the same route to one extent or another. Over the lifespan of many a successful nation, power often tends to rise and consolidate in relatively few hands. The longer a ruling minority can hang on, however, the more violent tends to be their ultimate downfall, as witnessed in the bloody final chapters of the Ancien Regime of France and the Czarist theocracy of Russia. With the classical models of Rome and Greece before them, the American Founders sought a republican compromise between the historical extremes of autocracy and mobocracy. Today’s Republicans seem wholly, and not surprisingly, unaware of the lessons of history. They act as though the only alternative to supporting them is shutting up and laying low, and too often the Democrats second that notion.
By all means vote and write your congressman, if he is not in jail. But don’t stop there. If the 21st century has taught us anything, it is that representative government is not all that representative in the United States. By definition, in a democracy those who receive the most votes run the government. In 2000, however, the guy who came in second took power, and he has governed like Number Two ever since. Due to related peculiarities in our system as it has evolved, the Senate is also dominated by Republicans even though the Democratic senators have cumulatively received three times the votes. And how representative is the House of Representatives? Both official state parties have managed to gerrymander themselves into more or less permanent congressional seats, so that few are actually under serious contestation; the usual estimate is that no more than twenty — out of 435 — can conceivably cross the aisle in any one November.
After Republicans took over Congress in 1994, their strategy for total control became particularly aggressive under such leaders as Newt “The Amphibian” Gingrich and Tom “Jailbird” DeLay; they resolved to create a system in which they could not be voted out of office, insuring a GOP Thousand Year Reich. Even though both men were chased out of power, their legacy remains. The so-called majority party has reigned in Congress as though no one else counts. While the Republican White House has demanded fair elections in the Ukraine and affirmative action in Iraq, the Republican Party has done everything to choke off representative democracy in the U.S., from jimmying vote counts in Florida and Ohio to stifling political debate and force-feeding its wingnut agenda down the vox populi.
November 2006 will prove just how democratic we are, if not how republican. The approval rating of Incurious George now hovers around 32 degrees in most polls, with the GOP-run Congress doing no better. Seventy percent of citizens now think that the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and most of those believe that Democrats would do a better job of running the government. Yet many political observers insist that Republicans can maintain their death grip on national power. As stated in the Los Angeles Times, “control of Congress may turn on whether the public’s clear desire for change is powerful enough to overcome the resistance to change built into the political system.”
So what happens if it becomes impossible to vote out a ruling minority, no matter how destructive and unpopular they are? Do we sit at home numbing ourselves with the nostrum that we have a stable democracy as long as there are no tanks in the streets, as the media did after the debacle of 2000?
Or do we fill the streets with people? How badly must we be bullied, plundered, and buggered before we roll out en masse and physically re-occupy the halls of power? If it is okay for Ukrainians and others to do so, why not for Americans? Do we possess the courage as a people to demand the consent of the governed?
In closing, it is worth noting that during the marches of early April, the Senate blunted the most punishing of the provisions in the House’s anti-immigrant bill. Overseas this April, masses of French students stopped a labor reform bill they detested, while Nepalese rallied and rioted until their king reinstated the parliament he had dissolved.
Perhaps it cannot be proven that these demonstrations changed any minds. But if it turns out this November that our votes don’t count, it is time to hit the streets, just as they did, and find out. The street may be the only democracy we have left.