A democracy betrayed

Monday Book Reviews

November 02, 1992|By Barbara Samson

WHO WILL TELL THE PEOPLE. By William Greider. Simon & Schuster. 464 pages. $25.00.

IN a recent interview, William Greider called the two-party system a "hollow shell, not connected to the people."

In this book, subtitled "The Betrayal of American Democracy," Mr. Greider, a former reporter and editor of the Washington Post who now writes for Rolling Stone, meticulously documents case after case of a government out of touch with people. He quotes Lois Gibbs, leader of the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, a national grassroots movement, who asks: "Would you let me shoot into a crowd of 100,000 people and kill one of them? No? Well, how come Dow Chemical can do it? It's OK for the VTC corporations to do it, but the little guy with a gun goes to jail."

Ms. Gibbs expresses the frustration of the individual in what Mr. Greider calls our "mock democracy." The American democratic process, he contends, requires strong mediating institutions which in large part are missing in contemporary politics. "We have lost our public voice. We no longer have a constitutional democracy," he writes, and the words reverberate on this, the eve of America's quadrennial presidential election.

The savings and loan scandal is a case in Mr. Greider's point: "How could they have let this happen?" he asks. ". . . The real politics of the S&L crisis involved bipartisan management to keep this scandal from public view . . . and taxpayers remained ignorant." As for the debate in both political parties over raising taxes: "If Congress had done nothing since 1977 to alter the U.S. tax code, nine out of 10 American families would be paying less . . . and the government would be collecting more revenue each year. Where did all the money go? To corporations and to the one in 10 families at the top of the income ladder."

Mr. Greider says that the White House and federal regulatory agencies comprise "a shadowy court of appeals where Republican business constituencies [can] win swift redress without attracting public attention or leaving any record of what [has] transpired . . . the White House interveners, intent on secrecy, usually communicate their demands orally to the regulatory agencies," leaving no footprints. So it was that warning labels on children's aspirin were abandoned by drug companies and air pollution standards were relaxed for the steel industry, to cite only two examples among hundreds.

We are not to believe, however, that all of the people are standing idly by. While it is true that at least 20 percent of Americans are totally uninvolved politically (and Mr. Greider points out that the average age of regular contributors to the Democratic National Committee is 70), there are millions more who are active in some 2 million citizens' organizations: "These activists speak for a broader public . . . serving as self-elected representatives without the benefit of elections. Ralph Nader, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, are examples of those who educate their members to exert political leverage. Yet by and large, the working people have the least voice . . . They are neither seen nor heard nor talked about." They are, in Mr. Greider's phrase, "political orphans."

But watchdog politics alone cannot succeed, according to Mr. Greider, and the "political strength of citizens can only be aggregated by assembling the collective aspirations of the many into a coherent, reliable whole."

The media, too, get a hard right to the chin. Mr. Greider says most people believe the press is "in bed with the leadership in Washington . . . People are now lost in a bewildering display of sound and light . . . As a result people are reduced to the role of sullen spectators, listening and watching without necessarily believing what they are told."

While "Who Will Tell the People" is scathing, it ends on the upbeat. "My encounters as a reporter with ordinary citizens have led to optimism about the potential for democratic renewal . . . I have always met some whose forceful intelligence shone through the barriers of languages, education and class . . . Ordinary people do assert themselves despite the obstacles. Rehabilitating democracy will require citizens to devote themselves first to challenging the status quo, disrupting the existing contours of power and opening the way for renewal."

Barbara Samson Mills writes from Monkton.

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