Steps needed to save our democracy

November 08, 1999|By Paul G. Kirk Jr.

ALARMS have sounded; no one has panicked; the response has been universal.

Much time and an estimated $200 billion have been spent on readiness plans to avert a Y2K computer calamity. But how well are we responding to a Y2K alarm of greater consequence the distressed health of America's democracy?

John Kennedy once admonished: "Democracy is never a final achievement it is a call to an untiring effort." In this twilight of "America's century" and before the dawn of a new millennium, now seems a logical time to take stock of our effort.

A few weeks ago, the Kennedy Library at Harvard University observed its 20th anniversary by inviting more than 75 distinguished business leaders, college presidents, public officials, nonprofit executives and journalists to begin the assessment.

They found the following symptoms: An all-time high level of cynicism, disaffection and citizen disconnect from politics coincides with an all-time high level of powerful interest money being spent on political campaigns.

Money is now the all-consuming obsession of candidates and parties, the deterrent to political competition, the barrier to equal representation, the controlling factor in nominations and elections, and the corrupting influence of public policy decisions.

Some 62 percent of Americans eligible to vote in last year's midterm election chose not to, while less than a majority voted in the 1996 presidential election.

Those of us who know less, care less, participate less and vote less than other eligible voters are the 18- to 24-year-olds.

Personal consumption and borrowing are at an all-time high while our savings rate is at an all-time low. Record market growth and new prosperity will likely result in the largest transfer of individual fortune and economic capital to the next generation in our history. Concurrently, the abrogation of any obligation to transfer to the next generation some appreciation of civic capital and public responsibility is more palpable than ever .

Writing of an earlier democracy, historian Edward Gibbon put our symptoms in perspective: "When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free."

Let's face it. We, too, have become so obsessed with self-gratification and gain that we view our rights and freedoms as entitlements and ignore the civic duties and responsibilities that ensure them.

George Santayana warned: "Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it." To avert a repeat of an Athenian calamity, Americans' attitudes must change.

Finance reform

When the Kennedy Library conference asked what we must do to strengthen citizenship and service for the future, the attendees responded: The present "access for sale" culture must be replaced with comprehensive campaign-finance reform that provides some public financing and free TV time to candidates who agree to reasonable spending limits.

Only this can renew citizens' trust that our votes matter and our voices will be heard equally. Civic literacy education must be ingrained from grade school through college with extra-curricular citizenship activities such as community service.

An attitude of welcome inclusion and continuing citizenship education must be available to all "new" Americans.

Each measure is critical, but who will assure their adoption? John W. Gardner counseled that the plain truth is that government will not become worthy of trust until citizens take positive action to hold it to account.

We can ignore the alarm, thus contributing to the calamity, or we can take action to rescue our democracy. Citizens must launch a campaign to renew our national character and the spirit of citizenship and participation. One by one, our individual response can inspire a collective national chorus reminding others that our freedom and democracy are directly dependent on our own patriotism, active citizenship, unselfish service, respect for pluralism and intolerance of the present condition.

Dedicated to change

Mark my words. If you and I commit "an untiring effort" to this national civic campaign, communities, organizations, educators, religious and business leaders, the media and opinion shapers, political candidates and parties, and, yes, the president of the United States whom we elect one year from now, will follow.

Think about it. It's called "consent of the governed." It's our democracy, and it's a noble campaign you'll be proud to win.

Paul G. Kirk Jr., a past chairman of the Democratic Party, wrote this for the Boston Globe.

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