Deep Thought: How to Democracy

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A seer thinking deeply, with  a towel on his head

Deep Thought: How to Democracy

'In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago,' goes the song. The point of that poem was that hope came in the middle of bleakness. In this discouraging winter, some people feel there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Maybe, just maybe, we won't succumb to our worst tendencies. Maybe our lack of understanding won't kill everybody. Just some of us. That's why we're sad, but daring to hope.

The main thing we need to do is to get it through our noggins, finally, that democracy is not about electing some small group of guys and gals to do the job and then expecting them to fix everything without any help from us while we go back to watching television. We have to participate. Of course, nobody wants to do that, not really.

Most citizens of the world's democracies have an unfortunate consumer approach to government. This is not new: it was there from the beginnings of modern elected government, back in the late 18th Century. Go take a look, if you don't believe me. As soon as non-professionals got involved in self-government, they tended to be suckers for the 'quick fix', the 'what's in it for me?', and the 'cheer for the guy I'd like to have a beer with'. Which, I hate to tell you, is not how you pick a competent administrator, lawmaker, or judge.

Universal (ha!) white male suffrage arrived in these United States in the 1820s. The first thing these universal white males did with their vote was to elect Andrew Jackson president. The first thing Andrew Jackson did was to organise an ethnic cleansing. Then he messed up the monetary system in order to benefit his cronies, and got into a fight with his vice president over whether a Southern state could just refuse to follow a federal tariff law. Oh, but 'Old Hickory' was their kind of guy: a rip-roarer, a duellist, a tough guy, very macho. Davy Crockett couldn't stand him. When Crockett didn't get re-elected, he declined to hang around for the Van Buren administration. He said, 'You go to hell, and I'll go to Texas.' Which means he actually left the country to get away from the sleazy politics.

Did women voters do better? I don't think so. While it is true that women are unfairly blamed for putting through the disaster that was Prohibition – there's a lot of blame to spread around there, going all the way back to the Hutchinson Family Singers – women voters didn't help. Prohibition itself is a poster-child example of a 'quick fix' wish fulfillment. All those drunks staggering around are a Bad Thing. Alcoholism is a horrible disease. Alcohol plays a role in domestic violence. All of those things are true. So outlawing alcohol is a perfect solution, right?

Er, no. The rise in crime, particularly organised crime, the erosion of civil liberties, anti-immigrant measures, and even today's worldwide drug problems? All traceable to US Prohibition in the 1920s. (Ask me about the drug business one day. I'll gladly go on about it.) The moral of the story is: no quick fixes. Any problem that's big enough to give us headaches is big enough to demand a complex, nuanced, and sustained effort.

Is dealing with this sort of thing beyond common sense? In a word, no. It doesn't require the importation of rarefied thinkers from ivory towers. It requires study, determination, and engagement.

Watch Bernie Sanders. That man has spent a lifetime studying these things and working them out in practice. You don't have to agree with everything he says. His constituents in independent-minded Burlington, Vermont said they didn't care if he called himself a Socialist. If they phoned their mayor at 3 am to complain about a pothole, he'd make sure it got fixed. Of course, he'd probably bend their ears about Eugene V Debs, but that was just Bernie being Bernie.

Watch John Fetterman. Who? Oh, he's the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. All six-foot-eight of him. Look him up. He used to be the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a place he describes as possessing a 'malignant beauty'. They say he did a terrific job of tackling tough problems. If you're on Twitter, read his tweets. He is not a 'quick fix' politician, nor an ivory tower one. Even better, read his wife's tweets. She's a genius.

I came to visit Braddock after reading an article about it. At the time I was working out of Newark on food justice and access issues. I arrived and @JohnFetterman
fell MADLY in love with me.

Reply by John Fetterman: This claim is disputed.

See? People who work in a democracy can be real, down-to-earth, relatable, and still not into knee-jerk consumer politics. Look at Barack Obama. Yes, you can argue with him. You're supposed to. It's not an all-or-nothing thing, like, say, a football team.

What we need to do, in the US as elsewhere, is to stay engaged. Get the promising people in there and put them to work. Bring things to their attention. Help where you can. Pay attention to their proposals. Argue like mad, if you need to. But keep after them until things get done. Above all, train yourself not to let your eyes glaze over when the explanation is longer than a soundbite. And never, ever, ever again vote for the most outrageous person/idea you can think of because 'that'll show 'em.' You see where that got everyone.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

14.12.20 Front Page

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