The Tea Party is partly right. Democracy is faltering. But at this difficult juncture in America’s history we need more democracy, not less government. Tea Party laser-like focus on the size of government and the taking of private property rights creates dangerous distractions to the bigger challenges our nation faces. Our current problems result from a weakened democracy, not a bloated, power-hungry government.
Let’s keep our eye on the prize.
Democracy is a style of governance that allows community members equal access to influence the decisions that affect their lives. It protects the powerful from exploiting the weak. It checks and balances the power of the state. It places limits on capitalism by limiting profits that can be made from child labor, worker endangerment, environmental pollution, price fixing, and unsafe products. It helps us balance life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, property rights, and other ideals that define us.(1)
We need an open, deliberate process to help us make the difficult decisions about how we are going to live together as a community. How can we make that happen? Certainly not by shouting slogans that government is the problem, taxes are too high, small is beautiful, or sustainable development is a United Nation’s conspiracy to negate the US Constitution.
There are several reasons for why democracy is faltering, I want to address two: 1) gerrymandering of voting districts that creates safe seats that don’t require centrist politics, and 2) the capturing of democracy by capitalism.
These problems are easy to fix, conceptually if not politically. End gerrymandering by enlarging election districts; we could define our districts using watershed divides, economic regions, or other bio-cultural areas that parallels how our communities actually function rather than how to protect incumbents. Or, more radical still, we could completely take the place out of politics and vote by internet.
Next get the money out of politics, completely out. That means complete campaign finance reform, public financing of campaigns, shorter campaigns, dramatically limiting the access of lobbyists to the people’s representatives in government, and so on. The problem now is that democracy is not strong enough to counter-balance wealth, and we are very close to wealth controlling democracy.
At least the Tea Party is aiming in the right direction: we do need to radically change governance. We need to change how we govern, not whether we govern. Huge, complex, multi-scalar challenges created by 6-9 billion people living on a finite planet with an interconnected global economy and an expanding consumer-class requires equally complex solution strategies. Super-sophisticated, game changing technological innovations such as synthetic biology and nano-materials are beyond what reasonable people can be expected to grasp, hence requiring expert-staffed bureaucracies working on our behalf. Solutions to watershed destroying nonpoint pollution, climate changing emissions, ocean fisheries collapse, and numerous other tragedy-of-the-commons will require comprehensive solutions and coordinated enforcement. To address these issues we need a thriving democracy to guide a capable government.
To shrink government though starvation, even if the intent is to rebuild it, better and stronger, seems extraordinarily risky and way too radical for me. It risks too much going wrong, resulting in too much suffering. Civilization and democracy might not survive a starved government. Instead, I suggest we fix the source of the problems: end gerrymandering and get the money out of politics. Then, over time, a healthier democracy will gradually change and improve the existing laws and regulations, creating a bumpy but constructive transition rather than risk a radical revolution or collapse.
(1) A much more nuanced argument is necessary, one that recognizes the need to prevent the tyranny of the majority, and institutionalizing Madison-like strategies of controlling ambition with ambition through pluralism, vetos, divided power, federalism, and other characteristics of a non-tyrannical republic.