Documents menu

Date: Tue, 20 Aug 1996 16:37:25 CDT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU>
From: "Richard K. Moore" <<
Subject: Article: On Saving Democracy

On Saving Democracy

By Richard K. Moore, 17 August 1996

The companion piece to this article, "The Fateful Dance of Capitalism & Democracy," presented an interpretation of modern history (since the Enlightenment) which seems to offer little hope for a happy future for mankind.

Our "democracies" have been deeply corrupted by corporate power, and the very existence of democratic institutions is being mortally threatened by the current neoliberal campaign for a globalist corporate state. Not only is the current situation contrary to the interests of humanity, but all the trends are in the direction of even worse times.

But it's always darkest before dawn, and hope arises from the very corporate dominance that is so threatening. The point is that nearly everyone is being harmed by the corporatist schemes, whether it be the First-World worker squeezed between frozen salaries and reduced social benefits, or the Third-World farmer being shoved aside by agribusiness interests. Through their all-pervasive power and arrogance, the elite have sown the seeds of a potentially powerful counter revolution.

It is the citizens of the First World who may be in the best position to initiate progressive global changes. First-World countries provide the primary infrastructure for corporate operations, and First-World political systems, while they last, offer the greatest opportunity for effective political action.

If broad-based citizen coalitions in First World countries could bring truly progressive governments into power, it would be possible to reverse the global dominance of the corporate elite, re-vitalize democratic institutions, and re-align First World agendas along progressive lines. This could in turn create a climate in which the rest of the world would be better able to pursue progressive agendas as well.

Obstacles to Progressive Political Action

If you look at the fundamentals, the conditions are right for a democratic resurgence: the elite corporate danger is acute and ominous, and the opportunity for an effective popular uprising exists -- in our tattered democratic institutions. But the likelihood of this opportunity being pursued seems unfortunately remote. There are three primary reasons for this: ignorance, organizational malaise, and the absence of a comprehensive progressive agenda.

By ignorance, I refer to a general unawareness of the true nature of the corporatist danger, and of the imminent threat to democratic institutions. This ignorance can be over-stated -- the number of people who have managed to grasp the situation may be much larger than the media-projected image of "public opinion" would seem to indicate.

But it is fair to say that people generally are kept in ignorance, mesmerized by the corporate-dominated media and distracted by manufactured crises and phony issues.

Nonetheless, there is considerable popular support for progressive changes, and a great many progressive organizations fighting for this or the other "cause." But overall, progressive organizing is in a chaotic state.

Energy is split up among so-called "special-interest" groups, whose cumulative effect is mostly neutralized by one another, and by the corrupt political process. There is insufficient effort directed toward building broad-based coalition movements that could promote a progressive agenda and exert effective political influence.

Perhaps most crippling is the absence of an adequate progressive agenda. It may be true that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but with no clear destination in mind, even the first step cannot be taken.

A sensible, comprehensive political agenda is necessary. Around such an agenda could be organized a broad-based coalition movement, and such an agenda could provide the basis for a positive program of societal regeneration and true democratic reform.

Toward a Progressive Reform Agenda

Conditions vary from country to country, and no single reform agenda can apply everywhere. But everywhere the central issues are corporate power and the corruption of the democratic process -- and progressive agendas need to focus on solving those central problems.

These systemic reforms need to be accomplished first: if the democratic process itself can be made functional, and the controlling corporate fingers pried loose from politics, then the means would exist for a broader progressive program to be democratically defined and pursued.

For want of a better focus, reform will be examined from the perspective of the U.S. situation. This focus is not all that unreasonable, given that it is the U.S. model that is being increasingly foisted on the rest of the world.

Media Reform -- An informed citizenry is absolutely essential to the sound functioning of a representative democracy. For the flow of public information and discussion to be monopolized by the corporate elite, as it is in the U.S., is utterly corrupting of the democratic process -- the result is that "public discussion" serves to distract and manipulate rather than to inform and empower.

Citizen perceptions are filtered through the lens of corporate interests, and democracy is corrupted at its very roots. There need to be alternate sources of news, information, and entertainment which are not warped by corporate interests, and which provide a broad spectrum of viewpoints.

The BBC might be an appropriate model for such an independent media venue in the U.S. BBC is dependent neither on government nor corporate funding -- it is funded through a modest television license fee paid by all media consumers. BBC is thus able -- in theory, and often in practice -- to manage its operations and its programming independent of government and corporate control and free of advertisements.

Electoral Reform -- Elections are the primary transaction in the representative-governmental process. The selection of candidates, the carrying out of campaigns, and the voting rules -- these processes determine the people's role in selecting leaders, and hence determine how representative (or not) the government will be.

In the current U.S. system, the voting rules are slanted to favor the two-party system, the two parties are dominated by corporate interests, and the campaigns are corporate-managed PR shows. The electoral system is thus deeply corrupted by corporate interests, and voters choose among corporate-sponsored propagandist-politicians rather than expressing their democratic intent.

Fundamental societal issues are never allowed to surface during campaigns; instead, colorful peripheral topics are selected for mock debate in a charade of a campaign.

In order for elections to serve their democratic purpose -- the expression of popular will -- it is essential to break the major- party monopoly over politics. In order for new parties to arise, they must be allowed to compete effectively when they are still small -- otherwise they can never achieve public recognition and begin to build up their constituencies.

Under the current plurality-wins system, people are afraid to vote for small parties -- they feel compelled instead to choose the so- called "lesser of two evils" among the major parties.

There are various mechanisms which could help encourage effective new parties. One such mechanism is the requirement of a majority for election, which can be accomplished either by run-off elections or (more efficiently) by a ranked-voting scheme. Another mechanism is proportional representation, which gives each party a number of seats, in proportion to their share of the votes.

Reform of campaigns would be partially achieved by the measures mentioned above: an independent media venue and the accommodation of small parties. Both of these would broaden the scope of debate and encourage the development of leaders who are more representative of popular will.

But in addition, it is necessary to remove the PR hype from the campaign process and to end the role of corporate money in determining what issues are debated and which candidates receive favorable media exposure.

Some measures which could, in some combination, help in this regard are (1) much smaller limits to campaign spending, (2) public financing of campaigns, (3) strictly equal access to media by all candidates (and their surrogate organizations), (4) restriction of election coverage to the public media venue.

Political Reform -- Elected politicians, in a democratic society, are supposed to represent the will of their constituencies. In our corrupted system, it is fairer to say that politicians are the representatives of their corporate backers, and that part of their assignment is to hoodwink citizens into voting for them. With media and electoral reform, along the lines mentioned above, much progress would be made toward restoring the democratic role of politicians.

But in addition salaries of officials should be raised to be in line with private executives with similar levels of responsibility, and all potentially conflicting outside interests and income sources (consultancies, board memberships, remunerated speaking engagements, etc.) should be prohibited.

Further, the corrupting influence of corporate lobbying on the legislative process must be ended. This is a complex topic, and I'll offer only a single example of a possible reform measure.

When a Congressional committee holds public hearings on a bill, the democratic intent of those hearings is to solicit a representative sampling of public opinion and expert advice regarding the bill.

What happens all too often in practice is that some interested industry association hires a PR firm, and dramatic testimony is staged so as to slant the views seen by the committee. Scores of carefully selected "witnesses" and/or "experts" are flown at corporate expense to Washington, in order to create the desired bias in testimony. Thus the legislative process is corrupted by corporate special-interests.

What might help here would be to have a special public fund which is used to bring witnesses to hearings, and which is sufficient to insure that a wide range of viewpoints can be heard -- especially from those who would be most affected by the legislation.

Corporate-Role Reform -- At the heart of any agenda must be a sensible policy regarding corporations and their proper role in society. It would be folly to think in terms of eliminating corporations, replacing them with, say, some kind of utopian socialism. Not only would this create the insurmountable problem of designing (and agreeing on) an entirely new society, but it would back the corporate elite into a corner -- forcing them to fight to the death for their survival.

The corporation is an efficient machine for exploiting opportunities and optimizing the operation of the economy. As such, corporations can be of value to society, and preferable to a centrally-managed economy. The problem is that the role of master and servant has gotten reversed: instead of the corporation being chartered to serve society, we've reached a situation where society is managed to serve the goal of corporate enrichment.

What is needed is a radical reversal in the relationship between corporations and the larger society. A corporate charter should be a privilege, not a right, and the interests of society at large should be represented on corporate boards, not just the financial interests of stockholders. A corporation is defined legally to be an artificial person: what is needed is to turn these corporate "persons" into good citizens rather than greedy exploiters.

One important aspect of this "relationship reversal" has to do with cash-flow. Currently, we have an absurd situation in which corporate profits are at an all time high, corporate taxation is obscenely low, and government is essentially bankrupt. Not only should corporate tax rates be raised to a higher, fairer level, but the whole tangle of loopholes, depletion allowances, and corporate subsidies should be pared back to the bone.

In particular, a business-like review of the value of public assets such as radio spectra, oil leases, timber holdings, mining licenses, publicly-funded inventions, etc. is long overdue. All too frequently, such public assets are given away at a fraction of their commercial value to private operators. Such sweetheart deals amount to corruption on a grand scale -- the corporate theft of immense amounts of public property -- but such deals are typically not perceived as corruption...

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
- Anon, 18th cent., on the enclosures.

If private operation is deemed to be the most efficient means of exploiting a public asset, then government should bargain from its position of strength, and attain maximum public return on the deals it makes. It can seek higher direct fees, a stronger oversight role in operations (to represent the public interest), and a public share in revenues derived from operations.

Toward Effective Political Action

Regardless of the agenda details, progressive change can only come about through effective grass-roots political organizing. As mentioned earlier, there is not so much a lack of popular political fervor or activity, as there is a lack of focus and coalition. The People, one might say, are scattered in all directions.

Again, for want of a better alternative, the focus will be on the American situation. Given the U.S. dominance of international arrangements, and the increasing role of the U.S. military as a globalist "police" force, the fate of progressive politics in America is of direct importance to citizens around the globe.

The phenomenon of "single-issue movements" deserves special consideration. It is undeniable that such movements have achieved desirable reforms for causes like environmentalism and civil rights. But the political arena has evolved to a point where single-issue organizing in the U.S. has become impotent, and serves mostly to "divide and conquer" the people.

Environmentalists are pitted against labor groups; the women's movement is fractured by the abortion debate; civil libertarians are portrayed as abetting crime; campaigners against corporate power are painted as being luddite xenophobes.

The corporate elite has learned to play movements off against one another, to limit their effectiveness by slanted media coverage, and to manufacture its own counter-movements -- thus making grass-roots politics largely impotent.

Only a broad-based coalition movement, with a comprehensive and persuasive political agenda, has any chance to revive democracy and reverse the trend toward corporate domination. Such a coalition must seek to include labor, environmentalists, civil libertarians, feminists, minorities, students, unemployed, elderly, etc. -- literally everyone whose interests would be served by a responsive representative democracy.

The first hurdle such a coalition will need to overcome will be divisiveness itself. The single-cause approach has so pervaded society that it has become almost synonymous with political action. People, especially activists, need to become aware their movements have been backed into cul-de-sacs, and that broad popular solidarity is necessary to face the the well-organized corporatist onslaught.

Emphasis on coalition among existing organizations, labor groups, etc., might be the best approach to building a more comprehensive movement. By that means, existing organizational structures can be leveraged toward broader objectives.

A strong agenda and credible, competent leadership are critical to attracting organizations into coalition. As organizations join the coalition, the agenda will need to be discussed and refined to accommodate additional concerns. But the central focus on democratic reform and the global corporatist threat must be maintained, lest the movement become strategically irrelevant.

The second hurdle facing any budding coalition will be the inevitable campaign carried out against it by the mainstream media, combining the techniques of demonization, trivialization, and blackout. Foibles of leaders will be dug up and sensationalized. Unity will be challenged by reports that some "causes" are taken more seriously than others within the coalition. Scare stories will portray economic catastrophe as the inevitable result of any agenda that doesn't cater to corporate interests.

The more successful the coalition, the more intense will be the media campaign against it. The movement will need to develop its own internal communications infrastructure, and find a way to get movement news out to its constituencies without depending on help from the mainstream media. Rallies, newsletters, local chapters, door-to-door canvassing -- even the Internet -- all can be used to create a "counter media."

If despite all these obstacles, a progressive movement succeeds in building a formidable constituency -- one that threatens to elect a significant number of progressive candidates at all levels -- then two final hurdles must be surmounted: co-option by the major parties, and over-attachment to the electoral process.

Time and again in American history, strong popular movements have dissipated when a major party (usually the Democrats) adopted the rhetoric of the progressives, or when the popular movement was tied too closely to the goal of winning some "key" election. These seductions to rapid "victory" may be the most dangerous hurdle of all.

The Christian Coalition, unfortunately, is an example of an organization with both a comprehensive agenda and a sound attitude toward the electoral process. It does not stand on its laurels when favorable candidates are elected -- instead it leverages its position toward greater victories in the future. And it most certainly doesn't allow its organizational structure to weaken in the face of successes.

It is essential that a progressive movement be organized as a long- term political force -- it must be aware that its strength comes from its ongoing existence, as a continuing channel of democratic expression. Success in electing supported candidates is a sign to pursue implementation of its agenda, not a sign that the movement has achieved its goals.

Global Solidarity and National Focus

Successes in one nation can provide invaluable encouragement, and even material assistance, to movements in other nations. The corporate elite operates on a global scale, and progressives must have global consciousness as well. Cross-border communication and solidarity is of strategic importance.

The recent massive demonstrations and work stoppages in France, and the similar protests in Germany, represent strong popular sentiment against the effects of globalization. But of course they weren't reported that way in the mass media, and no sense of international solidarity was generated.

Strong progressive organizations could have picked up this connection and used it to build greater confidence and self-awareness within the global movement. At the international level, there is a natural focus of shared concerns: the economic and political destabilization caused by globalist institutions (GATT, IMF, World Bank, etc.)

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize the nation-state as the primary unit of political organizing. Progressives must avoid the twin traps of premature internationalism and premature devolution. Until corporations are brought under democratic control, elite power is most dominant over very small nations, and at the international level.

Strong national sovereignty, including economic self-determination, must be at the heart of progressive politics everywhere. Democracy is difficult enough to achieve in a large, modern nation -- larger scale units (such as the EU) simply make it easier for the elite to gain control. And smaller, balkanized, states are too weak to stand up to multinational pressures.


Greider, William. 1993.
Who will tell the People - The Betrayal of American Democracy. New York: Touchstone.
Parenti, Michael. 1992.
Make-Believe Media - The Politics of Entertainment. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Parenti, Michael. 1989.
The Sword and the Dollar - Imperialism, Revolution, and the Arms Race. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Zinn, Howard. 1980.
A Peoples History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row.

CyberLib maintained by Richard K. Moore -
PO Box 26, Wexford, Ireland
www or ftp: