Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tea Parties and Democracy

Tea parties and democracy.

Many people believe that the meetings of tea party members addressed by such media stars as Sara Palin and Glenn Beck are exercises in democracy-- the people telling their representatives what they really want: lower taxes, smaller government, more individual freedom.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

To be sure, momentous changes in our country have been brought about by people demonstrating in the streets, carrying placards and making their displeasure with government policy known in no uncertain terms. But popular opposition to slavery and Jim Crow began in the 1830s when William Lloyd Garrison began to publish The Liberator. It took hundred and thirty years of popular resistance and protest to make a serious dent in racial legislation and practices. 10 years of protests against the Vietnam War were necessary before that war was finally brought to an end by our government. At some points more than 1 million demonstrators crowded the Mall in Washington.
Two things are noteworthy about those two movements: the first is that it takes a long time to change government policy by public complaints and demonstrations, and secondly that the cause argued for must be very clear and precise. Abolitionists wanted to end slavery – a very precise goal. The antiwar movement wanted an end to the war in Vietnam. Compare to that the goals of the tea party: lower taxes, smaller government, more individual freedom. Is there anyone in America who does not want those? It is not clear what the tea parties are protesting.

All of this is interesting because it provides a lesson about American democracy. Democracy, it is often said, means that the people rule. But in America – or in any other reasonably sized country-- the people do not rule. We have a representative system; every congressional district contains 600,000 persons. Each batch of 600,000 people send their representative to Washington, but they do not know exactly what that representative is doing there. Do you know what your Congressman or woman does today, this week, this month?

How many of these 600,000 persons whom the elected candidate is supposed to represent actually have the representative's ear? Imagine yourself as a Congress person. How would you pick the people to listen to and to take seriously? Supposing that you are like most politicians and would like to be reelected, you will pay attention to the people who can help you hold on to your job. Those are the people with money who are willing to give some of it to you. They are the people who are powerful and influential in your district whose endorsement of your candidacy will help you get votes, such as the CEO's of large companies, other politicians who are popular with the electorate. They may be local people who have a large following because they have worked building up organizations for a long time. They have political influence if the members of their organizations are willing to attend demonstrations, write letters to the editor, go to meetings, make signs and contribute money for many years, or sometimes over many generations, with a very precise goal.

Citizens can have influence if they manage to organize a large group to which politicians, once elected, will listen to because there are so many of them, or because they are important people in the Congressional district, or because they have money.

Individually, one by one, you and I do not rule. What is more, the government is not terribly interested in what you and I think or want. Raucous meetings addressed by celebrities have no political influence. If tea party members think that they are affecting the government they deceive themselves because they do not understand how our representative system works..
Instead they are being used for manipulating public opinion. At most tea party meetings there are a few hundred, at big meetings a few thousand attendees. But the media give those meetings big play. Every day there is more news about the tea party. If you don't pay careful attention you might think that there is a mighty ground swell, a national movement of major proportions, objecting to everything the government is doing. So people may begin to think that there is something terribly, terribly wrong going on in Washington. But most of that so-called ground swell of opposition to the current government is manufactured in various newsrooms. We have had eight years of mismanagement in government—two unsuccessful wars, huge deficits, gross incompetence in Washington (remember Katrina!) and pervasive corruption. The tea party “phenomenon” is supposed to make us forget that. The tea party folks may think they are speaking out for their freedom but they are just being used to create the, quite false impression that Americans are disaffected from the current government and want fundamental change.

The media are playing the tea party, and us, for suckers.