by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 24, 2004
POLITICS IS NOT A SPECTATOR SPORT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "People often say, with pride, 'I'm not interested in politics.' They might as well say, 'I'm not interested in my standard of living, my health, my job, my rights, my freedoms, my future or any future.' Politics is the business of being governed and nobody can escape being governed, for better or worse. ... If we mean to keep any control over our world and lives, we must be interested in politics."
Journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote those words in 1984, when Reaganism and Thatcherism were at high tide and conservative philosophy had suddenly became respectable. Little did we know that, 20 years later, the world would change and not for the better.
A great deal of that change, I think, stems from the reality that so few Americans bother to get involved in the political process. When barely half of the nation's eligible voters bother to bestir themselves from their respective sofas and cast their ballots in a presidential election, something is wrong.
There are two ideas that have polluted our democracy in the last century - that money equals free speech and that corporations are entitled to the same rights as individuals. Together, they have contributed to the increasing concentration of wealth in the U.S. into the hands of fewer and fewer people. The top 1 percent of the U.S. population has nearly as much wealth as the bottom 95 percent combined.
With this wealth, the powerful can control our elections and our democracy. We have a single-party system (masquerading as a two-party system) that's under the near total control of corporate America. Voter turnout has steadily decreased over the past 50 years as Americans are turned off by the lack of real choices and the pervasive influence of big money in politics.
Then again, if you are one of the people in power, low voter turnout is a good thing. If too many people take politics seriously, they reason, I might get voted out of office. The chances are dismal for someone challenging an incumbent congressman or senator. Win your first election, and you have a better than 90 percent chance of being re-elected until you die or retire, whichever comes first.
There's plenty of blame to go around - an educational system that doesn't educate students in their civic rights and responsibilities, a news media that entertains rather than informs and a political system that functions more as a cash drop for the wealthy than as a conduit for people to get involved in governing themselves.
In the end, it still comes down to people getting off their butts and getting involved in the process. It's no secret that the people who've gotten the short end of the economic stick over the past three decades are the people who participate the least in civic life.
In his 1996 book, "The Good Society," economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that the greatest obstacle to achieving a just and equitable society is the disparity in wealth and political influence between "the rich and the comfortable" and "the concerned and the poor.'"
The first group, Galbraith wrote, has a loud political voice, economic comfort and little incentive to do anything for the disadvantaged. It sees government as "a burden save when, as in the case of military expenditure, Social Security and the rescue of failed financial institutions, it serves their particular interest."
The result, according to Galbraith, "is an unequal contest: the rich and the comfortable have influence and money. And they vote. The concerned and the poor have numbers, but many of the poor, alas, do not vote. There is democracy, but in no slight measure it is a democracy of the fortunate."
President Harry Truman hit the mark long ago when he said that GOP stood for "Guardians of Privilege." The people who want a nation where the wealthy are free to grow richer and corporations are free to grow more powerful have gotten nearly all of what they want simply by filling the vacuum left by those who've dropped out of the political process.
Yes, the things we've been reading about electronic voting machines and voter list manipulation are genuinely frightening. But these things are merely insurance for the right-wingers. Why steal votes when you can keep millions of people away from the polls simply by making voters feel demoralized and powerless?
It's hard to imagine that anyone who is able to vote in November will pass up the opportunity. Unless they've been in a cave for the last four years, any sentient human knows that the upcoming election is critically important to the future of our nation. Our mission is to make sure everyone who is able to vote does, that every American understands the importance of getting rid of the Bush administration and that every act, no matter how small, can add up to real change.
Voting really does matter. Participating in civic life does make a difference. Never, ever forget that in a democracy, power is derived from the consent of the governed. And if you don't give your consent, someone else will.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.