A Lesson from the History of Citizens Movements
|January 9, 2007||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
We Have a Winner!
For each of the last two weeks, we published short pro-democracy articles and asked who wrote them, and when. We had some excellent guesses and now three people have won! It was John Gardner, former Cabinet secretary and the founder of Common Cause, writing in 1972.
Congratulations to Adam Monroe, Jake Himmelstein, and Jerry Heavey for being right!
Now here’s a little more from John Gardner’s pen.
A Lesson from the History of Citizens’ Movements
We mustn’t be sentimental about what “the people” can accomplish. The resistance to change that any institution exhibits is not simply the mindless working of habit and custom. Those who enjoy power and privilege in a society preserve it by weaving a tough protective web of custom, rules, processes, and institutional structure. Can we really expect that any citizens’ movement will be strong enough and determined enough to cut though tbat web?
It is a crucial question, and most experienced observers would probably answer “No.” There is a widespread skepticism as to the impact of popular movements. But the historical record does not bear out the skepticism.
The Populist Movement in the nineteenth century altered both of the major parties before it ran out of steam. Citizens movements led to the abolition of child labor and to the vote for women. A popular movement foisted Prohibition on the nation and a second popular movement repealed it. Relatively small groups of crusading citizens launched the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the conservation movement, the family planning movement. All of these welled up from the ranks of the people. None was launched by government action. Nor could they have been. But they made the government respond.
Before 1969, the organized conservation movement consisted of no more than two or three hundred thousand citizens. But they won allies among editors, among writers, among congressmen, among opinion-makers — and they pushed the environmental issue to the top of the national agenda. How long would we have had to wait for such action to emerge from the bureaucracy? Forever would be a fair estimate.
Only on the rarest occasions are significant new directions in public policy initiated by the legislature, or by the bureaucracy, or by the parties. They are initiated by the people — not “The People” taken collectively, but by vigorous and forward-looking elements within the body politic. Or they are initiated by the special interests.
What’s your opinion about the pro-democracy ideas in this article? Let us know!