The Public Process
|February 6, 2002||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Public Process
John Gardner on Democracy
We have only ourselves to blame for the decay of the public process. It is ironic that a people who would fight and die for the principle of self-government neglect the instruments of self-government, Americans have always been proud of the openi ng words of the Preamble to the Constitution: “We, the people of the United States .. .” Yet most of us no longer act in that spirit of personal involvement.
Too high a percentage of Americans avoid political action or think of themselves as above politics. They complain about the inefficiency and corruption of state and local government but take no steps to make it better. They say neither party nominates c andidates of real stature, but few of them participate in steps to reshape the party machinery. Earlier generations fought to give us freedom of the ballot, yet only 43 percent of eligible: voters went to the polls in recent elections. Reformers struggled for years to establish the direct primary as a substitute for boss rule, yet the vote in most primaries is small. Most state legislatures are riddled with corruption, yet the citizen has tolerated them.
Among the democracies of the world, our country ranks far from the top in voter participation.
- Sixty-five percent of American voters don’t vote regularly.
- Half can’t name their congressman, and 65 percent can’t name both of their senators.
- Eighty-six percent are unable to identify anything their congressman has ever done; 96 percent cannot identify any policy he stands for.
The citizen excuses himself with a cynical comment on politics. But no excuse can conceal the fact that what he is neglecting are the processes of self-government.
Critics of this free society charge that the system has failed us. All the evidence indicates that we are failing the system. The circumstance is tragic, not just because the system needs the citizen, but because the citizen aould feel less frustrated i f he were participating· If our Founding Fathers returned today, few things would surprise them more than the citizen’s neglect of politics and government, particularly in view of our professed concern for individual freedom. For Jefferson and his contemporaries, the connection was elementary: nothing could be clearer than that liberty and justice for the individual could come only from suitably designed instruments of self-government. In their view, a concern for freedom and an interest in go vernment were inseparable. The first business of free men was governing.
That thought would never occur to most Americans today. And we are paying for our thoughtlessness. Out of thousands of years of experience in domesticating the savagery of human conflict and conflicting human purposes, man has distilled law and governme nt and politics. As citizens, we honor law, or at least we have until recently. But we neglect government. And too many of us scorn politics. No wonder we’re in trouble.
It is precisely in the political forum that free citizens can have their say, trade out their differences, and identify their shared purposes. Where else, how else can a free people orchestrate their inevitably conflicting purposes?
I am not proposing that we enlarge an already unwieldy government apparatus. I am proposing that we make it vastly more effective for specified purposes. Government at every level, properly conceived and organized, can serve our common purposes w ithout smothering the private sector.
Politics and government aren’t the only things that need repair in this country. Far from it. There’s plenty wrong in the private sector. But when the people try to cope with some abuse of the public interest in the private sector, such as the exploitat ion of the consumer, they generally have to turn to government. And government generally fails them miserably.
We must restore the confidence of our people in their institutions. That means, inevitably, making the institutions worthy of their confidence.
Ineffective government may be advantageous to some Americans, but is is not advantageous to most citizens. People at the middle and lower economic levels of the society, who have relatively few privileges when the society is working well, are subject to even greater and more persistent hardships when government fails.
When the city decays, the prosperous American moves to the suburbs. When the system of justice breaks down, he hires a high-priced lawyer. When the public schools fail, he sends his children to expensive private schools. He can buy an escape from almost any discomfort or trouble. But when the common man looks around for some instruments to accomplish what he wants accomplished, he has to turn to the instruments of self-government. They are his Instruments. Or should be. He had better make them work.
They are not working today. At least, they’re not working for him.
One of the gravest aspects of the situation is that the inadequacies of government make it impossible for good men and women to be effective in public life. The system smothers them, thwarts them, chews them up. Contrary to the popular impression, good people do go into politics and government. I have seen them go into Congress, into city councils, into state legislatures, and the results are depressing. Too often they find themselves hamstrung, caught in antiquated institutions that cannot be made to w ork. And if good people in politics and government are frustrated, good people outside are less likely to come in.
Skeptics say, “But you can’t really change such things.” Nonsense! Almost everything about our political and governmental system has evolved and changed continuously in the past. The political parties have evolved in striking ways since the birth of the Republic. The Congress of the United States has changed in dramatic ways since its founding. The Executive Branch has been transformed in even more striking ways. Why should we assume now that the public process has lost its capacity for further c hange?
What’s your opinion about the pro-democracy ideas in this article? Let us know!