Wednesday, 23 May 2012

“Democracy is not a vicarious experience…”

I’ve been catching up with my news/magazine reading this week, and I came across an article by Bill Bradley (TIME, May 14 2012, p.23), which is both good and frustrating.

In the article, Bradley ostensibly takes a look at Citizens United (that’s the title of the piece, but not really the focus). He frames his piece around President Obama’s election, which he says marked a misunderstanding of politics on the part of not only the electorate, but also government officials. He doesn’t break any new ground in the article, but Bradley does have a good way with words, and the article is rife with quotable moments.

On election day, Bradley writes, “we made the mistake of believing that a leader can renew the country all by himself,” which overestimates the power of the President. Yes, a President can “inspire and help mobilize” the electorate, but in order for policy and government to move forward, a talented administration needs to be “joined with commitment from citizens”. As Bradley admonishes: “Democracy is not a vicarious experience.” Quite what Bradley means by “commitment” from the electorate isn’t really made clear. They should vote, certainly. But that’s all he really offers.

Bradley compares the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, saying that the Tea Party’s focus on a “very specific objective – roll back government”, allowed it to convert its energy into political effectiveness. [This, actually, suggests Bradley doesn’t fully understand the Tea Party – there has been a lot written about the TP, and I’ve been given the impression that it is not the cohesive movement the media portrayed to begin with.] Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, lacked a focus or anything specific. “Some people argued that it was enough simply to point out inequality; a detailed program would have divided the movement.” Bradley argues that “getting money out of politics” would have been the best specific program for OWS. This is because Citizens United has exaggerated democracy (if you will) for the politically-engaged wealthy few. Without a concerted effort from citizens as a whole, “the future will be hijacked by a combination of greed, self-indulgence and excusemaking.” So far, so unoriginal.

The main problem with this article is that Bradley doesn’t really offer anything concrete or remotely new. Instead, with regards to the 2012 election, he says Americans

“should insist on a presidential campaign about the future, not a blamefest about the past. Candidates’ narratives can have a historical dimension about how we got where we are, but the bulk of their story must be about the future. If what you hear is only blame or bromides, change the channel.”

Very true. But thus-far, Bradley’s article has offered nothing concrete and is predominantly leaning on the very bromides he says the electorate are sick and tired of hearing.

“People are tired of seeing monied interests dominate the House of Representatives... They’re tired of narrow interests raiding the U.S. Treasury in collusion with members of Congress who, when they leave office, are employed as lobbyists by the very industries whose interests they promoted in Congress. (The same applies in spades to congressional staffers.)”

Yup, still unoriginal, still uninformative, and still lacking prescription.

“Now is the time for citizens to insist on answers to real questions and for the media to serve the public more than they serve their advertisers. Now is the time for follow-up questions and enough airtime for candidates to lay out their programs. What, specifically, will they do about jobs, the deficit, political corruption? How do they see America's role in the world?

“Now is the time for politicians to show us that they are more interested in doing something than in being somebody... What we need are courageous leaders who serve the public and not themselves, who devise a plan to save the country and fight for it because they know that the well-being of millions of Americans at stake.”

Now is, indeed, the time for citizens and the media to ask proper follow-up questions, to call politicians on obfuscations and distortions. But… Why doesn’t Bradley use this platform to offer some of the things he says citizens want to hear, rather than just telling off his peers and colleagues for not telling anyone anything useful or prescriptive?

He had a full page in TIME magazine, wouldn’t it have been better for him to outline a plan (whole, complete, even a nugget), instead of just painting a picture of everyone else doing things wrong? So Occupy Wall Street aren’t focused, because they voice only generalities. So does Bradley. What are his prescriptions for jobs, the deficit, political corruption? Other than to tell the population of America that it’s “up to them” to get involved. Yes, the voting public has the option to turf out bad politicians. This is only half of the story – how about a politician proposing a bill that would blunt Citizens United? Or strong restrictions on campaign contributions? Citizens can’t do that on their own – they have to see Congressmen and -women who actively support those things, without going to the fundraisers, and so forth (which he says citizens are sick of seeing politicians do).

Bradley had worked on campaign reform in the past. Why didn’t he use this platform to talk a little more about it, rather than just trot out the heard-it-all-before reiteration of the fact that something needs to be done?

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