Professional and amateur elections analysts are scrutinizing the elections and the major party candidates promising change. Many have theorized that the Democratic Party is too immersed in the past to win; others believe that the Republicans use of tears and fears over terrorism and their torrential fire-setting against democratic opponents will be enough to curtail significant wins by the party of the 'left'. Unfortunately, none of these analyses scratch very far beneath the surface. We all understand how effective the right wing polemic machine is, what a genius the 'architect' Karl Rove is at shuffling reality to make it appear illusory. Yet these ideas don't really get to the heart of the matter.
The first thing we need to decide is what we want our country to be. Despite the opinions of some, America is still a democracy, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional form of it. What we need to decide is what kind of democracy we are. Author/activist Francis Moore Lappe has discovered a divide in what constitutes democracy. There is Thin Democracy, which demands nothing more of its citizens than showing up to vote and sustaining the economy; and Living Democracy, which entails the stewardship of citizens in partnership with the leaders they choose. For the last twenty-five years, we've been living in a Thin Democracy.
Our Constitutional founders instinctively understood how easily a Thin Democracy could be established. It's why they included duties along with rights for the American people. Without an attentive electorate, incumbent leaders work easily behind the scenes to ensure they remain in power. It really doesn't matter if they are democrats or republicans. Power unchecked is a recipe for disaster regardless of which party holds the majority of seats. Abuse of power becomes easier still with special interests luring our representatives away from their duty to the electorate by way of sustained campaign funding and perks in exchange for votes on legislation which cedes power away from the electorate and into the pockets of the special interests. We've seen it happen many times, most recently with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Whenever legislators get caught we hear calls for reform, but somehow the reforms never take place. Yes, leaders promise to be good when we're watching-but once our attention gets diverted, they go back to business as usual.
Living Democracy requires a commitment from the people it serves. It asks for commitments of time and energy and frankly, Americans don't want to make sacrifices anymore. During World War II, Americans were asked to ration food, gasoline, and copper. They bought war bonds. When men were called into service, women took their places in factories. A sense of community was engaged. That sense of community was created because Americans in the 1940's believed they knew what democracy represented to the rest of the world and that our effort was needed to propel our idealism to stave off fascism. In 21st Century America, the idea of community for the most part has been eradicated. We come together during times of national crises-the World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina come to mind, and do our best to aid those who bared the brunt of those tragedies. But it doesn't last. Once we're told the crisis is over, we go back to our daily lives without another thought to those receiving our support. Without a continuous sense of community and the willingness to make sacrifices to form the society we want, America will continue under the rubric of Thin Democracy.
Once we decide what kind of democracy we want, we will be enabled to pick candidates that will help us blaze that path. The American people generally know little about the candidates who express a desire to lead. More often than not, we choose a candidate based on a particular issue which is foremost in our minds. A good example is the recent Senate primary in Connecticut won by Democrat Ned Lamont. Lamont is running as an anti-war candidate, expressing the sentiment of millions to bring our troops home from Iraq now. But what do we know about Lamont on other issues important to the country? Where does he stand on the inheritance tax, tax cuts for the wealthy, a woman's right to choose, funding for defense and education, clean elections for federal campaigns, the Patriot Act, executive power, and energy policy? It's important that we see our political candidates as two dimensional human beings who may favor certain programs that we oppose. Are we willing to grant further tax cuts to the wealthy for the promise of troop redeployment from Iraq? The fact that Lamont, or any other democrat runs on an anti-war platform doesn't guarantee s/he will fulfill an agenda that we support. We can't count on candidates to give us their full vision. In order to understand what our candidates believe, we need to ask them tough questions and weight their responses. It used to be that we knew where democrats and republicans stood on issues just because of their party affiliation. However, candidates in our new century are cut from shades of gray. Like so many things nowadays, they're presented as commodities to be bought by the best advertising. In the long run, those products often fall short of our expectations. Sifting through all of the issues our candidates present will make our job of choosing leaders easier. If the candidate is strong on one issue but vague on others, find out why.
We get the kind of government we think we deserve. Without the constraints of a scrutinous public, leaders place the will of the electorate far behind the priorities of cash-heavy interests vying for their attention. If we want change, it's up to us to create the catalyst for it. It isn't necessary for our country to relive the mistakes of history over and over again. While the status quo may appeal to our penchant for having it all, without a direction for our country to follow, we truly have nothing.