An American Experiment

By Hank Kalet

Editor's Note:
This is the first in a series on grassroots movements.

The American experiment is now 221 years old and the democracy to which we pledged our allegiance as kids and to which we owe our freedoms remains a rarity in the world.

Our constitution guarantees freedoms unheard of elsewhere: freedom of speech and association, of religious belief and practice; the right to be secure in our homes and our persons, to equal treatment under the law, to be judged by a jury of our peers and presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

These are freedoms and rights that we should be grateful the founding fathers had the foresight to guarantee, and that we should not take for granted.

That said, we need to realize that the promise that our national experiment held out for us remains incomplete. Millions live in poverty and millions more are just a breath away, vulnerable to sickness and job loss.

Inequality runs rampant: More than half the wealth in this nation is controlled by less than 1 percent of the people; to be black or Hispanic means that you are likely to be consigned to broken schools, dangerous streets and environmental degradation; and to be without money means to be without political access, without a voice in our government.

We are in the middle of an uncertain time, when the economy is changing, when global corporations are consolidating their power, concentrating their wealth, erasing national boundary lines. And our own government is helping them along.

Our devotion to profit is eroding our democracy, destroying our environment, leaving too many at the mercy of an unforgiving economy.

Until these issues are addressed, until the bottom of America's economic pot is brought upward, until the unmitigated greed that has created this class-stratified society is addressed, the promise that has been America will remain unfulfilled.

Recently, President Bill Clinton delivered what he called "a major address" on race, in which he proclaimed that Americans should begin talking honestly, openly about an issue that has divided us since the national democratic experiment began. While his words are welcome, they lack substance, marring what otherwise might be a noble effort.

Addressing the divisive inequality that is plaguing our democracy will take more than words. It will take money for education, healthcare and job creation, money the president and the Congress has shown little interest in spending.

More importantly, to bridge the divide, Americans need to become engaged with their democracy, to participate at the ballot box and in their communities, through a neighborhood- and workplace-based approach that seeks to empower people in their jobs and in their homes. It means populist political organizing that:

* educates the public about the American economic power structure and the way our political system works to protect those who hold the purse strings;

* unites people across racial and ethnic lines, and across national boundary lines, by emphasizing their common economic plights;

* and that empowers the public to take control of the system.

Realizing the dream laid out by our Founding Fathers will require major rule changes: public financing of elections, voter initiative and referendum, strict controls on the financial sector, some form of proportional representation, a national healthcare system and public ownership of utilities and other public necessities.

But before we can change the rules, we need to harness the energy of an angry and disappointed populace and build it into a democratic revolt.

William Greider, in his book Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy, put it best:

"Rehabilitating American democracy ... requires much more than reforming the government. It means that citizens at large must also reinvent themselves. The political culture that fractured governing authority and allowed political institutions to become irresponsible has done the same to the citizenry. The modern methodologies of government have taught people to think of themselves as one more "interest group" focused narrowly on this or that particular concern, but unable to imagine a

larger role for themselves in the power relationships."

Greider's remedy to these "deformities" is for citizens to "restore themselves as citizens," to work together for positive change outside the accepted political channels.

Greider talks of the Highlander school in eastern Tennessee, where community environmental activists come together to talk about their experiences and teach each other how to exercise their rights.

He points to ACORN, Greenpeace and the Industrial Areas Foundation and its affiliated groups as models of the kind of grassroots groups that can force real changes on the political system.

"This version of democracy still makes house calls -- thousands of 'house meetings' held in private homes -- where organizers get to know people and their ideas for the community and, in passing, scout for those who will become the community's leaders," he says, adding that grassroots democracy ultimately is not about "scandalous revelations or legislative crusades, not candidates or government agendas, but ordinary people. The overriding political objective, whatever else happens, is to change the people themselves -- to give them a new sense of their own potential."

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization, has begun some of this organizing work, expanding its interests beyond the narrow scope of its members to include organizing for living wage campaigns, healthcare reform and other progressive causes. And it has made efforts to diversify its membership, to bring in the service workers that will soon make up the majority of the American workforce.

And there have been other organizations -- most notably the fledgling Labor Party, the Greens, the Alliance for Democracy and the New Party -- who have began laying the political groundwork for a revitalized grassroots, running candidates at the local level and winning and building new party structures in the process.

We need to right our course, return to our democratic roots, reaffirm our belief in the principal that everyone -- no matter where we live, what color we are or how much we earn -- is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Hank Kalet is a writer and editor living in New Jersey.

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