The Arab Spring is so close to coming to the United States.
It really depends on whether the protesters on Wall Street can synthesize their demands around a core set of meaningful goals or whether the movement descends into a venting ground for grievances from the disgruntled.
The analog to the Arab Spring is more apt than many people may realize. The protests in Yemen, Egypt and Syria all had in common the unifying theme of bringing participatory democracy to their countries and ousting corrupt governments.
It may seem peculiar for the protests in this country to focus on restoring democracy, when we routinely hold out our democracy as a model for the rest of the world. In the first days of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the protesters flirted with this idea as their central focus.
Yesterday, the General Assembly of New York -- the group who is organizing these protests -- issued a Declaration which highlighted a litany of complaints (they call "facts") that serve as a rationale for the movement, including: illegal foreclosures, government bailouts for banks, animal torture, and unsafe worker conditions. Behind this list of 'facts,' loom the challenges we all know about: 10% unemployment, a $1.5 trillion deficit and $15 trillion in national debt.
I fear the protest movement is beginning to go adrift.
As great as these problems seem, this isn't the first time we've faced national challenges of this magnitude.
What makes this time in our national history so different from the times before it is the feeling that our government is completely unable to respond to our problems.
Which brings us full circle to the question of whether there's a nexus between the nature of our government and its democratic institutions -- the galvanizing force in the Arab Spring protests -- and our inability to address (or redress) the 'facts' articulated by the General Assembly.
Here's my answer: I believe our democracy is not democratic enough. And while I don't lay the blame for the nation's ills on our failings as a participatory democracy, I squarely blame what can only be characterized as national governmental incompetence on the failings of our democracy.
It should have been apparent to every American after the 2000 presidential election that our democratic process required an overhaul. When a candidate can win the popular vote and lose the Presidency, we no longer can lay claim to a government of the people and by the people.
The Electoral College, responsible for this anomaly, also guarantees us that presidential candidates will only seriously campaign in a handful of states that are actually contestable, which means most of our votes don't really matter in a presidential race.
It gets worse: I've heard the argument that the problem with Washington isn't the people that are there but the system of governance. But the truth is the problem is both the people that are there and the system under which they govern.
Gerrymandering -- the act of drawing congressional boundaries from which a congressman is elected -- has become one of the most corrupting practices in our democracy. Our system allows the political party in power to structure districts in such a way that like-minded people are grouped together, geographic logic notwithstanding. The results are districts that always vote Democratic or always vote Republican. The foregone conclusion in many of these districts devalues the individual vote.
If you get past the injustice of gerrymandering, Congressional races still feel rigged because of the manner in which these races are funded -- a problem compounded by the most recent Supreme Court decision striking down legislation that banned corporate contributions to campaigns.
So we have a president who is not directly elected by the people, and congressmen who are elected by people that are pre-selected to vote cooperatively, and funded by corporations whose quid pro quo is advocacy on behalf of their interests. Perhaps, our democracy could continue to function as unrepresentative, if the representatives who occupied office governed by majority rule. But alas, we have the peculiar and still more corruptive practice of the filibuster where the minority can consistently thwart the will of the majority, leaving us with a system that never seems to accomplish anything.
Which brings me back to Wall Street, and the confusing demands of the protesters there. I don't have a problem per se with protesting against joblessness, or an unfair tax code, or abusive banking practices -- other than that the protests probably won't work. It's not that we don't need immediate fixes to 10% unemployment or our national debt.
It's that I approach the problem from the perspective that if our democracy is working, we'll ultimately elect good and decent people. If our system of governance is working, these people over time will reach good and decent decisions that will positively affect our country and implement long term sensible solutions to our problems.
Wouldn't it make more sense to take inspiration from the protests sweeping the globe and galvanize the country around a core set of changes that could restore our democracy?
We could start with:
• A constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College and replacing it with a popular vote for the President.
• A constitutional amendment reforming the way campaigns in America are financed, which would allow McCain Feingold to be upheld in its original form.
• Legislation guaranteeing an arbitrary and party neutral system for establishing congressional districts.
• Legislation prohibiting the use of the filibuster in the Senate.
I understand the anger that is motivating much of these protests. I'm angry. But a laundry list of disconnected demands brings us further from a solution.
Our Democracy is in urgent need of repair!
To the protesters I say: you're on the brink of becoming either a footnote in history or Patriots who carried on in the tradition of Jefferson and Adams and Lincoln in perfecting our form of representative government.
Focus on perfecting our democracy and you'll have myself and millions of others to join in your movement.
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