06/15/2007 12:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Baffled by Al Gore's Reason

Can you help me? I just finished Al Gore's The Assault on Reason and I'm baffled. Gore has written a brave indictment of America's retreat from democracy. In masterly prose, he kept me rapt. Then, just as my heart was soaring because finally, finally, a political leader is telling me the truth, I took a nose dive.

And I'm still dazed.

There's a brilliant, gloves-off exposé of Bush and Cheney: Of the failures surrounding 9-11, he writes: "Are they too gullible or too dishonest?" Without flinching, he reveals the "unitary executive" theory for what it is, a wrecking ball savaging our constitutional form of government.

On the edge of my seat, I'm ready for Gore to probe beneath these symptoms to the heart of our crisis. But amid lucid courage Gore's cogency lapses: "[I]t is the incestuous coupling of wealth and power that poses the deadliest threat to democracy. If wealth can be easily exchanged for power, then the concentration of either can double the corrupting potential of both."

In other words, Gore's vast insider experience has not revealed to him that in fact wealth is a form of power. The problem, Gore tells us, arises when wealth can be exchanged for power and it was intractable until the United States arrived on the scene. Then, "for the first time in history, large numbers of individuals were empowered to use knowledge on a regular basis to mediate between wealth and power."

Whether we view concentrated wealth as inherently a form of power or only potential power is no semantic quibble. It determines solutions. If we believe the latter, as Gore seems to, we don't have to avoid concentrated wealth in the first place. We can always tame it using appropriate checks and balances and empowered, reason-armed citizens. We're only in trouble when, as now, both of these protections are going under.

So here's my bafflement. How can Gore miss the inherent power of highly concentrated wealth to corrupt democracy? Can he name a society in which it hasn't?

Helping obscure this truth, he emphasizes that capitalism and democracy are assumed to share a common enemy: despotic rulers. But why not note that capitalism has boomed under many tyrannical regimes? While dozens of tyrants have been toppled in the last 50 years, Gore fails to come to grips with the giant enemy of democracy still standing, and growing ever taller: It is one-rule economics -- that rule being highest return to existing wealth, i.e. CEOs and shareholders. As Quaker reformer and inventor of Monopoly, Lizzie Maggie, tried to warn us a hundred years ago, if narrowly driven by this single rule, sooner or later one player ends up with all the property, the rest of us are broke, and the game's over.

The result? A world in which the number of billionaires is growing eight times faster than the world economy. And 61 lobbyists, mainly answering to concentrated wealth, roam Washington for every one elected official we've elected to answer to us.

Instead of tackling this root cause of democracy's demise head on, Gore's diagnosis focuses on the degradation of "the way we communicate." His "road map" calls for taking advantage of decentralized Internet communication to enable ever-greater citizen communication and the return of reason to the public sphere.

Early on, he quotes a 1930s education reformer warning: "no nation can be free" if control of radio is concentrated in a few hands; yet Gore fails to rally us to tackle concentration itself.

Holding democracy's economic enemy at bay by keeping wealth widely dispersed isn't rocket science, he could have reminded us. Citizens of democracies use progressive taxation, a minimum wage that's a living wage, protection of workers' rights to organize, the provision of quality public education and health care for all, and more. Whenever America has gotten serious about democracy, we've moved powerfully in this direction.

Getting money out of campaigns isn't a hopeless cause either. Yet Gore writes despairingly that campaign finance reforms inevitably get abused because citizens, he says, don't participate and "wield reason." Later he advocates public financing of federal elections but notes chances of enactment are "not high." Hardly a motivating call.

In fact, he helps guard one of America's best kept secrets: That Clean Elections, relying largely on public funds, have already made a real difference in two states, Arizona and Maine, where now waitresses and teachers can get elected. And we'll soon find out what Connecticut's new similar system will teach us.

Gore sums up this way: The "Da Vinci Code of American democracy" is effective checks and balances and "the rule of reason;" and both depend on "a well-connected citizenry" that he hopes the Internet can abet.

Yes, yes, Al, but will we connect? Only if we can make sense of why we're in this mess and are armed with hard evidence of how we can turn things around. Yet, despite the extraordinary power of your book, your "why" is muddied for you fail to name the inexorable concentration of democracy- destroying wealth built into one-rule economics; and your "how" is feeble, too: Though evidence of effective citizen power abounds, it is, sadly, not in this book.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of 16 books, most recently Democracy's Edge and the forthcoming: Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity & Courage in a World Gone Mad