12/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

This Wednesday:Will we be Citizens Again?

Late last night, I went on a guerilla sign blitz. I'm home in Northern New Mexico--the Four Corners--land of the backyard oil rig and the most important county in the state for the Democrats. In neighborhoods, nearly every Obama sign I put up in the afternoon was gone by evening. On the big roads, many of them are destroyed repeatedly while all the others in the sign cluster remain unharmed. This time we staked them up high on sandstone cliffs and strung them into trees....

There are four local Obama offices here--an amazing amount of attention for a part of the country that is remote and generally written off by the Left. And we keep getting volunteers from Arizona, California and Texas.....the campaign staff haven't left their stations once--the amount of data coming in is so huge.

No matter what happens on Tuesday, the Obama campaign will have revisited a lost ideology of citizenship for Americans that has enormous potential for our nation. Having worked in DC for a decade, I can attest that our democracy is damaged and frayed at the institutional level--the self-fulfilling prophecy of government-hating elected leaders. But out here in New Mexico, I've never seen more individual Americans with a talent for democracy in practice. And that is not going to disappear.

No matter what happens, we have to keep this citizen network alive and moving forward because the institutions of our democracy--those big marble buildings back on the East Coast--won't heal themselves without it. Why not? Because, despite this surge in mobilization, the US Congress and other federal agencies no longer assume that the average citizen should be first in line when it comes to representation (the bailout bill with no explicit language forbidding extravagant bonuses is just the latest example). Over the past three decades, the cherished premise that a citizen should always be paramount in government decision making has evolved away from representative government "by the people and for the people". Commercial interests have mastered the art of Congress, for example. It is a place where those with relationships, good timing and an angle on money for the district win the day. This has terribly distorted the playing field. The context is important for understanding how to put citizens first in line again. How did our democracy go from being Camelot to being a used-car lot? The backsliding of our citizen representation has occurred in distinct stages: You could call them the four C's of conservative rule.

We started at a good place--with the first "C"-- Citizen: The HBO series John Adams depicted the character of this commitment: He was the consummate citizen. He (and his wife, for that matter) dedicated his life, at great personal sacrifice, to taking risks on behalf of an ideal much bigger than himself. One that might be realized after his own life was spent. He saw his rights and his responsibilities--both at the same time--inseparable from this notion about America and what it could become. More recently, the civil rights movement is a good example of this kind of citizenship.

Then came the second "C"--Consumer: The belief that government should be a service provider for discriminating shoppers was all the rage in the 80s and1990s. It gave liberals a way to talk positively about a role for government, but also adopt the irresistable libertarian language about the need to make it smaller. Al Gore's "Reinventing Government" also known as the National Performance Review had the goal of adapting efficiency principles from the private sector. Things like customer service, measurable benchmarks, management-labor partnerships. But this good intention went awry when conservatives took over Congress in 1995. The leveraged buy out of the public sector commenced in earnest. Eliminating the competition (the government) became the goal. In Congress, Newt Gingrich eliminated much of the institutional memory of our legislature, destroyed the bipartisan issue venues, fired nonpartisan experts and investigators, outsourced policy expertise to the universe of conservative think tanks orbiting Capitol Hill. Handed off the writing of legislation to corporate lobbyists.

The 1995 Congress ushered in the preeminence of the third "C"--Clients. The individuals with the most meaningful relationship to government were those who could pay to play. The Republican party purged its progressives, along with the bipartisan understanding of government as a problem-solver for public goods. "Free market" claptrap on the right silenced opposition. All this occurred while Adam Smith--the economic guru of conservatives--would have been appalled to see what conservative ideologues did with his thoughtful and socially-generous ideas about markets. Smith's goal was to have a carefully regulated free market aid in the development of an inclusive society like an "invisible hand". Not a hand at the throat of American families. Conservative principles were shoved aside in favor of public relations as a governing philosophy. The same well connected companies who got most of the contracts in Iraq also got a disturbing number of contracts for Katrina recovery. The K Street Project--Tom Delay's enterprise of selling access to decision-makers--rose out of this environment. The clients became a cabal.

Which brought us the fourth "C"--Criminals. From Duke Cunningham's defense industry casino to Jack Abramoff's little black book. From Delay's election shenanigans to Ted Stevens' home improvement projects-- at some point many of our elected leaders stopped merely drinking the kool-aid and started mixing it. In 2005, Hamlet could have orated on the marble steps of the Capitol about the rotten stench coming from its innards.

And on Wednesday, we may have switched out some of the lead characters of this play, but the decayed institutions will still be with us. Congress, for example, hasn't been significantly re-organized since the 1940's. There is still no effective division of labor on the Left side of the aisle. And no coherent ideology of progress. The ability of the Right to attack ACORN or dredge up socialism is a prime example of our repressed soul on the Left. We will have among us in the American populace a large faction who feel disenfranchised. If Obama loses, this will be a generation of young, hopeful activists. If McCain loses, this will be an angry, fearful faction of citizens who still feel entitled--call them the playground justice crowd. These are probably the same individuals who are now destroying the Obama signs here in Farmington, New Mexico. And they are the ones that the Republican party will need to own and rehabilitate. Every ruined sign signifies the trend that destroyed their party: Ronald Reagan conservatism may have made people comfortable with prejudice--but George W. Bush conservatism has made people comfortable with being bullies.

I know that the next president has an overwhelming slate of challenges before him, but making legitimate the citizen achievements of this campaign season must be the bedrock of any future steps. This campaign will be won or lost by the multitudes. So will citizenship make a comeback ? We'll know on Wednesday.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.