05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


"We are not only culturally confused, our confusion makes it difficult for us to even imagine our confusion." -- Introduction, The Populist Moment, Lawrence Goodwyn

I've been re-reading Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment at the suggestion of the brilliant George Goehl from National People's Action, though it seems lots of people I talk to are reading it right now, and for good reason. I'll write more soon about the general lessons I've taken from the book for mass mobilization in today's environment, but in the meantime, I'm thinking about the recent elections in Iraq and the recent turmoil between Obama and the Democrats and the left. Goodwyn describes how once-agrarian and revolution-prone nations like the United States sought through industrialization to centralize power and covertly quash any democratic impulses. The tool of such subtle domination is culture--"the creation of mass modes of thought that literally make the need for major additional social changes difficult for the mass of the population to imagine." Today, despite stolen presidential elections, Supreme Court rulings handing more political buying power to big business, and health care reform legislation that is fundamentally a good idea but repeatedly sunk by the greedy insurance industry, that we the people continue to buy into the modern myth of democracy simply allows oligarchy to persist unchallenged. As a populace, we are complicit in our silence.

The progress from the industrial age to the information age didn't change Goodwyn's thesis. In fact, it solidified it. Now we have supposed "digital democracy"--a democracy so strong and far-reaching that we can vote for America's next Idol and crowd source our news instead of relying on stodgy, fact-based reporting. In the era of the Populist movement and the industrial revolution, democracy was a dazzling distraction in the wake of hard-won enfranchisement for women and people of color and landless white men as well as new immigrants, and with rapid urbanization leading to a shared sense of public and investment in political participation never before realized. But we have turned the naïve illusion of real democracy into outright farce. Virtual democracy. Our votes count in Second Life so what does real life really matter?

Do the Iraqis really think that--in a political context where their country was destroyed by outside national and corporate interests and its greatest resources (like oil) sold to the control of major multinationals--picking between candidates of one tribe or another who are all in the corrupt pockets of the corporations means democracy is blossoming in Mesopotamia? While it was heartening to see millions of long-disenchanted Americans renew their spirit in electoral politics to rally around the candidacy of Barack Obama, is our general disappointment a year into his presidency any surprise--not as a reflection on the President himself but of the fundamentally elite, anti-democratic, pro-big business nature of our nation?

The result of the political consolidation of power, says Goodwyn, is the "gradual erosion of democratic aspirations among whole populations." Translation: We don't think much can change because we've lost faith that we the people can change things, we got our hopes up that Obama could ride into town and that he could change things, but we're in the middle of a rude awakening. Amidst an economic crisis that is causing double digit employment, record foreclosures, employers cutting benefits, Congress argues about whether to extend the most basic of unemployment benefits while handing out billions to the big banks. It's critical that we see this moment not as a unique snapshot in one new presidency amidst an economic downturn but rather a moment of truth bared in a too-long history of elite interests playing puppet with our government and deceiving us all that democracy is the rule.

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