09/09/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Democracy Matters

Political and income inequality grow in tandem. The two create a self-reinforcing cycle. Increased economic inequality has its mirror image in political inequality. Those whose share of the national income is growing are increasingly able to shape the political process to their own economic advantage. Others are relegated to relative powerlessness. Democracy is eviscerated. The flood of private money inundating the political system with the Supreme Court's blessing has meant that there has been no Congressional push-back again economic polarization.

Recently the Federal Reserve Board released a study illustrating the contrasting fates of most Americans compared to the moneyed elite. The study reports that between 2010 and 2013 "only families at the very top of the income distribution saw widespread income gains...." But families in the middle to upper middle parts of the income distribution "saw little change in average real incomes," while families at the bottom of the income distribution "saw continued substantial declines in average real incomes...." In brief, during these years the median income for all families in the United States fell, but the top 10 percent saw their incomes increase. 1

Obviously, those of us who want to reverse the trend and achieve a more egalitarian America face a formidable challenge: how to reduce the political dominance of the super-rich at a time when they continue to use their wealth to enhance their political clout.

There is only one way to counter the political power of money. Large numbers of people, mobilized in support of legislation that would enhance the relative status of the middle class and the poor, are necessary. A social movement is needed. Such movements have secured big victories both in the past and more recently. Yet with the exception of the evanescent Occupy Wall Street effort, no movement to oppose the growth of political and economic oligarchy has appeared in the United States. As a result the trend in that direction continues unabated.

Social movements require a vision to inspire activist commitment and work, but to date progressives who seek a more egalitarian society have lacked such a unifying clarion call. In contrast, the political Right, in its defense of inequality, articulates an easily understood rallying message. Reduce the size of government is its mantra, behind which lies the objective of gutting expenditures on policies and programs that are useful to most Americans, but which the rich understand only as income-reducing taxation.

What is required is a progressive policy objective; one with which a large swath of people can identify and which holds out the real possibility of advancing their personal well-being.

A call for greater political equality achieved by publicly financing the electoral campaigns of candidates for Congress could fill that function. It would offer the vision of a Congress composed of legislators who, in contrast to today's incumbents, would be responsive to their constituents rather than to their paymasters. The promise would be that the economic policies such a Congress would adopt would be designed to benefit the many rather than the few.

The experience of Democracy Matters, a campus-based organization working to reduce the dominance of private wealth in politics (of which I am a co-founder) has demonstrated that a receptive audience exists for this argument. During the last thirteen years, DM has awarded internships to an average of fifty undergraduates annually at different schools whose task is to build Democracy Matters chapters on their campuses. As a result as many as 5,000 students have become core members of an organization whose explicit objective is to make the political process more responsive to voters than is the case at present. There is a real potential for this success to blossom into a movement with political clout, organizing for a deepened democracy that itself could be the vehicle to a less class-divided America. 2

For such movement to develop, organizers are needed who are willing to engage in what may appear to be contradictory objectives. They must work both to fundamentally change the political system, while at the same time participating in it. Occupy's failure occurred because most of its participants were not willing to do the latter. They did not recognize that movement pressure from the outside can secure lasting achievements only if it ultimately results in legislation.

Democracy Matters' experience has shown that young people, as in the past, can play an important role in a democratic renaissance. But the full expression of that latent capability awaits the time when the older generation -- both on campus and off -- provides the support that young people need. Money will be required. The young people who participated in Freedom Summer in 1964 could not have established Freedom Schools and engaged in voter registration efforts without the financial support of progressive adults. But just as important is that adults join young people in grassroots organizing efforts. The power of a mobilized citizenry is the leverage that can induce reluctant politicians to set the country on a new course.

1. Jesse Bricker et al, "Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2010 to 2013: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances," Federal Reserve Bulletin (September 2014) Vol. 100, no. 4) p. 1, 2 and Table 1.
2. To learn more about the Democracy Matters experience see Jay R. Mandle and Joan D. Mandle, Change Elections to Change America: Democracy Matters Student Organizers in Action ( Westport Ct: Prospecta Press, 2014).