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Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy.

This book is for the believers," writes William Greider toward the end of this long, valuable, alternately dispiriting (because true) and inspiring (because passionate) book.* By believers he does not mean believers that--readers who came to his chronicle of everyday corruption already persuaded that corporate power, two-party collusion, campaign finance payoffs, the pas de deux of Congress and lobbyists, tax hustles, runaway factones, media complacency, and the all-around reign of the Smooth Deal have overwhelmed a feeble democracy. Greider musters plenty of evidence that powerful institutions (chiefly top corporations) have manifold means of accumulating and protecting their power, including the bolstering of federal power to override local regulations, the bending of laws by regulators and their corporate sponsors, and the collusion of Congress in the process, so that, for exampie, the S&L calamity could be kept out of sight until after the 1988 elections.

This book contains pathology reports by the score, but it is more than an anatomy of the wounds in the body politic-economic. Greider has a keen eye--particularly in his curtain-raiser about mass mobilization by corporate lobbies and his chapter on the polyform nature of General Electric's political interests and talems. But his sector-by-sector analyses of abuse, important as they are, are not his principal contribution. Rather, it is the controlled anger that animates this book---a sign of his wish to speak to, and for, "believers in"---in the popular participation that interest-group politics has eroded.

Thus his criticism is not only broad but deep. No technical fixes will do, no 12-step program to a happier democracy--although Greider is not averse to unfashionable reform specifics, like raising the minimum wage to fight poverty. His framework is his greatest originality: He harnesses a shrewd analysis of how policy goes wrong to a radical, principled invocation of the democratic renewal it would take to right things. If this occasionally gives his book a sentimental ring--as in the poor title, which has the feel of one of those folk songs that very few folk sing--at least he is clear about what he is doing: proposing "a new parable... a story of national purpose that faces the present realities maturely but does not sacrifice the country's youthful idealism and inventiveness and self-confidence."

Greider has no bogeyman theory. Even the corporate lobbyists have their reasons for acting as they do-they have simply been in a position to adapt to party erosion, political professionalization, and bipartisan Washington gridlock more efficiently than other interest groups. He is not satisfied with ticking off irrefutable facts about lobbying, tax policy, capital flight, etc. Rather, he aims to demonstrate that citizenship has become--had to become--"miniaturized" as its governing functions were parceled out to professionals, and that only replenished participation can loosen the hold of irresponsible interests.

In the Washington that Greider describes more tellingly than a thousand newspaper pages, the professionalization of politics obscures the deeper questions of value that ought to be the substance of political debate. When the dominant form of discourse is cost-benefit analysis--and costs are easier to quantify than benefits--political argument becomes technical, and the interested parties, who hire the lion's share of the technical experts, have an easy time controlling the game.

Against the organized interests that virtually monopolize political decisionmaking and the politicians who make careers in the interstices, Greider arrays independent citizen groups--those Tocqueville thought would prove to be the integument of democracy but which have largely been severed from governance. He likes the irregulars but is not uncritical of them. Each of the three principal styles--identified with Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Nader, and Saul Alinsky--has its limits as well as its virtues. The moral style of "movement" politics is too easily contained within narrow constituencies:

Environmental activists may save dolphins by harassing Starkist Tuna--dolphins, after all, are objects of universal human affection--but public outrage is not so easily harnessed to the dense task of rewriting federal regulations or the difficult class issues embedded in government economic policy. Moral outrage simply does not reach to the fine print of hollow laws or bureaucratic dealmaking and can be easily deflected into false victories. Meanwhile, the public audience hears so many competing moral claims, it may instead feel benumbed or skeptical. The politics of moral drama, furthermore, leads invariably to a preoccupation with the news media--even dependency on them .... To capture the media's wandering eye, frustrated causes find themselves escalating the terms of theatricality to the level of bizarre stunts or ersatz versions of civil disobedience .... In the competition for attention, the outlandish and fraudulent drive out what is sober and real.

As for Nader-style watchdog politics, it "engages the energies of thousands of citizens and produces regular victories, some of them quite spectacular... [but] usually defines citizens in the narrow role of aggrieved consumers and assumes that ordinary people are capable of functioning as the equivalent of bank examiners." The public interest movement, like its goo-goo progressive predecessors, is confined to the upper middle class and fails to widen the circle of political adepts.

What Greider wants is small-d democratic, small-r republican politics--open debate on open agendas openly arrived at. He wants parties vastly different from today's fundraising machines--parties that enrich life. (When was the last time anyone you knew went to a party meeting for anything other than a professional reason?) The closest models Greider can find are the local and regional organizations based on Alinsky's precedents--impressive, where they exist, as face-to-face alternatives to soundbite politics. Especially given the collapse of unions and the difficulty of stopping the global traffic in capital by local means, a new generation of organizers is looking to the community rather than the workplace to influence politics. Jim Sleeper, too, in The Closest of Strangers, gravitated to Alinsky-based, cross-racial organizations when he went looking for hope in the cities. But Greider, despite his romanticism, harbors no illusions about these grassroots assemblages. They always seem to be beginning. They do not know how--perhaps they never will be able--to clump together nationally: "The citizens' new tactics also condemn them to a more or less permanent state of isolation. They may succeed at delivering potent messages to those in power, but this does not get them any closer to developing a relationship with the formal structure that decides things." They are still clamoring to change last year's policies when the executive, the Congress, and the lobbies are already putting together next year's. But Greider, too, has trouble formulating a solution to the limits of present-day movements, except to invoke a not-yet-imagined One Big Movement. As William Morris' utopian narrator said in News From Nowhere, "if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream."

Finally, what does it say about Amencan journalism that several of our foremost political reporters-- all currently or formerly employed by The Washington Post--have in the past year published indispensable books on the causes of our political decay? E.J. Dionne Jr.'s Why Americans Hate Politics, Thomas B. and Mary Edsall's Chain Reaction, and Greider's book share a marriage of street smarts and theoretical sophistication. In certain respects, despite Greider's invocation of the not-so-bad old days when grizzled, no-nonsense reporters spoke in the populist voice to and for working-class readers, the rise of reporters with restless minds, even Ivy League degrees, is a good thing. It says that inside at least one of the institutions of the current order there is a conscience-- which is probably the best thing one can say for it. These reporters all have their feet on the ground and their eyes on the prize.

And despite important differences, they share a considerable overlap, and their arguments are largely compatible. Christopher Hitchens has aptly said that Dionne's book amounts to "leftist analysis, centfist conclusions"; the Edsalls have come in for their share of (in my view unwarranted) criticism for racial insensitivity; and Greider is the most disaffected (as befits the national editor of Rolling Stone); but all believe that a self-serving political class of Democrats --even Democrats with ideals, like the reporters themselves--have for more than two decades abandoned their old ambition to speak to a majority. None of these writers believes that the media are blameless in the gutting of democracy, but neither do they blame all, or most, of the brainlessness of politics on the shrinking soundbite. They are appalled that the almost-poor subsidize the poor--insofar as anyone does--while the rich get tax breaks. All believe that cross-class, cross-race alliances centered on economic reorganization can get the country off the dead and declining center. And all are less than enamored of the rise to power--by money, by default, and even by ideals--of their own, largely white, largely suburban class. Dionne and the Edsalls would, I daresay, agree with this summary statement of Greider's: "The present system provides no reliable mechanism to represent the people on the most important governing questions--no institution that is cormrotted to listening to them and to speaking for them, no organization that mobilizes the potential strength of people and uses it to confront the rival power of organized money. The problem of modern democracy is rooted in its neglect of unorganized people."

This remarkable confluence of opinion says to me not only that Ben Bradlee had good hiring judgment, but that those who know American politics best are most disgusted with it. It says to me, further, that quality journalism hires our most acute political analysts and then, under pressure of deadlines and the imperative of piling up disconnected information, has no place for their best work. (It did not make major national news that, as Greider puts it, "In Ronald Reagan's White House, it was the office of vice president that was designated as the chief fixer for aggrieved business interests.") These analysts have had to save their most astute observations for the forum that has the least clout with the general public and the most with the self-same political class they suspect-- books.

This gives Greider's book, in particular, an unintended pathos. He is skeptical, after all, that ideas change history. "A democratic insurgency does not begin with ideas, as intellectuals presume, or even with great political leaders who seize the moment. It originates among the ordinary people who find the will to engage themselves with their surrounding reality and to question the conflict between what they are told and what they see and experience." Without illusions about the practical capacities of the populace or the good will of the powerful, Greider has committed to paper more than a checklist of depredations. He has issued that most American variety of manifesto: an act of faith.

Todd Gitfin is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Inside Prime Time; The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; and the forthcoming novel, The Murder of Albert Einstein.

* Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy. William Greider. Simon & Schuster, $25.
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Author:Gitlin, Todd
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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