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Democratizing the United States.

Liberals have traditionally been concerned with liberty, rights, justice, and equality--in short, the ideals of "liberal democracy." True, the original liberals, beginning with Adam Smith's generation, interpreted democratic ideals as applying only to white men who owned a certain amount of property. But a truly egalitarian democracy was implicit in their rhetoric from the start, though it was only gradually implemented by later generations. Thus, liberalism has become more liberal with age-so much so that its original tenets are now regarded as extreme conservatism. Laissez-faire, for instance, was one of the main planks of the eighteenth-century "liberal" economic platform.

Since about 1980, however, the trend toward an increasingly liberal liberalism has been reversed. Democratic candidates who 20 years ago would have been called moderate liberals are now called "too liberal to win." This reflects a general shift to the right in American politics, under the impact of a sick economy whose symptoms were blamed--rightly or wrongly--on liberal economics. Double-digit inflation and sky-high interest rates in the late 1970s were widely seen as discrediting the Keynesian principles of deficit finance that liberal economists had prescribed for decades as the remedy for recession. Tax-and-spend liberals" then became the chief devils in the old-time conservative religion preached by Ronald Reagan and his supply-side deacons, led by Milton Friedman (ironically, a disciple of Adam Smith, one of the original "liberals").

The debacle of liberal economics in turn cast doubt on liberalism in general, so that the term liberal itself became a kind of political slur, and successfully pinning it on one's opponent increasingly became a way to win elections. To cope with the harsh new political climate, the Democratic Party was forced to become more centrist," which is to say less liberal. If this rightward trend continues, the moderate Democrats of tomorrow will resemble today's conservative Republicans, whereas the latter will then be the equivalent of today's ultra-conservatives.

Bill Clinton's election represents a victory for the new Democratic centrism. Clinton has distanced himself from many of the liberal economic and fiscal policies advocated by oldstyle Democrats because voters were clearly disenchanted with those policies. But during the Reagan-Bush era, much of the public also became disenchanted with liberal political ideals as well. This was reflected in widespread support for (or at least acquiescence in) more than a decade of regressive policies in such areas as equal opportunity, civil rights, social welfare, and environmental protection. The past two administrations were also notable for an erosion of First Amendment rights, for more government secrecy, censorship, and repression, and for an increasing centralization of power in the executive branch--in short, a drift toward authoritarianism and away from democratic ideals.

If the Clinton administration wants to maintain the support of its more liberal constituencies, it must help to restore the good name of liberalism by reaffirming those ideals of liberal democracy that were trampled under by the Reagan and Bush administrations. At the same time, it must remain true to its pledge to discard those elements of old-style liberal economics that proved to be counterproductive. There are, however, a few obstacles in the way.

Unfortunately, most Americans do not yet fully realize how reactionary the Reagan and Bush administrations were--and the press, for the most part, is now interested in other things. Thus, the illusion is fostered that the past two administrations represented nothing out of the ordinary. Twelve years of reactionary propaganda and daily exposure, via the media, to the regressive-thinking-in-action of top government officials produced in much of the public a passive acceptance of illiberal, anti-democratic attitudes. And since Clinton seems so anxious not to offend public opinion--even when it is misguided--there is a real danger that he will fail to use the power and influence of his office to help rehabilitate liberal democratic ideals.

One of the worst illusions fostered by the political rhetoric of both parties is that America already is a fully democratic society, with little room for further democratization. We hold up our own nation as a model for others to emulate; we condemn governments that we judge to be "undemocratic " This rhetoric of democracy is obligatory in politicians because it makes voters feel good about themselves and their country. But it obscures the fact that there is plenty of room for more actual democracy in American life.

For instance, most people spend about half of their waking hours in workplaces that are run according to authoritarian--not democratic--principles. Employees in the typical corporation have absolutely no voice in the crucial decisions that affect them most directly and profoundly--decisions such as what to produce, where to produce it, and how to produce it (not to mention how much to pay those who produce it). Like authoritarian states, most corporations are based upon centralized power, bureaucratic hierarchy, anti-democratic controls, and an absence of individual initiative and autonomy. It is therefore not surprising that the millions of Americans who work for large corporations--and the majority do--develop the psychological traits needed to survive under authoritarian rule: obedience, conformity, subservience, and fear of responsibility.

Such conditioning in turn affects a people's political behavior. True democracy depends upon the existence of many independent, self-disciplined, and innovative citizens who are willing to accept responsibility for their own decisions. But the psychological traits developed from years of fitting in" (and, thus, keeping one's job) in a corporate hierarchy are just the opposite. Although voting every year or two may technically make us a political democracy, a noticeable lack of democracy in the workplace is a far more basic fact of life for most people.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, there has been an erosion of democratic ideals in government during this century parallel to the growth of large corporations. This erosion has been most visible since the end of World War II, accelerating during the Reagan-Bush era. The increase of presidential power mentioned earlier is one of its chief manifestations.

Historian Arthur Schesinger coined the term imperial presidency to refer to the increased authority of modem presidents. Ronald Reagan and George Bush may have contributed more to the growth of executive-branch power than any of their predecessors. For example, even as Reagan was professing to favor less centralization, he was strengthening his own control over the budget and calling for more extensive CIA activities inside the country (with less congressional surveillance)--both of which increased central authority. At the same time, he used "invisible government" to extend his power beyond its official limits. Iran-contra was just the tip of the iceberg.

One of the most potent methods of invisible government is the president's authority to determine foreign and domestic policy through secret National Security Directives. Such directives cover a virtually unlimited field of action, shaping policy which may be radically different from that stated publicly by the White House and which may involve interference with First Amendment rights, initiation of activities leading to war, the subversion of democratically elected foreign governments, or the commitment of billions of dollars in loan guarantees--all without congressional approval or even knowledge.

The Reagan administration wrote more than 320 NSDs on everything from the future of Micronesia to ways of keeping the government going after a nuclear holocaust. The Bush administration, as of early 1992, had written more than 100 NSDs on subjects ranging from the drug wars to nuclear weaponry to aid to Saddam Hussein. Not one of these directives has been declassified or released to Congress. The Bush administration even refused to release the unclassified NSDs!

Reagan also involved the government in systematic censor, ship activities. Federal employees, for example, were required to sign a form that allowed them to be prosecuted for divulging not only classified information but that which is nonclassified but classifiable"--a deliberately vague, Catch-22 category that allowed most would-be whistleblowers to be harassed. Under Reagan, foreign nationals were denied entry into the United States because of their political and ideological beliefs, among them Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, playwright Dario Fo, author Carlos Fuentes, actress Franca Rame, novelist Doris Lessing, and NATO Deputy Supreme Commander Nino Pasti.

The Reagan administration even placed an embargo on magazines and newspapers from Cuba, North Vietnam, and Albania and confiscated certain Iranian books purchased by television journalists abroad-not because these materials contained government secrets but because they were believed to contain information the administration did not want Americans to know. The trend toward a system of official censorship is clear.

Although Clinton will no doubt be judged by future historians on his ability to reform the health-care system and reduce the federal deficit, he will just as surely be judged on the strength of his commitment to democratization and decentralization--not only in foreign nations but in the United States as well.

Unfortunately, there are strong forces working against greater democracy and decentralization at the federal level. For one thing, an increase of presidential power is facilitated by the gridlock, partisan bickering, and corruption of Congress. As congressional legislators lose the public's respect, the stature and authority of the executive branch naturally grow. Unless Congress can get its act together soon, the imperial presidency is likely to become even more imperial under Clinton.

For another thing, central authority tends to increase in times of great social upheaval. In republican Rome, for example, Augustus was delegated vast powers by the Roman senate to restore order during a chaotic period of rioting, looting, and political corruption. Similarly, at the end of medieval feudalism, most of Europe was plunged into a period of anarchy, civil war, and peasant rebellions, followed immediately by a concentration of power in the hands of absolute monarchs.

The recent uprising in Los Angeles may be a harbinger of more civil disturbances to come. Certainly the continuing deterioration of the inner cities does not bode well for domestic tranquility. If so, there will be great pressure on the president to deal with any future unrest through executive orders and directives that impose draconian measures. A power-hungry president might use such a situation to persuade Congress to legislate a permanent increase of executive-branch authority. Therefore, a major test for the Clinton administration will be whether or not it can reverse the decay of the inner cities, thus defusing the potential for further violence, before authoritarian tactics become necessary. Given the size of the federal deficit, finding the money to do so will be difficult.

But even if Clinton finds it impossible to deimperialize" the presidency, he can still help to bring about greater democracy and decentralization in the workplace. Studies indicate that almost any move toward a more democratic and egahtarian structure increases effectiveness, innovation, and productivity. Since this is exactly what American businesses need for success, the new administration can simultaneously achieve its goal of making America more competitive and help to fulfill the promise of American democratic ideals by providing incentives to businesses committed to greater worker involvement, ownership, and control.

It is time we stopped talking about democracy and started practicing it where we spend our most productive hours: at work. This, in turn, will help create among average citizens those psychological traits that will make further democratization of the political system possible.

Gary Doore has a doctorate in the philosophy of religion from Oxford University. He is a freelance writer living in San Diego, California, and is presently working on a study of authoritarianism and the new progressive social movements.
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Title Annotation:humanism, civil liberties, and politics
Author:Doore, Gary
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1993
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