Advancing democracy

BY SHAWN GUDE | JANUARY 21, 2011 7:10 AM

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Iowa Democrats don’t appear to be in a good position.

They hold a slim Senate majority in the recently reconvened General Assembly (this after controlling the House, Senate, and governorship). Chet Culver was the first incumbent governor in decades to lose his bid for re-election. And this week, the ascendant GOP assailed the state’s universal preschool program, one of Democrats’ signature accomplishments.

But party leaders and rank-and-file members shouldn’t fret; they should see this, oddly enough, as a felicitous opportunity. Rid of the Culver albatross, the party can advance an unalloyed agenda of citizen empowerment (while parrying Republican attempts to erode marriage-equality gains).

While I’m a registered Democrat, I don’t have an unwavering allegiance to the party. I adhere to the mantra of John A. Johnson, three-term governor of Minnesota and a steadfast progressive: “I care not for party I choose, so long as it stands for the rights of the people.”

Our two-party system doesn’t reflect the ideological heterogeneity of the American polity, and party membership too often leads to unthinking devotion.

But as far as party platforms go, the Iowa Democratic Party has a pretty good one (opposition to corporate personhood, support for the Employee Free Choice Act, opposition to NAFTA). One thing is missing, though: a robust commitment to augmenting citizen agency and addressing power disparities.

A few examples: We need an education policy attuned to the demands of 21st-century democratic citizenship, not just the 21st-century workplace. We need labor legislation — such as repealing the Iowa’s “right to work” status — that enhances the power of employees in the workplace. We need a criminal-justice system that doesn’t incarcerate blacks at such a disproportionately high rate (a phenomenon Michelle Alexander has labeled the “new Jim Crow.”)

We need an Iowa party that values citizen power over centralized paternalism. Too often, those on the left are content with constructing a purportedly benevolent government that performs a panoply of social-welfare functions. Liberals should question concentrated power wherever it resides, however — in corporations, government, or any other sphere.

Sure, conservatives and libertarians are wrong to denigrate government as an alien “other” to decapitate. But liberals should be wary of erecting vast bureaucracies. Democracy requires not a cosseted citizenry but an engaged, informed one. Many social-welfare programs go hand in hand with one’s capacity for engaged citizenship; if you’re lacking basic sustenance, self-government is rather difficult. Above all, though, we need policies that empower the marginalized — not just offer them a handout.

We live in a time of profound powerlessness. Transnational corporations and undemocratic economic organizations (the WTO, IMF, World Bank) have an immense amount of international sway. Our own democracy is hamstrung by unscrupulous actors (politicians without propriety, self-interested lobbyists, and unseemly interest groups) and fact-free discourse. Everywhere ordinary citizens look, they have little say in the decisions and forces that affect their lives.

Ostensibly, it’s an inopportune time to be talking about citizen power and enhancing democracy.

The recession is still with us, despite hefty Wall Street bonuses. Shouldn’t legislators try to restart the economy rather than espousing a grandiose platform of citizen empowerment? To do so might be appealing, but it would be the wrong response. There are few times when people feel more powerless than in a moribund economy, when halcyon stability is a mere memory.

More concerned with wantonly slashing government spending, Iowa Republicans won’t advance an empowerment agenda. It’s up to Iowa Democrats — and citizen advocacy groups — to do so.

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