Democracy in the streets

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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For anyone who’s been to a handful of political rallies or protests, the chant is familiar: “This is what democracy looks like.”

The phrase, while ubiquitous, remains potent because it is a reaffirmation of the power of democratic citizens, a resounding rejoinder to those who would have you believe that democracy is just about politicians and Election Day participation. It’s also a succinct summation of pro-collective bargaining protesters’ position on a deeper, less visible debate.

You see, in addition to the collective bargaining conflagration there’s a less overt — yet incredibly important — dispute over electoral mandates and, consequently, democratic citizenship.

The debate plays out something like this: Defenders of anti-collective bargaining Republicans argue that voters swept the GOP into power to shrink government and restore fiscal discipline after years of profligacy. “Elections have consequences,” they say. Because Republicans won, their anti-labor policy proposals are inherently legitimate.

Implicit in this line of argument is that citizen agency should be restricted to electoral politics. Mass protests and acts of civil disobedience are unnecessary when a freely elected majority is enacting its preferred policies, whatever they may be.

But those who espouse this position confer a sort of monarchical power on elected officials once they’re in office. Citizens are mere vassals, almost incidental to the workings of the political process.

Opponents correctly acknowledge that, yes, voters roundly rejected Democrats and brought scores of Republicans into office. The political power accorded to Republicans will allow them to pass legislation Democrats find unpalatable. Such is the reality of electoral defeat.

But this doesn’t give elected officials carte blanche to pass anything. The interval between elections isn’t a time to remain supine as politicians seek to strip workers of their basic rights. In short, voters elect representatives; they don’t anoint kings and queens.

(I would also argue that any electoral mandate Republicans do possess is a weak one. In most cases, Republicans won not because they had a more compelling vision for the country, but because the moribund economy was an albatross around Democrats’ neck.)

Pro-labor protesters in Iowa, Wisconsin, and around the Midwest exemplify this more robust conception of democracy, one that values citizen agency over post-election complacency.

Elections are important. They provide voters with an accountability mechanism and spur conversation about some of the most important topics of the day. (They’ve also, unfortunately, become more about candidates than issues, more about marketing a product than making decisions about the problems that confront us as a polity.)

But reducing citizenship to merely voting for elites is a fatuous bastardization of democracy.
That’s why, though partly unsurprising, it’s been heartening to see liberals embrace these pro-worker protesters and their more robust conception of democracy. They’re right to see the pitfalls of unalloyed mandates.

There’s some blinkered partisanship at work here too, though: When Tea Partiers were packing town-hall meetings and protesting what they regarded as a radically pernicious health-care bill, lots of liberals self-satisfactorily argued that “elections have consequences.” Congressional Democrats and President Obama should be given free rein to do what they want; the voters have already spoken.

Some on the left — especially Democratic apparatchiks — are now adopting the opposite stance. Republicans are acting dictatorially. The people elected Terry Branstad and Scott Walker to be governors, not despots. The GOP is expounding views contrary to vox populi.

Small-d democrats should embrace grass-roots activism and engaged citizenship regardless of its ideological hue, however.

Tea Partiers’ ire over health-care reform is just as warranted as liberals’ apoplexy over collective-bargaining legislation. Both are, indeed, what democracy looks like.

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