US right rues civic apathy

March 7, 1997

What chutzpah! After two decades in ascendancy, conservatives have put the question "Is American democracy dying?" at the top of their political agenda. However exasperating it is, Americans committed to redeeming their nation's democratic impulse should attend carefully to this new discourse. Ironically, the right's newly pronounced anxiety may actually be cause for hope.

The question of the health of United States democracy is hardly original. Noting the high cost of campaigns, the power of corporate contributions, the manipulation of the media, and the apathy of voters, now academics and journalists, both liberal and centrist, have been decrying the sorry state of public life for some time.

The question has become all the more urgent in the wake of armed militia, the Oklahoma City bombing and the torching of African-American churches. One feels compelled to restate Franklin D. Roosevelt's warning that "if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force . . . fascism will grow in the land".

The 1996 elections have done little to assuage concerns. Referring to corporate influence, the book Dollars and Sense sadly announced "Democracy For Sale". Also treating the money issue, but at street level, a New York Times story reported how campaign volunteers (most often students) have given way to "hired hands" motivated not by ideology but, rather, by "a weekly paycheck whose size turns on the number of signatures they collect". And last year's made-for-television party conventions and low voter turnout in November, provided still further evidence of the US's apparent political enervation. As the New Republic sarcastically proclaimed: "The One Thing Rich and Poor Share: An Indifference to Politics."

That conservatives have posed the question of democracy's mortality is remarkable. However, to appreciate its significance we need to recognise that the question is being asked universally on the right. In October 1995, the once-liberal but now-conservative social science magazine, Society, arranged a symposium on "The Future of Liberal Democracy". The following month Commentary, the neoconservatives' standard-bearer, asked fellow travellers to respond to the statement: "In the eyes of many observers, the US, which in 1945 entered on the postwar era confident in its democratic purposes and serene in the possession of a common culture, is now, 50 years later, moving toward balkanisation or even breakdown."

In January 1996, the rightwing Heritage Foundation added The Journal of American Citizenship to the title of its Policy Review, to better communicate its new mission: "To restore the tradition of American citizenship by repairing the institutions of civil society and returning to the core political principles of our Founding Fathers." In July, the magazine of paleo-conservativism, Chronicles, organised an issue on "Virtual Democracy"; in September, National Review, the foremost conservative magazine, asked: "Is American Democracy Dying?" and, in November, the cover of the conservative magazine of religion, First Things, asked if we are seeing "The End of Democracy?".

Moreover, as anxious as the "diverse" factions of the right have always been - about the crisis of history, the future of the literary canon, political correctness, multiculturalism, welfare mothers - it has been quite a while since they concerned themselves with questions "democratic". Yet, before we assume that conservatives have realised the need to defend democratic life, it should not be forgotten that the New Right took shape in hostile reaction to the "democratic surge" of the 1960s and rose to power financially empowered by corporate capital, intent on repelling social and radical-democratic advances.

After so many liberal-left defeats and retreats, and conservative efforts to rewrite history, it may be difficult to recall how the struggles for racial and gender equality, combating poverty, ending the war in Vietnam, environmental protection, and workplace reforms, were movements and achievements to extend and deepen US democratic life.

However, the powerful understood it more than progressives. They foresaw that if the several movements came together in solidarity, even greater democratic changes would be forthcoming.

Echoing the fears of the corporate and political elites who sponsored it, and the neoconservative intellectuals who wrote it, the 1975 Trilateral Commission Report, The Crisis of Democracy, nervously declared that America was suffering "an excess of democracy", referring to the struggles from below and the supposed influence of university and media intellectuals. Democracy had to be subdued and, fortunately for the corporate class, mobilising even further to the right were the Reagan Republicans. The rest is history, or, as the conservatives say, "the end of history". A generation later, the conservatives' renewed concern about democracy should not be mistaken for a change of heart. Not only do their writings evidence no sense of either responsibility or regret for what has transpired, but the culprits in the tales they tell remain liberals and leftists. Notable here is Robert Bork's new book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

Neglecting entirely the tyranny of growing corporate power and a liberated and expansive market economy, conservatives continue to attack "big government" and the likes of professors and school-teachers.

Refusing to acknowledge the contradictions between market and family values, they persist in warning about "radical egalitarianism". Ignoring or abusing the memory of popular campaigns to enlarge and enrich democratic life and practices they continue to insist that the answer to the nation's ills is renewed "civic virtue" and "religious fervour".

But this is not just calculated and cynical manipulation of history and values. Twenty years ago conservatives appreciated the democratic promise of the struggles of the day even more than the left. They mobilised successfully.

It is doubtful that conservatives fear the imminent demise of democracy but more that they sense a more familiar "danger". Maybe the right and its corporate backers do have good reason to be worried once again. They may have perceived a resurgence of the nation's democratic impulse in the popular revulsion to the "Gingrich Revolution", the revitalisation of the labour movement and a host of other stirrings on the left.

It does not radically change things if they do. But it gives even more reason to be hopeful that they can engage that democratic impulse and make it, once again, an imperative.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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