If Not Now When?


How We Fail at Democracy, How It Fails Us

James Preston Allen, Publisher

We spend a lot of time in this country talking or posturing about defending democracy. How many times have we gone to war in the past 100 years on this very premise?

Yet, I am constantly reminded of how often we don’t live up to those hallowed words, let alone the intent behind them.  The recent U.S. Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture, the egregious acts of brutality by various police agencies against people of color and the militarization of police forces nationwide all lead me to question once again, the “rule of law” and its service in protecting our liberties and freedom.

If we cannot trust those who are sworn to protect us, then who do we trust? It’s that part about “liberty and justice for all” that seems to get lost in the execution.

My friend William Below Jr., who is now working for a think tank in Paris, France, recently handed me a white paper entitled, “The Trust Dividend–Governments That Don’t Rely on Coercion Must Ultimately Count on Trust.”  In it, he wrote, “That trust is at an historic low.”

Surely one example of this is the abysmal turnout in the midterm elections which was at a 72 year low of 36.4 percent of eligible voters or nearly half of those who voted 2008 presidential election.

“In trust there are no firewalls between the public and private sectors,” Below continued in the report. “The unchecked greed, unwarranted risk-taking and reckless practices that sparked the financial meltdown and that have made the financial industry the least trusted private sector institution globally, are paralleled by glaring failures in government regulation and oversight.”

This observation only confirms what most of us already understand by reading the news or listening to our neighbors complain about everything from their taxes to their cable TV bills.

Friends and colleagues ask me from where I get my outrage.  And I reply, “How can you not be?” It’s a bit like the 1976 film, Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky.

In it,  Howard Beale, the long time news anchor on UBS played by Peter Finches, goes on TV after he was fired and exclaims, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”  That’s probably one of the most memorable film lines ever.

The outrage does not just come from the killings of black men in Ferguson, MO, or New York City or Ohio. The outrage doesn’t just come from the revelations of sanctioned torture of prisoners under the George W. Bush Administration’s War on Terror. The outrage doesn’t even come from former Vice President Dick Cheney going on national TV saying that “he’d do it all over again.” Never mind the fact that the practice yielded scant intelligence.

I suppose his full-throated defense of the torture tactics was personal to Cheney. But from my perspective, he’d be at the top of the list of war criminals that should be indicted. Like the Wall Street Banksters who robbed the poor to give to the rich, the long arm of justice doesn’t ever seem long enough to reach those who call the shots.

It’s not even the biggest of these failures that undermines the public trust. It is the accumulation of smaller transgressions, petty corruptions and indifference to public transparency in our smallest institutions (whether public or non-profit) that’s most aggravating.

On the local level, the transgressions of the public trust caused by conflicts of interest are hardly noticed if not condoned outright. These transgressions are often caused by good intentioned people never realizing they have crossed the ethical line between public service and personal gain. Yet we expect places with a longer history of corruption with fewer democratic traditions to be better.

The failure of democracy on the world stage is exactly the same kind of failure of democracy at home.  If the past few wars haven’t taught us anything else, they should have taught us that we can’t give people freedom by coercion at the point of a gun, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or even now in Ferguson.

We can only lead by example. And right now, we are failing miserably at it.  Our failure is our own lack of faith in our own creed of universal rights and liberties, and our inability to practice them locally. The question really comes down to whether we trust ourselves?


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