Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Democracy: Balancing private wealth with public voice

Today I found myself re-reading something Marshall Ganz wrote years ago about the historical roots of organizing in this country. Given our concern about the recent court cases that have magnified the problem of money in politics, his opening quote is even more profound today.
“Democracy is based on the promise that equality of voice can balance inequality of resources.” Prof. Sidney Verba, Harvard University, 1993.
Next, he quotes de Tocqueville.
In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.
In commenting on de Tocqueville's observations about our civic associations, Ganz says:
In other words, he saw that we had learned that the choices a few people make about how to use their money could be balanced by choices many people make about how to use their time.
He then goes on to summarize various movements in our history. What de Tocqueville observed was soon challenged by a different kind of organization.
Late in the 19th century, however, other currents began to run counter to this populist, if not always progressive, form of association. A new form of large-scale organization took root...the national corporation. But unlike the civic association, the object of which was to amplify the voice of its members, the corporation was designed for control. The authority of its leadership based on property, not voice, it enabled the few to efficiently — and profitably — harness the effort of the many.
Labor unions and the New Deal initially provided a balance that was later followed by the civil rights, anti-war, women's and environmental movements.

What struck me is that Ganz included something that many other commentators leave out - the social work movement. It is where much of the nonprofit world as we know it today is rooted.
Traditional social work ignored the power disparity most often responsible for poverty, and treated its victims as clients seeking public patronage, rather than citizens able to act together to make their voices heard and thus do something about the power disparity responsible for the problem in the first place.
He also described something most of us are very familiar with today: a market driven approach to advocacy and electoral politics.
...fueled by new targeting, fund raising, and information technologies that replaced constituency based organizing with direct marketing techniques...professional activists began mobilizing individuals to support their causes by contributing money rather than organizing them to act together.
All of that is the historical context for what developed in the 80's and is still at work today.
...the conservative movement had...channeled its energy into a deep restructuring of the relationship of public institutions - and the organized groups to whom they afforded influence – to private wealth. New challenges facing government, rather than providing an impetus to reform, became an excuse to outsource its functions - to the private sector if there was money to be made, to the nonprofit sector if there was not. And these institutions, whether for profit or not for profit — and whether large scale or small scale — assumed a traditional corporate form. As a result, the scope of citizenship itself as way to balance private wealth with public voice, narrowed, as we became “customers” of the private sector or “clients” of non-profit funders.
I want to stop there and just say "wow!" That is perspective you're not likely to hear from any other source. But based on my experience in politics, advocacy and the nonprofit world, I think he nailed it. What runs through almost all of that is the theme of organizations taking on the "traditional corporate form." I'll remind you of part of the quote from up above:
But unlike the civic association, the object of which was to amplify the voice of its members, the corporation was designed for control.
No wonder JFK's words about "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," have been replaced by "what have you done for me lately?" Someone else is in control and we are simply customers/clients of their power.

What strikes me is that if we as liberals want to work towards a "democracy that is based on the equality of voice," we need to not simply challenge corporate power - but the corporate mindset that has been embraced by so many of our institutions.

But before we can even get there, I am reminded of what Al Giordano wrote about "the Wall Street within" in response to the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Wall Street, ahem, isn’t just in your wallet: It’s in everything you own, rent, use, borrow, find or steal. It’s also in the “identities” and roles we put on and take off in each department of our daily lives. And one should never worry as much about the police on the much as one should be very concerned about the cop in one’s head...- the invading army in our innermost thoughts and fears that polices our very behavior, officers of the psyche that we all have, through unspoken fears, invited into our brains and hearts...

In a world where the advertising industry shouts that “everybody is connected,” that’s really to distract from the alienation imposed by an over-mediated technological society. Maybe your family, your relationship, your classroom, your workplace, your home, your building, your neighbors are so caught up in dysfunction and the food chain of domination of one person over another that everything within you screams for an EXIT sign and that you must go out and find that place where you can see a path to begin to drive Wall Street out of your body, the cop out of your head, and the imposed loneliness of residing in a technological “paradise” out of your aching heart.
If your aching heart is screaming for an EXIT sign from the domination of one person over another - its time to take the off ramp. That might be the first step in finding a way for us to work in partnership and develop a public voice.

I'll leave you with the call President Obama gave to us all at the 2012 Democratic Convention.


  1. Nancy thank you - this is exactly the point we must understand! I work for an organization that is very poorly funded, has few professional staff, but seeks to mobilize people to speak for themselves on major issues that often involve standing up to big money and bigger corporate and other organizations. And IT WORKS! We have a very diverse body of thoughtful, progressive people who take protecting and using democracy very seriously. Time after time when we have taken on major policy concerns that require having people stand up for what they want in public policy and moral positions we have won. One of the things unattended in the passage and implementation of ACA is the role of democratic activism in both those achievements. Pundits argue from their easy chairs that it was a 'backroom deal' with Pharma and big insurance, but ACA pleases neither group because people spoke up about what they wanted in health care and spoke out about the essential act of passing it. In the famous photo of Democratic leadership walking together to the Capitol to pass ACA, every single media outlet cropped out the long line of supporters from young to old, blue collar folks, clergy, and families standing clapping and cheering as they passed by. By refusing to acknowledge that WE, the PEOPLE secured the ACA, naysayers continue to pretend the people have no power. But they DO! Voices do at least equal money, and most of the time they outpace it. Democracy is NOT a spectator sport - it requires engagement. The only way we lose is when we allow ourselves to be silent, to be silenced. Voting is not enough - it takes organization, agitation, firm commitment, and weekly if not daily engagement with those whom we have elected. Stand your ground for us means something positive - vocalizing the wants and vision we have for our nation and our people. We cannot be beaten if we do.

    1. What an excellent response Churchlady to an excellent article! Thanks.


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