Tuesday, August 3, 2010

We the People: Are We in Charge?

Last night my husband Douglas Smyth, who writes about politics and economics, mentioned Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in the New York Times “Defining Prosperity Down” Krugman expresses concern that “those in power will soon declare that high unemployment is “structural” –a permanent part of the economic landscape.” Where is the public outrage at this cavalier government acceptance of high unemployment, my husband wondered? People, he said, have become so passive.

At which point, I became outraged. Who is passive I wanted to know? Aren’t many of us signing petitions and making phone calls to representatives almost daily? And before the invasion of the Iraq, didn’t people take to the streets in large numbers in almost every small town and city in the country not to mention the rest of the world? Don’t people organize and join boycotts? (I had just that day written to CEOs at Target who are now exercising their rights as a “corporate person” to buy elections.) Don’t people volunteer in the political campaigns of those they believe will make a difference? I make no claim to being a model activist. But I am not passive or indifferent, and I don’t believe that most people are no matter what their political stripe or lack thereof.

It is a time-honored axiom that those in power cannot govern without the consent of the governed. But I wonder if that is true. Along with many people, I keep saying no: no to our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, no to tax breaks for the wealthiest one percent, no to energy policies that insist on off-shore drilling with only a nod to alternative energy sources, no to the aforementioned Supreme Court decision, no to eliminating provisions that would provide jobs and extend unemployment benefits, no to cutting services to the working poor. No, no, no! I am not consenting. No!

In this country we pride ourselves on our freedom of speech; we exercise it relentlessly (on the internet, anyway). But who is listening? Our speech may be free, but it seems to have little power to move anyone in power. The problem, I believe, lies not with The People (who are not monolithic and probably never will be) but with the accountability and transparency of those in power. And who is in power, anyway: the elected officials or those who finance their campaigns? How do We the People hold our economic and political elite accountable? Voting? Petitioning? Lobbying? Demonstrating? Do these time-honored/worn methods still work?

At the end of his article, Krugman describes the public as angry not passive, but he calls the anger unfocused. That is an accurate observation. We don’t know where to direct effectively our anger, and anger can easily turn to blame and scapegoating. Honest anger can be manipulated by politicians for their own self-serving ends. Anger can be used by those in power to divide and conquer, and it has been over and over again. Anger can also be turned against the self and lead to shame and despair.

My own anger (directed against a husband who is a tireless activist and does not deserve my ire) stems partly from hearing people’s stories day after day. In my counseling practice, I accept whatever anyone can give, which is sometimes very little, and so I often hear stories of heroic struggle. Almost everyone these days is confronting not only personal problems but economic ones which in turn intensify the personal pain. Political or not, everyone is aware, however peripherally, that we as a nation, world and planet are in dire straits. I cannot fault The People, as I see him or her in their individual strength and weakness, beauty and pathos. But I can hope that that out of this collective crucible, in which our conventional structures and systems appear to be failing, compassion for each other and our common plight and cause may rise.


  1. Maeve here: In the first century CE when I lived Rome had changed from a Republic to an empire. I lived in its outposts. There was a lot of wheeling, dealing, manipulating and betrayal. Eliz and I are in the midst of it on volume IV. We are coming to the last battle, the last one that I witnessed anyway. No answers in my story, only questions.

  2. "But I can hope that that out of this collective crucible, in which our conventional structures and systems appear to be failing, compassion for each other and our common plight and cause may rise."

    I hope so too. I have to say that I feel like a lot of my generation is passive, because it feels like we grew up watching nothing but fighting, and nothing that ever made sense came out of it--not even some of the no-brainer issues were taken care of.

    It is hard to want to fight, when you genuinely believe you are useless to the cause--learned helplessness, anyone? I think that's why a lot of us were so inspired by Obama's election, because we had, even if just the illusion, of being able to make change happen, without having to resort to violence. Let's face it, nobody wants to spend the energy to get bloody, and history tells us that is the only surefire way to make change happen.

  3. In response to the same Krugman op-ed, I wrote a piece entitled, "To the Barricades!"

    Really, until there is enough outrage, and someone or some organization that can focus it, and drive it towards large-scale change, things are only going to get worse. Why, because, 'they' are not listening. Krugman's point was they didn't care.

    Indeed, if the Citizens United decision is not neutralized by a constitutional amendment (small chance of that, but a useful focus for action) or by more limited Congressional action (just blocked, of course, by Republican filibuster), then the corporate takeover of our government can intensify.

    When corporations rule, people do not count, but when corporations can spend unlimited money on elections, then the only possibility of countering them is a militant, activist movement that mobilizes huge numbers, and can leverage that mobilization into electoral numbers over 50%.

    Given corporate control of most information most people receive, the above is a very tall order.