Democracy, in the sense I am commending, opens up space for minority voices because it is committed both to freedom as non-domination and the avoidance of arbitrary exclusion. Neither of these things can be achieved, according to the tradition of grassroots democracy, unless a lot of ordinary people get organized and actually hold officials accountable. These are things that require action.
In Blessed Are The Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (2010), Princeton political science professor Jeffrey Stout recounts a back-and-forth he had with his 20-something son about deeply dysfunctional economic conditions in the U.S. You know the basics: the American worker has been tremendously productive for their company, but isn’t even coming close to sharing the wealth. In fact, since the 1960s, more income went to the top 1% of Americans than the bottom 50% combined. At the end of this casual, fact-filled conversation, Stout’s son proclaimed, “We’re fucked!”
In another story, Stout recalls traveling to colleges to explain the growing demise of “democracy” when a freshman at the University of Tennessee who was compelled by Stout’s lecture asked what ordinary citizens could do to “revive the patient” today. Stout was stumped. In Blessed, Stout introspectively laments:
I had not explained how people currently addicted to fast “food” and “reality” television might actually take back the country from the plutocrats, militarists, and culture warriors now dominating our politics.
These two stories, beyond the real substance of a massive lack of accountability for corporate and government elites, highlight why Stout wrote Blessed five years ago. He was on a mission to tell the story of the roots of our economic devastation and what ordinary citizens have actually done about it in places like West Texas, New Orleans and South Central Los Angeles. And what you and I could actually do about it where we live.
Blessed is the book we so badly need as we wind down this Obama presidency. It transcends the partisan political monstrosity featured on our corporate TV stations and mainstream newspapers. It beckons us to join a movement that will actually hold leaders accountable so that our system will reflect a Lincolnian vision of democracy: freedom from nondomination and the rejection of arbitrary exclusion.
Stout utterly rejects surfacy and downright counterfeit notions of democracy. It’s not a “democracy” just because we have elections and so-called “rights.” This is exactly how the most wealthy and powerful among us would want us to believe about an equal opportunity America:
To maintain a position of dominance, even the most powerful people in the world rely on the inaction of others and the resignation that lies beneath it. The powerful became powerful by organizing others to work for them and creating incentives for profitably cooperative activity. It appears to be against the interests of the rich and the lucky for everyone else to be similarly well organized. The rich and the lucky benefit from making large-scale democratic reform appear hopeless. Paradoxically, they also benefit from making large-scale change seem easily achievable, for example, by casting a vote every four years for a candidate who promises something called “change.”
That paragraph deserves to be read another hundred times this week. We ought to print it out and tape it to our mirrors and dashboards. It unveils the truth about how dominance really functions in our democratic country. It is everywhere. And it is neither truth nor justice. It is best summed up by two words and the first one is “bull.”
Stout breaks the whole scenario into a helpful litmus test. A Republic is only really democratic if (and only if) it:
(A) removes arbitrary restrictions on who counts as a citizen;
(B) opens up sufficient opportunities for citizens to influence and contest official decision and laws; and
(C) is animated by a spirit of mutual recognition and accountability.
Our political culture fails on all three counts.
In regards to A, consider the complete rejection of citizenship rights to undocumented workers who, out of economic survival and desperation, take dangerous and tremendously unhealthy jobs for below-living-wages creating an abundance of inexpensive products widely available for “real” American citizens. Consider also the millions of mostly brown and black prisoners who have been stripped of voting rights once they are no longer locked up in prisons. These comprise the working and unemployed poor who have no voice in our system.
In regards to B, laws and Court decisions have given multi-billion-dollar multi-national corporations the opportunity to overwhelmingly affect elections and policies. These entities control the mass media dominating the framing of any and every political issue. Consider Stout’s explanation of the silly notion of a “neutral” press:
A press hiding behind a claim of evenhandedness cannot perform the role that justifies its constitutionally protected freedom. A press that pretended to be neutral on the difference between domination and accountability would be a press that had already sided implicitly with domination.
In regards to C, citizens have become too distracted/ignorant/alienated (for all sorts of reasons) to garner mutual recognition and accountability, let alone to care about what happens at the highest levels of government that thoroughly affect our quality of life. As Stout writes:
Presidents, federal legislators, judges, bureaucrats, Wall Street bankers, insurance executives, media moguls, and generals are making decisions every day that have massive impact on our lives.
Indeed, we are all fucked. Unless we organize, mobilize and strategize. This is the only road to real “hope” and “change.”
According to Stout, there are five paths that will not led us to the Promised Land.
Nothing will change if we go the route of “lifestyle liberals” who cast votes, attend rallies, sign petitions and donate money to express their anger at injustice.
Nothing will change if we go the route of “social critics” who effectively denounce domination, but who lack the energy or discernment to offer “a precise, accessible, and detailed description of the organizational options open to people who seek large-scale change.”
Nothing will change if we go the route of “fugitive democrats” who lament that authentic democracy (according to Lincoln’s definition) is unattainable. These fugitives do not aspire to govern, but to break off and “nurture the civic conscience of society” (Sheldon Wolin).
Nothing will change if we go the route of “anarchists” who “offer a vision of a coming community without rulers but neglect to explain what would keep the strong from enslaving the weak if the vision were realized.”
And, of course, nothing will change if we go the route of “the Right” (members of the Tea Party and otherwise) who want to take their country back by reducing the size of the federal government until they can flush it down the drain:
This is the main lesson of the period that began with Ronald Reagan’s election as president and ended—or rather, should have ended—with the financial crisis of 2008. We now know that a state small enough to be drowned in a bathtub is also small enough to permit elites to exercise power arbitrarily over others. If we went ahead and drowned the nation-state, in the hope that much small political units would serve our purposes better, what would constrain the behavior of the economically powerful in the new situation? It is wishful thinking to suppose that there will be no developers, bankers, and billionaires looking for opportunities to exploit, or that all of the relatively small polities that crop up around the corpse of the nation-state will be havens of inclusive non-domination.
Our only hope for a real democracy, Stout pleads, is to tread the trail of grassoots democrats who adamantly acknowledge “that party politics in incapable, by itself, of preventing dominant classes from having their way with the rest of us.” Grassroots democrats refuse to give in to cynicism or apathy or violence. They commit their lives to organizing themselves, educating themselves and strategizing to keep the powers accountable. This is ultimately done by building broad-based coalitions with groups of people who are committed to liberty and justice for all.
Grassroots democrats utilize one-on-one canvassing, small group house meetings and breakout sessions so that leaders can listen to the experiences and needs of ordinary citizens. The leaders of effective grassroots organizations like IAF, The Jeremiah Group and One LA allow these citizens to set the agenda and movements gather steam as neighbors and strangers resonate with shared stories. These coalitions have one motto: No Permanent Enemies, No Permanent Allies. The goal is to hold every political and corporate elite accountable, regardless of political party affiliation.
Almost a decade ago, Cornel West called Stout “the most religiously musical, theologically learned and philosophically subtle of all secular writers in America today” (in Democracy Matters). Things haven’t changed. Perhaps the most intriguing section in Blessed (for us radical disciples) is Stout’s analysis of the powerful contribution of churches to grassroots democracy. Despite the rhetoric of many pastors from all across the theological spectrum, Stout claims that church leaders will be “political” no matter how much they pride themselves on being neutral or apolitical:
All pastors make choices that have political effects. The effects can be easy or hard to notice, intentional or unintentional, good or bad. They can result from intervening actively or from trying to mind one’s own business. Whatever the proper relation of religion and politics might be, it cannot require pastors to refrain from affecting the political lives of their communities. Ministry matters–politically, as well as in countless other ways. A wise pastor understands how.
Stout nails this point with the strange behavior of megachurch bishop TD Jakes who promised Hurricane Katrina refugees in the Astrodome that God would provide for them:
Bishop Jakes’ message implicitly reinforced the dominant position of economic and governmental elites over the Katrina survivors. By merely consoling the survivors with the message that God would provide, Jakes made a choice. He could have instructed them that they had not only a right, but also a duty, to influence and contest the officials who, if left to their own devices, would determine the survivors’ fate. He could have told the survivors that it was up to them to do their part, to organize themselves and demand accountability. But he did not.
The secular Stout is deeply appreciative of the massive contributions of the church–both historic and contemporary–to real democracy, which must inherently keep elites accountable. To hide behind the dualistic cloak of “religion” or “spirituality” as some sort of separate entity altogether from “politics” and “economics” is to play the Constantinian power game of multitudes of Christian pastors since 313CE. Stout apocalyptically unveils this reality and reveals the dire need for Christians to live out the Gospel in every area of their lives. This means that spirituality is politics…and vice versa.
In his ground-breaking The People’s History Of The United States (1980), the late Howard Zinn constructively criticized the country he loved: “The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history.” 1% owns 1/3 of the wealth and the rest is distributed to the other 99% of the population who are divided by all sorts of wedge issues like race and religion. Zinn prophetically called out the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbage men and firemen to come together and form a coalition that creates policies that protect the People. Unfortunately, the employed (those who Zinn calls “the somewhat privileged” or “the guards of the System”) are fearfully manipulated into an alliance with elites who set the agenda for everything. Bad news for everyone else.
Blessed Are The Organized is a crucially important work that, like all of Zinn’s projects, analyzes our political system through the eyes of the underdogs. This perspective of the periphery is a rare sight in a world dominated by the elite agenda of the mainstream media. Stout gets his title from the preamble of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5) where it is unveiled that Jesus’ vision of citizenship in the Heavenly Kingdom was non-domination and radical inclusion (almost 2000 years before Lincoln!). The meek and merciful, the peacemakers and those persecuted for justice, the pure in heart and the poor in spirit–all these are joined today by those who are “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” in their quest to organize “the least of these.”