By Donella Meadows
–September 19, 1991–
Last week at a conference in Hungary a Lithuanian showed pictures of the people of Vilnius bringing their vehicles to block their TV transmitter from Russian tanks. He showed thousands of candles lit in protest at national shrines. He translated the hand-lettered signs: “In the forest the vicious animals are wolves. In the jungle they’re tigers. In Lithuania they’re the Communist Party.”
A Hungarian at the conference described the frustrations of jump-starting a ravaged economy. “But we have to do it,” he said. “We’ve waited a long time for the freedom to solve our own problems.”
A Latvian showed us pictures of what he hopes will become his new country’s first National Park. “Finally we have a chance to protect our nature.”
As an American, born to a democracy so taken for granted that most people don’t even bother to vote, I listened to the East Europeans with tears in my eyes. What COURAGE these people have! What a price they and their lands paid during the long oppression of their freedom — and what a struggle it took to restore that freedom!
This week, back home, a man who was second in command of my government’s spy agency while it was blatantly violating the Constitution is now being considered to head that agency. An inexperienced judge, nominated to the highest court in the land, refuses to divulge his views to the people, whose civil rights will be in his hands. A business analyst, Andrea Gabor, writes in The Man Who Discovered Quality: “No system (except perhaps Soviet central planning) is more prone to producing waste than the Pentagon. Procurement regulations have come to guarantee the deliver of shoddy goods…. It has become virtually impossible for military personnel to justify purchases based on quality and long-term cost saving.”
My government speaks to me in 20-second sound bites, designed with the highest manipulative skill not to inform, but to lull and mislead. My leaders ask of every decision that comes before them not what is best for the country, but what will swing power in their direction. Systematically they favor the rich over the poor, and yet they insist that class struggle is a subject not to be mentioned, not an issue that’s relevant in this country.
Banks are collapsing because the government failed to regulate them. The national deficit goes on increasing. The “opposition” party falls all over itself trying to look like the party in power. People fail to vote because there are no real choices.
This is what happens when people born to democracy take it for granted.
Every political system slides into corruption. That was the message of our founding fathers. Their brilliance was to split power among competing factions, which slows but by no means stops the slide. Thomas Jefferson warned us: “In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”
Which is a problem, because our government has stopped caring about our schools, and therefore our minds are less and less improved.
The Filipinos, the East Germans, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Lithuanians, even the Muscovites found the courage to rebel. How can we find that courage? We don’t have to face up to tanks. We do have to insist, loudly, by the millions, unceasingly, in polls, in the voting booths, and on the streets, that our democracy be restored.
There is only one way to restore it — SERIOUS campaign reform. That doesn’t mean wimpy measures like term limitation, which is the most rebellious suggestion I hear anyone discussing. Term limitation is an admission that we don’t have the intelligence or the information to throw the rascals out in elections — so we’ll legislate them out. If that’s all we do, we’ll end up with a faster turnover of the same kinds of people, playing the same power games.
Serious reform would separate money from the electoral process. It would forbid candidates and elected officials from taking any gifts from any individual or organization for any purpose. It would give candidates free and equal air time in chunks long enough to require them to speak in more than jingles. Third and fourth parties would be able to emerge as easily as they do in Europe. The None-Of-The-Above option would be added to the ballot, so we can use our vote to force the offering of choices worth voting for.
Whether we’re concerned about abortion, the environment, peace, jobs, taxes, we have to drop our causes and come together around campaign reform for one, two, or three elections, however long it takes. We need to meet politicians, organize parties, get into the SELECTION of candidates at early stages, asking of them only one question — how would you restore our democracy? — and judging them by their performance on that issue.
If we don’t do these things, all causes, except those of the privileged and the hard-liners, are lost.
It’s tough to maintain a true democracy. It requires time, energy, commitment, a scary level of responsibility. But, my East European friends tell me, it’s not nearly as tough as trying to recover after a generation or two of incompetence and corruption.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991