What Democracy Looks Like

A convergence of two recent lines of thought–I need to spend a few minutes putting them together. There’s not a lot new in here, but as I often preach in class, nothing is too obvious that it’s not worth saying at least one time.

This semester I’m teaching a course in environmental advocacy writing and was talking yesterday about working for Greenpeace in the summer of 1989. Greenpeace has always framed its activism as democratic organizing against corporate power (rather than about individual responsibility), and that’s the frame I “grew up” in.

This morning (Fri Oct 5), David Sirota published a furiously brilliant opinion piece in the Guardian (“America’s New Aristocracy Lives in an Accountability-Free Zone“), in which he describes what wealthy and powerful people have done in this country to insulate themselves from any legal or political consequences for their abuses.

Sirota’s explanation of what it will take to pierce the accountability-free zone is exactly right and worth quoting at length.

To wedge open the gates of the accountability-free zone, everyday citizens will have to be organized enough to overcome already-well-organized money.

In the political arena, that means electing pro-accountability candidates of both parties, and then forcing them to follow through on prosecuting wrongdoers and voting down aristocracy-approved nominees who represent the accountability-free zone.

In the consumer economy, it will require boycotts, pressure campaigns, union drives, #MeToo movements, shareholder resolutions and other direct actions to hold companies and executives accountable (and as the recent minimum wage campaign against Amazon proves, those efforts can succeed). It will require support for companies that offer different models of corporate behavior, and it will require swarms of cable-news-addled dittoheads to shut off the TV and instead support other forms of media that are serious about questioning, scrutinizing and challenging power.

In the job market, it will require employers to actually fire executives when they lie, cheat, steal, harass and otherwise mistreat their workers.

And at a cultural level, it will require any and all efforts to rescind and deny social status to those who have committed egregious war, financial and sexual crimes — and it will require doing that even if those miscreants wear nice suits and have gilded credentials.

I had a micro version of this realization during the summer I spent canvassing for Greenpeace. Outside the office one day before work (yes, playing hacky sack!), one of my comrades was ranting about how EVIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 3M (the target of one our major campaigns) was.

I said, “Y’know what’s ‘evil?’ Satan. If 3M is really evil, we’re probably not going to out-organize Satan, so we should just go drink beer instead. If that sounds as silly to you as it does to me, let’s get to work. There are millions more of us than there are of them.”

The wealthy and powerful don’t get away with being terrible because nobody can stop them, but because not enough of us band together to do it. The work of making that happen is hard, but the concept isn’t.

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