How deep is our democracy? Is it getting deeper or thinner and in what areas? Can adequate criteria be selected to rank the 50 states on a depth of democracy scale with one another?
These questions make us think beyond the more general but memorable definition of “government of, by, and for the people.”
Let’s start with some preconditions for both the quality and quantity of democracy. Would a vigorous, competitive media, a diversified economy, active trade unions, numerous citizen services and advocacy groups, an easy-to-use freedom of information law, elected judges, at least two competitive political parties, the presence of popular referendum laws and numerous colleges and university be associated with more democracy?
Some people would say: “Of course.” Others may say: “It depends on how these presumptive democratic institutions are used and by whom?”
Using democratic institutions requires tools that are accessible to people. Can they band together easily as utility ratepayers, insurance and banking customers or cable TV viewers so as to form fully staffed consumer advocacy groups?
Can they access information systems to find out what toxic releases are occurring from factories in their community or whether the government is collecting royalties on federal mineral leases?
Do people learn citizen and consumer skills that give them an understanding of their rights and how to proceed in advancing them through a responsive government?
Are the schools teaching students these skills and involving themselves in community problem solving?
Seriously debating and considering the drift of our democracy is long overdue. The struggle against government as a large corporate welfare provider, user of secret budgets, non-enforcer of laws designed to protect people from corporate ripoffs and pollution must raise questions as to whether both our democratic rights and the tools to use them are in need of repair, remodeling and larger renovation.
Thomas Jefferson thought such renovation would be needed every twenty or so years.
The complexity, waste and potential of government is much broader and insistent upon the daily activities of the citizenry. Jefferson needs to be heeded.