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Ralph Nader > Opinions/Editorials > Reviving America’s Democratic Tradition

While running for office, Bill Clinton said he had big plans for “fundamental change” in how our government and economy work. But as members of Congress leave Washington and return to the states it is clear that the president, his Cabinet, and his allies in Congress all fail to understand that no significant change will occur, or endure, without an institutionalized shift of power from corporations and government into the hands of ordinary Americans. While politicians now make an art form of populist symbolism, virtually none has a serious agenda to truly empower individuals in their five basic roles as voters, taxpayers, consumers, workers, and shareholders.

President Clinton promised to enact far-reaching reforms in health care, environmental protection, and campaign finance reform. But his agenda has been thwarted. The supremacy of the corporate state and the overpowering of our “civic infrastructure,” leaves elected officials with far less real power to solve problems than is needed.

Each generation must reinvent and rediscover democracy for itself, Thomas Jefferson declared. This can never occur through mere exhortation. It cannot happen simply by celebrating the values of civic engagement, praising a thousand points of light, or hosting quadrennial candidate forums. Instead, democracy must be brought to life in arenas where people are already engaged and where they already have interests.

All sorts of latent energies are waiting to be tapped. As the election approaches voters have an opportunity to question candidates about citizen power. What is needed is a new toolbox of empowerment to give some noble eighteenth-century constitutional principles a practical application in the twenty-first century. These tools are mechanisms of civic communication, political organization, government assistance, and legal rights that can advance the distinct interests of ordinary Americans.

But how to revive a vigorous democratic tradition in America? A new “fifth estate” of individual Americans needs to arise, independent of entrenched corporate and governmental power. Through new forms of joint action, this insurgent force in American life can reclaim our government from the oligarchy that has made it a caricature of the Jeffersonian vision.

Central to this redemption of democratic traditions are new structural and procedural reforms that can empower individuals. Such reforms are the only way that our society will ever deal with its pervasive sense of powerlessness, alienation, and fatalism in the face of rampant inequities and loss of control over the future.

So as when the candidates come courting ask them if they support the following:

Voter initiatives — the process by which citizens may enact or reject laws directly through the voting booth rather than through elected officials.

Campaign finance reform — it is time to blunt the impact of special interest money in politics.

Term limits for members of congress — the chief value of such limits is their ability to liberate new energy for political elections.

Citizen standing rights — citizens need expanded rights to gain access to the courts to sue the government for arbitrary, capricious and downright illegal behavior.

An audience network — broadcaster listeners and viewers need and deserve their own audience network so that they can communicate with one another and quickly and efficiently learn about issues that are too often unreported on the nightly network news broadcasts. If civic values received as much television airtime as Morris the Cat, the savings-and-loan scandal would have never occurred: outraged voters would have intervened long before it became a $500 billion debacle.

Citizen Utility Boards (CUBs) — citizens should be given to the right to use mailings by corporations and the government to contact and invite citizens to join democratically controlled, voluntary citizen groups that can work on utility rates, automobile fraud, or postal rates. Citizen utility board (CUB) groups in Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Oregon, and California are already representing the interests of consumers before state legislatures and regulatory bodies.

Isn’t it time the voters presented candidates with a citizen agenda?