Former citizen activist, Miles S. Rapoport, now Connecticut’s elected Secretary of the State, has produced an innovation worth the attention of all other government officials and people running for office. It is called “Report on the State of Democracy in Connecticut.” (available free from the Secretary of State, 210 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT 06106).
In a society that issues floods of reports on almost every conceivable topic, when was the last time you heard of a report on the state of democracy — the most fundamental report of them all? Knowing this report will be improved in future editions, Rapoport challenges readers to make it better by practicing more democracy and communicating their suggestions to him for next year’s report.
He uses five benchmarks to evaluate Connecticut’s democracy: (1) knowledge and interest, (2) participation and commitment, (3) social and economic equality and opportunity, (4) tolerance and diversity and (5) our commonweal. He cautions readers by noting that these benchmarks overlap with one another and are not to be measured just by statistics, such as voter turnout or volunteering for town commissions, but by “both the character of individual lives and the life of our state community.”
Rapoport tries to be both upbeat and realistic, describing improvements in certain sectors of civic life while declaring what we already know about people believing that elected leaders don’t care about their opinions. He notes that Connecticut ranks 23rd in voter registration and that it is necessary to recapture the spirit of the fabled Connecticut town meeting form of government which he notes has weakened in recent decades.
Connecticut’s economy, even by conventional standards, is not in good shape. Many higher paying industrial jobs have been lost since 1990. Rapoport calls attention to “serious social and economic divisions within our state which provide major impediments to realizing a fully participatory democracy . . . Economic inequality is rising.”
There is a fuzzy, muted rhythms to his report, as expected from a state official. When he was head of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Rapoport was critical of the power structure, of corporations and their political minions as they abused consumers, workers, voters and the environment. He is obviously not willing to be so focused in his present position, but he still has to speak out for clearly on the dismantling of democracy in his state.
For example, the rights of people who are wrongfully injured by defective products and toxic substances have been eroded by both the state government and by Congress and its Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd. No mention of this benchmark of democracy.
There is only an oblique mention of the absence of the initiative, referendum and recall rights by voters which around 23 other states give to their citizens. Direct democracy — the right of voters to place their own proposals on the ballot, to repeal laws by direct ballot and to recall elected officials surely is a benchmark of democracy.
So too is the level of law enforcement from the neighborhoods to the corporate suites. And the access of people to the mass media of television, radio and cable channels.
So too is there needed a recognition that democracy needs facilities to make existing rights and remedies usable. Secretary Rapoport knows about these facilities such as inserts to consumers inviting them to join statewide consumer groups that champion consumer protection from banking, insurance and utility injustices. One such successful group is the Illinois Citizens Utility Board whose 200,000 ratepayer members support a staff that has saved residential customers billions of dollars since 1983.
Comparing the quality of democracy in each of the 50 states requires numerous criteria that are more specific than Rapoport’s benchmarks. Diversity of economy, prevalence of honest labor unions, the vigor of the media, the kind of laws and their enforcement, the output of the legislators, the honesty of elections, the level of toxic wastes being emitted (data are available from EPA on this subject), the existence of direct democracy, campaign finance reform, and a binding none-of-the-above on every ballot line to register the protest or No vote against the listed candidates for office (not a Rapoport favorite) are some measures. Granted many of these criteria are not easily quantifiable but they still can be compared.
Democracy’s essential preconditions or facilities and democracy’s benefits to its people are the two major categories for a more muscular report on the state of democracy. But a tip of the civic to Miles Rapoport for being the first recent state official to get the ball rolling. May many Connecticut citizens and Americans in other states respond.
Who knows, competitions over superior democratic performance may someday match the NBA basketball finals. Wouldn’t that be a sign of something glorious?