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Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life

Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life

by Frances Moore Lappe

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Three out of five Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, feel our country is headed in the wrong direction. America is at the edge, a critical place at which we can either renew and revitalize or give in and lose that most precious American ideal—democracy—and along with it the freedom, fairness, and opportunities it assures. Democracy’s Edge<


Three out of five Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, feel our country is headed in the wrong direction. America is at the edge, a critical place at which we can either renew and revitalize or give in and lose that most precious American ideal—democracy—and along with it the freedom, fairness, and opportunities it assures. Democracy’s Edge is a rousing battle cry that we can—and must—act now.  From Jefferson to Eisenhower, presidents from both parties have warned us of the danger of letting a closed, narrow group of business and government officials concentrate power over our lives. Yet today, a small and unrepresentative group of people is making vital decisions for all of us.

But this crisis is only a symptom, Lappé argues. It’s a symptom of thin democracy, something done to us or for us, not by or with us. Such democracy is always at risk of being stolen by private interests or extremist groups, left and right.  But there is a solution. The answer, says Lappé, is Living Democracy, a powerful yet often invisible citizens’ revolution surging in communities across America. It’s not random, disjointed activism but the emergence of a new historical stage of democracy in which Americans realize that democracy isn’t something we have but something we do. Either we live it or lose it, says Lappé.

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Read an Excerpt

Democracy's Edge

By Frances Moore Lappe

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-4311-8

Chapter One


tracing democracy's journey

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.

One evening not long ago, I wandered alone around "old Philadelphia." As dusk fell, I caught a glimpse of Constitution Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the fine brick home of one of the Constitution's signers. Nearly two million Americans visit here each year to pay homage to those responsible for the liberty and opportunity we enjoy.

But while many of us may imagine that we have largely our Founders to thank-those august gentlemen who gathered in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1787-our democracy has actually been in a continual process of development for more than two centuries. Our nation's first black federal judge, William Hastie, nailed it: "Democracy is a process, not a static condition."

For me, it helps to think of our history as a journey with two competing strains, one pushing democracy forward, one impeding it. To orient us on this journey, here I'll briefly touch on both.

Remember first that in the eyes of our Founders, only about a tenth of the population-white, male property owners-were fit for democracy. Thus for opportunities to have our voices heard today, we can salute those among our forebears who were willing to stand up against slavery, to march in the street claiming that even women could be trusted with the vote, and to sit in at lunch counters in Mississippi to secure civil rights protections for black Americans. Democracy has also deepened and become more accountable, more life-enhancing, thanks to those who brought the end of child labor and won the eight-hour workday, those who made public places accessible to people with disabilities, and those who have fought to end second-class citizenship for gays and lesbians.

Each of these citizen movements has widened the circle of people deemed worthy of being heard. Each declares, in effect, that democracy is about inclusion, about voice-all of our voices-and about deliberation, about citizens themselves coming together, partnering as needed with government and business, to get the job done.

This democratic current is always bubbling, even surging, despite the darkness of the time.

Yet in this moment, the opposing antidemocratic strain is ascending. It has deep roots, too-for many of our forebears profoundly mistrusted democracy.

mistrusting democracy

Over two hundred years ago, Alexander Hamilton, a framer of the Constitution, lay awake worrying about the "imprudence of democracy" and the "turbulent and changing" disposition of the masses. Those fearful of citizen power in real democracy have used all sorts of grand ideas to disenfranchise us.

One can be traced way, way back to the era after Isaac Newton (1643-1727) convinced his contemporaries there were immutable laws governing the physical universe. Soon some began to think, aha! there must be parallel laws governing our human interactions. If we could only discover them, what a relief! Human beings could just let these laws decide outcomes, let them determine the shape of our societies. Then we'd be off the hook! (Or, well, powerless, depending on how you look at it.)

And over the centuries, some protagonists in the antidemocratic historical strain have convinced themselves that there are indeed such "laws"-rules governing property and market exchange that are virtually God-given.

After the late eighteenth century, when Adam Smith (1723-1790) came up with the notion of an "invisible hand" guiding the market, such fixed-rules proponents leapt on it. Smith simplifiers ripped his "invisible hand" metaphor from its context-from his assumption of deep human bonds he called "moral sentiments," among which he believed our passion for justice to run deepest. Discarding any understanding that a just human society is necessary for a market to work, they put forth the "free market" as a natural state, one that exists automatically-if only humans don't interfere.

Adam Smith neckties, I understand, were big in the Reagan White House.

Also undermining democracy within this historical current are those who have oversimplified John Locke (1632-1704) in an effort to convince us that property rights-in which corporations wrap themselves-are also sacrosanct, springing up spontaneously and inherently just, rather than a human invention that can be used for good or turned against us.

Three centuries hence, we can trace this suspicion of democracy all the way forward to today's Far Right.

As the third millennium dawns, we face a stunningly radical assault on democracy's bedrock values.

One is the rule of law. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration attacked Iraq in defiance of international law and then claimed not to be bound by the Geneva Convention in its treatment of certain international prisoners. And just when we were told that the U.S. use of torture had been limited and its perpetrators punished, early in 2005 new documents forced us to recognize that the horrors committed in our name have been widespread.

Another democratic value under attack is honest dialogue, whether with citizens or within Congress. In George W. Bush's first term, Democratic members of Congress were given forty-eight hours total reading time to consider key legislation of more than 2,900 pages, authorizing more than $1 trillion in spending. In an unprecedented breach of congressional protocol, Democrats have been consistently barred from conference rooms where bills are ironed out.

In what unfortunately was not a moment of ironic comedy, the Bush campaign ousted three teachers in Oregon from an October 2004 rally and threatened them with arrest for wearing T-shirts bearing the words "Protect Our Civil Liberties." And in early 2005, we learned how thoroughly the Bush White House had degraded "town hall meetings" from honest give-and-take to rehearsed theater.

Even more basic, perhaps, the Far Right has targeted democracy's core premise that government is citizens' tool to ensure fair opportunities and protection from harm-the bases both of our personal freedom and healthy communities.

George W. Bush's administrations have diluted the Clean Water Act so that it no longer applies to 60 percent of our major waterways, refused to raise the minimum wage so that it continues to lose purchasing power, and cut funding for police and programs helping poor working families. At this writing, the administration seeks to privatize Social Security and to slash funds for affordable housing, child care for low-income working parents, energy assistance, and nutrition. Doubting that citizens are capable of self government, this strain in our history is peopled by those seeking to transfer as many decisions as possible from the public realm, where decisions are made by deliberation, to the marketplace, where only money talks. Today that means the transfer of vital democratic functions to corporations-from running our public schools to sponsoring our presidential debates.

I've stressed historical continuity, and yet I'm aware that overemphasizing it could shield us from seeing something quite painful: that those at the center of power today are, in their extreme antidemocratic stance, an aberration, not a continuation of Republican or conservative politics. What we're experiencing is not differences, say, about the role of government versus voluntary activities but a difference between those who live the democratic process and those who do not.

The threat to democracy is especially grave because the anti-democrats' control is virtually unchecked: A small group now dominates the party in control of both houses of Congress and often prevails in the Supreme Court.

President Reagan and the senior President Bush regarded those who form the tight circle around George W. Bush-Paul Wolfowitz in particular-as extremists, reports Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst who served Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan. At the time, he reports, they were even dubbed "crazies."

The term neoconservative, often used to describe this inner circle, is therefore profoundly misleading.

Our government has been taken over not by conservatives but by a "revolutionary" power, warns the Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In The Great Unraveling, he argues that those in control in Washington today regard hard-won social protections that Americans have long seen as essential to a healthy, inclusive democracy-including Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicare-as "a violation of basic principle."

If only we could dismiss Krugman as an alarmist. But he's a sober-minded academic, and he's really worried.

The tactics employed by the Far Right reflect an explicit strategy. In 2000, the leading Republican congressman who became majority whip, Tom DeLay, distributed a pamphlet to all his Republican colleagues titled The Art of Political War: How Republicans Can Fight to Win. Its author, David Horowitz, writes, "Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy's fighting ability.... In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails."

With the help of courageous social critics, we can now see that the current assault on democracy is intentional.

It is being carried out by those in power who are not playing by rules most of us thought to be America's foundation.

For me, David Brock's 2002 book Blinded by the Right was a jarring wake-up call. Once a Far Right insider himself, Brock recounts his experience of the mean-spirited, ends-justify-means mind-set of this group that is-chillingly-convincing. He depicts people willing to go to any lengths, including deliberately misleading others (as Brock himself did in his character assassination of Anita Hill), to vanquish enemies. His later work makes clear that the Bush administration's payments to news commentators to push its policies are part of a no-holds-barred strategy.

This assault on democratic principles by our elected representatives is, however, only one dimension of the crisis of democracy upon us. Unelected corporate power has grown dramatically in recent decades.

Corporations at the pinnacle fully grasp that their interests lie with the Far Right. Despite the narrow gap in Congress between Republicans and Democrats, in the 2004 presidential election top-giving corporate political action committees favored Republican candidates ten to one. And they have been richly rewarded. The fifth largest contributor to the Bush's two presidential campaigns was the credit card giant MBNA Corporation, which in 2005 prevailed in its eight-year lobbying effort for a law limiting personal bankruptcy relief, even when caused by medical catastrophe.

The lesson? Thin democracy's weakness puts it always at risk of takeover by private interests and extreme minorities, left or right.

the blinding myths

To grasp why more Americans aren't in open revolt, think of the culture's dominant message-bombarding us through advertising and media portrayals: We humans are nothing but selfish, calculating schemers in the marketplace. "Greed is good," we heard in the Reagan 1980s. And since then, advertising and other media messages have intensified, all telling us we're only capable of looking out for Number One.

Believing this shabby caricature of our nature, of course any thought of coming together to deliberate and choose what's best for all of us-democracy-seems naive: After all, our selfish little selves will always subvert the process.

It follows then like night follows day that the more of life's choices we let the marketplace decide the better-even the ownership of life itself, including genes and seeds. So what if economic power becomes a bit tight? That's just a necessary trade-off ... or so goes the theory.

And what theory is that?

It's hard to see it as "theory" because it is now the air we breathe. Ronald Reagan called it "the magic of the market," and since his time, conservatives (an unfortunate misnomer, since their ideology is not "conserving" our environment and is breaking with our democratic past) have drummed home a clear message: our government is not a tool for citizens to use to express our values and create a society that works for us all. No, the government is our enemy; "the market" is our salvation.

In 2001, Grover Norquist, a powerful voice of the Far Right in Washington's inner circle, said he'd like "to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

And many Americans are cheering: Yes, yes, drown that big, bad bogeyman.

Only ... wait a minute.

the antigovernment myth

The Far Right has certainly perfected antigovernment and promarket rhetoric, but its actions are something else again. It is not against government per se.

The Bush administration has expanded the federal budget-with a huge military buildup benefiting the military-industrial giants (causing Halliburton's profits to double in the last two years alone).

We now spend nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. And a drug benefit in the 2004 Medicare bill gives pharmaceutical companies a $700 billion bonanza in the coming decade.

In all, the federal budget has grown twice as fast during the Bush years as it did in the Clinton nineties.

While proclaiming fierce antigovernment and promarket allegiance, the administration increased spending so much that by 2005 the United States slipped for the first time below the top ten countries in the Wall Street Journal-Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom. The index ranked as freer Denmark, for example, which the Far Right here tars as "socialist." The media ignored the U.S. slippage because, I believe, it did not support the prevailing myth.

The Far Right's "get government off your back" language also hides its USA PATRIOT Act initiatives to extend government power, including access to medical histories, library records, school transcripts, bank statements, Internet usage, and travel plans. The government can now wiretap or secretly search anyone's home without probable cause of illegal activity. While increasing federal spending, the Bush administration has slashed federal revenues with $276 billion in tax cuts-three-quarters of which went to the wealthiest 20 percent among us. In this way, President Bush has racked up an unprecedented national debt, one so huge that interest alone-three-fourths owed to foreigners, mostly Chinese-eats up each year one-third as much as we spend on a swelling military. The debt burden now amounts to what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls a "birth tax" of $150,000 on every newborn American.

What a perfect setup.

Increasing expenses but cutting revenue, the Bush administration bankrupts government. So President Bush can now say with a straight face that there is no money for affordable housing, job training, Social Security, environmental protections, or community development.

The Far Right doesn't oppose big government. I hope these numbers make that clear. What they oppose is the democratic premise that citizens use government as our tool to provide basic security for ourselves and express solidarity with our neighbors-through protections against catastrophic job and health loss-and as our means to ensure fair educational and job opportunities. Both are essential to strong communities and thus to freedom itself.

This security-plus-opportunity premise of democracy is what Franklin Roosevelt was getting at when in his 1936 inaugural speech, he quoted an English judge: "Necessitous men are not free men."

the myth of government versus market

The Far Right's antigovernment, promarket ideology also blinds us to the ways in which a market, or at least a well-functioning one, needs democratic government. The market and government aren't enemies; they are essential democratic friends.


Excerpted from Democracy's Edge by Frances Moore Lappe Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"There is a small number of people in every generation who are forerunners in thought, action, spirit, who swerve past the barriers of greed and power to hold a torch high for the rest of us. Frances Moore Lappé is one of those. Her writing has done that again and again. Here, in her latest work, she brings the familiar eloquency of expression, simplicity of language, poetic and passionate, to our nation’s most urgent problem, the reclaiming of democracy."
—Howard Zinn, author, A People’s History of the United States

"Make no mistake, this is a very powerful book, and its scope and vision are huge. In this century you will see the job of citizens is to keep their mouth open and their capacity to be heard in every discussion that will shape their lives. This book about finding our voices where everyone concerned about democracy, are no longer merely passive onlookers but dedicated participants Democracy’s Edge, thank God, is beautifully written. It gives us the language we need to reclaim our democracy and for seeing where our real democracy lies—in the grassroots, in the communities where creative solutions to social problems are a-plenty. Please, please, please make this audacious book a priority, for it is written with the most careful and tender feelings about what we are all so near to losing – our democracy."
—Dame Anita Roddick, founder, The Body Shop

"America is lost in a gnarled thicket of bought politicos, corporate con men and media hucksters. But we’re lucky: Lappé has drawn the map that will get us out alive. Read it and get going"
—Greg Palast, author, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

"Our country is suffering from a serious 'democratic deficit.' a widening gulf between public opinion and public policy—and what ails America necessarily ails the world. A great many people do not like what is happening to their lives and their country, and what is being done in their name, but feel isolated and helpless, victims of forces beyond their control. With the clear thinking, plain talk, and penetrating insight that we have come to expect from her work, Frances Moore Lappé confronts these fundamental problems directly and constructively. It is both a guide to the perplexed, and a guide to action."
—Noam Chomsky

"Lappé is a pioneer in democratic thought and action."
—Cornel West, University Professor of Religion, Princeton University

"Extraordinary, Frances Moore Lappé, the brilliant woman who broke upon the story of global hunger with her Diet for a Small Planet, has now burst forth with a provocative and exciting new approach to reviving democracy. She reminds us that a robust and wholesome democracy is what delivers a good life to a nation’s citizenry. Her challenge to us is to reinvigorate our thinking, to take individual actions, and to participate every day as citizens. She offers hope for those of us who believe that civic society is at the root of a health government."
—Amy Domini, founder and CEO, Domini Social Investments

"Frances Moore Lappé believes deeply that true democracy is more than simply as set of institutions or a political system. It is the active engagement and voice of ordinary citizens in the decisions that shape their lives and communities. Democracy’s Edge is an exciting and hopeful account of the rebirth of a living American democracy as people connect with each other around the country to solve problems and build a better society. An important part of that rebirth is a new and growing movement by people of faith who are putting their faith into action for the common good."
—Jim Wallis, author, Gods Politics and editor, Call to Renewal

"I am invigorated by this book. Lappé’s idea of drawing the corporation into democracy’s fold is a challenge I hope all of us will take up as our own. There is no more important task for us to embrace today."
—Marjorie Kelly, editor, Business Ethics, and author, The Divine Right of Capital 

"With an abundance of inspiring, well-told stories, Lappé sweeps the disempowering myth that an individual can’t make a difference and demonstrates that democracy is a living practice. Essential reading for all who believe that democracy in America would be a good idea."
—David C. Korten, board chair, YES! A Journal of Positive Futures 

"Frankie Lappé has a gift for synthesizing complex ideas into accessible and inspiring simplicity. Living Democracy is an excellent primer on what our democracy was intended to be, where it went astray, and what needs to happen (and is in fact already happening below the radar of mainstream media) for democracy to come alive. Read, take hope and take action!"
—Nina Utne, chair, Utne Magazine

Meet the Author

Frances Moore Lappé, author of fifteen books, has received seventeen honorary doctorates and was the fourth American to receive the Right Livelihood Award, called the Alternative Nobel Prize. She is cofounder of Food First, the American News Service, and the Small Planet Institute, www.smallplanetinstitute.org.

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