Reinvigorating Democracy: What "The People" Really Need

Today’s post is by Dana D. Nelson, professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University and author of Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People (Minnesota 2008; paperback edition forthcoming in February 2010.

In the run-up to the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s historic election, HBO is advertising a new documentary about that election. Titled By the People, the film promises to celebrate the democratic power of the people in the making of this event. Presumably, it aims to restore its viewers to the magical, lever-pull thrill of the moment, the extraordinary—if fleeting—sense of power his supporters felt on that night.

The power of the people in U.S. democracy, though, is a momentary agency indeed. While the documentary might work as a temporary tonic (and a rather disingenuous one at that—every president and other governmental represented is installed in office “by the people”), what many supporters of Obama have been experiencing since summer are painful reminders of their lack of agency in our political system. Both in terms of health care reform’s public option and the war in Afghanistan, many regular citizens have been left feeling as though they can’t use their democratic muscle to make a meaningful impact in Washington.

Take the public option. Throughout 2009, poll after poll has documented consistently robust public support for a government plan that will force private, for-profit health care into some cost accountability. By mid-summer it was clear that not only Republicans were aiming to stonewall and defeat the public option, but so too were the so-called Blue-dog Democrats. Public fury began to simmer, and then boil. Despite endless big-lobby-conciliating “middle-of-the road” maneuvers from the White House and promises by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that the public option “was not necessary” for “real” reform, regular citizens kept protesting and working to achieve this change.

Pelosi announced the public option was off the table on September 10th, and swiftly citizens uncovered that she was accepting a big fund-raiser from UnitedHealth, a health insurance lobby. Soon after, Speaker Pelosi refused the fund-raiser and mandated a public option for the House bill.  All eyes turned to the Senate where it seemed clear there would be less will to oppose the health-care lobbies. But lo and behold, late in October, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced to the surprise of many that the Senate version would include a public option. This announcement was instantly celebrated—and rightfully so—as the triumph of the people, who kept pressing for the public option for months after the White House and Congressional leadership had seemingly caved to the lobbies.

And then almost immediately, Joe Lieberman, the former Democrat and now Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, announced that he would join the Republican filibuster. One “Independent” standing up manfully to defeat The People. The irony.

At least part of the irony is that all the people who voted for Obama were hoping he’d heroically achieve health reform on their behalf (thereby achieving singlehandedly the opposite of what Senator Lieberman threatens). But when they realized that the new President wasn’t going to deliver, they slowly and then energetically mobilized to gain the change they wanted to believe in. People working together began—with real heroism and totally against the political odds of Washington—achieving the change they’d “hoped” for.

And now, that tidal change is being threatened by the “representative” senatorial power of a disappointed executive office aspirant from Connecticut.

Obama is not doing a great job paying out on the many progressive promises he campaigned on. But one of the primary appeals of his campaign, to reinvigorate democracy by improving the people’s access to a more transparent democratic promise, caught with his supporters.  These promises in fact ignited energies that do not depend on what Obama does. In the run-up to his historic election, many of his supporters remembered that democracy depends on the daily aspirations and work of regular citizens. They remembered that they can’t depend on any political representative to deliver on their promises, and that moreover, they don’t have to passively wait four years for the next moment to exercise the “power of the people.” They remembered that citizen involvement may be frustrating but can also be deeply satisfying.

So will the people be placated by the HBO tribute to their “power” and then resign themselves to politics-as-usual—the kind where their interests are shut out in favor of corporate welfare? I doubt it. Will we get the health care reform we want now? I don’t know. But I do know more and more regular citizens have started figuring out ways to exercise pressure and action to make more insistent demands about they want than simply voting—and this new citizen activism will go a long way toward fulfilling at least some of the promises Obama made, regardless of whether our latest superhero President is able or willing to deliver on them.


Dana D. Nelson is a professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches classes in U.S. literature and history, and courses that connect activism, volunteering, and citizenship. She has published numerous books and essays on U.S. literature and the history of citizenship and democratic culture. She lives in Nashville and is involved locally with a program that helps incarcerated women develop strong decision-making skills and with an innovative activist group fighting homelessness in the area.

“Dana Nelson argues provocatively—and persuasively—that the mythological status accorded the presidency is drowning our democracy. The remedy will not come from Washington. It starts with people rediscovering—then reclaiming—their birthright as active citizens, restoring meaning to the sacred idea of self-government.”
—William Greider of The Nation magazine, author of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy

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