25 November 2009: Democracy needs to reinvent itself

Democracy needs to reinvent itself

I felt like a student again at the University of Pittsburgh in a Professor Keefe seminar about the dynamics of the American political system.

Sitting down with former Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald has that effect. Anticipating a 30-minute discussion about her new role as President of America Votes, a national organization supporting progressive organizations on the frontline of candidate and issue advocacy, 90 minutes later, I was re-invigorated, getting a lesson in 21st-century American democracy.

One wonders what Alexis de Toqueville would write given this is neither the early 19th-century democracy he observed nor even that of your daddy. The problem is, however, political parties and governmental institutions still function as if we are still in the dial-up and, at times, horse-and-buggy eras.

The current health care reform debate in the U.S. Senate brings that conundrum to the forefront with its arcane procedures that make communicating via tin cans connected with string look like a model of lightning-speed efficiency.

“Democracy needs to reinvent itself,” avers Joan. “How we do things today is very different than we did 60 years ago. There is a disconnect between the people, who don’t understand ancient rules that have become so visible in this day of instant messaging, and how the process is conducted.”

With a major in political science, arcane, rules are somewhat comprehensible to me. Few Americans, however, have the privilege of such an education and understandably are flummoxed by the lumbering process. They wonder why, for example, a 41-percent minority can “filibuster”—talk all it wants, which, ironically, it doesn’t (another quirk)—to prevent a 59-percent majority from speaking. So much for debate in a free society, but that aside, even in Pericles’ 5th-century BCE Athens, 51 percent was the rule for majority.

The reality is, even though we consider ourselves a democracy, the republican structure of government with its incestuous relationship with big banks and corporations is designed and conducted to protect conservative, moneyed interests. Once one looks at it from that perspective, it all makes sense.

According to its website (www.americavotes.org.), AV provides services to “leading social justice, environmental, labor, pro-choice, education, health care, and civil rights organizations. It is established in 13 states, including Colorado, and looks at expanding into at least 18 more. In time, Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy is AV’s goal.

“America Votes brings to the table progressive groups to work in a manner to use resources [e.g., voting lists] in an efficient manner,” states Joan. “As a 527 group, we never advocate or coordinate with candidates or a party. We stand apart as a like-minded interest group. As a result, many of our members have greater credibility on issues with unaffiliated voters than either party.”

Joan maintains politicians “need to stay relevant to people in a democracy, but too often are not feeling the sense of urgency the American people feel. People want to vote, to participate, so the process must be triumphant.”

I asked of her thoughts about the political parties themselves.

“The current party structure is endangered due to several factors including campaign finance reform and how people now are identifying with interest groups and not party confines. But parties will always be important for defining what they and most of their candidates stand for. Historically, candidate recruitment and training are done under the parties because they are equipped to do that work. To remain relevant they must do that very well.

To say the least, Joan was buoyant during our conversation. I asked her how she landed the job. She laughs, “I fell into it. Apparently the organization’s leaders were well aware of my history as party caucus veteran, Jeffco county clerk, and President of the Colorado Senate. You might recall I got a late-night lesson on redistricting when Senate Republicans pushed through an illegal configuration that the courts saw right through and ruled unconstitutional.”

How important are the 2010 elections?

“Huge,” she says. “In addition to the issues, the 2010 census will result in realignment of congressional and legislative districts. If we are to move forward as a country and state, we need to elect progressive leaders.”

Wrapping up, I asked Joan what she would like to say to the people of Clear Creek.

“In my seven years representing the district, I always felt welcomed and valued by the people of Clear Creek. I identified with all of you in a very personal way. I enjoyed working with all of you because I got honest feedback and appreciation for my efforts.

“Day in and day out, you may not realize how special your community is, but for someone like me, it truly seemed outstanding. I will miss you all and value the many friendships that I made. Every elected official should be lucky enough to have a Clear Creek!”

And we the people of Clear Creek were fortunate to have had Joan working for us.

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