Ordinary people are the losers when the system doesnb't work





William Greider.

Simon & Schuster.

448 pages. $25.

Oh, my. Here comes a somewhat apocalyptic but distressingly well-documented book on the breakdown of American democracy. And it's certain to further inflame the cynicism and disgust with government and politics that's stalking the country this year like . . . well, like a lynch mob.

It's possible to fantasize about how, if enough disaffected voters were to read this book, the result might be a huge, collective KA-POW! wiping out the whole rotten system this November and allowing ordinary citizens to play a role again in running government.

But it ain't gonna happen.

One reason -- which is one of many depressing wisdoms offered by William Greider -- is that the so-called governing elite in Washington includes armies of sleek corporate lobbyists, entrenched bureaucrats and think-tank thought police who are virtually immune from even a rebellious electorate.

Another is that the non-elites who make up most of that electorate are so "disenchanted with the muck of formal politics" (Mr. Greider's words) that they're giving up in droves on participatory politics, e.g., voting. Having given up, they're not about to wade through some involved explanation -- however thoughtful -- of what, rudimentarily at least, they already figured out on their own.

In a way that's understandable. But it's also sad because non-readers of this book by Mr. Greider, a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post who now writes for Rolling Stone, will miss a lot of gory -- though cerebral -- details. He puts a fist in the face of virtually all the members of a self-serving, v-e-r-y exclusive political hierarchy that makes a mockery of the old textbook blather about participatory democracy and representative government.

His list of targets is a long one, including the corporate lobbyist swarm that fuels what Mr. Greider describes as "the culture of political clientism" and that gave us, for example, the celebrated savings-and-loan scandal; the bipartisan "bait and switch" crowd that, under the guise of tax relief and reform, has overseen 15 years of increased tax breaks for the rich at the expense of everyone else; and the "grand bazaar" of regulatory wink-wink that has created a "lawless government" out to enrich its friends at the expense of such vulnerable souls as at-risk industrial workers and environmentally exposed have-nots.

Perhaps predictably, Mr. Greider also devotes space to the failings of institutions such as television, the press and the political parties, noting that the Democratic National Committee has so atrophied that the average age of its 100,000 regular contributors is now 70. His point, of course, is that these institutions, established in part to represent or mediate on behalf of ordinary citizens, no longer do.

Anyway, it's the ordinary folks who are the losers in all this.

The winners, in addition to wealthy elites (who are catered to by the governmental elites) are corporations that Mr. Greider says, "have seized the political ground left vacant by citizens" and whose power "is the centerpiece of the institutional arrangements that dominate politics."

Less obvious, despite the author's occasional, somewhat awkward mentions of "renewal" and "faith" and his claim that "this book is for believers," is the mechanism -- if there is one -- by which America can restore meaningful democracy to the governing process.

To be fair, he sees some hope in the Saul Alinsky-inspired Industrial Areas Foundation movement, active in several states, and, of all things, in talk radio as "a device for assembling citizens in collective action." But, oddly, he barely mentions the ballot box as a potential instrument for change, evidently assuming -- perhaps too skeptically -- that today's throw-the-rascals-out rage will be short-lived or that replacements, once voted in, will be co-opted quickly by the entrenched system.

Yet he is surely on firm ground in arguing that huge problems confront the search for a restored democracy, especially amid competitive pressures of a global economy. In addition to a reawakening at home, he says, the solution also requires cross-border dialogue and sophisticated internationalism to create and maintain democracy abroad.

More than once in this provocative book, Mr. Greider grimly tells us we're living in a political system in which the entrenched governing elites have money, power, organization and only contempt for a dismayed, disorganized and thoroughly tuned out public.

Where, then, are we heading?

"The implicit premise has a faint odor of fascist thinking," he writes.

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