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Another Voice: Marginalized citizens need to become more politically active

By Ronald Fraser

Robert Reich, Berkeley professor and chairman of Common Cause, explains why Americans feel politically powerless this way: Elected officials have grown less accountable and less responsive to the very citizens who voted them into office.

But Americans don’t need another academic study to know the score. When asked way back in a 2004 poll who has a great deal of influence over decisions made in Washington, 68 percent said large campaign contributors, 56 percent said lobbyists and 20 percent said the general public.

Reich points to non-competitive congressional districts and weakened labor unions to explain what is going on here. His explanation is not wrong. It is simply incomplete.

In fact, American citizens themselves are a part of the problem and largely responsible for their marginalized status in the world’s most celebrated self-rule democracy. Why have the American people, the popular sovereign of our democracy, not challenged this political takeover by the fat cats?

In high school government and civics high school classrooms across America, young citizens-to-be are indoctrinated with a version of democracy based more on historic and political myths than political reality.

Magruder’s “American Government,” a widely used textbook, is a typical example of schoolbook democracy. Here students learn the U.S. Constitution is built on a few basic principles, including popular sovereignty: “In the United States, all political power belongs to the people. The people are sovereign. Popular sovereignty means that people are the only source of governmental power. Government can govern only with the consent of the governed.”

As school kids mature into young adults and gain their own firsthand experience of the political world around them, they soon realize how ill-prepared they – the sovereign people – are to compete with wealthy election campaign donors and professional corporate lobbyists who dominate, between elections, the behind-the-scenes deal-making that determines who gets what.

In addition, studies show that once in office lawmakers give top priority to the care and feeding of their election campaign backers and corporate lobbyists, not the citizens who actually voted them into office.

Looking to the future, Reich says, “If we give up on politics, we’re done for. Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The only way back toward democracy and an economy that works for the majority is for most of us to get politically active once again.”

He is right. It is time Americans quit bellyaching to pollsters and get busy rebuilding a government responsive to its citizens, not to the fat cats.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., a Western New York writer, is the author of the new book “America, Democracy & YOU: Where Have all the Citizens Gone?”