Democracy in Deep Decay

William Greider talks about how big money has broken the American political machine and how lawyers and lobbyists undermine the process of lawmaking.

September 17, 2002  |  For 17 years, through his work on the pages of Rolling Stone — from the era of Blondie to Brittany, from Boy George to George W’s “Kenny Boy” Lay — I suspect one writer slipped more political information and consciousness into the minds of young people than anyone else. Before Michael Moore and the Web there was William Greider. Now national affairs correspondent for The Nation, Greider is the author of the national bestsellers “Who Will Tell the People?,” “Secrets of the Temple” and “One World, Ready or Not.”

McNally: It seemed to me, in “Who Will Tell the People?” which came out in 1992, you tried to go deeper into what was wrong with the democratic process than simply money or the political parties. Ten years later, talk a little bit about what you found then, and how things might have changed.

Greider: I think that things have not improved, to put it mildly. If one starts from the original, optimistic idea of people being able to participate in deciding things that affect their own lives — that’s my idea of democracy — then it is in deep decay. And the reasons for that are far more complex than big money. Big money has always, at one level or another, asserted itself in American politics. Wealth and power go together, to be sure, but our problems are deeper still. The usual self-correcting mechanisms of politics — that allow it to get back on track, that make it responsive and eventually accountable to the public — are broken.

That’s a pretty broad indictment, but it includes everything from the press — the media, now — which is not representative of the people in ways, it was 30, 40, 50 or 100 years ago. It doesn’t fulfill the same functions it did then, which is educating and agitating and so forth. The political parties are now quite hollow as representative organizations. And finally to the process of law-making itself, in which only certain parties are close to the table and participate intimately in the language of law.

Then the public, partly because it doesn’t have much connecting tissue with the process, wakes up in the morning and discovers, “They did this to us.”

And worse, wakes up and says, “They did this to us two or three years ago.”

Yeah, right. Meanwhile there’s the process — familiar in Washington, but much more opaque to people at large — that makes passing a law only one stage of the fight. Lawyers and lobbyists then follow the implementation of the law at every stage, fighting — maybe in court, maybe just in the corridors — over what that law means, working to strip it of its intended meaning. Environmental law offers the best, most vivid example of this.

The picture I’m describing is more universal than simply guys with bags of money — although they’re there, too.

You’re trying to get below the level of the easy targets, talking about how lawmaking has become a process of continual deal making and negotiation. Can you give an example?

The first Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. But in order to get that law through the Congress, a compromise was made. And there were no illusions about it. “We will exempt the older utilities, mostly coal-burning, because if we don’t give them a grandfather exemption, it’ll just be shutting them down. And we can’t take that either politically or economically.” So they said, “All right, as long as you don’t expand the production of electricity at those plants, we’ll let you continue. But when you begin to expand, then you’ve got to begin to meet the same Clean Air Standards as everybody else.”

The industry, of course, not only didn’t comply, but expanded. Essentially broke the law. The government has been spending 20 or 30 years trying to close that loophole. Now there are hundreds of these plants, many in the South and Midwest… and they account for the majority of our electrical production.

Comes the late ’90s and the Clinton administration and the EPA gets up the nerve to file lawsuits against them. They go to Federal Court and they win some big judgments. Now we have a glimmer of real progress. The environmental groups — NRDC and others — come to the table and say, “Look, you can settle these lawsuits. We won’t keep pressing the case, if you agree to new legislation that includes carbon. We have to upgrade the standards on the other emissions — sulfur and nitrogen and so forth — and, because of global warming, we need to include carbon, which up to now has been unregulated.”

So the environmentalists had a strategy, which made a lot of sense. And some of the big utility companies, including Enron, came on board and said, “Yeah, we’re for that. Let’s go to new standards and we’ll get serious about Kyoto.”

Then comes the election of 2000. (laughter) You know that story, where Bush/Cheney, et al., completely traded away everything. The EPA has not formally backed off the lawsuits, but the Justice Department is looking at whether they want to go forward with them. And meanwhile they invite the coal companies and the polluting utilities in to work out deals. Now the prospect of getting that legislation is not dead, because the good, valiant people will still fight for it and it’s a political idea that will eventually triumph, I believe… but it’s now going to take five, ten, who knows how many more years to accomplish progress on this.

And this was a law originally passed 32 years ago, and at that point hard fought for!

I’ll give you another simpler example. Superfund Law, which says to corporations, “You poisoned this ground with your toxic dump. You built a factory, which leaked poison out of every window and valve. You’ve got to pay the cost of cleaning it up.” And some corporations went ahead and did that, like good citizens. But a lot of them, the biggest ones, said, “We can’t pay that! We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars!” General Electric being the prime example, because it has fought Superfund legislation from the beginning, trying to push the cost off on the taxpayers.

The most celebrated case is the Hudson River in New York, where GE had a couple of plants up north of Albany, which dumped PCBs in the river for several generations. For many years swimming or fishing the river was a serious health risk. They used every legal, political lever they have — and they have many — to keep New York State and the Federal EPA from forcing them to dredge the river and clean it up. They just lost again last year. Whether that will stick or not I don’t know. They’re now making noises like they’ll go along with it. But how many years is that? Twenty, 25 years of legal stalling.

And it’s not just the Hudson River. They’ve got scores of other Superfund sites and they recognize it; if they lose on the Hudson, they lose those others, too. I’m sure their lobbyists are still working the Hill, trying to gut the Superfund liability. I mean, there are a thousand stories like that! (laughter) But you get the point.

And I want to add, there are valiant members of Congress, and Senators, who stand up against this every year and often succeed in at least not losing the whole loaf. But you see what I mean? There’s something really deformed about American democracy, when this happens. And I could take you across 20 issues and tell similar stories.

You’re saying the corporations are with us year after year — except perhaps for Enron or Anderson or the rest of those bad apples — but for the most part, they can outlast our officials — and our attention spans.

A corporation, unless it goes blooey, lives forever. The rest of us have a finite lifetime. That’s an important difference in politics.

That’s why I was always opposed to term limits, because… and believe me, I am well familiar with the old bulls who’ve been around too long and are simply collecting pork, but term limits guarantees a turnover of elected representatives that will never quite catch up with the lobbying pressures.

I mean, I wrote in that book, and I think it’s still true… During their first term or two — particularly if they’re from a district that’s not an easy, slam-dunk Republican or Democratic district — a House member is very susceptible to pressure. And particularly money pressure, because they know they’re going to have a strong challenger and they need to raise money. After they’ve been there maybe two terms or three, they reach a critical point where they decide, “Okay, I’ve got a handle on this now. The people know me, the people trust me. I can start making independent decisions on some issues.” And then you find out if they’re really going to be representatives.

Or they can go the other way and say, “Hey, this is easy. I’m just going to keep taking the money.” (laughter) But with term limits you never find out which way they would have gone.

I suspect a lot of the people who favor term limits fear government, without knowing a lot about it.

This is a young country… and I don’t say that facetiously. Compared to most societies, it really is. We still have a very real possibility of developing — of redeveloping — a democratic ethos that explores some of these questions again.

The question is, how do you develop reliable representatives who really are trustworthy to the people who put them there, and who also have the self-confidence to occasionally go against those people? I don’t know how we do it in an age of mass media. But we ought to be talking about it.

I’m not trying to suggest that it’s all about dogs and scoundrels who happen to be in public office. There’s a public side to this breakdown as well.

And I don’t blame folks for that. They’ve lost some of the mediating institutions that were there to hold people accountable. It’s so much harder now to develop candidates from among the people themselves, rather than by some campaign consultant or ad agency or just somebody who’s got the money to roll over anybody.

Finally, in order to shift things in the right direction, where do you think people should be putting their attention and their energy?

Well, … we haven’t even talked about foreign policy here or defense. So, to at least put it in people’s heads, let me say I think we’re in a really dangerous, long-term situation in the United States. A lot of folks in this administration in Washington are embarked on a kind of neo-imperialist approach to the world. It’s based on the notion that, “We’re the good guys and we have to fix the world, whether they like it or not.”

I don’t believe in empire. I think it always fails due to its own internal arrogance and blindness. I think the further we go down this road the more difficult it’s going to be to turn it around. And the more dangerous it’s going to be for us as Americans. So I would urge people to not just tolerate dissent, but to open their own thoughts to, “Is this really what we had in mind once we got the Cold War over?” I don’t think that’s what Americans want. I really don’t.

$48 billion more a year for the Pentagon is just nuts! In Fortress America I wrote about the contradictions of maintaining this broad, heavy war mobilization despite the end of the Cold War. And I made the point that we can’t pay for this big army and the navy and all the other weapons systems that they intend to buy, so we’re going to hit a crunch point.

Actually, Rumsfeld was in the process of trying to come to cut the Armed Forces, when September 11 happened. And he got off the hook, didn’t he? Now he’s literally saying, “We can do it all. We can keep an army that’s bloated and equipped for a land war in Europe,” which is of course ludicrous. “And then we can build all this other stuff that people want to build. New weapons systems and missile defense and three kinds of fighter planes.”

I think the public is so focused on the threat of terrorism and the patriotic feelings we all share that they can’t quite bring themselves to question that now. But I urge them to get on the case and think hard about it. Because once you’ve started spending that money it becomes really hard to turn it off. And, as a result of this hysteria, we’re going to waste a fortune that God knows we could spend elsewhere in this society.

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