• U.S.

A Dirge for American Democracy

3 minute read
Walter Shapiro




THE BOTTOM LINE: The system is in crisis, and the politicians are not the only ones to blame.

WILLIAM GREIDER HAS ALL THE credentials to be another Inside-the-Beltway TV- talk-show bore serving up sound-bite-size portions of predictable punditry. Back in 1972 when he was covering the McGovern campaign, Greider was one of Timothy Crouse’s original Boys on the Bus. While an editor of the Washington Post, he prompted David Stockman’s explosive 1981 confessions that Reaganomics was a fraud. A dogged reporter undeterred by smoke-and-mirrors complexity, Greider plumbed the depths of the Federal Reserve in his 1987 best seller, Secrets of the Temple.

But in sharp contrast to his counterparts in the Washington journalistic firmament, Greider boasts the temperament, outlook and career trajectory of an angry outsider. For one thing, he writes these days for Rolling Stone, a publication rarely confused with, say, the New Republic. Greider’s stance also sets him apart from both Establishment toadies and partisan true believers, for he is a jaded idealist almost as disgusted with tepid reformers as he is with the hoard-the-wealth excesses of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Who Will Tell the People sets out to explain precisely how and why American democracy has washed up on the shoals of cynicism. The complaint may sound familiar, but such a brief precis does not do justice to either the freshness of Greider’s argument or the ambition of his approach. For this is not a book about negative campaign spots, the corruption of political fund raising or the self-destructive follies of the Democratic Party. To Greider these are merely symptoms of a much larger malady — the systematic disenfranchisement of average Americans from the business of running their country.

The once vibrant institutions that gave the little guy a fair shake and a share of the action in the New Deal era have atrophied into empty shells: political parties, labor unions and working-class newspapers. Taking their place, Greider provocatively argues, are the cool, rational tools of by-the- numbers policy analysis, the legacy of “the energetic reform movements launched by Ralph Nader and others in the 1960s.” Much like the Progressives early in the century, the Naderite reformers distrusted the messiness of mass democracy and placed their faith instead in public-interest litigation and legislation. But in another illustration of the law of unintended consequences, business interests learned how to dominate these newly cerebral public policy debates, while average citizens became dangerously alienated from the two-party governing class in Washington.

Greider’s sympathies rest with the enduring “native American skepticism of elites.” He singles out for praise modern-day community organizers, the heirs of Saul Alinsky, fighting for power in the old-fashioned face-to-face style of urban political machines. His moral: “The nation is alive with positive, creative political energies” that never find an outlet in national elections. Yet Greider is too much the realist (covering 20 years of quixotic presidential campaigns inevitably dampens one’s dreams) to map out much of a battle plan for John and Jane Doe to regain control of the levers of national power.

The book’s one flaw — oddly enough, given its thesis — is that Greider works too hard to achieve a rationally analytical prose style. His one first- person chapter on newspapers (winningly contrasting his early days on the blue-collar Cincinnati Post with the mature Ivy League-dominated Washington Post) serves as a road-not-taken reminder that in the struggle to express ideas — as well as in the battle for political rectitude — personal experience beats position papers hands down.

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