Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the mid-1830s and found a young, energetic republic practicing a new form of representative government built on a Constitution promulgated by, of and for "we the people." He met the people of the United States of America on the "Main Streets" of many Midwestern and Northeastern towns and villages. He saw neighbors helping neighbors. He saw people volunteering in small groups to help in their local towns and villages, and be found part-time citizen-legislators representing their families, friends and neighbors in their state capitals and in Washington.
In short, he saw a representative democracy, in which its citizens were connected to their elected officials at all levels in a direct and meaningful way. And, this led him to conclude that America's greatness lay not in its natural beauty, nor in its vast and diverse geography, not even in its burgeoning ports and commerce, but in its people, who thought and acted in terms of what they could do for each other and their communities, not in terms of what their elected governments could do for them.
One hundred-fifty years after de Tocqueville came to see how democracy functioned in America, I was fortunate to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent almost 500,000 people living in Westchester County. My election in 1984 was the result of a very close and hotly contested race that foreshadowed the radical polarization of politics in America, epitomized by Bush vs. Gore in Florida in 2000 and continuing today. Touring my congressional district, from the poorest sections to the wealthiest, I came face to face with the people of "Main Street," as de Tocqueville had done before writing his masterpiece, "Democracy in America."
But, if he were here today, I think that he would be dismayed in seeing a big change in America's political tone and. popular perspective. I think he would conclude that we have drifted from a place where people were content to help themselves and each other, to one where people are much more inclined to look to their elected officials for help.
Even worse, de Tocqueville would now see a well-entrenched two-party system effectively putting limits on citizen participation in government, thereby excluding many good people from access to public office. He would witness overly restrictive rules of entry stemming from partisan political redistricting every 10 years. He would witness self-dealing and cross-party endorsements at the expense of electoral competition, and he would be dismayed by campaign finance practices that help incumbents monopolize political power.
And, I believe he would conclude that elected officials are no longer primarily concerned with the economic health and welfare of their constituents, but with the control of the awesome power to tax and spend, thereby promoting political patronage, incompetence, and even public fraud.
We see a lot in the press these days about the need for corporate governance, internal controls, accountability to shareholders, objectivity, fairness and independence when it comes to protecting the people's savings and invested capital. But what about these widely respected concepts for federal, state and local jurisdictions, which are entrusted with trillions of dollars in Social Security and public retirement funds? And, what about the trillions of dollars of off budget guarantees and "special purpose" entities (like the ones Enron used to defraud its shareholders) that are not subject to the same standards of public reporting, accounting and governance that Congress has imposed on the private sector?
I think de Tocqueville would agree that we have strayed badly, and that the primary problem now is our short-term focus on elections and re-elections. I think he would agree that we are threatening the great quality of life and national legacy that our generation inherited from our parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, this is what happens when money controls message and campaign funds can be raised and spent far beyond reasonable limits, thereby excluding many citizens from being heard either as candidates or as voters.
Thomas Jefferson once said that "the price of liberty (read, democracy) is eternal vigilance." It is not too late to heed his prophetic advice. Our unique democracy and personal liberties can still prevail if every citizen stays engaged in the democratic process and hence prevents the hijacking of public policy by private or strictly partisan interests.
This Article was Originally Published in The Journal News