Some time ago, a lady that visited here from Laguna Beach has raised a question. How does one manage to fill a weekly column? The response was that the problem is –thanks to the self-induced crisis of our self-doubting culture – an easy one. The difficulty is not finding a theme but to decide what to skip. Your correspondent has dozens of pages filled with ideas tagged to become the subject of future columns. The list lengthens menacingly while its “gems” are superseded in favor of new urgencies. This aspect of the job has again manifested itself. This unplanned presentation derives from having attended an event.
That event was a “town meeting” where the writer resides in Switzerland. The urge to write had to do with breaks during which ballots were counted in the otherwise openly voting assembly. Not having much to do can have effects. One is to sink in stupor or to scratch in the manner of our hairy primates. The other is to become inspired. In this case, that reaction has been facilitated by used envelopes that held the voting material. If you have paper and time, all you need is an idea. A perceived parallel to the USA provided the “missing link”. (Since the Gettysburg Address, texts on the back of envelopes raise expectations. Safely, the promise can be made that the standard set by Lincoln will be missed here.)
As far as the writer can tell, Switzerland is the only place where the observed form of direct democracy prevails. This practice is institutionalized on the local and the national level of government. The custom is of long standing and not an innovation, which it might become elsewhere. Especially the local control of the decentralized state machine is a remnant of the Middle Ages. Insinuating a negative and disqualifying implication, this is a fact that the Left likes to emphasize. Marx, their hero, might have seen the liberation of man in the ultimate “atrophying” of the state. His astute followers have discovered the uses of the state. Professional government work pays well. After all, those serving determine not only the taxes they can distribute as bribes to secure their jobs, but also decide the bureaucrats’ share of it. Just imagine a business that can determine its own revenue! Furthermore, it is through the state machine that policies are implemented. In translation, some ordained measures might be unfit to get majority approval. Nevertheless, the government’s coercive instruments and propaganda monopoly can make the reluctant and silenced patients swallow bitter pills.
By now, you might have guessed how the town meeting, direct democracy, and the implied applicability of self-governing citizens might come together in an idea that spans the Atlantic. With the American context in mind, it was a “natural” to connect on the envelope the evening’s exercise and some aspects of the US’ Tea Party movement. Frankly, the ritualistic condemnation of direct government in the media –the writer consults besides magazines, about eleven dailies- induces sympathy. That does not necessarily include total agreement. Certainly, as is the case of any large association of humans, some of its members would reject several of the writer’s views. The reverse would also be true. If you have a mind and a personality, you will never fit fully into any group with a point of view that is harder than putty.
The Tea Party is a movement that asserts, respectively reasserts, a popular right. In a nominally federal context, that right is challenged by incremental centralization, which makes it into a popular revolt against a reversible trend. In part, the endeavor also expresses the alienation of the awakening masses from their “leaders”. The program is to bring the power back to the people and to give government by participation a new dimension. Good government has been too singularly associated with a quality that only guarantees that immature subjects will be well administered. Thus in practice we talk about “being governed by”. That is in some ways a humanized and improved version of the despotism that Western Civilization (sorry if the term insults some) removed once the Enlightenment unfolded. One hears some Europeans regretting that their 450 million are not “allowed” to express themselves, as do seven million Swiss. This makes one sense that, the emergence of a new democracy that seeks to take power back and searches for ways for self-government, might be dawning. The evidence created by the TP supports the notion. It also suggests that direct democracy’s use might not be limited to small countries as its detractors like to suggest. (“It might be a good system but it is not practical…”.)
In its activities, the TP is experimenting with the practical application of a right, which is inseparable from membership in a free society. The inquiry is about the intention to go beyond the limited freedom that limits us to have a voice in which fraction of the elite will be mandated to determine our life. Here, however, a reminder is due.
It is a conservative principle, and as such, a dictate of reason, that freedom’s rights are earned and confirmed, through demonstrated responsibility. This implies a burden. Direct democratic movements cannot be better than the quality of their members. What is called “quality” here is not only a moral stance but also a honed competence to judge in debt the matters over which the citizen has to decide.
The recommended moderation, information, evaluation and, by implication, self-restraint, affirms that those that cannot control themselves are condemned to be controlled by others. Freedom depends on the ability to assess soberly implications and nuances through continuous self-improvement. The constructive application comes down to avoiding the lot of American history’s “Know Nothings”. The point is that being convinced is not enough. Knowing about our immediate surroundings and the larger world beyond is the prerequisite of winning debates held beyond the circle of those that are already convinced. If the TP can internalize these traits while it determinedly engages in the political process that corresponds to its growing weight, it will be successful in harnessing the wind of a trend. Politics is the art of doing and advocating the possible in acceptable terms. In the pursuit of shaping a new reality, this old wisdom can deteriorate into a trap. That danger is that the principle can be exploited to justify corrupting compromises. At the same time, ignoring moderation opens the door to crucifixion in the pursuit of impractical fantasies that preempt the advocacy of problem solving visions.