The actions of a sole protestor in Algeria, magnified by thousands of others, toppled dictators in Algeria, Egypt and Libya. People did not just watch — they marched, they protested, and they risked their livelihoods and their lives. No one even saw the “Arab Spring” coming until it had happened.
In Israel, in July, a few citizens set up a tent city in Tel Aviv, demanding a tax increase on the wealthy, rent controls, free education, limits on privatization and an increase in the minimum wage. Eventually 150,000 people joined the protests; tent cities bloomed in 40 different cities and towns.
Citizen protest jumped the ocean and came to Wisconsin, where the new governor and Legislature thought they could just demolish unions and cut pay and pensions and benefits.
Some 100,000 people took over the state Capitol to protest, and two state senators lost their jobs by recall election. Now Wisconsinites have collected half a million signatures to force a recall election of Gov. Scott Walker this year.
In New York, a few people decided it was time to take on America’s financial dictators by occupying Wall Street, the center of financial power in the world. And as if for the first time, the national media discovered that the very rich are getting even richer while working families get less and the dream of middle class seems lost to many. Again, no one thought the “American Autumn” was even possible — until it was already upon us.
So democracy is the proverbial genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. The question is, what next? I think the answer depends on whether more people choose to “act and do” or “sit and watch.”
I hope we choose the former. While media and campaign advertisements would have us believe that politics should entertain us with America’s Top Model-level glitz, the more we wallow in that, the less power we have.
It’s now apparent to all — except for the talking heads and political shills who are paid to say otherwise, of course — that the fundamental question of who gets paid and how much has nothing to do with a magical “invisible hand” controlling the economy. Rather, it’s about who writes the rules for the market in the public halls of our democracy.
That’s why the giant financial corporations, saved by trillion dollar taxpayer bailouts, are getting even bigger and more powerful, while taxes on the very wealthy are going down. Look around and you will see that the middle class seems to have lost its place in America, and the national narrative has (until recently) been usurped by the fiction that the more money you have, the better you are.
When you’re worrying about losing your health coverage, or watching your paycheck falling behind, or wondering whether the kids will make it through high school (and if they do, how to afford college), it’s easy to see why sitting and watching the NFL, or the latest viral video, holds such appeal.
But “sit and watch” means power, privilege, income and wealth steadily accrue to the tippity-top, while the public priorities upon which we all depend — the roads, the schools, the water, sewer, and garbage services, state parks, public health, universities — slowly disintegrate.
If that happens, we can blame the 1 percent — but we can also blame ourselves. Because the 1 percent won’t choose to fix the problems we face. They won’t choose to rebuild the middle class, to raise the money from income and wealth to “pay it forward” for modern transit, clean energy systems, pre-K to college education, or for health coverage.
But we can choose to “act and do” instead. After all, in a democracy, that’s how it works. Either we petition our leaders — city and county councils, school boards and state legislators — or we go directly to a vote of the people for policy change via initiative.
If we don’t take action, 2011 won’t even be a footnote to social progress. But if we do, we can make 2012 a rebirth of democracy, hope, goodwill and a commonwealth of opportunity for all of us.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.