Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.
Chapter 10 : A SURGICAL REFORM STRATEGY
Ideas that have great results are always simple ones. My whole idea is that if vicious people are united and constitute a power, then honest folk must do the same. Now that's simple enough.
Lev Tolstoy,1 1869
Perhaps the most touching and profound characteristic of childhood is an unquestioning belief in the rule of common sense. The child believes that the world is rational and hence regards everything irrational as some sort of obstacle to be pushed aside. . . . The best people, I think, are those who over the years have managed to retain this childhood faith in the world's rationality. For it is this faith which provides man with passion and zeal in his struggle against the twin follies of cruelty and stupidity.
Fazil Iskander,2 1970
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas,3 1951
Has Humanity a Future?
A Kurt Vonnegut's fictional character once wrote a book titled "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" The book itself is rather short, consisting of one word and a period: "Nothing."4 Given indeed this experience, given the ever-growing number of technological threats and potential breaking points, given the overwhelming complexity of our social ills; given, moreover, the seemingly inexorable march of history (a march which seems to bring us ever closer to the maelstrom); Vonnegut's black humor appears realistic enough: it seems that, no matter what we do, the earth will sink and drown.
Depending perhaps on one's temper, one might look at the same record and wonder at the heights to which we have climbed in such a comparatively short time. Our ancestors routinely practiced fertility rites, human sacrifice, and self-flagellation; they ate human flesh, used the skulls of their enemies as drinking cups, and enslaved their fellows and spouses. Held in the clutches of shamans, taboos, and irrational fears, they were not, on the average, as free, as decent, and as rational as we are now, even if we manage, at the end, to suffocate in our own waste, blow ourselves apart, or lose our freedom. Further back in time, our forebears were ape-like creatures; still farther, they were snakes. An irreversible environmental decline, a nuclear holocaust, or a Brave New World will merely show what we have known all along-that we are capable of the worst follies, crimes, and fears. But they will not deny what everyday experience shows even more forcefully-that we possess a fair measure of wisdom, courage, and kindness. The historical record, and we, its perpetrators, form a crazy quilt of vice and virtue, folly and wisdom, fear and courage. This, combined with the novel element which science and technology introduce into contemporary history, render a return to the wasteland of the dark ages distinctly possible. But they do not guarantee this return, nor do they utterly negate a brighter prospect. There is, in particular, the remote but nevertheless well-founded hope that, if we just manage to keep the biosphere, democracy, and civilization going a few more centuries, we may become fully human.
Be it as it may, I can't concede that the end is nearby. Moreover, there is something to be said for the view that we must struggle against "all forces which are opposed to peace, to cooperation, to life and love. . . . giving up is not worthy of a human being."5 So, without pretending to have resolved this legitimate debate on the future of humanity, I shall arbitrarily take it for granted that the struggle for a better world is not, in principle, devoid of hope.
Successful Reform Presupposes an Informed Public
"I am convinced," says a typical observer of the nuclear arms race, "that political leaders, left to themselves, will not be able to prevent a nuclear holocaust."6 "Left alone," a former Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency tells us, "our government will not always look after the public interest."7 Both commentators, and many others,8 agree that the key to curing our social ills is an informed public: "The main, perhaps the only, hope for the future is that the public will learn the facts in time and that an aroused public opinion will force reluctant politicians to stop the nuclear arms race and reduce armaments."6 "The most important lesson from our environmental experience is that government will not act to face hard national problems until the people demand that it do so."7
Borne out as they are by the entire historical record, these views appear plausible. The powers that be are unlikely to be swayed by appeals to rationality, decency, fair play, or even their own long-term interests. At the present stage of human development, they can be moved only by irresistible forces. In a democracy, the only irresistible force may well be an informed people. So the question of strategy may boil down to this: How can this sleeping giant-the people-be awakened?
Democratic reformers have traditionally resorted to a number of strategies. One time-honored strategy involves starting an altogether new party with a broad reform platform. Another involves gaining control of an already existing major party.
Both strategies have been tried repeatedly in the past, and both, in the majority of cases, have failed. A new party, or a radically new platform of an established party, can succeed when the severity of the problems becomes obvious to the voters. Yet, submerged as they are in a sludge of irrelevance and misinformation, voters are unlikely to reach this enlightened state on time. A broad reform platform will antagonize many well-meaning voters, either because it takes the wrong stand on some issues, or because no voter is well-informed on all the issues. We are a conservative people, and not without good reasons. Unlike Marx's workers, we have a lot more to lose than our chains, and we know from the sad experience of others that revolutionary changes often bring disaster. Even if a new party, or an old party with a radically new platform, gains control over one or two branches of government, it might not be able to accomplish much because its program will be strongly resisted in so many centers of power within our republic.
For these, and for many other reasons that need not be elaborated here, this strategy of reform-starting a new party or attempting a takeover of an existing party-seems fruitless.
Another traditional strategy focuses on specific reforms. The specific reformer takes one issue, such as space militarization, the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant someplace, inadequate health care for the poor, or American support for dictatorial Turkey, and joins or organizes a political crusade against it. Sometimes his scope is broader, say, nuclear disarmament, nuclear power, poverty, or American policies in the Third World, but he goes no farther.
Until the mid-1940s, specific reformers had their fair share of victories. Since then, science and technology have proven too fast for them. On the whole, despite some notable successes, specific reformers have been losing ground. If they continue on the same course, they are likely to win a few sporadic battles, but-in a world in which everything is connected to everything else-lose the war.
Take, for instance, a specific reformer struggling to ban a carcinogenic pesticide. After years of hard work and sacrifices, she might win or lose. But even if she wins, is it a victory when, as a result of her actions, the manufacturer increases the volume of exports of this particular chemical so that total dispersal into the global environment remains the same? Is it a victory when the sum total of all hazardous chemicals in the biosphere rises? When the same manufacturer comes up with a similarly obnoxious substitute? When thousands of people must stand in the unemployment line as a result of her action? When, at any given moment throughout her struggle, most cities in the northern hemisphere can be reduced to radioactive rubble? When, on any given day, three or more species that have always shared this green and round planet with us have been irreversibly lost? Yet, these are precisely the kind of victories reformers have had since 1945.
All this is not meant to disparage specific reformers. Some of their accomplishments, e.g., greater equality for racial minorities and women, or the 1980 Alaska Wilderness Bill, are impressive. Similarly, specific reformers play a critically important role in raising public consciousness, in establishing a tradition of dissent, civic-mindedness, and pluralism, and in providing the groundwork and foundations for future progress. But, despite its near universal appeal, despite its accomplishments, despite the idealism, courage and sacrifices of its unsung practitioners, the strategy of specific reforms is unlikely to get us out of the present quagmire. On this question, the historical record is unambiguous.9 Specific reformers are trying to push back the minute hand on humankind's time bomb, but they only succeed in slowing its steady advance.
Another image these struggles bring to mind is that of a lonely canoeist in a fast-flowing river. Despite strenuous efforts to paddle upriver and escape a dangerous waterfall whose roar she can already hear in the distance, she is steadily approaching death. Riverside observers of this drama may not know whether she can escape the waterfall at all, but they can be reasonably sure that the old way of feebly paddling upriver is not going to save her. Likewise, people observing the drama of contemporary history from the recesses of an academic library may not know whether humankind will escape from the logic of events, but they can be reasonably sure that the old strategy of specific reforms will come to grief.
Hard work, dedication, and good will must be combined with a viable strategy. But a strategy that produced so few victories in the past 46 years, a strategy that has been applied for so long on so many fronts and saw a net decline in the human prospect, a strategy that consistently attacks numerous surface manifestations of a social disease instead of its causes, a strategy that weakens the humanitarian camp by dividing it into disconnected branches, a strategy that institutionalizes the ills it sets out to correct, a strategy that inadvertently bestows upon the system the facade of democracy it so badly needs-such a strategy cannot possibly embody the correct approach to safeguarding freedom and civilization.
"It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street," said Dietrich Bonhoeffer about some of his fellow Germans, "but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all."10 To avert totalitarianism, war, environmental decline, injustice, economic and spiritual stagnation, we ought to start thinking about the eradication of mad driving, instead of merely looking after the ever-growing number of victims.
A Surgical Reform Strategy
In a democracy, the main hope for curbing the arms race and other social ills is an informed public. Only an informed public can be mobilized in the right direction, and only an informed public can vote intelligently and constructively. Broad platform reformers try to inform and mobilize the public on a variety of issues; a given specific reformer focuses on one; but they all operate in a system which takes unfairness for granted. In our system, politicians are openly and legally bribed by anyone who can afford to do so, the public is daily inundated by a tidal wave of irrelevance and misinformation, elections are unfair and irrational. Is it any wonder, then, that all reform attempts end up, at best, in a compromise on any given issue between public and private interests?
My whole idea is simple. For the time being, specific and broad reform strategies must give way to a surgical approach. Before trying to cure one or another social ill, democratic reformers must see to it that their appeals to reason and justice reach the public, unfiltered and undistorted. If they want peace, freedom, enlightened foreign policy, environmental responsibility, social justice, devolution of political and economic power, or civil rights, they must go through the heartrending exercise of leaving these social ills alone for a while, forging a united front, and directing their attention on those defects in the political process that make these ills possible. Before trying to change the majority's way of thinking, they must change their own. They need to struggle exclu.pa sively and uncompromisingly for fairness in politics: comprehensive legislation that would ban private money from the political arena, make elections more rational and fair, and re-establish an open marketplace of ideas. They ought to do so not because venality, irrationality, and falsehood in Western politics are the most pressing social ills of our day-they are certainly not-but because their abatement gives the greatest promise of enhancing the human prospect. They need to take this indirect road because it may well be the best way of solving the one or another specific problem which is of greatest concern to them: in politics-unlike Euclidean geometry-the shortest distance from one point to another is not a straight line. They ought to do this because political reality is a three-dimensional interdependent web, not a two-dimensional collection of parallel lines.
This chapter will only draw a rough sketch of the needed Fairness in Politics Legislation and offer a few tentative reflections on this legislation's nature and rationale.
An exclusive struggle for fairness in politics enjoys distinct advantages. It amplifies the faint glimmers of reform by focusing them into a single point. It presupposes only an elementary commitment to fair play and democracy. By campaigning on one issue, reformers can draw into their camp people of good will from all shades of the political spectrum. A single-issue platform is easy to understand and hard to obfuscate. The struggle for fairness in politics will not have to start from scratch, for many reformers are already involved in one or another aspect of this struggle. Moreover, this struggle enjoys a measure of sympathy in Congress, other power centers, and the humanitarian camp as a whole.
We only need to remind ourselves of amateur sport competitions to see that the surgical reformer's indirect route is not as irrelevant as it appears on first sight. Suppose you belong to a basketball team which is eager to play against a slightly weaker team. Suppose you invited them to a match which they accepted, but only on the condition that your team fields three players (to their five) throughout the game. You might decide to accept this condition; if you are extremely lucky, you might even win. But cold logic suggests that your best path to victory is obtaining fair
rules first and playing basketball second. Likewise, cold logic suggests that political duels stand the best chance of being won by changing first the dueling protocol.
Though political contests are played for greater stakes than athletic contests, they do not adhere to the same standards of fair play. Contenders for public office, for instance, are not allotted equal sums of money to spend on their campaigns, which means that they are not given equal access to the voters. As we have seen, such rules corrode the political process and throw much light on existing democracies' social ills. The "terrible pressures" a politician faces in our system, said a John F. Kennedy's ghostwriter, "discourage acts of political courage" and often drive him to "abandon or subdue his conscience."11 Searching for campaign money," said a former U.S. Vice President, "is a disgusting, degrading, demeaning experience. It is about time we cleaned it up."12
The proposed legislation would altogether eliminate money and monetary pressures from our body politic. It would forbid politicians to accept money or its equivalents from any source other than the public treasury while running for office, while in office, and a few years after leaving office. All serious contenders for the same elected position would be provided with equal amounts of campaign funds.
As we have seen, elections are presently conducted like horse races. Politicians are sold in the same way Las Vegas sells its gambling and entertainment wares. Political candidates appeal to the voters' fears and prejudices, not to their reason and humanity. Flooded in a sea of irrelevant, trivial, and distracting information, voters are often oblivious to the real issues.
In addition to enfeebling moneyed interests, fairness in politics calls for rational elections. For instance, the needed legislation may provide voters with standardized pamphlets containing descriptions of candidates' policies and records. It may ban political advertisements which reduce candidates to spineless clowns (in the same way that commercials for cigarettes were expunged from our TV screens, and for similar reasons).
To judge policies and politicians, voters must be provided with objective information about them. To do their job well, politicians must confront the world as it is. In the U.S., neither voters nor politicians are confronted with the truths they need. As a result, Americans often elect to public office the wrong people who then pursue misguided policies. The causes of this information problem are clear enough. We do not expect a suspected embezzler to incriminate himself, and we do not chiefly depend upon what he says to convict or exonerate him. Why, then, should we expect any but the most outstanding statesmen to tell us or themselves the truth? Why should we depend upon what they choose to tell us to convict or exonerate them and their policies? Why should we depend on the mainstream media, hired experts, and educators to tell us all we need to know, if their access to information is limited, if they have been victims of lifelong indoctrination, and if truthfulness and objectivity do not coincide with their interests?
"The people cannot be safe without information," yet it is too much to expect the government, educational establishment, media, other organizations, and hired experts to tell us and themselves the truth. We must find other means of protecting impartiality and the democratic process. One solution to this problem may rely on the traditional democratic approach of checks, balances, and the separation of powers: those who are charged with the task of telling the truth should have no stake in it. The proposed legislation may, for instance, severely limit the freedom of the three traditional branches of government to collect and disseminate information. Instead, it may mandate the creation of an independent agency whose members are elected by the public and whose only task is to collect information and disseminate it to the public and government. Safeguards can be put in place so that this agency is judged on the basis of how well it uncovers and presents information to the public and the politicians, not on the basis of what information it uncovers.
Another vital link in ensuring fairness in politics concerns the media. For instance, the proposed legislation might involve large-scale divestiture of media outlets. It might require the print and broadcast media to give considerable space to independent writers, announcers, agencies, public interest groups, and private citizens, and it would give the media no say about what goes into this space. The worrisome power of advertisers can be reduced through the creation of a central clearing house: advertisers would still be free to reach as many people as they can afford to, but the choice of the medium itself will be made by this public agency on a strictly random basis. Government news releases might be followed by highly critical analyses which would, among other things, question basic premises. The critics themselves might be chosen at random from an international pool of knowledgeable or concerned people, and not on the basis of conformity and subservience.
Under the best of circumstances, years will pass before political fairness changes our way of dealing with such issues as militarism, environmental decline, and needless poverty. Moreover, given the enormous complexity of human societies, a concerted struggle for fairness might fail or even backfire. Yet the burning question "Can humankind afford such ominous delays and risks?" is irrelevant. The only relevant question is: "Which strategy is likeliest to remove this multitude of perils in the shortest possible time?" There are no sure roads into a more secure future; the cataclysm may come no matter what we do. We can do no more than select the most promising road and travel it as fast as we can.
The pathetic masquerade going under the name of politics now, and which, if allowed to continue on its present course, might bring politics to an end, can be replaced by a more fair, rational, unbiased, democratic, and lasting political process. If the people who are aware and who care could somehow break away from village green politics; if they could come to see the interconnectedness of their problem to all others; if they could subordinate personal and organizational welfare to the common good; if, by some miracle, they could abandon their intuitive conception of political action; if they could single-mindedly and cooperatively pursue political fairness; and if our species' luck does not run out in the meantime; humanity might make a significant step forward.
Besides political activism, successful reform presupposes an optimal strategy. Parties espousing radically new programs are unlikely to achieve their goals. Taken as a whole, the strategy of fighting directly for the things one cares most about-despite its intuitive appeal and millions of well-meaning and dedicated practitioners-is counterproductive. Even if successful, the fights against the stealth bomber, America's lifeline to Guatemala's dictators, or the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, do not in the long run serve the cause of peace, freedom, and justice. In a political system that institutionalizes bribes, half-truths, and merchandizing, the struggles of broad-platform and specific reformers resemble wrestling matches in which one fighter must tie both hands behind his back.
Democracy may be capable of rational actions, but only if given a chance. Humanitarians should give it that chance by concentrating their scarce energies and resources on those defects in our way of doing politics which make otherwise sane human beings vote against their interests and convictions. The struggle against deep-seated structural flaws in our political system must precede the struggles against their terribly important surface manifestations. For the time being, such actions as civil disobedience, militancy, demonstrations, teach-ins, marches, or door-to-door campaigning should be directed only at eliminating money from politics, rationalizing elections, and providing institutional safeguards for the truth. Humanitarian organizations and individuals need to temporarily set aside their specific concerns and cooperatively and uncompromisingly struggle for fairness in politics. Despite their grave urgency, despite their apparent directness, simplicity, and relevance, most other actions divert precious resources from this crucial campaign for fairness.