Democracy can, indeed, be devastating — at least for those who do not understand that the will of the people is, in fact, the bedrock of this free society. Last week’s election in the District of Columbia has evoked a bitter controversy over the meaning of the results, which one official called “devastating” in reference to educational reform, while others hailed the results as a powerful statement of enfranchisement by citizens who have increasingly felt disenfranchised by the decisions of government officials.
How the pundits interpret the results says a great deal about contemporary culture. In her blog today, Washington Post Writer Valerie Strauss quotes Historian Diane Ravitch who wrote:
“Journalists attributed Fenty’s loss to the power of the teachers’ union, but such an explanation implies that black voters, even in the privacy of the voting booth, lack the capacity to make an informed choice. When the Tea Party wins a race, journalists don’t write about who controlled their vote, but about a voter revolt; they acknowledge that those who turned out to vote had made a conscious decision. Yet when black voters, by large margins, chose Gray over Fenty, journalists found it difficult to accept that the voters were acting on their own, not as puppets of the teachers’ union.”
The Tea Party, characterized fairly or not as largely white and libertarian, is fed up with big government and wants government officials to stop making so many decisions that control individual life. Ravitch has a point: the voters in D.C. were also saying, to a large extent, that they were fed up with government acting in a way that was unresponsive to individual voter desires. Yet, in the analysis of the D.C. election, the overwhelming emphasis was on voting by race and social class. While the results truly magnify the serious and protracted racial divide, it’s also an interesting perspective to suggest that this very emphasis on race is, in and of itself, part of a deeply patronizing view of the D.C. electorate. Maybe people were just mad as heck and not going to take it any more.
Sure, there’s truth in the race/class analysis, but there’s also the very important story about voters rising up against government officials who were perceived as increasingly remote from their constituents. The mix of race and resentment of government comes to a head in D.C. where the still-colonial status of the city — how else to describe the only jurisdiction that’s not allowed to control its own budget completely, that has no vote in Congress? — boiled over against local incumbents who proved to be even more remote in their decision-making processes than senators from Ohio or Kansas.
The immediate cause of this sense of deepening disenfranchisement, of course, came from the manner in which educational reform is playing out in the D.C. Public Schools. Michael Lomax, head of the United Negro College Fund, had an interesting article in The Root today in which he made this point:
“Education reform must also be about communities, because in our country, education is subject to the democratic process. Whether schools are under direct mayoral control or governed by a school board or board of education, voters have the ultimate say. If they aren’t persuaded that education reform is in their best interests, or if the tribunes of reform institute their changes in ways that alienate the people who vote in city elections — even if they are the people who stand to benefit from those changes — the reformers will find their mandate to reform abruptly terminated. …education reform doesn’t have to be — indeed, cannot be — force-fed to communities of color. They have sacrificed and struggled to earn the rights of citizenship — a struggle still incomplete in D.C. — and no one can take those rights, no matter how noble the aims. We can be equal partners in ensuring what is best for our children and all children. It won’t work any other way.”
Lomax’s point aptly summarizes the mood of voters today in many places — educational reform is certainly necessary, but not at the expense of our democracy. Same for health care reform, scream the Tea Partiers. Same for financial reform, tax policy…. well, the list goes on.
Leadership, wrote the late great Bart Giamatti, president of Yale and then commissioner of Baseball, is the act of persuading people that the leader’s vision is morally good, and getting the people to move in that direction (A Free and Ordered Space). The increasingly obvious problem that the leaders of this age manifest is the fact that they have apparently forgotten the power of persuasion, resorting, instead, to mandates that the people ultimately reject, less on the substantive merits of the concepts, but more on the perception of coercion.
Leaders must remember that democracy can, indeed, be quite devastating. Handle it with great care.