The Democracy Death Spiral
(A.K.A. What Happens When We Don't get Involved )

In a dictatorship, inaction on the part of citizens doesn't have much impact — it is the experience, morals and personal qualities (or lack thereof) of the dictator that matter. But in a democracy where the government is made up of citizens and where that government is elected by its citizens and is constitutionally obligated to act on behalf of all citizens, inaction by its citizens can be fatal.

What happens when we don't act on behalf of the country when we need to — or really, when the country needs us to act? Cracks in the underpinnings of our democracy appear and get bigger. It goes something like this.

1 - Most of us don't vote or let public officials know how we feel about issues. And for those who do vote, many aren't well-informed on the issues or the candidates - and too many of us vote based upon political party only or on what our friends think or on negative advertisements.

2 - This lack of involvement creates a void. Special Interest Groups (SIGs) fill that void, influencing elections and decisions on important issues by using the money and energies of their organizations and constituents.

3 - So "we" end up electing public officials who are not our most capable leaders and who have become beholden to the SIGs at some level.

4 - These public officials then make decisions in the best interest of the SIGs rather than in the best interest of their school district, city, state, or country. Power, following the party line, and re-election become more important to them than doing what is in the best interest of their constituents or country. Regrettably, our public officials are reluctant to change the laws that allow them to accept so much money from SIGs.

5 - Meanwhile we, the citizens who didn't vote and get involved, become disillusioned with government and politicians. We don't believe we can make a difference so we become more disenfranchised. The cycle spirals downward until a major crisis occurs - like 9-11-2001, like the 2008/2009 collapse of the housing market, like ........

And, it gets even crazier! In a number of states, a process has been established whereby citizens or organizations can get "initiatives" on the ballot. This process was put into place because state legislators had such a tough time tackling the important issues and simply didn't deal with many of them. The irony is that the same people who didn't vote, or who did vote but weren't knowledgeable on the candidates or issues, are then asked to become knowledgeable and vote on the initiatives issues which often are complicated and on which powerful SIGs spend millions of dollars and say whatever is needed to sway voters.

A number of years ago, Arizona voters faced 11 initiatives on the November ballot, which was so complicated the state had to put together a novel-sized booklet - 223 pages - as a guide.


Our Best Leaders?

I've always wondered how many of us think we elect our most capable people to public office. Consider the following:


29 have been accused of spousal abuse
7 have been arrested for fraud
19 have been accused of writing back checks
117 have bankrupted at least two businesses
3 have been arrested for assault
71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit
14 have been arrested on drug-charges
8 have been arrested for shoplifting
21 are current defendants in lawsuits
In 1998 alone, 84 were stopped for drunk driving

Can you guess which organization this is? Give up?

The answer is the 535 members of a prior United States Congress — the same group that perpetually cranks out hundreds upon hundreds of new laws designed to keep the rest of us in line."

And what does it say about our national leaders when within the past 30 years…

  • one of our presidents resigned from office because he helped cover-up a burglary.
  • another president had an affair with a 21 year-old White House intern (which included having oral sex in the White House while conducting national business), was impeached for the actions he took to cover-up the affair and was then acquitted by the Senate.
  • a former presidential candidate, and current senior U.S. Senator, withdrew from the Presidential nomination battle when it was revealed that he had plagiarized material for a campaign speech; had a serious plagiarism incident during his law school years; exaggerated his academic record during the campaign; and included a number of quotations in his speeches that had been pilfered from past politicians.
  • one of our vice presidents resigned from office after being fined for income tax evasion. He had been under investigation by a U.S. attorney for allegedly receiving payoffs from engineers when he was a county executive and governor of Maryland.
  • another vice president implied he had invented the internet and proclaimed that having access to the internet is a civil right.


I have often wondered why any of us would want any of these individuals representing us in our government. And we keep re-electing them! A former mayor of the District of Columbia was corrupt, a drug user and alleged dealer. He pulled the District down to new lows and to the point where the Congress had to increase its oversight. Yet the residents this man had repeatedly betrayed kept re-electing him.

What kind of people are we allowing to be our voice? It's not that these individuals are evil or that they don’t do some worthwhile things — one just wonders what this country might be like under the guidance of our very best.

The impact on society of a bad or mediocre individual can be noticeable, but the impact of a bad or mediocre public official is profound. They make mediocre decisions; they hire and appoint mediocre individuals; they don't have the vision needed to lead; they don't have the courage to stand up for what they and the country believe in and they may not even know what they believe in; they don't have the communication skills needed to gain the respect and trust of those they deal with; their integrity often is in question; and they may not handle risk appropriately.


Where the Democracy Death Spiral Leads

Here are some of the things that happen when a democracy is comprised of apathetic citizens and mediocre public officials.

Unacceptable Government Services
Our governments (i.e. federal, state and local) don't provide the services or levels of service we need, and the costs of those services, as measured in taxes, are well beyond what they could be. Most of us are familiar with the bureaucracy.

As someone who has consulted extensively with government agencies, I have come to believe that before we make inroads into government productivity, much less "reinvent government", the civil service laws must be revised or thrown out. The current regulations make it too hard to attract top talent and to weed out non-performers. The regulations create bureaucracy and foster mediocrity.

Vulnerability to Outside Influences — Our country becomes more vulnerable to groups and countries with different interests than ours. After a recent plane crash involving a foreign carrier, the foreign government and many of its citizens protested a preliminary finding that the cause may have been an intentional act by the foreign pilot. We've heard almost nothing of this crash since — pretty unusual.

During the late 1990's, there were numerous stories and charges that our government had been unduly influenced by the Chinese with campaign contributions. When we don't trust our leaders, we wonder if decisions to involve us in foreign conflicts are the correct choice or if there are ulterior motives.

Injustices to our Citizens
Citizens, and many times companies, incur unnecessary, and sometimes outrageous, injustices. Corrupt law enforcement officers setup innocent individuals; juries and judges and attorneys with personal and political agendas use those agendas, rather than the actual law, to carry out justice; citizens, and even states, sue large corporations because they have deep pockets.

Loss of Trust in our Government
With the news full of stories of corrupt public officials, elected representatives that lie, monies ill-spent etc., we lose trust in our government — and in some way in ourselves which makes sense since they are supposed to be one-and-the-same. Trusting the individuals we elect and the individuals they subsequently appoint and hire who are in positions of power is essential in a democracy. When we lose trust in our government, we lose our government.

I believe one of the reasons so many bonds issues for things like new schools, protecting the environment, etc. are turned down in public referendums is not because we believe the causes aren't worthy but that we don't trust that government spends our money prudently and if they did, they wouldn't need the money they are asking for.

Freedoms Eroded
The freedoms we cherish, and unfortunately often take for granted, slowly, ever so slowly, erode from our lack of care. The change is imperceptible, but certain. Some examples:

Freedom to Enjoy Events — The Santa Monica California City Council voted to cancel the Fourth of July fireworks due to violence in previous years. In Detroit, dangerous going out on 4th night as many individuals fire guns into air to celebrate. Families aren't able to enjoy some of our professional sporting events. Some baseball teams have had to close their bleacher sections because of profanity and rowdiness. The players themselves are often the target of thrown objects. In December 2001, fans in Cleveland threw bottles and cans at referees over a decision they didn't like. After Lakers won NBA championship in 2000, riots broke out around the Staples center.

Freedom of Movement
We've lost some freedom of movement.
1. Because we haven't enforced our immigration laws, travel between San Diego and Los Angeles, and other border areas as well, have delays at Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) checkpoints.
2. Many communities have sobriety checkpoints.
3. Movement through airports is hampered with security checkpoints.
4. Simple day-to-day movements of some minorities, in some instances, are hampered by law enforcement individuals who abuse their power.
5. Gated communities make visiting friends more difficult.
6. Women at many universities must consider using security guard escorts when on campus in the evenings.
7. In areas where convicted child molesters and sex offender are released, parents often keep their children inside rather that let them outside to play.
8. Congestion in many U.S. cities and the surrounding urban areas significantly impacts work commutes and the ability of residents and others to get around.
Freedom to Know the Truth — Media coverage has been propagandized, often designed to disguise or distort the truth. All too often, national security is used to protect facts from being disclosed to the American people. Polls also confuse reality and have a big influence on the opinions of the population. Polling organizations ask questions about which most citizens have only minimal factual information. They then publish the results of the polls with an air of reality and validity that they simply don't have. Many, if not most, advertisements misrepresent their products.

Freedom from Fear of Bodily Harm
When you begin to think of all the ways fear has crept into our lives, it becomes frightening. There are some neighborhoods where few of us would ever go at night. Walks in our own neighborhoods alone at night are almost a thing of the past except in lighted areas. Fear for our personal safety and that of our personal property is evident with the booming security industry with locks, security alarms, personal defense products, neighborhood watch programs, gated communities and self-defense classes. When was the last time we slept with our doors or windows unlocked? Some of our children aren't even safe at home with their own parents! Who hasn't had the momentary thought that a freeway tailgater might shoot when he finally passes you? Or the sense of horror that those of us with young children feel at the prospect of having our child abducted at a shopping mall? The anger level in our society seems at an all-time high.

Here are some Home Security Tips from the Irvine, California Police Department.

Freedom to Enjoy the Natural World
Light and air pollution take away the darkness of our nights and hid our universe. Water pollution keeps us from enjoying our beaches and rivers. Development and growth transform county-sides into towns and cities and wilderness into national and state parks. As we continue to deplete our natural resources, I am reminded of the last verse of Gerald Manley Hopkins' Inversnaid.
"What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

Freedom of Speech
The notion of political correctness has eroded our ability to speak freely without threat of harm. When special interest groups hear something they don't like, they put pressure on the individual or the organization for whom the individual is associated. Many times these organizations don't have the courage to stand up for the right of an individual to speak freely and the organization often reprimands or terminates the individual, impugn reputation, let go... When we don't get involved, we let these special interest groups dictate what is acceptable. Check out some examples.

Deprived of Sense of Country
We've allowed the media to focus on the cosmetic and sensational rather than the substantive side of issues. And I don't know about you, but I am tired of seeing the party affiliations of elected officials, like Senator Bill Bradley (D), New Jersey, or Senator J. C. Watts (R) Oklahoma, or Governor Jesse Ventura (I), Minnesota. When does an elected official become an (A) — an American — again? And in some important way, we've been deprived of our President. Does it bother you that the President can't deliver the State of the Union address without an immediate, televised response from the opposing political party? He is President of the United States, not president of the Republican or Democratic or Reform party.

Government "by and for" Special Interest Groups
When we don't participate, our government — of, by and for the people — impersonally becomes THE government — of, by and for special interests. When was the last time you heard someone refer to government as OUR government? It's always THE government, Washington, or the [name of the President's administration]. Why? It's not ours anymore. Special Interest Groups act and do get involved, but on their own behalf, not ours. The country isn't their primary interest; their existence, revenue, popularity and market share are what motivate them.

I heard on the radio recently that many consider this Congress to be one of the most heavily influenced by special interest groups. It shouldn't be a surprise as Congress is heavily funded by Political Action Committees (PAC) — just one of many types of SIGs. Do you know there are approximately 4,200 PACs providing one-third of all campaign financing and that almost exclusively to incumbents. How many bills passed by our local, state and federal governments do you think are in the best interest of the country? It can't be many, considering the strength of PACs and the fact that only about 40% of the people vote. You have to believe that our elected representatives have some interest/obligation to that special interest groups’ cause. Citizens are supposed to be, and need to be, the Special Interest Group for America.

Former Senator Paul Trible surprised Virginians years ago by announcing that he would not seek a second term. One of the reasons he cited was that "…for all the Senate's greatness, much of the important work of the nation doesn't seem to get done."

In an LA Times article, former U.S. congressman Dan Lundgren, who was former California Governor Deukmejiian's nominee for State Treasurer, gave a similar view: "If people want to know why we get deficits, it's because all the special interests beat up on their elected representatives and say, ‘We need to have the deficit spending.’ To hell with the rest of the country."

They are right. Special interests stagnate the country. They divert our energies and take us off track. They push us toward mediocrity.