Politics for the People

Posted September 13, 2004 at 2:31pm

In the book “We the People,” author Peter Bearse imparts a favorite saying — “If the good stand aside, the fools, thieves or turkeys take over.”

The phrase reflects what Bearse describes as the current atmosphere of American governance: a system once driven by local grassroots activism that has now deteriorated into a centralized, disingenuous form of politicking. Bearse argues that a growing emphasis on large fundraising, together with a steady reliance on the media as a primary source of political communication, has led the republic founded upon the motto “Of, for and by the people” to replace ordinary citizens with political elites.

Because these current trends have fostered among everyday Americans an “us versus them” mentality, people now view themselves as consumers, not producers, of public policy, he said.

“When I talk about political participation, I’m not just talking about voting — I’m talking about the nuts and bolts of people’s involvement,” said Bearse, himself a former politician who last ran for the Massachusetts state Senate 10 years ago. “It used to be people-to-people politics. Working for parties, working for candidates — that’s what has declined very sharply.”

In his book, the first chapter of which is titled “The Grassroots Have Dried Up,” Bearse offers a historical explanation of what he describes as a shift from the populist hopes of the early 20th century to a politically indifferent citizenry. Crediting much of the decline in local involvement to the advent of television and the Internet, Bearse points out how these new technologies have made it less necessary to bring people together for grassroots efforts. As a result, he said, local political party infrastructures have weakened, placing more power in the hands of political elites.

“I focus on the depreciation of the parties’ local infrastructure,” said Bearse, who holds a Ph.D. in economics. “Both major parties have suffered from neglect of their people base. In a situation where the parties are focusing on their star candidacies and helping their stars to raise money, the local base of volunteers and local political committees is ignored.”

Bearse also stressed how media conglomerates and lobbyists have replaced volunteers. “Political consulting firms have taken over the role of local political party committees through very sophisticated, targeted marketing, getting paid to do mailing that used to be done by volunteers,” he said. “Most people have the attitude, ‘Hey — it’s someone else’s game, not ours.’”

Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, agreed that politics today has left many disenchanted.

“A lot of people get turned off by the tit-for-tat, ‘Everything you do is wrong, everything I do is right’ way that we run campaigns,” said Richie. “One of the reasons that it seems difficult to believe that candidates are speaking from the heart is that they have to be so careful. It’s very difficult to not seem phony.”

So then, how can people be wooed back into politics?

“There needs to be changes in the law that would really recognize the value of people’s time,” said Bearse, who supports tax deductions for contributions of time as a means to revive political volunteerism at the local level.

For many of his suggested reforms, Bearse consulted a nationwide survey of local political party committee chairmen. “People get involved most where they can see their involvement makes a difference, and that’s usually at the local level,” he said.

Though he ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1984 before switching to the Republican Party in 1987, Bearse said his book is nonpartisan. Integrating both liberal and conservative ideas, the former professor and international economics consultant promotes what he calls “conservative populism.”

“When I use the word ‘conservative,’ I hope it’s not misinterpreted,” he explained. “Most Americans are conservatives in terms of they like to see results in adapting a system they think has a lot of good about it.”

Throughout “We the People,” Bearse outlines several barriers and constraints that stand in the way of increasing political participation, and suggestions on how they can be overcome.

“This is an unusual book — there’s nothing like it out there because, instead of focusing on one aspect of reform, it really comes out with a comprehensive program of what needs to be done across the board,” he said.

In conjunction with “We the People,” Bearse plans to use a new Web site to raise awareness about the decline in hands-on political involvement. His Web site, www.politicalcommunity.us, is designed to promote citizen participation by inviting visitors to examine a set of questions assessing the state of democracy in the United States.

“I’m hoping the site along with the book will help to arouse more people to get involved in politics in their communities,” said Bearse, who hopes the site will one day function as a database linking campaigns with potential volunteers. With a commentary section and online forum capabilities, Bearse said he intends to update the Web site to foster a discussion of current events.

“This is a long-term proposition,” he said. “I’m not going to let this site die on the vine — I’m maintaining it and trying to keep it fresh.”

Bearse said he has noticed a renewed emphasis on people in this election, although he said he remains cautiously optimistic since he saw the same trend in the 2000 election. “We’re beginning to see signs of hope that people are being brought back into the picture,” he said. “Now is the time to reverse the negative trends that go back decades. Now is the time to bring people back in.”