Ernie Cortes critiques the marketing ploys that election campaigns like the one just passed have become. He also grieves the loss among average citizens of the "skills of public life," like debate and compromise, which were once taught in "mediating institutions," like schools, unions, settlement houses, congregations, and other community centers. Campaign experts and power brokers fill the void left in their absence. In essence, what replaces democratic civic relationships is an oligarchy dependent on special interests, which are most skilled at mobilizing money and a critical mass of a cross-section of voters driven by single-issues rather than a general interest in democratic discourse.
Never was this more true locally than when the property tax referendum amendment was shepherded by Ben Cunningham and the Tennessee Tax Revolt. Cunningham's political skills have lead to his coming out as a media darling; and a sure sign of his arrival was the recent fawning editorial by Liz Garrigan in the so-called "alt-weekly" Nashville Scene. Garrigan goes all but ga ga over Cunningham's personal financing of his single-issue campaign, even as she quotes critics. But can we continue to call a rag "alternative" when it treats deep pockets and personal campaign financing as some kind of virtue?
The ability to increase one's own campaign is no virtue, especially absent questions of the virtue of the campaign. And in democracies, campaigns absent mediating institutions that foster democratic habits of debate and compromise have no democratic virtue. Cunningham confuses (as does Garrigan) direct democracy with a popular referendum. The two are not necessarily synonymous; they, in fact, contradict one another, given Cortes's proposed vacuum. And our mediating institutions are either under attack (unions and public schools), extinct (settlement houses), or abdicating their roles to oligarchies (congregations).
Direct democracy worked in ancient Greece with cities that only numbered in the tens of thousands and when quorums of 6,000 people were required to conduct city business. But when the modern Metropolis numbers ten times the typical ancient polis, indirect democracy--reliant on mediating institutions rather than on polls and their pollsters--is infinitely more progressive and enlightened. Direct democracy in cosmopolitan, anonymous societies is not only impossible, it twists itself into a staged reality show, the realm of oligarchs and charlatans. And the polls are mere snapshots of peoples' attitudes absent any debate, negotiation or compromise. Polls have less to do with democracy and more to do with marketing and money (thus, Cunningham's $4,000 contribution); and in this hackable age, polls have more to do with ill-gotten access.
Confusing direct democracy with shallow popularity contests, as Garrigan does, confuses the issue, even when journalists are supposed to be clarifying it. The people don't rule when we have oligarchs paying and vying for media attention. The experts do. A broker-elite capitalizes hot button issues, like the general ambivalence toward taxes, and they put together enough of a plurality through petitions to drive wedge issues into the democratic process. That is a poor substitute for democratic habits of face-to-face conversation and mutual decision-making.
In the end, our democracy will not work unless we rebuild the infrastructure of mediating institutions that make for metropolitan democracy. Absent civic institutions, Cunningham's referendum insures that all future property tax debates will be co-opted by oligarchs with the deepest pockets and the most mobilizable mobs. They won't be settled democratically by debate or in the best interest of the general public, and they won't be informed by the mainstream media.