From `We The People' To `We The Patsies'


By William Greider

Simon & Schuster -- 464pp -- $25

Chances are I'll soon forget most of the '92 Presidential campaign, but one moment will stay with me. It was in a United Auto Workers hall in Flint, Mich., where aging workers had turned out with their children and grandchildren to see Jerry Brown.

The candidate appeared in his turtleneck and UAW jacket and launched rather nonchalantly into his "We the People" stump speech. Then he noticed something: The crowd was a generational cross-section of a dying town. Suddenly, Brown the politician disappeared, and The Voice took over. Brown's face reddened, the veins in his forehead stood out, and in a stream of consciousness I can't do justice to here, he railed against the corrupt, uncaring elites that have taken control of American politics. There was nothing canned about his words; real feeling welled up. "Take it back! Take it back!" he screamed. The crowd surged to its feet, including me--until I remembered that I am, after all, a dispassionate, paid observer.

From Brown to Buchanan to Perot to Tsongas, politicians this year are trying to tap The Voice--to express the gnawing fear in the average American's gut that the nation is in economic decline, politicians are in the pockets of monied interest groups, and Washington is a basket case. People feel alienated and powerless. Witness the abysmal voter turnout in the primaries.

Now comes William Greider to tell readers to heed The Voice: American democracy is in even deeper trouble than they imagine. The government, he says, is in the grip of a global consortium of powerful interests and elites. While Washington eagerly accommodates the wishes of these influential insiders, ordinary citizens watch helplessly as their standard of living falls, environmental and safety laws are gutted, and they get stuck paying for fiascoes like the S&L bailout. "The problem of modern democracy," Greider writes, "is rooted in its neglect of unorganized people."

Consumer activist Ralph Nader has made a career of such rhetoric. But Greider isn't so easily dismissed. It was Greider, as a Washington Post editor, who got David A. Stockman to confess in 1981 that Reaganomics was a fraud. Later, in his acclaimed 1987 book, Secrets of the Temple, he illuminated the workings of the Federal Reserve. Now writing on politics for Rolling Stone, he has developed a distinctive persona: the insider who writes like an outsider.

What makes his book so interesting is that he is almost as disgusted with the do-gooders as he is with the governing and corporate elites. Or rather, he believes the do-gooders no longer do much good. Newspapers and unions have lost touch with those they're supposed to serve. The Republican Party protects and rewards its corporate "clients." The Democratic Party is "not much more than a mail drop for political money." And the vacuum is being filled by scores of corporate-financed think tanks, public-relations firms, and direct-mail companies, all serving up cleverly disguised propaganda as well as campaign funds. "Washington now is more aptly visualized as a grand bazaar--a steamy marketplace of tents, stalls, and noisy peddlers. The din of buying and selling drowns out patriotic music."

Take taxes. In considerable depth, Greider explores how tax legislation is enacted. It's "a running game of bait and switch, a hustle in which the governing system plays the clever salesman while the taxpayers are the mark." And how else could one describe the massive tax-reform bill of 1986? It helped the rich while cutting the little guy's taxes by an amount sufficient to buy a yearly hot dog. Greider's strength: While other observers debate such outcomes, he reveals how they're perpetrated.

To an extent, he blames Nader and other reformers who trusted public-interest lawyers and lobbyists to represent the public's interest in Washington. Bad move. Multinational corporations and business interests with vastly superior resources have triumphed by co-opting such techniques. One of Greider's most interesting chapters, "Mock Democracy," describes Washington entrepreneur Jack Bonner, who for a fee will produce an agreed-upon number of "live voters" to contact lawmakers on behalf of a company's or industry's position.

Also fascinating is Greider's dissection of the impact of the evolving global economy on American institutions. In "Citizen GE," he explores how multinationals operate without regard for national boundaries or a national ethos.

Sometimes, Greider overdoes it: He sees conspiracy everywhere. The reason no one listened to House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) about the S&L mess had less to do with, as Greider sees it, a "lonely congressman arrayed against an army of authorities" than with Gonzalez' reputation as a crank. And if the White House, as Greider claims, has become an invincible power vortex, why are modern Presidents so bad at getting things done?

At the same time, Greider's view of the good old days is several shades too rosy. He's unrealistically shocked that Americans are obsessed with money and hate politicians and that the elite don't care about ordinary folk. Moreover, the democracy Greider pines for shows signs of still being out there. This year's anti-incumbency wave is one such sign.

Still, for anyone who worries about democracy's future, Greider has fashioned a comprehensive and compelling story. If you're convinced that something has gone wrong, Who Will Tell the People offers a fresh and satisfying exploration of just what it is.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.