Why democracy matters

Pub date July 23, 2013

EDITORIAL There’s a troubling anti-democratic trend taking place in this country, one that’s been recently reflected everywhere from the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act to City College of San Francisco losing its accreditation and being placed under state control.

Maybe you’ve only been passively following the City College story, either because it doesn’t seem to directly affect you or simply because of mid-summer distractions, but here’s why you should care: power has been unilaterally stripped from the Board of Trustees, the people we elect to carry out our will, spend our money (including the parcel tax for CCSF that local voters overwhelmingly approved just last year), and strike the right balance between training students for jobs and universities and offering more community-based programming.

That can be a difficult balance to strike in San Francisco, with its multitude of interests and needs, and we can legitimately criticize how decisions are made or not made by this often dysfunctional board (as we’ve repeatedly done in these pages over the years). Democracy isn’t always the cleanest or most effective way to govern, but we as a country long ago decided that it’s an important experiment worth trying, and that it beats more autocratic alternatives.

But Mayor Ed Lee has been all too eager to give up on that experiment when it comes to City College, as he’s made clear in repeated public statements since the decision. Asked about the issue during the July 9 Board of Supervisors meeting, including the loss of local control over vital public assets and meeting halls, Lee once again praised the move “to save City College through a state intervention.”

Maybe that’s not a surprising position coming from a career bureaucrat who was appointed mayor with the support of powerful economic interests, but it should trouble those of us who haven’t yet given up on democracy, which is the stuff that happens between elections even more than casting ballots every couple years.

It’s about process and protests, coalitions and consensus-building, trial and error. As strange as it may seem to some, the Egyptian military’s recent removal of President Mohamed Morsi, whose unilateral dismantling of democratic mechanisms prompted widespread protests, was essentially a democratic act (albeit an imperfect choice between untenable options). That’s because that unilateral action was driven by popular will and accompanied by strong assurances to rapidly restore democratic institutions and leadership — something that has not yet happened in relation to City College.

Detroit has long been one of the most troubled big cities in the US, thanks to this country’s evaporating industrial sector and other factors. But when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder implemented a state takeover of the city in March, fully half of the state’s African-American population was denied democratic representation. And since then, Snyder and other Republican leaders have magically found the funds that could and should have been offered in the first place to bail this city out. Instead, they’ve begun packaging up Detroit for the capitalist speculators.

If we aren’t vigilant, financially troubled California cities such as Vallejo and Stockton could be next on the urban auction block, and that list could grow from there given the ability of coordinated capitalists to withdraw investments and cripple any jurisdiction that opposes their interests (as writer Naomi Klein compellingly showed in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism).

Are we being a little alarmist about the state takeover of one, small democratic institution? Maybe, but there is good reason to draw bright, clear lines in defense of our experiment in democracy. The conservative-dominated US Supreme Court has already signaled its willingness to grease this slippery slope, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, who clearly is playing the long game and will likely be quarterbacking this effort for decades to come.

As the New York Times and other legal analysts noted after the court’s latest session ended, Roberts has been carefully laying the groundwork for an undermining of democracy, even when issuing rulings that ostensibly side with the liberals, as he did in helping strike down Prop. 8.

While we in San Francisco cheered the resulting legalization of same-sex marriage, what the ruling actually did was limit the power of the people to defend decisions made through the initiative process. And earlier that week, Roberts also wrote the ruling that the racial discrimination guarded against in the Voting Rights Act no longer existed, despite aggressive current efforts by Republicans to disenfranchise African American, Hispanic, and poor voters through disingenuous voter fraud laws, scrubbing voter rolls, and other mechanisms.

It was Thomas Jefferson, the greatest advocate for democracy among our founding fathers, who said, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” In other words, we lose our liberty a chunk at a time if we don’t resist those who would trade democracy for efficiency (or in the parlance of Mayor Lee, “getting things done.”).

So the loss of local control over City College is something that should not stand, and we should all put be putting pressure on Lee and other locally elected representatives to demand a clear plan for when and how this important institution will be returned to local democratic control. If the Egyptian military can do it, clearly state education officials can as well.