When we speak of democracy today, we understand it to mean a form of self-government. Indeed, the word is derived from the Greek word, demos, meaning people, combined with the Greek word, krati, meaning power or strength. In it’s present incarnation, democracy has become synonymous with the American system of politics. Yet just below the shallow surface of appearances, the state of our political affairs seems to be anything but “people power.” True people power requires more than occasional elections and cynical political campaigns. True people power requires citizen involvement as well as responsible citizen representatives. It requires active participation from all the people in an effort to secure the best possible life for all the people. It requires honest stewardship from those who are chosen to watch over things and it requires ardent evaluation from the rest of society, on whose behalf those chosen are supposed to act.

Democracy is a system of government where the majority decides the rules for the whole, where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The beauty of it is, though, that the whole has a say in what those needs are, or at least, they are supposed to. And while the majority may end up with more of their interpretations becoming the law of the land, elected officials have an extra burden of duty to make sure that the rules they make on our behalf are as fair and just as possible. They are supposed to remember that they are making rules that affect everyone, themselves included. Unfortunately, our democracy is becoming a parody of itself, a sad caricature of what “people power” really is. For not only do we have widespread abdication by the people of their responsibility, we have turned the elected representative system into little more than a pre-selected popularity contest, run by the corporate and special interest groups with the money to play this absurdly expensive game. The two devolving facets of our democracy feed upon each other, each becoming more twisted away from the original intent of democratic government. When government moves away from the will of the people towards the will of the few, as ours increasingly does, it is no longer a democracy in the accepted form of the word. It is instead an oligarchy, or one that is ruled by the few, and depending on the integrity of those few, just a hop and a skip away from being an autocracy. Oligarchies and autocracies operate on the assumption that all men are not created equal, and that those in charge possess superior qualities to those that are not in charge. It is the antipathy of “people power,” but it is becoming a more and more accurate picture of our government today. We the people deserve a measure of responsibility for the state of our political affairs, but in a bigger way, those who become elected officials own the lion’s share of the shame, for they are the ones who make the rules and they are the ones who break the rules. Politicians of all stripes have turned our noble experiment in self-government into a façade, abusing the trust placed in them to line their own pockets at the expense of society as a whole.

Stewardship is the concept of managing another person’s property, finances, or affairs, and the role of a politician is to act as a good steward on behalf of the general public. Honest stewardship implies that the interests of others are put ahead of your own, simply because the things you are supposed to be looking over do not belong to you. This concept of stewardship seems to be completely gone in the halls of power today. Instead, special interests, the political parties, and corporate conglomerates have staged a coup that has usurped the rightful property (either physically or intellectually) of the people of this country as a whole. When politicians pass laws that exempt corporations from environmental responsibility, they are abandoning their role as stewards of the public lands, lands that will exist long after we are dead and that will be needed by future generations for their own sustainability. When politicians make rules that funnel public tax dollars into the offshore corporate accounts of multi-national corporations instead of into the infrastructure and well being of those who pay the taxes, they are abandoning their role as stewards of the public finances. And when politicians choose to frame their political debates in ways that deceive or mislead the public, they are forgetting their role as stewards of the public trust. As citizens, we deserve better than this. We deserve a political class that goes beyond the rhetoric of divisiveness. We deserve honest stewardship from our public officials. And it is up to us, the common people, to make sure that we get it.

So what can we do to change the way things are being run right now? The first step involves massive reforms in our voting and political funding mechanisms, as outlined in the previous two essays. Only by removing the lure of easy money and increasing the participation of everyday citizens can we begin to move towards redefining what a politician should be. But once we achieve those reforms, there are still many steps to take to return American politics to the American people.

The first, most obvious step to take should be in combating political corruption with more stringent penalties for those politicians who violate the laws related to political funding and gift taking. Whether or not we can ultimately reform those laws is practically irrelevant to making this reform a top priority. As things stand today, politicians and their financial donors already know the loopholes around the financing laws and they seem to have few, if any, qualms about circumventing both the spirit and the letter of the laws. The only way to eradicate this insidious behavior is to increase the penalties for such actions. Any politician found guilty of accepting unlawful donations, gifts, or payments of any kind should be immediately removed from office and barred from ever running for elective office again. Furthermore, such individuals should be sentenced to prison for a term equal to the amount of time they have been “on the take.” In addition to punishing the politicians, those who grease their palms should also be punished by having their personal assets frozen and their businesses taken away from them and placed into a public receivership. Only the enactment of such harsh penalties will make politicians and their patrons think twice before trying to corrupt the system for their own benefit and gain.

Secondly, we must reform the way business is done in our local, state, and federal legislative bodies. Two ways to dramatically change the status quo would be the “Read The Bills Act” (promoted by Downsize DC) as well as a ban on multi-faceted legislation. Taken together, these reforms would eliminate the ability of politicians to fill quality legislation with give-away spending measures or special interest legal maneuvers as well as requiring every politician to have a thorough knowledge of what they are voting on. As things stand today, most legislation gets saddled with any number of special interest add-on amendments, thrown in by elected officials in return for their support on the measure. Such add-ons rarely serve the public interest and instead are meant to reward the political donors. In addition, because so few legislators actually take the time to read and understand the full provisions of the things they vote on, many of these add-ons get passed as law without any real accountability in place. If legislation is so necessary as to be added to a particular bill, why must it be added in the dark of night, at the end of the packet, at the last possible minute? The obvious answer is that this kind of tit-for-tat legislating is endemic in the corrupt attitudes of our political leaders and we must put an end to it.

Third, we need to remove many of the “perks” associated with being an elected official. Compensation, in the form of salary, health care, and retirement pay, not to mention all the blank checks given for “administrative functions” should be seriously curtailed to reflect that which the average citizen could expect to receive from a similar type of job. If the Congress had to depend on the same kind of health and retirement system that the rest of us have to live with, you can be sure that they would be quick to make some real reforms in those areas too. Forget about the cries of those who say that good politicians need to be coaxed into office with these kinds of perks. Public office is about public service, not about personal wealth or special benefits. It is not a place to get rich, fat, and cared for on the public dime. We hear so much about welfare reform and the evils of being on the public dole from the very same people who themselves exist on the public funds and are always eager to soak up more.

Finally, we must refuse to accept distorted versions of the true acts of government. There is too much secrecy in our legislative bodies, often done in the name of the public good. It would seem, however, that anything that needs to be kept hidden behind closed doors probably isn’t something that is being done in the public’s best interests. Don’t confuse this call for real open government as a desire to have delicate military secrets shared with our enemies. There are some acts that do need to be kept under wraps, at least until they are borne out through action. But public policy, the deliberations of elected officials regarding public funds or social programs, and restrictions of liberty should not be kept under lock and key. Such subterfuge only reinforces the impression of corruption, and in all probability, it is corruption that keeps the doors closed.

For political change to occur, we need to change the way average people interact with the system. But to get people enthusiastic about their political leaders, we first need to have leaders we can respect, leaders we can trust, and leaders who truly want to serve the public.