Time for an American Glasnost
THE news from the Soviet Union is breathtaking. Events which no one would have predicted 10 years ago are now occuring at lightning speed.
Glasnost; perestroika; free speech; open parliamentary debate televised before millions of viewers; the beginning of organized political opposition to the Communist Party; mass strikes and demonstrations by workers and ethnic minorities; serious publications dealing honestly with the nation's sordid history which had been covered up for deades by official lies. And more.
Whatever the reason (and now is not the time to explore those reasons) enormous credit must be given to Mikhail Gorbachev and the current leadership of the Soviet Union for helping to bring about an extraordinary, non-violent revolution which is forcing citizens of the Soviet Union to rethink, in almost every way, the basic foundations of their na$ion.
And now let me make a proposal, a proposal which will, undoubtedly, offend many readers--but which has to be made. In my view the time is now for a glasnost in the United States--a soul searching for our own basic truths, a major debate over our current values, an honest analysis of the real structure of our society and the creation of a mechanism to search out our dreams for the future.
The history of the United States and the nature of our society are very different from that of the Soviet Union. But if the citizens of our country believe that this nation does not exist under the blanket of the Big Lie, and that many of the most important issues facing our people are not openly and seriously discussed, they are sorely mistaken. We are told every day by the politicians, and the media how "free" we are. Unfortunately, we are not given the freedom to explore that assertion. We need a glasnost!
LET me raise four issues (out of many) at the heart of our existence as a nation which, within the context of an American Glasnost, need to be debated from this country to the other. These issues, which today receive virtually no public attention at all, need to be discussed vigorously within the Congress, the state legislatures, the city halls, in every streetcorner and wherever Americans come together.
Within the United States today, the richest one percent of the population now owns over half the wealth in this country and the richest 10 percent owns over 80 percent of the wealth (excluding home ownership). The gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. Further, with the recent "merger mania" and the incredible growth of huge, multinational corporations, a handful of corporate executives now exercise unprecedented power over the economic life of the nation.
Question 1: Do we need radical changes in our economic system to provide a fairer distribution of wealth and economic decision-making?
In the United States today, over half the eligible voters no longer vote for President and far fewer vote in off-year state and local elections. In fact, the United States now has the lowest voter turnout of any industrialized nation in the world, with the vast majority of poor and young people not voting. Further, in 1988, 99 percent of incumbent members of Congress were reelected. This strongly suggest that, due to the power of incumbency, our system of representative democracy has broken down completely and that election to Congress is now tantamount to lifetime tenure--a House of Lords.
Question 2: How do we create a real democracy in which the average citizen has the opportunity to vote in elections in which meaningful choices are presented? Further, how do we create a political climate in which citizens play an active role in the affairs of their community?
It is now widely perceived that the major political parties in our country, the Democrats and the Republicans, have no basic ideological differences and are, in reality, two wings of the same party--both dominated by Big Money.
What does it mean to the concept of honest political "debate" when, in the 1980's both parties supported huge tax breaks for the rich and large corporations, when both parties supported major cutbacks in funding for education, housing, environmental proection and desperately-needed social services, when both parties supported major increases in military spending and the 8-year-old C.I.A.-Contra was against Nicaragua?
Question 3: Do we need a new political party in this country which represents the interests of working people, poor people, minorities, women, environmentalists, peace activists and all people who are not being adequately represented by the Democratic and Republican parties?
For a free society to function effectively, people need full access to information. As part of the recent "merger mania," the ownership of the mass media in the United States has been concentrated to an alarming degree in the hands of fewer and fewer large corporation. Independent newspapers and magazines have been bought out by major chains, and the radio and television networks are controlled by such powerful companies as General Electric (which now owns NBC).
It is not difficult to argue that commercial television today is largely censored and tightly controlled. It is virtually impossible for serious writers to produce a program for television which would deal with ideas hostile to the interests of the owners of the networks or to corporate sponsors.
Question 4: Finally, how can we create a media in this country which allows for a wide diversity of viewpoints, when ownership of the media is currently in the hands of very wealthy and powerful corporations which are primarily concerned with protecting their own economic interests?
Bernard Sanders, who from 1981 to 1989 was the only socialist mayor in America, is the former mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics (IOP) at the Kennedy School.