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Joe Costello: What 21st-Century Democracy Looks Like

In a wide-ranging interview, Costello says that in order to regenerate American politics, the people must be involved in decision-making and rethink value systems.

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The other thing is that revolution --  in the case of recent history, starting with the American revolution -- was about the overthrowing and dismantling of the institutions of monarchy, which unarguably has been quite successful, spreading, as the founding generation thought it would, across the globe.

But today, we have a legacy of institutions of self-government. The problem is they became stuck in time. We don't need to overthrow them as much as reform, revitalize and evolve them. For example, I advocate people getting involved in government at the local level, because many of the changes we need will be decided there. Once people get involved there, they'll find how much power has been lost or never gained, and that whether they're in Omaha, Chicago or Birmingham, they're up against the same large nefarious impersonal national and global forces.

We need to literally re-form government.

LP: You’ve mentioned that part of our historical legacy as Americans is a long-standing challenge to corporate monopolies, dating all the way back to colonial challenges to the East India Company. Is this a place where the “left” and “right” labels disappear and we can all come together as Americans?

JC: Yes, it's an important point. In our present insolvent politics and marketing slogan political vocabulary, we become separated. What the left doesn't come to grips with is the growth of DC was not just instrumental, but a necessity in the growth of the mega-corporation, while the “right” doesn't acknowledge the growth of the mega-corporation necessitated the growth of DC.

What we all have in common is that this process has completely corrupted our politics and made us all less powerful, less equal, and less involved as citizens.

LP: You talk about comparisons between the current Wall Street dominance and the earlier Jim Crow era. How is our current challenge different from the earlier Civil Rights movement?

The ending of Jim Crow was the righting of one of the great original sins of the American experiment, the keeping of the institution of slavery in the revival of self-government for the modern era. Now the ancient experiences in self-government, Greece and Rome, also had slavery, so it's not a great a paradox as it might first appear.

We ended slavery a century in, but of course then came what was the American apartheid era under Jim Crow, in which the vast majority of the ex-slave population were politically disenfranchised by law. They were fighting to have what the rest of the population already had.

Today, maybe it's just the opposite, where you have the power of Wall Street, banks and the mega-corporations codified, while the citizenry, in theory, if not practice is still politically enfranchised. The methods to change this are not dissimilar, it's about the citizenry uniting to take power away from these institutions and redistribute it. And here might be the biggest difference: It's not just about reasserting our centuries-old rights and responsibilities, but it's redefining and evolving them for a new era, for the 21st century.

So, in many ways we have to begin anew just like they did in the 18th century, which is different from dismantling Jim Crow, people claiming what was already there and available to all others.

LP: What does it mean to be a citizen in the 21st century?

JC: That's an essential question. It's amazing how little meaning the word "citizen" has today. Basically it's voting, paying taxes, and being on a jury, which are all important, but not nearly enough.

The most basic element of a being a democratic citizen is to be involved in decision-making, and this is where you see the real degeneration of American politics. Decisions for our society are overwhelmingly made in corporate boardrooms or in the halls of bureaucracies in DC. Order, that is the way things are structured, overwhelmingly imposed via the corporation or government. There's very little, politically almost none at all, of the mass of self-created associations that populated the first century of the republic and de Tocqueville so admired. We don't even have political parties at this point.

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