Column: Actions We Can Take to Protect our Democracy

By Bob Burnett
Friday May 05, 2006

President Bush’s job approval ratings continue to plummet, as increasing numbers of Americans recognize that the administration has no capacity to deal with the critical issues that confront America. Nonetheless, many citizens despair of the prospects of changing America’s course, so long as George Bush is president. They ask, “What can we do?” to restore democracy to the United States. 

There are a lot of actions Americans can take to change the direction set by the administration. But, first there needs to be a new level of realism about the forms of nonviolent action that can work. It’s important to ask why has the resistance to the war in Iraq been ineffective? 

The obvious answer is that before the invasion, Americans were recovering from collective post-traumatic-stress disorder. We’d had the beejeebers frightened out of us by 9/11. The Bush administration played on this fear. The White House propaganda machine convinced a majority of Americans that Saddam Hussein was allied with Osama bin Laden, was responsible for the attacks, and was an imminent threat to attack again. Over time this false impression eroded. Today, Americans are not as fearful as they were in 2003. And, George Bush is no longer the trusted leader he was at the time he beat the drums for war in Iraq.  

Indeed, there has been such a shift against the war in Iraq that it seems unlikely that Bush can persuade a majority of Americans that an attack on Iran is a good idea, particularly if that attack involves the use of nuclear weapons. 

The next six months are looming as a pivotal period in U.S. history. We’re likely to see a “preemptive” attack on Iran plus an election that determines whether or not the Bush juggernaut will roll on. During this critical interval there are two types of actions that Americans can take to protect our democracy: political and economic. We can take political action to ensure that Democrats regain their majority in the House or Senate and stall the Bush express on Capitol Hill. 

But, there’s also economic direct action: a widespread boycott or a strike. These days Americans are more familiar with the former than the latter. Since July a national boycott against Exxon-Mobil has been gaining momentum. May 1 there was a massive national workers’ boycott supporting immigrant rights. 

Recently, strikes have been relatively rare in the United States. In the past few decades, they’ve usually been local actions associated with trade-union wage and benefit issues. Historically, the general strike has been an effective vehicle for protest. Technically, a general strike is a “widespread stoppage of workers in an attempt to bring the economic life of a given area to a more or less complete standstill in order to achieve certain desired objectives.” 

There hasn’t been a general strike in the United States for more than 50 years. However, within the last decade, there have been effective general strikes in other countries. Nov. 1, 2004, there was a general strike in Ukraine, protesting election fraud—the “Orange Revolution.” And there’ve been numerous examples in France, most recently a general strike protesting a proposed change in the country’s youth employment laws. 

Several conditions combine to produce an effective general strike: a widespread perception that the government, or an industry, has acted unfairly; a broad-based coalition that includes workers as well as activists; and an action focus. In France, the focus has typically been the transportation system. In December 2005, there was a three-day transit strike in New York City that affected millions of commuters and thousands of businesses. 

If political conditions continue as they are—the Iraq occupation drags on, while various Republican outrages are revealed—then progressives should engage in political actions coupled with boycotts of various kinds. These are likely to result in a change in Congress in November. 

However, if President Bush were to do something outrageous, such as use nuclear weapons against Iran, this could become the spark that ignites a general strike. There would be a widespread perception that the White House had acted irrationally, against the common good. This could produce a broad-based coalition that unites workers, activists, and groups aggrieved by the administration, such as immigrants. All that would be needed is an action focus. 

A logical target for a general strike would be commercial transportation, particularly the boat, rail, and truck lines that deal with cargo containers. America is a “just-in-time” society, where many businesses depend upon an uninterrupted steam of deliveries. Even a two-day disruption in the national transportation network would have huge consequences to the economy. This would be noticed not only by the White House and the national media, but also by the commercial power elite. A general strike might goad Wall Street to rein in the White House. It could produce significant change. 

In these perilous times, it’s important to send a clear message to the Bush gang: Americans value democracy and are prepared to defend it. It’s time to get out of our living rooms and into the streets. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at‡