Demonstrations


Helen Dragas, Chair of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, came to her position from a career as CEO of Dragas Companies, a real estate and construction firm. She brought to her position a reputation for resolve and decisiveness, which she demonstrated when she fired University President Teresa Sullivan with, initially at least, the support of 15 members of the 16 member Board. The Board was comprised almost entirely of individuals who, like Dragas, are heads of businesses or have business backgrounds. No reasons were given for Sullivan’s firing; the consensus opinion was that Dragas and some major donors wanted better cooperation from the President in bringing the University closer to a business model in its operations.

Dragas was appointed by a Democrat and has given money to Democratic politicians, so her action cannot be ascribed to a Republican Party agenda. However, it is hard not to see in this university leadership crisis the same downsides of a business background and culture at play that would be at play if Mitt Romney, touting his business credentials for the job, became President. It is hard to translate the goal of making money off of building and selling houses to nurturing the values of a great institution of higher learning. It is hard to translate buying up distressed companies, making money, often, off of their destruction rather than their improved operations, to guiding a nation to greater security and well-being for its citizens.

Autocratic decision-making style is not appropriate in either case. The Sullivan firing followed a secretive and abbreviated process that might be termed “model” CEO decision making. The firing immediately led to the resignation of one of UVA’s star academics, who clearly did not see his role as a division chief in a construction firm following orders. Romney has been noted for his secretive style as governor of Massachusetts.

Accountability for the Dragas decision and the swift reinstatement of President Sullivan came partly as a result of outraged student demonstrations in support of Sullivan. The chief mechanism for keeping a President of the United States democratically accountable are elections. If Romney is elected and doesn’t do well, then he can be “fired” at the next election. However, that scenario assumes that after four years of a Romney presidency, the lines of accountability will remain clear after outsourcing of government functions to corporate supporters and unlimited political money channeled from the top 1 percent to political campaigns. The chorus of students, professors, and graduates cannot turn around a national election. The answer is clear: we must work to re-elect President Obama.

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“American Spring”

Some demonstrators camping out in Wall Street and in other US cities protesting corporate power say they are taking inspiration from the “Arab Spring”. Except for the sleeping bags and volunteer caterers, it doesn’t seem obvious that the comparison holds. In Egypt the protest movement was bringing down a long standing political dictatorship risking death, prison and torture. At it’s most trivial, the Wall Street demonstrators when asked what they intended to do could say, “hand out chalk to write grafitti on walls”. But that is not the end of the story. Both the American and Arab springs want to have a system where the real power holders are held accountable.

Hosni Mubarak was Egypt’s supreme power. He is now in the dock. Egypt had the skeleton of democratic institutions. It held rigged elections. It looks like there will be flesh on upcoming elections, where the voters’ ballots will count.

In the US, protestors are not after the military or executive branch dictators. They are after corporate power for using its resources to subvert democratic accountability. In Egypt, political institutions were not responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people. This might seem to be analogous to protestors’ view of the situation in the US, where money trumps the express preferences of the people. After all, poll after poll shows the American public in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthiest. Why aren’t their taxes increased?

To answer that question, it isn’t enough to say that corporate money is responsible. Polls reflect the general public’s preferences. However, only 41.6% of the eligible voters voted in the 2010 elections (a record for mid term elections). If election day was a day off from work in the US, as it is in a number of European countries, perhaps elections would play their role in holding power accountable, as more citizens exercise their rights.

Protestors should look to solutions that are right under their noses. For example, at the same time they work to expose corporate misuse of power, they should work to stop efforts in a growing number of states to suppress voter turnout in the 2012 elections. We don’t have to rebuild democratic institutions from scratch, just repair them.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark