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By Bill Gallagher

Elections are important, but the notoriously low level of participation makes America stand out among the industrialized democracies.

It's not at all unusual for there to be an 80 percent turnout for elections in Europe, and Canadians and Mexicans are far more likely to vote than Americans.

The reasons for that are complex, but one factor is certainly the notion that those who choose not to participate feel their vote just doesn't matter, and that may be underscored by the fact that in many ways there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans.

In several vital areas of public policy, the leadership of both parties is on the same side, and on some critical issues both parties say and do nothing.

Consider the middle class, once viewed as a key feature of our democracy, shrinking away as the wealthiest Americans see their income growing at an incredible rate. This is largely the result of government taxation policies over the last few decades.

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Paul Krugman provides a telling analysis that you won't hear discussed on the floor of Congress.

The average working person has experienced only modest salary increases over the last 30 years. The average annual salary in America expressed in 1998 dollars and adjusted for inflation went from $32,522 in 1970 to $35,864 in 1999. That's about a 10 percent increase.

But over the same period of time, the average real annual compensation for the top 100 CEOs went from $1.3 million -- 39 times the pay of an average worker -- to a whopping $37.5 million, more than 1,000 times the pay of ordinary workers.

The source for that comparison, by the way, does not come from the Socialist Workers Party, but rather that pillar of capitalism, "Fortune" magazine.

The evidence of growing income inequality points to an emerging plutocracy which has an inordinate influence on public policy, protecting the wealthy while ignoring the needs of the poor, and forcing more families to the economic margins.

Democrats and Republicans perform favors for the rich as a reward for the campaign cash they receive.

That results in the disturbing fact that the 13,000 richest families in America now have almost as much income as the 20 million poorest. Those 13,000 families have incomes 300 times that of average families.

Health insurance is still denied to tens of millions of working Americans. This is an injustice and scandal of the highest order, driven by those 13,000 families who control those enterprises that drive up their profit margins by denying workers basic human needs.

Neither party is willing to risk much to place this issue on the public agenda. The answer is simple. Provide for all Americans the health insurance coverage members of Congress receive.

The Bush Administration is rolling up huge deficits and raiding Social Security funds to cover current costs. The Democrats cry foul, but the party leadership fails to offer another direction, like putting a stop to the tax cuts that are fueling the deficit for the benefit mostly of those 13,000 families.

The Republicans and Democrats won't come to grips with Social Security. Benefits must be adjusted and revenue increased for the system to work. That's a truth both parties hide from with equal cowardice.

The late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey had a keen perspective on what government should be doing. In a 1977 speech, he said, "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

The rest of us can get along pretty well on our own. Applying Humphrey's test to the Bush Administration and the Democratic congressional leadership yields some sad results. Among those in the shadows of life who are mostly ignored in Washington are the mentally ill. For decades institutions have closed and people with mental illness have been placed in community settings.

The development of psychotropic drugs has helped this process and the general thrust of deinstitutionalization -- giving people independence and ending the "warehousing " of the mentally ill -- has merit.

But several things have happened that demand government attention. Many people suffering from serious mental illness still require hospitalization and there are simply not enough beds to handle them.

If they are really in bad shape, family or friends bring them to emergency rooms to get them admitted. They may spend a few days getting their medications adjusted and then they are invariably tossed back out on the streets and the process repeats.

In most areas of our nation, the aftercare for those removed from institutions is nonexistent. The system simply loses track of people and the attitude is often "at least we don't have to worry about them."

Far too often, community mental health care is directed at counseling and care for people with mild neurosis, while those with debilitating schizophrenia or bipolar disorders get no treatment.

When's the last time you heard George W. Bush, Tom Daschle or Dick Gephardt talk about those issues?

Political leaders from both parties refuse to call the government's war on drugs just what it is -- a colossal and expensive failure.

"I have served on the front lines of the war on drugs. I am reporting back that it is a failure."

Those words to remember are from Lt. Commander Sylvester L. Salcedo, who served as a naval intelligence officer with Joint Task Force 6, which provides training support to drug enforcement agencies.

Salcedo, who received a Navy Achievement medal for his military service in the drug war, had the courage to speak the truth.

"Our drug-war leaders say their goal is a 'drug-free America.' But three decades of the drug war have shown that goal to be unrealistic, so our strategy must be replaced. Pursuing an unrealistic goal has resulted in insufficient funding for effective programs, such as making treatment available on request and providing after-school programs for our children.

"At the same time, we waste tax dollars on ineffective and dangerous programs like the massive imprisonment of drug dealers and exorbitant military aid packages to Columbia. ... It's time to admit failure and end the war on drugs."

Find me one American political leader today who will echo those sentiments.

The drug war fuels the prison-industrial complex, the American gulag.

The United States has approximately 1.8 million people behind bars. We now imprison more people than any other country in the world, about half a million more than the godless Chinese communists.

The number of people now serving time in American prisons and jails for nonviolent drug crimes (458,131) is almost equal to the total number of Americans who were behind bars in 1980 (474,368).

Mandatory sentencing is nuts. Any society that spends more money on prisons than education is fundamentally flawed. Michigan and several other states do just that.

Contractors, prison designers and vendors make fortunes on the prison industry. But few politicians will risk the possibility of being labeled "soft on crime" and stand up and point to this disgrace and supreme failure of public policy.

The barbaric death penalty must end, but most politicians shamefully play to the public's unquenchable thirst for retribution, and even those who oppose it, do so quietly.

The notion that the Second Amendment's reference to "the right to bear arms" is an absolute is a Constitutional absurdity. America's unhealthy love affair with guns used as assault weapons (I'm not talking about hunters and target shooters) must be dealt with.

But since most politicians in both parties cower to the whim of the Second Amendment absolutists, led by the NRA, nothing will be done to protect the wider public interest.

For 14 months now, the Attorney General of the United States has mounted the greatest assault on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and fundamental civil rights and human rights since the founding of the republic. All under the guise of "protecting" us from terrorism.

He's done this with impunity and the blessings of the president and the Democratic congressional leadership.

The president is hell-bent to launch a mindless, unilateral attack on Iraq that will kill thousands, wreak havoc in the Muslim world and create more threats for America.

The unspoken but real agenda is to grab Iraq's oil and unveil a new age of Yankee imperialism.

The Democratic leadership in Congress supports this folly.

Elections are important and people should vote. I do, but I often have to hold my nose at the grim choices.

The failure of American political leadership, especially the Democrats, to offers us choices and deal with serious issues may explain why so many people just don't give a damn.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox News. His e-mail address is WGALLAG736@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 5 2002