cj#250> Dugger: A CALL TO CITIZENS (long, fwd)

1995-08-13

Richard Moore

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The following article is from the August 14/21, 1995 issue of The
Nation magazine. Feel free to circulate widely. Please address all
replies to the author, Ronnie Dugger, at •••@••.•••. For
subscription information, call 1-800-333-8536.
__________________________________

Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of The Texas Observer,
now lives in New York City and is at work on books about
electronic vote-counting and new social-policy ideas. He will
spend the 1995-96 academic year at Harvard University's
Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.
__________________________________

A CALL TO CITIZENS:
Real Populists Please Stand Up

We are ruled by Big Business and Big Government as its
paid hireling, and we know it. Corporate money is wrecking
popular government in the United States. The big corporations
and the centimillionaires and billionaires have taken daily
control of our work, our pay, our housing, our health, our
pension funds, our bank and savings deposits, our public
lands, our airwaves, our elections and our very government.
It's as if American democracy has been bombed. Will we be
able to recover ourselves and overcome the bombers? Or will
they continue to divide us and will we continue to divide
ourselves, according to our wounds and our alarms, until they
have taken the country away from us for good?

   Senate Democratic majority leader George Mitchell ex-
claimed late in 1994, shortly before he abandoned the Con-
gress in disgust: "This system stinks. This system is money."
The law of life among us now is what Jefferson called "the
general prey of the rich on the poor." The moment is danger-
ous. Democracy is not guaranteed God's protection; systems
and nations end. If we do anything serious now we might make
things worse; if we do nothing serious now we are done for.

   The challenge of 1776 was one thing; the challenge of 1995
is another. The northern Europeans who were our country's
founders exterminated or confined millions of Native Ameri-
cans whose ancestors had been living here for 30,000 years.
African-Americans were enslaved until the Civil War; women
were not allowed to vote for 131 years, until 1920. But after
the abolitionist, women's suffrage, farmers', union, progres-
sive, civil rights, environmentalist, feminist and gay and
lesbian liberation movements, and much more immigration, the
question now is whether we can found the first genuinely in-
ternational democracy. If we cannot, the corporations have us.

   Why is there no longer any mass democratic organization we
can trust and through which we can act together? Where is the
strong national movement that is advancing working Americans'
interests, values and hopes? Where is the party of the com-
mon person? It's no coincidence that within the same histori-
cal moment we have lost both our self-governance and the Dem-
ocratic Party. The Democratic Party, on which many millions
of ordinary people have relied to represent them since the
1930s, has been hollowed out and rebuilt from the inside by
corporate money. What was once the party of the common man is
now the second party of the corporate mannequin. In national
politics ordinary people no longer exist. We simply aren't
there. No wonder only 75 million of us eligible to vote in
1994 did so, while 108 million more of us, also eligible, did not.

   What is government about? As a worker told reporter Barry
Bearak last spring about the U.A.W. strike against the Cat-
erpillar corporation, government is about "control, you know,
who controls who." Ernesto Cortes Jr., the exceptionally im-
portant organizer who helps people in communities in the
Southwest to act together in their own interests, once ex-
claimed: "Power! Power comes in two forms: organized people
and organized money." To govern ourselves, power is what we
need. To get it we must want it and organize for it.

   This is a call to hope and to action, a call to reclaim
and reinvent democracy, a call to the hard work of reorganiz-
ing ourselves into a broad national coalition, a call to pop-
ulists, workers, progressives and liberals to reconstitute
ourselves into a smashing new national force to end corporate rule.

   This is a call that we assemble in St. Louis next November
10-13 to pick up the banner where the People's Party dropped
it on July 25, 1896, and form ourselves into a broad progres-
sive coalition, a new American alliance to take power so
that, in the words of John Quincy Adams, "self-love and so-
cial may be made the same." I would suggest for a name,
tentatively, the Citizens Alliance, or (on a cue from a
similar project in New Zealand) the American Alliance.

   But we will have to start small, "to begin humbly." When
only a few come that is enough. The women's movement for the
right to vote started when five women sat down around a table
in a parlor in Waterloo, New York, six miles north of Seneca
Falls. The Populists' National Farmers Alliance and Industri-
al Union started with a meeting of seven people in a farm-
house in Lampasas County, Texas.

   I propose the emphasis on Populism because the nineteenth-
century Populists denied the legitimacy of corporate domina-
tion of a democracy, whereas in this century the progres-
sives, the unions and the liberals gave up on and forgot
about that organic and controlling issue. I propose that we
seize the word Populism back from its many hijackers, its
misusers--the George Wallaces, David Dukes, Irving Kristols,
Newt Gingriches--and restore its original meaning in American
history, that of the anti-corporate Populist movement of the
1880s and 1890s. Our point, our purpose, is the well-being
and enhancement of the person. We are all those who believe
the corporations are becoming our masters and do not want to
vote for candidates of any party dependent on them. We are
all those who are tired of winning elections some of the time
but losing our rights and interests all of the time.

   As Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in his definitive work, The
Populist Moment, the Populists were "attempting to construct,
within the framework of American capitalism, some variety of
cooperative commonwealth." That was, as he wrote, "the last
substantial effort at structural alteration of hierarchical
economic forms in modern America," and when Populism died out
what was lost was "cultural acceptance of a democratic poli-
tics open to serious structural evolution of society." Well,
like the Populists of that era we are ready again to resume
the cool eyeing of the corporations with a collective will to
take back the powers they have seized from us, the power of
farm or no farm, job or no job, living wage or no living
wage, store or no store, medical care or no medical care,
home or no home, pension or no pension.

                               ---

   So, as I would have it, we are Populists; but we are
many other things. We are white, black, brown, every religion
and none, young, middle-aged, old. We are people who work,
for a corporation or a small business or a farm, for our fam-
ilies or for ourselves, or we're job creators, local mer-
chants, small-business people in the towns or cities, or
we're people who can't find work or have given up trying. We
are ordinary people. Probably we would be no better than the
rich if we were rich. But we are not haters or scapegoaters.
We eschew violence; we believe in active citizenship and,
when it is needed, civil disobedience. We are progressives;
we are union workers, or nonunion ones who might be union if
we weren't so afraid of the power and will of management to
fire us if we organize or strike; we are liberals; we are
the poorly educated, the untrained, the minimum-wagers har-
ried from one job to another with no security and no health
insurance or sunk on welfare, whose grammar might embarrass
high-toned reformers, whose clothes might, too. We are femi-
nists, environmentalists, peace and antinuclear people, civil
rightsers, civil libertarians, radical democrats, democratic
socialists, egalitarians; and we are moderates and conserva-
tives who believe in family values, work, initiative and re-
sponsibility, but not cynics to whom the point of life is
profit and power.

   Some of us are Democrats, some independent, some are or
were for Ross Perot, some follow Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Co-
alition, some of us are Green Party, New Party or the soon-
to-be Labor Party, some are libertarians about personal life,
a thimbleful of us may be Republicans. This is not a call to
get ready for 1996 politics, nor a call to citizens, Demo-
crats or any other, to decide now whether or not to vote for
any particular candidate or party in 1996. The presidential
race next year could well become a four- or five-candidate
November smashup of the two-party system, and 1996, there-
fore, one of those rare years of historic party realignment.
But the situation might also close back down into the usual
choice between the two major-party nominees. Some or many of
us may conclude in 1996 that we are trapped again. The return
of ordinary citizens to national politics through the Alli-
ance might move Democratic officeholders back toward the peo-
ple, or might provide a democratic group setting for a rea-
soned decision on 1996 in place of the ego-driven chaos we
must now expect. But that is not the chief point. This is a
call for the five- or ten-year, one-to-one hard work of or-
ganizing people and bringing together many disparate associa-
tions and efforts into one new national movement. Let's not
even start unless we're in for that. If we are in for that,
we might be trapped one more year, but not longer.

   What has happened to us?

   Too much, too much.

   In 1886 the Supreme Court decided, insanely, that corpora-
tions are "persons" with the rights our forebears meant only
for people. The corporations--mere legal fictions created by
the democratic states that are their only source of legiti-
macy--disposing of the Populists and slipping free from the
states' leashes, have multiplied into the corrupters of our
politics and the international networks of greed and power
that we know today. Hierarchical, essentially totalitarian,
and now gigantic and global, in effect the corporation is the
government, here and elsewhere. The divine right of kings has
been replaced by the divine rights of C.E.O.s.

   Jefferson wrote that what distinguished our new country
from the Old World was the absence among us then of the fatal
concentrations of private wealth that so deformed imperial
Europe. Yet the gap between the very rich and the rest of us
now is morally more obscene than anything Jefferson could
have had in mind. One percent of the people among us own 40
percent of the national wealth. The after-tax income of the
top 20 percent of U.S. families exceeds that of all other
families combined. Between 1977 and 1989 the 1 percent of
families with incomes over $350,000 received 72 percent of
the country's income gains while the bottom 60 percent lost
ground. In 1992 half of our families had net financial assets
under $1,000. Debts exceeded assets for four out of ten of
our families. In 1994, seventy American individuals and
fifty-nine American families collectively owned $295 billion,
an average of $2.3 billion. The top fifty-one individuals and
families owned $197 billion, an average of $3.9 billion. The
two richest Americans, William Gates and Warren Buffett, and
the richest American family, the du Ponts, owned a total of
$34 billion among them. The rate of child poverty in the
United States is four times the rate in Western Europe.

   Although no democracy can work without a strong union
movement, U.S. unions have been reduced to shadows by employ-
ers' use of sophisticated unionbusters and by the corpora-
tions' government, whose labor-management apparatus chains
down the right to form and maintain unions. Compared with
about one in three of the work force at the peak, only one in
seven workers now belongs to a union--if you exclude public
employees, only one in nine.

   Multinational corporations now employ about a fifth of
the private American work force and are getting bigger and
more powerful by the hour. Workers are falling into paycheck
poverty--by the millions we are becoming expendable hired
hands, interchangeable units of work, governed in what counts
by entities that have abandoned the traditional quest for a
loyal work force, much less a happy one. Corporations are ex-
tracting cuts in wages and benefits from their experienced
workers, low-balling new workers in two-tier wage systems,
requiring mandatory overtime and hiring temps to reduce the
fringe benefits they have to pay, and letting hundreds of
thousands of workers go while exporting their jobs to low-
wage areas around the world. As a worker at Caterpillar said,
"They use you up and throw you away." Young male workers with
a high school education lost 30 percent of their real income
in the twenty years ending in 1993, and the real wages of
American production workers have dropped 20 percent in twenty
years; average wage levels for men are now below the levels
of the 1960s. As of 1993, 40 percent of women earned only
about $15,000 a year. Among Hispanics 46 percent and among
African-Americans 36 percent of workers do not earn an hourly
wage sufficient to lift them out of poverty.

                               ---

   Many millions of us hunger for serious discussion and
debate on public affairs, but major corporations now control
much of the access to our minds and the selection of the sub-
jects that we are encouraged to think about from day to day.
Twenty corporations own and control more than 50 percent of
American radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, book
publishers and major movie studios. In 1945, 80 percent of
our daily newspapers were independently owned; almost half a
century later 80 percent of them were owned by corporate
chains. The commercial television corporations, which domi-
nate the national consciousness day to day, debase and daze
people with foolish and violent programming. Before one of
our children is out of grade school he or she watches on the
average 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on TV.

   There is no vision, and the people are perishing.

   For decades savings and loan institutions were required
by law to provide low-interest loans to help families buy
homes. President Carter "deregulated" interest rates, Con-
gress deregulated the S&Ls, and their ensuing collapse de-
stroyed the government's low-interest housing program. Both
parties lied to the people about the disaster until after the
1988 elections and then we were stuck for the bailout bill of
half a trillion dollars.

   Forty-one million Americans, and rising, still have no
health insurance, even though they could have been covered
for nothing by the savings from national health insurance
such as Canada's single-payer system.

   When changes in cost-of-living components since 1960 are
factored into the government's measures of poverty, about a
fourth of us are in poverty, almost twice the government's
official story line. Yet the Republican Congress continues
deliberately to scapegoat and squeeze the poor and the elder-
ly to provide still more tax benefits for the rich and the
corporations, voting to give tax breaks of $245 billion by
2002 primarily to the wealthy while also cutting Medicare
$270 billion and Medicaid $182 billion during the same peri-
od. Both parties cry out that the poor must work for their
welfare, but neither would dream of providing the public rev-
enues necessary to capitalize enough public-sector jobs for
the poor to take. Benefits under the Aid to Families with De-
pendent Children program were slashed 42 percent between 1970
and 1991, yet Congress is still slashing them and seeks to
end them as a federal entitlement. The oligarchy, tut-
tutting against "class warfare" at every hint of a politics
that might threaten its wealth and privileges, has declared
its own class war against the poor.

   Mostly we are shattered into subgroups--split by race or
by duels between the hurting middle, working and out-of-luck
classes or enclosed within one-issue or special-focus organi-
zations or efforts. What resources do we have to take power
and democratize the corporation?

   We as a people are rich if we could just get at our own
common wealth. As Ralph Nader teaches, workers' pension funds
come to four or five trillion dollars, our bank deposits and
savings accounts total a couple of trillion dollars and mutu-
al insurance proceeds come to a trillion and a half; yet all
of this, our money and therefore our power, is controlled by
the corporations. We as the people own about one-third of the
land in the United States, yet ranchers and mining companies
ravage and pillage it for next to nothing. The airways are
public property--ours--yet our politicians hand them free to
broadcasting companies, which use them to control our minds.
We are fabulously rich, but the oligarchy controls our wealth
while we are privileged to pay off the national debt, now
more than four trillion dollars.

   Many millions of us know more than the imperious estab-
lishment wants us to, and we are moving. The Industrial Areas
Foundation has organized people in many communities around
their own needs and hopes, inventing new principles for au-
thentic democracy that can be applied anywhere. The phenome-
nal movement spawned by Nader gallantly fights on for the
people's interests through scores of organizations, and Nader
is now considering the formation of a special national civic
empowerment organization, 1,000 trained organizers who will
form citizen-action groups of 500 to 1,000 people in every
Congressional district. A majority of people polled national-
ly favor the establishment of a major new third party; the
New Party and the Greens are showing encouraging signs of
growth and by the end of the year a new Labor Party will
come into being. Insurgents have engineered the retirement of
the aging chief of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a woman is on both
rival slates for the new national officers and black union-
ists are demanding more influential roles in the leadership.
A small but important effort, the Program on Corporations,
Law, and Democracy (P.O. Box 806, Cambridge, MA 02140), is
focusing on corporate tyranny and on withdrawing giant
corporations' privileges and immunities. There is of course
no way to do justice here to the dedicated myriad other move-
ments for justice and equality in the country.

   All this is what needs to be fused, if and to whatever ex-
tent people and their organizations want to be fused, into a
pro-people national alliance. But can we reassemble and take
power? Can a people so different in origin, race, religion
and history know and care about each other enough and act to-
gether in our common interests powerfully enough to save the
democracy and ourselves?

   "We, the people" ordained and established the United
States "to...promote the general welfare, and secure the
blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity" solely
on our authority and power as persons. We did not ordain and
establish the United Corporations of America. Each one of us
still has the same authority and power on the sole strength
of which the founders of the country declared themselves in-
dependent of the King of England. We can use this same au-
thority and power, our strength as citizens, to write a new
Declaration of Total Democratic Sovereignty Over the Corpora-
tion and make the United States, even if it will be for the
first time, a democracy that is actually governed by the
people who live in it, in our own interests and those of pos-
terity. I don't know if we'll do it or not. But we can. If we
want the power we can take it. We are entering now the first
great test of whether we, one nation's people who are as dif-
ferent as the people of the world, can govern ourselves. Can
we see ourselves in others and the other in ourselves? I be-
lieve the first great experiment in international democracy
will succeed or fail on the answer we give collectively to
that question. We can or we can't, and the answer in events
will be the answer we give to history. Let's try: Let's re-
vive and continue the American Populist Movement on the
strength of our knowing that its best democratic passions
have never died among us. With Tom Paine, we will "lay then
the axe to the root, and teach governments humanity."

_____________________________

To join and help organize the Citizens Alliance and to
receive a planning document for the November 10-13 meeting,
fax Ronnie Dugger at (508) 349-2501, e-mail him at RDugger
•••@••.••• or write him c/o The Nation, 72 Fifth Avenue, New
York, NY 10011 (enclose SASE).

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