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#460 - A High-wage, Low-waste Future, Part 3: A Democracy Campaign, 20-Sep-1995

Ronnie Dugger (founding editor of the TEXAS OBSERVER) recently
summarized our situation eloquently:[1]

"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?

"...The Northern Europeans who were our country's founders exterminated
or confined millions of Native Americans 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,
progressive, 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 international
democracy. If we cannot, the corporations have us.

"...It's no coincidence that within the same historical moment we have
lost both our self-governance and the Democratic 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...."

Dugger goes on: "What is government about?... Ernesto Cortes, Jr., the
exceptionally important organizer who helps people in communities in
the Southwest to act together in their own interests, once exclaimed:
'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 reorganizing ourselves into a
broad national coalition, a call to populists, workers, progressives,
and liberals to reconstitute ourselves into a smashing new national
force to end corporate rule."

Dugger goes on to urge that everyone should come to St. Louis in
November to create this new coalition. We think this is not a good idea
--only because it's too soon. The ground hasn't been properly plowed
for such a meeting to bear sustainable fruit. Dugger himself reportedly
does not want to build the new coalition; without some minimal
infrastructure, seed money, and committed organizers, such a meeting
seems likely to waste resources, frustrate people, and not accomplish
its goal.[2] But the impulse is right --ordinary Americans have had
their democracy taken from them, right before their eyes, chiefly by
corporations and by government officials (of both parties) who are
financed and owned by corporations. We desperately need to get
organized. Ernesto Cortes is on target: to govern ourselves once again,
power is what we need, and, since we don't have money, organized people
is the only way to get power.

Stepping back, the question before us is: how best to plow the ground
for seeding a new progressive national coalition? In our opinion, the
deepest thinking on this question has been done by Joel Rogers at
University of Wisconsin and by Joshua Cohen at Massachusetts Institute
of Technology. In dozens of articles during the past 5 years, Rogers
alone, or Rogers and Cohen together, with help from many activists,
have analyzed the conditions in the U.S. that have led us to our
present decline (see REHW #458 and #459). And they have suggested how
we might climb out of the deep hole we find ourselves in.[3]

As Rogers and Cohen see it, we need large organizing projects that (a)
can bring already-in-motion progressives into coherent alignment for
further movement TOGETHER; (b) can draw into the movement many
sympathetic people who are presently standing on the sidelines; and (c)
can provide real material benefits for movement adherents AND for the
larger society. Rogers has outlined 3 such organizing projects,
emphasizing that they are not the only ones possible: (1) the New Party
(which we described briefly in REHW #445), which is now perking along
in 12 states; (2) Sustainable America --a project to rebuild democracy
and political strength by rebuilding cities and inner-ring suburbs (the
heart of the high-wage, low-waste option); and (3) a Democracy
Campaign, developed with Ralph Nader.

According to recent polls, an astonishing 75 percent of Americans think
government is "run by a few interests that don't care about me." Given
such broad awareness of the breakdown of representative government, why
not put democracy itself on the table?

Rogers writes: Imagine a Democracy Campaign --initially targeted to
states, eventually providing the basis for federal reform -- aiming to
equip all citizens with the rights, remedies, and organizational
resources they need to practice democracy in late- twentieth-century
circumstances. An immediate focus for the Campaign might be reform of
our corrupt system of campaign finance and voter and party rights to
allow free and fair exercise of formal self-governing powers. [See REHW
#426, #427 and #433.] But the new infrastructure would need also to
support us in other important social roles --as workers, consumers,
taxpayers, and shareholders in social and private wealth --allowing the
effective exercise of power on which we know any working democracy
depends.

How might the Campaign's reforms be framed? Perhaps as a new bill of
rights for each of the roles mentioned above, with the explicit
background expectation throughout that the state encourage the exercise
of the rights elaborated. Thus:

** The right of voters to participate freely and equally in an
electoral system where candidacy is not determined by money; party
competition is open and fair; and referendum, recall, and initiative
are fully available... to be enhanced by universal or same-day voter
registration; an election-day holiday; voting systems accurately
weighing minority electoral sentiment; a revival of the fusion option
in party politics;[4] lowered barriers to third party qualification and
maintenance requirements; universal referendum, recall, and initiative
rights; and, of course, democratically-financed elections. (As a
practical matter, until we get democratic funding of elections, no
progressive electoral politics can flourish beyond the local level.)

** The right of workers to form associations in the workplace free from
interference by employers... to be extended by simple "check-off"
certification; severe penalties for employers who interfere with
organizing; explicit supports for good employer practices; and
protection of the rights of "minority union" members. In all
likelihood, the organization thus enabled would take a variety of
forms, extending beyond today's "exclusive bargaining representative"
model. What is important within this variety is that the organizations
be truly "worker-owned" --independent of employer domination --and that
unions in this sense grow wildly again.

** The right of consumers of goods and services to monitor, bargain
over, and lobby for the regulation of their quality and sale... to be
implemented, for example, by an extension of the Nader-inspired
Consumer Utilities Board model to agencies like the U.S. Post Office,
Social Security and Veterans administrations, public housing
authorities, insurance companies and banks, and other government
agencies and private producers.

** The right of taxpayers to shape the priorities of the public purse
and the management of public assets... to be established through such
things as set-asides of public revenues from private use of public
lands to fund citizen watchdogs on such use; the requirement that data
collected by the government be made available, for free and in
accessible form, to citizens; vastly increased taxpayer standing rights
in administrative and judicial proceedings bearing on the disposition
of public assets or monies; and a restoration of public regulation of
the airwaves. The right of shareholders to effective control of their
assets... to be asserted against the prevailing separation of ownership
and control, which is responsible for much failure of corporate
accountability --most urgently in the case of private pensions, whose
$3 trillion in assets lie beyond the control of their worker-owners.
Reforming current pension law to permit greater control and direction
by those who want it would be a natural place to start, and a fine way
to drive the bankers crazy.

If Americans had these rights and supports, what might result? The
honest answer is that nobody knows for sure, since they have never had
most of them in the past. But it seems likely that the results would
include a much livelier and more engaged civic culture; almost
infinitely higher rates of voter participation; a significant reduction
in corporate and government fraud, abuse, and waste; a more disciplined
and programmatic approach to problems affecting the public welfare; a
stronger and more effective party system for the processing of citizen
demand into effective governance; and better, less bureaucratic
enforcement of statutory commands.

And the appeal to progressives of all kinds is obvious. We who believe
in democracy are most advantaged by the capacity to exercise it.
Whether our wish is to form unions, organize communities, create new
producer co-ops, launch feminist solidarity councils, green the use of
federal lands, limit corporate abuses, hold politicians accountable to
promises, mobilize our own scattered resources in economic
reconstruction, get our views expressed in the media, or do almost
anything else that's worthwhile, some increase in our capacity to
organize would obviously be welcome. Given an opportunity to change the
rules, we should grab it.

[Next week: Sustainable America.]

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Ronnie Dugger, "Real Populists Please Stand Up," THE NATION Vol.
261, No. 5 (August 14/21, 1995), pg. 159.

[2] Communicate YOUR ideas directly to Ronnie Dugger via E-mail:
Rdugger[12]3@aol.com, or write him c/o THE NATION, 72 Fifth Ave., NYC,
NY 10011; enclose SASE.

[3] For example, see: Joel Rogers and others, SUSTAINABLE MILWAUKEE:
REBUILDING MILWAUKEE FROM THE GROUND UP. (Madison, Wisc.: Center on
Wisconsin Strategy [phone: 608/263-3889], 1994). And: Joel Rogers and
Josh Cohen, "Solidarity, Democracy, Association" forthcoming in revised
form in SECONDARY ASSOCIATIONS AND DEMOCRACY (London: Verso, 1995);
and: Joel Rogers, D. Luria, and others, METRO FUTURES: A HIGH-WAGE
DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY FOR AMERICA'S CITIES AND INNER SUBURBS
(Madison, Wisc.: Midwest Consortium on Economic Development
Alternatives [phone: 608/263-3889], 1995). And: Joshua Cohen and Joel
Rogers, "After Liberalism," BOSTON REVIEW (April/May, 1995), pgs. 20-
23.

[4] Fusion denotes the ability of more than one party to nominate the
same (consenting) candidate for the same office in the same election.
Such "fusion" of parties on candidates was widely practiced in the U.S.
in the 19th century, when it helped underwrite all the major third
party efforts of the day. Today, it is widely banned. Fusion helps
third parties by permitting their members to cast a protest vote that's
not wasted; where they don't have power to run and win on their own,
they can vote for the more attractive alternative offered by the two
major parties, but on their own ballot line, with the votes cast on the
minor party counted in the candidate's total.

Descriptor terms: strategies; environmental movement; vision; mass
movements; social change; civic culture; solidarity; ideology; ralph
nader; democracy; new party; sustainable america; democracy project;
political parties; fusion; referendum; recall; labor; consumer rights;
taxpayer rights;