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#419 - Big-Picture Organizing -- Part 2: Polluted Politics, 07-Dec-1994

Michael Colby is sprawled across his armchair, ruminating on the recent
elections. "Newt Gingrich is a gift," says Colby with a broad smile.
"He's just what we need." With his crew cut, faded plaid shirt and old
Levi's, Colby seems like a lanky young farmer attuned to the details of
weather, seeds, and soil. Colby does help his wife, who runs an organic
farm, but his main occupation is strategist for anti-toxics campaigns
around food safety, with an eye firmly fixed on the big picture. Colby
heads Food & Water, Inc., in Marshfield, Vermont [phone: 1-800-EAT-
SAFE]. Food & Water has joined three battles simultaneously: to stop
food irradiation, to get BGH (synthetic growth hormone) out of cow's
milk, and, most recently, to end the use of dangerous pesticides. Yes,
END THE USE.

Colby sees the problem this way: chemical corporations have invaded the
food industry because they profit handsomely when their poisons are
pumped onto or into our food. Someone else reaps the consequences.
"They've got to be stopped, that's all there is to it," he says. They
CAN be stopped because Americans care about their health; good, safe
food is essential to health; and people "get it" about the chemical
corporations. Furthermore, taking on the chemical corporations provides
a great vehicle for talking about other problems brought on by
corporate dominance of our culture, Colby says.

How can we take on the chemical companies by campaigning for safe food?
Colby sees the problem the way any good organizer might: we devise
strategies that capture the imagination of the public, get people
engaged, and focus their anger on winnable goals. Colby says its
definitely doable.

If people "get it" about corporations, how do we explain the Republican
success on November 8?

In a recent interview, Colby told THE NATION, "I've got to hand it to
the Republicans for tapping into the latent anger in the American
electorate. For me, this election was about people trying to take back
their government. What they will soon find out, however, is that we
don't live in an individual democracy, but a corporate republic. Grass-
roots environmental campaigns will be able to capitalize on that
realization."[1]

For their part, the Republicans claim they were swept into office
November 8 by their "Contract With America," a 10-point promise to
reduce capital gains taxes for the rich, end welfare handouts to the
children of unwed mothers, base all of the nation's government
regulations on the junk science of cost-benefit analysis and risk
assessment, fatten up the military to crush imagined attackers,[2] make
it harder for consumers to bring lawsuits against corporations that
sell dangerous products, and protect Wall Street manipulators from
certain kinds of investor lawsuits.[3]

But these promises are NOT what swept the Republicans into office. To
begin with, only 39% of eligible voters voted; 61% stayed home.[4]

Secondly, a TIME MAGAZINE/CNN poll reveals that only 12% of the voters
voted Republican because they favored the Republic platform. Seventy-
four percent voted "Against Bill Clinton" or "Against the Democrats,"
according to TIME.[5] Now 12% of 39% = 4.7%, so Newt Gingrich's
"Contract With America" received a positive mandate from a scant 4.7%
of the voters on November 8.

Who put the Republicans into office this year? Not people with annual
incomes of $30,000 or less; they voted overwhelmingly Democrat. People
making $30,000 to $49,000 per year split their votes between Democrats
and Republicans. Yet the Republicans won. "The Republicans won this
year not because they achieved record support among any class of
voters, but because rich people voted. About 7% more voters were
wealthy this year than in 1992; and 7% fewer were working class. The
shift in turnout was enough to cost the Democrats control of Congress,"
says Peter Levine, a researcher at the University of Maryland.[6]

Money bought the election, in every sense. You have to have big money
just to become a candidate. According to Ellen Miller, of the Center
for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., in 1992, the average House
race cost $542,000. In other words, you had to have half-a-million
dollars in the bank just to run for a seat in Congress. In 1994, it was
even more expensive.

When Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992 he promised to get money
out of politics. He said then that American politics was being held
"hostage" by monied interests. He said "political action committees,
industry lobbies, and cliques of $100,000 donors buy access to Congress
and the White House."[7] However, after winning the Presidency, Mr.
Clinton gave campaign finance reform a low priority, and he failed to
push a reform bill through his own Democratically-controlled Congress.
THE NEW YORK TIMES editorialized (May 31, 1994), "Mr. Clinton has spent
more time and energy courting well-to-do donors at fancy private
receptions than prodding Congress to enact serious political reform."
During his first 20 months in office, Mr. Clinton personally raised $40
million in Democratic political donations. "Mr. Clinton is the best
money draw his party has enjoyed in decades," the NEW YORK TIMES says.
[7]

Nevertheless, Republicans have more money to spend than Democrats do.
The NEW YORK TIMES observes, "Indeed, even though Mr. Clinton has
sharply closed the gap, the Democrats still get creamed by Republican
money men. Through the first 18 months of Mr. Clinton's term in office,
the Democratic National Committee and its fundraising organs in the
House and Senate raised $83 million, as against $162 million raised by
the Republicans."[7]

Does money get you elected? Candidates that outspent their opponents
won 30 of the 35 Senate races in 1994 (83%), and 370 of the 435
Congressional races (85%).[8] Clearly, money translates directly into
votes.

The Republicans argue that unleashing "free market" forces --and
reducing taxes on corporations and on the rich --will allow the economy
to grow so everyone can benefit. This is what the country tried
throughout the 1980s; this is Reaganomics. Unfortunately, the facts
reveal that this "trickle down" or "supply side" theory plunges the
nation into massive debt, makes the rich richer, swells the poverty
rolls, and reduces the income and security of the middle class.

The economy has been growing in recent years, but so has economic
inequality. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in October that average
per-person income rose in 1993, but 72% of the growth went to the
wealthy.[9] A full 40% of the growth went to the top 5%, the group that
Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls "the overclass."[10] The top fifth
of American households took 48.2% of the nation's income in 1993; the
bottom fifth received just 3.6% --an historic record for inequitable
distribution of income in America.[9]

From 1989 to 1993, the typical American household lost $2,344 in annual
income, a loss of 7%. Between 1970 and 1993, working people without a
college degree --75% of the American workforce --saw their wages
decline 12%.[9] Labor Secretary Reich says one important reason for the
decline of wages is that growth in corporate profits is not being
passed along to workers. The Secretary issued a stern warning November
22: "If American business continues to pursue short-term profits at the
price of insecurity and falling living standards for a large portion of
our society, it will sooner or later reap the bitter harvest of popular
rage."[10]

In a recent national poll, 55% of American adults said they no longer
believed that you could build a better life for yourself and your
family by working hard and playing by the rules. Of those without
college degrees, 68% said they no longer believe it.[10]

Corporate America, guided by a wealthy, self-serving "overclass," has
polluted our politics, hijacked our democracy, and diminished the
American dream. For now the anger and frustration of the public is
being manipulated by Newt Gingrich and other children of George
Wallace. For now, the targets of rage are immigrants, welfare mothers,
government officials, gays, and an ill-defined "counter-culture." But
this could change; it represents an unprecedented opportunity for
organizers and activists.

Dan Cantor, executive director of the New Party, formed in 1992 as an
alternative to the two major parties, and now active in 10 states
[phone: (212) 302-5053], sums it up: "This election marked the end of
liberalism, but not in the simplistic way Mr. Gingrich believes. The
state has failed, and the free market is failing. For most Americans,
getting government off our backs is just one piece of the job. The real
task is to get government on our side and to rein in a market system
gone berserk."[11]

Where do we begin? "We connect with people through their health," says
Michael Colby of Food & Water. "Then we talk to them about family,
community, and the principles of the Founding Fathers. Corporations
aren't just poisoning us, they're running us off the land, taking our
skills, destroying our democracy. People understand that."

[To be continued.]

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, "Death and Life for
America's Greens," THE NATION (December 19, 1994), pgs. 760-765.

[2] Randall Forsberg and Jonathan Cohen make it clear that the U.S. has
no nation-state enemies left who could mount a sustained threat to our
national security; see "Issues and Choices in Arms Production and
Trade," in Randall Forsberg, editor, THE ARMS PRODUCTION DILEMMA
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), pgs. 269-290.

[3] "Contract with America" documents, including the text of the 10
proposed laws, accompanied by explanations, can be found on the
internet via gopher to una.hh.lib.umich.edu/socsci/Government/U.S.
Government: Legislative Branch/Republican Contract With America.

[4] Steven V. Roberts, "Sea Change," U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT (Nov. 21,
1994), pg. 39.

[5] John F. Stacks, "Stampede!," TIME (November 21, 1994), pg. 48.

[6] Peter Levine, "In This Election, G.O.P. Won Because More Rich
People Voted," NEW YORK TIMES November 25, 1994, pg. A36.

[7] Michael Wines, "President Grows a Money Tree," NEW YORK TIMES
October 1, 1994, pg. 9.

[8] "Can't buy me love, but...," IN THESE TIMES November 28, 1994, pg.
7.

[9] Jason DeParle, "Census Sees Falling Income and More Poor," NEW YORK
TIMES October 7, 1994, pg. A16.

[10] Robert Reich, "The Revolt of the Anxious Class," a speech to the
Democratic Leadership Council November 22, 1994.

[11] Daniel Cantor and Juliet Schor, "A Populist Manifesto," NEW YORK
TIMES December 5, 1994, pg. A19.

Descriptor terms: michael colby; food & water; pesticides; bgh;
radiation; food irradiation; food safety; newt gingrich; republicans;
democrats; farming; farmers; elections; campaign finance reform;
contract with america; military buildup; consumer products; lawsuits;
product safety; wall street; wealth; income distribution; ellen miller;
center for responsive politics; bill clinton; supply side economics;
trickle down economics; reaganomics; robert reich; dan cantor; new
party; political organizing; corporations;