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Public participation and the erosion of democracy.

A major indicator of the erosion of democratic society is the withdrawal of public participation in politics. Let's face it: if the Bill of Rights were abolished tomorrow, how many people would feel it? Only the people who use it would. The free speech provision in the First Amendment could be repealed and the millions of Americans who don't use their free speech on critical issues would just go about their daily lives, working away and not noticing.

Public participation is shrinking. Participation in town meetings, the pristine form of democracy in our country's history, is shrinking. In many areas of New England, town meetings are being abolished as a form of local government. As a child I was taken to town meetings by my parents. There would be a couple hundred people in the room and there would a]ways be a few active citizens jumping up with their facts and challenging the select officials and the mayor. The other people in the room would have a doubled response because these people were very aggressive. The next day, walking down the little main street, people would say, "There goes Mr. Frantz. Mr. Frantz is an active participant in the town meetings and he always has his facts in order." He was a town citizen. Most towns have the town drunk and the town fool--the town citizen is now like an aberration, a deviation, a maverick. (The Greek word for idiot, by the way, stands for a person in ancient Athens who didn't participate in public affairs.)

Yet today, participation isn't valued. In any given community, how many schools teach practical civics? How many schools teach about the tools of democracy and give students an operational opportunity to use them in the community? In Salt Lake City, Utah, a few years ago, an excited fifth grade girl came to class one day and said to her teacher, "I think I've discovered a waste dump a few blocks away. It's covered with shrubbery." So they all went on a little visit and after some investigation the class discovered it was a waste dump. So the teacher gave them a project. They all went down to City Hall, had a news conference, and the dump was cleaned up by the city. That's operational citizenship. Think of all that those children learned as a result. Think of the talents that developed that would never have flourished in a classroom dedicated, as so many classrooms are, to memorization, regurgitation, and vegetation. The teacher was so excited she wrote a brilliant book called Kids and Social Action, which is now in its second edition and available from Free Spirit Press in St. Paul, Minnesota. That's practical civics--but most schools don't even teach civics any more. When I studied civics it was as dull as can be. There were no proper names in the book--it might have been too controversial to actually talk about something like Exxon and the spill in Alaska.

These days people often value withdrawing from participation. Many people claim they aren't turned on by politics, that all politicians are crooks. But a lesson of history is that, if you don't turn onto politics, politics will surely turn on you. Yet still people withdraw--hall of registered voters don't vote and many are hereditary voters. Their grandparents were Republicans or Democrats, so they vote for whoever is on the ticket for that party. Women's clubs, Elks' clubs, and various civil society organizations are drying up in small towns as they just don't have the participants anymore.

In the 2000 presidential election I chose to participate. I was severely criticized for it. But this country doesn't belong to only two parties while the rest of us stand in line and keep our mouths shut. Gore should have beaten Bush--a bumbling governor from Texas with a horrible record who couldn't put two sentences together--by a landslide. Gore blew it on the debates and he couldn't win his own state of Tennessee, which he had represented in Congress for so many years. He refused to ask Bill Clinton to go to Arkansas. If Gore had won Arkansas or Tennessee, he would have won the election. I've never heard any of the critics of my candidacy denounce the tens of thousands of Democrats in Florida who voted for Bush--when twelve times more Democrats in Florida voted for Bush than voted for Nader/LaDuke. I've never witnessed anyone denounce David McReynolds, who ran under the Socialist Worker Party ticket in Florida. He got thirty-five hundred votes, seven times more than the margin between Bush and Gore. The bottom line is that everyone has the right to run and we can't use "what ifs."

People who choose the Green Party "what if" are really refusing to challenge the Democrats. They let the Democrats go through one four-year cycle after another, telling progressives and Humanists they have nowhere to go except to stay home of vote for the Democrat because the Republicans are worse. The Democratic Party campaigns on how bad the Republicans are instead of how good our future can be. On the campaign trail, Gore proposed a bigger military budget than Bush. Gore announced to Congress in 1998 that regime change in Iraq was a basic objective of U.S. foreign policy. Clinton bombed Iraq for three days in 1998. It isn't as though Clinton and Gore were peace advocates going through the United Nations. So no one really knows how well Gore/Lieberman would have responded to 9/11. Lieberman doesn't disagree with Bush in a single area of foreign or military policy. Instead of playing "what if" Americans must raise their frame of reference about what this country can be and how it relates to the world--in the country's magnificence, instead of its cluster bombs and export of materials for chemical and biological warfare that the Reagan and Bush administrations gave to Saddam Hussein when he was our ally. Today, seven billion tax dollars subsidize weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and their export sales of F-16s, tanks, and Tomahawk missiles to regimes around the world.

There are few major differences and increasing similarities between Republicans and Democrats. The parties hold different positions on gun control. Regarding the environment, the Democrats aren't quite as bad as Republicans. There are differences between the two parties over Social Security and Medicare--although the Democrats don't even go as far as Richard Nixon and Harry Truman in proposing universal health care.

But look at the similarities. In the year 2000 it was hard to distinguish any differences between the Republicans and Democrats in Federal Reserve policy (both parties appointed Alan Greenspan), military policy, of foreign policy. In eight years under Clinton/Gore, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn't issue one chemical toxin control standard. Clinton and Gore gave a free ride to biotechnology, refusing to require labeling biotech foods in our supermarkets, despite the 90 percent of Americans wanting such labels. They gave a free ride to the petrochemical industry and the auto industry, including not proposing any fuel efficiency standards improvements in eight years. They gave a free ride to the nuclear industry, allowing it continual subsidies. They supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, a terribly anti-consumer, anti-environment decision. While differences exist, the parties are too similar to allow no challenge.

With an even broader vision, we can see that these two parties aren't worthy of our country. They have been given chance after chance and they've become wholly owned subsidiaries of giant business. Year after year they shut the American people out of participating in policymaking in Washington. I tolerated this for twenty years while our Green Party groups--as well as other minority parties--were blocked from improving the country. We couldn't get congressional hearings, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was in charge of the committee. We couldn't get petitions before the FDA or EPA treated seriously. No American should be blocked from trying to improve her or his country. As Thomas Jefferson said, when you lose your government, you go into the political arena. It isn't my cup of tea but it has to be done. Someday we will break this two-party grip over elections, ballot access, and the debate commission, which is a private entity created by the Democratic and Republican parties to exclude competitors.

But consequential third parties aren't going to be built in a single election cycle--not with all the barriers against them. No other nation in the Western world comes close to blockading third parties the way the United States does. In North Carolina a prospective third party candidate needs fifty-eight thousand qualified signatures on a petition (in a short period of time) in order to get on the ballot. That means the candidate must have over one hundred thousand signatures in total because the officials scrutinize the petition. They don't want competition to the two mainline parties, so they will disqualify a signature because the listed address is a street instead of an avenue. In Virginia the petitions must be on a certain color of paper. Many times the party doesn't have money to pay for the paid signature gatherers required in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and other states. In Oklahoma it's against the law to count write-in votes. Because of this, an estimated three hundred thousand votes weren't counted in 2000. In Idaho Nader/LaDuke received almost 3 percent of the write-in vote, which is extraordinary. But in many states, such as New Hampshire, it's very difficult to obtain the correct forms to file a proper write-in vote. Most people don't have time to wait in line and they just give up.

Just how many people in this country would it take to dramatically change Congress? Is that sort of question asked on Meet the Press or Face the Nation? Right now, Congress is the best money can buy, as Will Rogers once said--and I would add, the best money can rent. Money nullifies votes in politics. But who is back home in the districts? About 98 or 99 percent of House representatives get reelected every two years. The opposing party puts up a nominal candidate; some accountant who wants his of her name in the paper for a few weeks spends $35,000 and gets clobbered by the incumbent. That isn't the two-party system; that is a one-party system.

There was far more instability in getting reelected in the nineteenth century. In 1820 about hall of the members of the House didn't come back; they had raised their own salary and people were very upset. Today, they have it down pat. In 2000 about seventy districts in the House of Representatives had no opposing major party candidate on the ballot.

There isn't even a discernable movement in local congressional districts to monitor members of Congress as a civic service. If someone knocked on the door of any American household and said, "Hi, I'm your new neighbor. Just wanted to inform you that I can send your children off to war and increase your taxes. I can let corporations expose you to toxic waste and I spend 20 percent of your income. See you later." What would people say when that person started walking back down the sidewalk? Would they say, "Hey, come back here! You mean something to me; therefore, I should mean something to you!" Of would they say, "How dare you interrupt me! I'm in the middle of watching the second rerun of Cheers."

In local election campaigns, a few volunteers have applied 200 to 300 hours a year a piece and raised $60,000 to $80,000 in each district to have an office and a full-time staff. But how many other people spend 200 to 300 hours a year on bowling? How many people spend 200 to 300 hours a year on any hobby? Tens of millions do--so why not have a congressional hobby?

Some time ago I learned there were fifteen million birdwatchers in the country and I was fascinated by that figure. What interested me was their dedication: the equipment they bought, the communication they had with fellow birdwatchers, the cataloguing of the bird species every season. They're willing to leave their living rooms to put on rubber boots and go into marshes, rain or shine. One day I heard that a bird supposedly native only to Europe was located in the New Jersey marshes. Word went out and, from all over the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, people got into their cars and headed for that marsh in order to spot that lone bird. There are fifteen million birdwatchers in this country and not five hundred Congress-watchers. I wish that bird would take flight, head south, and land on the Capitol dome.

When it comes to public participation, U.S. history is extremely significant because it only took a few people, at one key juncture or another, to launch a successful, major social justice movement. Very few people are necessary to turn the ship around. In my forty years as a consumer advocate I have seen enormous changes occur because a few people obtained a sense of strategy and a key location. Fewer people than is commonly realized started the great reform known as the Populist/Progress movement. In east Texas in 1887, two hundred thousand farmers signed up at a dollar apiece within six months. This was before electricity, telephones, or e-mail--a dollar then was forty seven of today's and these farmers were dirt poor. They were being squeezed into failure by the high freight rates of railroads and the high interest rates of banks. And yet, all across the country, these farmers contributed to the movement. Very few people representing broad values--supported by millions of their fellow citizens--pulled it off against very powerful odds and with a fraction of the communication and transportation technologies that are available today. I'm constantly in awe of the ability of our forbears to mount mass movements and rallies compared to today, when the population is five times what it was then. Today, if you get one hundred thousand people in a demonstration in Washington, D.C., that is an enormous success. When the United States had 50 million people, 300,000 or 400,000 people would come out. Marches on Washington consisted of tens of thousands of people walking hundreds of miles.

The encouraging mantra is this: hall the job of democracy is just showing up. Just showing up at the polls. Just showing up at the rallies. Just showing up with your elected representatives. Most people grow up so corporate that they don't think they matter. "One person can't fight City Hall" or take on General Motors. These people defeat themselves before the opposition oligarchy or plutocracy moves to defeat them. That's growing up corporate--growing up looking at the economy the way corporations want. In the 1950s and 1960s people liked to buy cars based on style--not safety, not fuel efficiency, not pollution control. When people started growing up, thinking for themselves, and getting more information, motor vehicle and highway safety laws got passed, which though intermittently enforced saved over a million American lives. Many lives were saved with the manufacture of safer cars because people got information and decided they didn't want to buy junk. They were tired of seeing people getting injured in otherwise survivable collisions because seat belts, padded dash panels, stronger door latches, plastic steering columns, and head restraints--which were developed decades earlier--weren't being put in new cars. And they succeeded.

From 1890 to 1970, four hundred thousand coal miners died for their companies due to black lung disease and coalmine collapses. When we took on the coal industry and the steel companies that owned coalmines, they refused to even recognize the existence of coal miners' diseases coming from breathing heavy amounts of coal dust, day after day, into their lungs. They said it was a result of asthma or cigarette smoking. With three doctors and two lawyers, we maneuvered Congress to recognize the plight of the coal miners despite the powerful lobbying of those two industries. Coal miner health and safety laws and black lung compensation were passed through Congress and signed by Richard Nixon because a few people, equipped with facts and a heightened sense of strategy, knew how to operate.

American citizens own a third of the American land onshore and offshore. We also own the public airways that the radio and television stations use, trillions of dollars of public works, and tens of billions of dollars of federal research and development that is provided to the biotech industry, the semiconductor industry, the aerospace industry, a good deal of the pharmaceutical industry, and the construction materials industry. These industries wouldn't be where they are today if it wasn't for taxpayer-funded government research and development from the Department of Defense, the National Aerospace Administration, and other government departments. We own public assets, yet we don't realize we own them. Instead people are at the mercy of corporations, radio and television stations, and the coal, oil, and gas industries. The workers own $5 trillion of pension money, but the banks and insurance companies control what the people own. The workers could control the corporations through pension fund and stock ownership but they don't.

This split between ownership and control is even tied to Wall Street. Shareholders own their corporations but the corporations are controlled by chief executive officers at the top. And in this age of executive compensation and corporate scandals, CEOs are going wild. This isn't capitalism; this is corporatism. So much public money goes to corporate welfare in the form of bailouts, giveaways, and subsidies. That's half of what Washington is: accounts receivable for corporations. Local stadiums are being funded by taxpayers while schools and clinics in those same communities are crumbling for lack of repair. This is what happens when you grow up corporate instead of civic.

Once we know what we own, however, we can control what we own. We can fund our own radio and television stations by charging rent to the existing radio and television stations, which have never paid rent for the use of our public airwaves since the Radio Act of 1927. They get licenses free from the Federal Communications Commission and they decide--on our property--what is said publicly twenty-four hours a day. If fewer and fewer larger corporations can control the great wealth of America called the commonwealth, how can we have a resurgent, problem-solving democracy instead of a weakened, manipulated society?

We're now launching a progressive grassroots campaign across the country. We've hit twelve major cities a]ready, including Tampa, Florida; Boston, Massachusetts; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco, California. In the runways of these arenas we invite between one hundred and one hundred twenty citizen groups trying to improve their area: child protection, civil liberties, environmental, consumer, labor, prison reform, or criminal justice groups. They are all trying to bolster our democracy--while too many others are watching reruns of Cheers. Yet from their couches they're rooting them on.

It's like being in a lifeboat: you have fifteen people with oars and you're rowing away trying to reach the island before the storm comes. And the ship you were on is sinking. But when you look back all the rest of them are sitting, enjoying themselves, listening to the latest music on the radio. To people like that you have to say, "Pick up the oars--we're in the same boat." We need to talk, politely but more strenuously, to our fellow citizens so they can develop a higher estimate of their own significance as citizens and become more committed to their civic duties as they see them.

Hopefully our programs will help. They boost the morale of all the public interest groups and invigorate the programs that deal with the necessities of our country, the injustices in our society, and the way our country relates to the world. The world is currently spinning out of control in its current tormented state, where three billion out of six billion people are trying to exist on one or two dollars a day and where three hundred fifty of the richest people in the world each have over $3 billion.

By the next century I'd like the United States to evolve from a global military power into a global humanitarian power. That is going to depend on a few million Americans. Not many more than just a few million in the next century--but beginning in this century.

Longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader has founded many nongovernmental organizations including Citizen Works and Public Citizen and was the Green Party's presidential candidate in 2000. This article is adapted from portions of his May 11, 2003, speech at the American Humanist Association's sixty-second annual conference in Washington, D.C.
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Author:Nader, Ralph
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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