Authors: Medea Benjamin
• Is this war worth dying for?
If the answer to any of those questions is “hell no!” then stay home and protect the beleaguered First Amendment.
ON NOT PASSING
PATRICIA SCOTT SCHROEDER
Patricia Schroeder is a former congresswoman who represented Denver, Colorado, in the House of Representatives for twenty-four years. She was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee and was an outspoken critic of wasteful Defense Department spending.
I was honored to be asked to write about how to influence today’s policy makers. I started this essay and began to realize that the things I was going to say don’t fit today’s political climate. Think about it. How do you influence officials when we hear such things as: “He tripled the national debt, but has such charisma,” or “Star Wars is an expensive fantasy, but I love his infectious optimism,” or “The war in Iraq
wrong, but I feel I could have a beer with this guy.” I hope you get my point that our first task is to work on the electorate! Many of us have friends who said similar things. If we hold elected leaders accountable for their actions only when they have no personality, appear stiff, or are not “regular” guys, then I don’t know how you influence policy makers. What happened? Don’t we teach civics in the schools anymore?
When I was in Congress, the buzz in the cloakroom was: “There go the people, and I must get in front of them because I’m their leader.” That worked for getting the United States out of Vietnam, pushing the nuclear-freeze movement, and resolving other war and peace issues. When the people mobilized, wrote, marched, picketed, visited offices, and engaged in civic life, their representatives changed positions. Now it appears that if a representative has an engaging personality, political positions and votes don’t matter. The charm offensive seems to be working against the voters. The charm offensive guts the foundations of democracy, which are responsibility and accountability.
So in this new environment, people have to understand that someone calls the shots and if we don’t hold that someone accountable, we may as well have a king. President Harry S. Truman prided himself in saying, “The buck stops here.” That sure hasn’t been said in recent years! It’s time we go back to teaching Democracy 101.
Let’s look at the military issues. Clearly, those who manufacture military hardware drive the agenda because they have the money to give to campaigns. It is sad that Congress is more and more like a coin-operated legislative machine. When you look at the hardware your representatives are buying, it doesn’t fit the threat! Military personnel and their families never get the same legislative attention because they don’t give money. In the Iraq war, we see U.S. military families buying body armor and sending it to their family members. We hear the troops complaining that they don’t have armored vehicles. But Congress funds Star Wars, the B-2 bombers, and so on. Whether people are for or against the war in Iraq, they ought to be upset that legislators are spending huge sums of taxpayers’ money to reward campaign contributors! We would never tolerate such waste in any other part of the budget.
The good news is that the younger generation doesn’t buy into this notion that the best leader in these times is the guy who seems the most “macho.” They believe that trying to negotiate with people who don’t agree with you on all issues doesn’t make you a “girlie man” or a “Frenchman.” They understand this is a fragile universe. The younger generation just needs to learn how to organize, and the Internet makes it easier than ever.
In a democracy, an educated electorate is essential. Yes, it takes time, but how else can a democracy flourish? Absolute power does corrupt absolutely in any system. If the people are asleep, uninterested, uncaring, or uneducated, we are in trouble. So the best way to make a difference, the best way to prevent future wars, is to roll up your sleeves and get to work influencing those around you. The tools we have today make it easier than ever, and it can even be fun. We had a wonderful time when we discovered the Pentagon had paid a ridiculous amount of money for a toilet seat. Everyone understood how outrageous it was, and they were furious. Let’s bring that accountability back!
“When the power of love replaces the love of power,
then we begin our journey of awakening.”
DEMOCRACY IS A
DORIS “GRANNY D” HADDOCK
Granny D is a lifelong activist, spearheading campaigns on nuclear proliferation and electoral reform. On January 1, 1999, at the age of eightynine, she began a walk across the country to demonstrate her concern for campaign reform, walking ten miles each day for fourteen months and making speeches along the way. She also ran for the Senate in 2004.
Our present emergency is upon us because our civic society has been dumbed down by dumbed-down newspapers and radio and television news, by dumbed-down schools, and by a corporate-run economic rat race that keeps people so busy trying to make ends meet that they have no time or energy left for the civic affairs of their towns or nation. Democracy cannot long survive when the people are not well informed, interested, and supplied with sufficient time and resources to participate.
But there is another thing that has been dumbed down over the past two or three generations, and that is the art of politics.
If the politics of a century ago can be likened to a banquet, the politics of today is like a fast-food burger. Let me tell you what it used to be like. Everybody used to be involved. You went to your Elks club or your women’s club, but you went to your party meetings too. You worked your neighborhoods. You talked up your issues and candidates. It was a fairly constant thing, not just during the election season. Why? Because democracy is a lifestyle, not a fringe benefit of paying your taxes. Self-governance is a lot of work, but it’s where you make your best friends and find your deepest satisfactions, after your family.
In 2004, I embarked on a twenty-thousand-mile road trip to register voters. I visited many housing projects and low-income neighborhoods where nobody had dropped by to talk politics since the last election—and even then, those who came to stump for candidates weren’t there to listen to the people’s problems or to help them craft political solutions. When you come around begging for votes, but you don’t give a crouton in return, those are downright exploitative politics. And it’s no surprise that the low-income people came to the conclusion that no matter who won the election, their own lives wouldn’t change much.
Politics is about creatively serving the needs of your people, and the election is just the report card that reflects how you are doing, how many people you have helped, and how many people are following your leadership because you were there for them. Politicians and political campaigns must organize not just to win elections but also to deserve to win elections.
My friends at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement know this well. They offer people help fighting predatory mortgage lenders, and those who are helped then become involved in campaign-finance reform and other large-scale issues. Solve people’s personal problems—or even just try to—and they will march with you. That’s the key to an enriched progressive movement.
Let us imagine a plan to create responsible communities with members who go to town councils to set goals in a wide variety of areas. We can pass a resolution that our town, for example, shall use 50 percent renewable energy within ten years, or that our state budget shall spend $5 in prevention and education for every $1 spent on police and prisons. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee (www.bordc.org/whatyoucando.html), which defends the Bill of Rights against the intrusive USA Patriot Act, provides a good model and specific tactics for how we can move national issues through town and city councils, and then through state legislatures, to affect national policy.
We must repair our old ship of Liberty with some new sails and masts, starting with the public funding of our elections and thereby the removal of special-interest campaign donations. We must stop our laws from being sold to the highest bidder, and our Congress from turning into a bawdy house where anything and everything is done for a price. Maine and Arizona already have good “clean elections” systems with full public financing, and similar plans are in the works in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, West Virginia, and many other states. These efforts, which are under attack by right-wing business groups, deserve our support (go to www.publicam paign.org/states/index.htm to find contacts in your state).
We must work for other improvements, too, such as instant runoff voting, where you can rank your favorite candidates and not risk splitting the vote. Instant runoff voting allows each voter to rank his or her choices; if the first choice does not gain a majority, the next-ranked choice then applies. That way, everyone can vote their hearts without “spoiling” their votes, and third parties can rise in influence. And we must return to paper ballots or paper receipts, to address the lack of public trust in computerized voting. We must have a way to verify ballots at the precinct level, with citizens watching.
It is not enough to elect representatives, give them a slim list of ideas, and send them off to speak for us. If we do not keep these boys and girls busy, they will always get into trouble. We must energize our communities and use this energy to instruct our elected representatives. This is the responsibility of every adult American, from native to newcomer, and from young worker to the long retired. If we are hypnotized by television and overwhelmed by life on a corporate-consumer treadmill, let us regain our lives as a fearlessly outspoken people who have time for each other and our communities.
This is an amazing moment in all of our lives, and in the life of our great nation. Never has our democracy been so challenged, and never have so many patriots of every age risen up to take their part in its defense. Never have I been less proud of my government or more proud of its people. This is a great time. We need to renew the spirit of our great American Revolution, town by town, neighbor by neighbor.
Let us do deep politics that starts and ends with the needs of our people. Let us remember that we are the people of an imperfect union, the ordinary people of a great republic still in the making. And in that we are no ordinary people at all.
“All I know is that those who are going to be killed
aren’t those who preside on Capitol Hill.”
Chellie Pingree has been the president and CEO of Common Cause since March 2003. Previously, she served for eight years in the Maine senate, including four years as majority leader. During her terms, she sponsored legislation championing the interests of women and low-income families.
When it comes to fixing the system, the most important thing that we as Americans can do is make the right choice when we elect our leaders. Because the next time you travel to France, they’re going to say, “Why did your country do that?” and none of us are going to be able to say, “Well, that wasn’t me. Those are some other people. That’s the government. I don’t have anything to do with them.” This is a democracy. We elect our government, and we reap what we sow.
Protesters wearing pig snouts, costumes, chant and toss “Hallibacon Bucks” at a Halliburton protest in New York during the 2004 Republican National Convention.
© Dean Cox/AP
But it’s also not quite so simple as that: the system has a large hand in the problem, and within our electoral system it has become harder and harder for an individual to have a voice—largely because of manipulations by our elected officials. There is a fairly long list of problems that we all need to care about, even though they seem somewhat obscure (for example, how the district lines are drawn so that they do not protect incumbents). In our political system, those with money continue to hold a lot more sway than those without. Huge special interests like defense companies are allowed to invest a tremendous amount of money in politicians who then feel compelled to act on the special interests’ behalf, in order to attract financial support for their next campaign.
Consolidated media ownership has also contributed to a very uneven playing field—the political orientations of the select few corporations that now own this country’s major media outlets have begun to distort our news, with blatant interference by CEOs and an all-too-common crossing of the line between opinion pieces and serious journalism. But local citizens can fight these changes by challenging licenses, boycotting advertisers, e-mailing their concerns to the Federal Communications Commission, and letting their congressional representatives know how they’re feeling.
We also can’t discount the serious role that Congress has played in limiting our voices. The fact is that many members of Congress voted to go ahead with this war, and while I understand that they were frustrated by the same lack of information that many of the citizens in this country experienced, we expect them to take a stronger role in overseeing matters of national importance and to make hard decisions regardless of politics (and regardless of those who would call them unpatriotic for raising questions about the war). There’s a reason we have sent our representatives to Washington, and that is to counter an administration that chooses not to listen to the voices and concerns of citizens.
Democracy requires eternal vigilance—engaging in civic life need not be as unpleasant as taking a daily dose of cod liver oil, but it should be something you think about doing every day, every week, every so often. It could mean attending your local city council, or standing outside your local TV station with a sign that says, “I want this to be really fair and balanced.”