Reprinted from The
Nation, August 14/21, 1995.
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
saving 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 exclaimed late in 1994,
shortly before he abandoned Congress 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 upon the poor." The moment is dangerous. 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 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 civil rights, environmentalist; feminist and gay and lesbian
liberation movements, and much more immigration, the question is whether we can found the
first genuinely international 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 common person?
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.
What is government about? As a worker told reporter Barry Bearak last spring
about the U.A.W. strike against the Caterpillar corporation, government is about
``control, you know, who controls who.'' 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.
We should seize the word Populism back from its
hijackers - the Wallaces, the Dukes, the Gingriches.
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.
This is a call that we assemble in St. Louis next November 10-13 [We
actually met in Chicago Ed.] to pick up the banner where the People's Party dropped it
on July 25, 1896, and form ourselves into a board progressive coalition, a new American
alliance to take power so that, in the words of John Quincy Adams, ``self-love and social
may be made the same.'' I would suggest for a name, tentatively, the Citizens Alliance, or
(on cue from a similar project in New Zealand) the American Alliance [The current
working name is "The Alliance for Democracy" (adopted at Founding Convention,
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
Populist's National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union started with a meeting of seven
people in a farmhouse in Lampasas County, Texas.
I propose the emphasis on Populism because the nineteenth century Populists
denied the legitimacy of corporate domination of a democracy, whereas in this century the
progressives, 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
As Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in his definite work, The Populist Movement,
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 politics
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 families or for ourselves,
or we're job creators, local merchants, 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 harried 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 feminists, environmentalists, peace and antinuclear people, civil rightsers,
civil libertarians, radical democrats, democratic socialists, egalitarians; and we are
moderates and conservatives who believe in family values, work, initiative and
responsibility, 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 Coalition, 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, Democrats 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, therefore, 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 Alliance might
move Democratic officeholders back toward the people, or might provide a democratic group
setting for a reasoned 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 organizing people and bringing together many disparate
associations and efforts into on e 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
What has happened to us?
Too much, too much,
In 1886 the Supreme
Court decided, insanely, that corporations 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 legitimacy - 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 that anything Jefferson could have had in mind. One percent of the people among us
own 40 percent f the national wealth. The after-tax income of the top 20 percent of the
U.S. families exceeds that of all the 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 employer's use of sophisticated unionbusters and by the
corporations' 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 six workers now belongs to a union- if you exclude public employees, 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 extracting 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 26 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 subjects 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 dominate 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, Congress deregulated the S&Ls, and their ensuing collapse destroyed
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 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 elderly 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 period. Both parties cry out that the poor must work for their welfare, but neither
would dream of providing the public revenues necessary to capitalize enough public-sector
jobs for the poor to take. Benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent 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.
We, the people' still have authority, if we
choose to use it.
Let's try: Let's revive our best democratic passions.
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 organizations 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' pensions funds
come to four or five trillion dollars, our bank deposits and savings accounts total a
couple of trillion dollars and mutual 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 airwaves 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
Many millions of us know more than the imperious establishment wants us o, and
we are moving. The Industrial Areas Foundation has organized people in many communities
around their own needs and hopes, inventing new principles for authentic democracy that
can be applied anywhere. The phenomenal movement spawned by Nader gallantly fights on for
the people's interests through scores of organizations [see e.g., Public Citizen
Ed.] , and Nader is 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
nationally 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 and 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 unionists 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 movements for justice
and equality in the country.
All this is what needs to be fused, if an to whatever extent 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 together 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 independent of the King
of England. We can use this same authority and power, our strength as citizens, to write a
new Declaration of Total Democratic Sovereignty Over the Corporation and make the United
States, even if it will be for the first time, a democracy that is actually governed by
the people that live in it, in our own interests and those of posterity. 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 different as the people
of the world, can govern ourselves. Can we see ourselves in others and the other in
ourselves? I believe the first great experiment in international democracy will succeed or
fail on the answer we collectively give 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 revive 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.''
Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of The Texas Observer, is at work on books about
electronic vote counting and new social policy ideas.