Gene Nichol's Address
Summary of Proceedings
April 27-May2, 1999
Money Must Not Trump Democracy
By Gene Nichol
I'm honored to be here tonight--and to lead off for Ellen Miller, whose
work I so admire. I think the greatest party ever founded in the United States was the
Populist Party, and the Alliance for Democracy is its great and true descendant. The
Populist Party--as a founding premise--flatly refused to accept that our economic system
in this country should dominate and destroy our political system. Money does not, must
not, trump democracy, they said. I believe that in my soul. I know the Alliance does too.
It is a fundamentally American ideal.
It is interesting, and it can be a little bloody, to run as a populist in politics these
days. I've always liked Ibsen's quote "that if you go out to fight for justice, don't
wear your best trousers." Ronnie, I reckon, would want me to point out we'd probably
say that a little differently in Texas, some reference to stepping in something. And if
you strike a chord or two, it can be surprising what kind of adversaries come out of the
woodwork. It's almost enough to make you think that these interest groups, even ones who
say they're on the left, have a big stake in the status quo, in cash-register politics.
And if you run as a Democrat, as I did, you get a lot of support from the bottom but an
interesting reception from the top. They would constantly tell me from Washington, We like
you, we want to help you--but you've got to quit talking about money and politics. You've
got to change your position on PAC money. And maybe most of all--stop talking about poor
people, stop talking about the humiliation of childhood poverty in the wealthiest nation
on earth. Stop talking about race or civil rights or what my friend Jim Hightower calls
"workaday economics." Because both the Democrats and the Republicans are now
pitching, first and foremost, to the folks at the top. For me, it's useless to have one
party with two names, or two parties of one persuasion. We need a rededication to what
Daniel Webster called "the great work of humans on earth, achieving justice."
You start with simple notions, like the present reality that you have to be either wealthy
or have access to wealth to run for federal office in this country. Imagine explaining
that to Thomas Paine.
After candidates are screened for access to wealth, the money chase begins. Tim Wirth, who
was our senator from Colorado for many years, says that day in and day out for a six-year
term he spent more than 50% of his time asking people for money. In the year he ran it
went up to 80%. I assume these are tough jobs. We ought to be able to count on more
than 20% of a U.S. senator's attention.
And if the money chase is that crucial, you know it's going to have a huge impact on the
way we govern. Barney Frank says we like to pretend that our elected officials are the
only people in the world who walk up to total strangers, ask them for thousands or now
hundreds of thousands of dollars, get it, and are completely unaffected by it. Achieving a
state of "perfect ingratitude." But we know it's not so.
So, as populists and as democrats with a small 'd,' I think we say as loudly and clearly
as we can, we demand elections, not auctions. We want public servants, not political
financiers. We believe that students who need loans ought to count as much as the bankers
who give huge donations to cut the direct student loan program. We believe the citizens
who love and use our national forests ought to count as much as the timber companies that
pay for votes--instead of paying for logging roads. We want the children to breathe the
air here on the front-range to count as much as the polluters who fight clean air
We want the millions who need health care to count as much as the insurance companies that
donate millions to thwart reform. We want the economic interests of the working class to
count as much as the economic interests of the donor class. A system of government in
which those who seek certain policies are allowed to give unlimited amounts of money to
the people who make the policies can be called many things. But it can't be called
democratic. And it can't be called fair.
And even beyond this, beyond these problems, I think we have to understand again, anew,
that our politics can be a powerful force for ourselves, our communities, and for hope and
progress in this country. Because, as Americans we are heirs to a great legacy. A legacy
that teaches the key to success lies within our own hearts, and within the grasp of our
own hands. A legacy that stands in flat, defiant opposition to the cynicism and remove
that so infect our present politics. A legacy that insists we're
meant to be participants in this democracy, not just spectators, not just customers.
A legacy that teaches that, despite everything you read these days, it's not just what's
popular that we're called to. But what lies at the core of our own ideals. Fanny Lou Hamer
didn't read an opinion poll before she started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
And Rosa Parks didn't conduct a focus group before she decided to sit down for freedom.
Robert Kennedy wrote, just before he died, that "it's the shaping impulse of America
that neither fate, nor nature, nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our
own hands shall determine our destiny." That's our most basic belief. It ought to be
our call to arms as well. Revitalizing this democracy. Literally reclaiming the right of
self-government. Insisting that the highest American ideal is that we're all in this
That, by my lights, is just what the Alliance is out to do. That's why I'm honored to
throw in with you, and try to do my part. Thank you very much.
us in the Alliance for Democracy!
About the speaker
Gene Nichol graduated with high honors in philosophy from Oklahoma State University and
Order of the Coif from the University of Texas law school. Dean of the law school at
the University of Colorado from 1988 to 1995, he teaches courses in constitutional law,
federal courts, civil rights, and political reform. The co-author of [italicize next
two words] Federal Courts (2nd. ed., West Publishing), he has testified frequently
on constitutional matters before committees of Congress and the Colorado legislature and
has published articles on civil rights and federal judicial power in many journals,
including the law reviews of Harvard, Yale, and Duke universities and the Universities of
Chicago, Pennsylvania, California, and Virginia. He ran for the Democratic
nomination for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House from Colorado in 1996 and 1998,
respectively, winning the state conventions, but losing in the primaries. He is a
member of the Colorado Democratic State Central Committee. He assumes the duties of
dean of the law school at the University of North Carolina in the fall. He has joined the
Alliance national action group on transforming the corporation.
This is excerpted from the address Gene Nichol made to the Alliance convention in Boulder.
He spoke rapidly almost without pauses in a strong and rising flow.--Ed.