Money Must Not Trump Democracy

Gene Nichol's Address

Summary of Proceedings
Boulder, Colorado
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 standards.

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 together.

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.

Join 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.