Frogs in the wheelbarrow:
Alliance tries to focus revolt,

By Jim Cullen, Editor

There is little doubt that, if you will pardon the expression, the people are revolting. In the recent presidential election 51 percent of the electorate voted with their buttocks and many of those who got as far as the polls expressed dissatisfaction with the corporate-sponsored choices. So on the weekend of November 21-24, approximately 250 activists from 30 states gathered at a Presbyterian camp in the Texas Hill Country to set up a national alliance to organize that rebellion.

Ronnie Dugger, the founding editor of the Texas Observer, now living in Massachusetts, wrote the "Call to Citizens: Real Populists Please Stand Up," that appeared in The Nation in August 1995. Dugger received 1,700 responses from readers of that liberal magazine as well as other publications that reprinted it, including The Progressive Populist. From that number 65 activists met in Chicago in November 1995 and formed a steering committee to build a progressive populist movement.

The necessity of broadening the base of the movement from the readership of The Nation was apparent to the predominantly white male Alliance organizers. Dugger went around the country evangelizing for the Alliance while other volunteers formed 45 local alliance chapters, selecting their own agendas, actions and models of governance and reaching out to working people, including minorities.

It took 15 months for Dugger and the steering committee to get the Alliance for Democracy together in the Texas Hill Country, north of San Antonio. The founding convention in this remote location was a homage to the Populist movement, an alliance of farmers and workers that got its start in 1877 with angry farmers in the Hill Country town of Lampasas. Over 20 years the Farmers Alliance grew to threaten the political and economic establishment, particularly in the South and the Midwest. Although they were largely co-opted into the Democratic Party, many of the issues the Populists promoted were enacted in the Progressive Era and the New Deal.

The grievances of a century ago are strikingly similar to those presented this year: Political and economic systems that apparently are accountable only to monied interests and resist efforts at democratic reform.

In his opening remarks, Dugger said, "We proposed the emphasis on populism because the 19th century populists denied the legitimacy of corporate domination of democracy, whereas in this century the progressives, the unions and the liberals, including me ... gave up on and forgot about that organic and controlling issue. ... Like the populists of the 19th century, starting out right here, we are ready again to resume the cool eyeing of the corporation with a collective will to take back the powers they have seized from us: the power to farm or no farm, job or no job, living wage or no living wage, medical care or no medical care, home or no home, pension or no pension. Where did these CEOs get that power? ...

"Can a people so different in origin, race, religion and history, and 250 million of us to boot, know and care about each other enough and act together in our common interest powerfully enough to save our democracy and ourselves? ... I don't know if we can do it. Will we be able to see ourselves in the others and the others in ourselves? The answer in events will be the answer we give in history. But let's try. With Tom Paine, 'We will lay then the ax to the root and teach governments humanity.'"

For three days speaker after speaker delivered bills of particulars against the corporate control of government and society, domestic and international. Populist historians Larry Goodwyn and Howard Zinn, journalists Jim Hightower and Molly Ivins, former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, corporate anthropologist Jane Ann Morris, labor activist Peter Kellman, populist economist David C. Korten and campaign finance reformer Damacio Lopez were among those who preached to the choir against corporate-dominated politics and economics.

Goodwyn, author of The Populist Moment [Oxford University Press, 1978], the definitive history of the agrarian revolt in the 19th century, now a historian at Duke University, said there have been few truly popular movements throughout history -- "because movements are indescribably difficult to put together." But some such movement may be needed to restore confidence in American democracy. "In the past year I found myself worrying for the first time about whether we would have a democracy 100 years from now," he said. "... The democratic idea is here and we are in deep trouble because of the greed and the power of a small number of us."

He related it to the 1890s, when the People's Party was forming in Dallas and a black farmer asked the white farmers if blacks would be welcome in the Alliance. In the discussion over whether blacks should be represented on the state executive council a white farmer stood up to say, "We have to support the black people. They are in the ditch, just as we are."

The threat of a biracial coalition of poor whites and blacks in the South so alarmed the ruling Bourbon Democrats in the late 1890s that they enacted the Jim Crow laws to enforce segregation of the races and disenfranchise black voters. A new populist movement must put that coalition back together.

"If the issue is a democratic society, they are in the ditch, just as we are," Goodwyn said.

He also advised the Alliance not to get sidetracked on side issues. "The Populists were besieged by all sorts of special interests, the prohibitionists, all kinds of people, single taxers. They would come in and knock on the door and say 'We'll join you if you'll adopt our one issue.' In every case the Populists said 'no thank you; we're going to reform the banking system in this country or nothing else will work. We're in favor of this and we're in favor of that but you go do that where you want to. This movement is not a coalition. This is a movement to change America.' If you get big you'll get besieged by everybody in sight. Just say no. Just say no.

"If you don't say no you'll spend all your time arguing with each other and not recruiting the American people. Our problem is out there," he said.

Delegates leaned toward focusing on campaign finance reform. Between speeches, the convention was splitting into task forces that met to discuss food and agriculture, the environment, alternative economics, the media, economic insecurity, education, health care, electoral reform and constitutional issues.

All the best intentions notwithstanding, the crunch started Saturday night, when the plenary session first considered three options concerning the mission statement, in a cumbersome process complicated by counting the weighted votes of designated delegates. Eventually the convention narrowed the proposals to one, then considered several proposed amendments from the floor. Finally it approved the statement: "The mission of the Alliance is to free all people from corporate domination of politics, economics, the environment, culture and information; to establish true democracy; and to create a just society with a sustainable, equitable economy."

Then the name selection committee presented its report with about 10 options. More options were nominated from the floor and listed on a board on the stage. The committee then circulated ballots and everyone ranked their top three choices.

Sunday morning, as many delegates already were leaving, approval of the name and the bylaws had still to come up for final action. Weighted voting was thrown out and the name and the bylaws were adopted by a show of hands, although it was noted that the action was approved by less than 9% of the Alliance's members.

The bylaws, which are provisional until the next convention, stipulate that the annual convention is the source of all authority and policy. A national coordinating council was elected to make decisions in the meantime.

The convention strayed from the bylaws it had just adopted when it elected co-chairs, Ronnie Dugger of Cambridge, Mass., and Ruth Caplan of Washington, D.C. and vice chairs, Kati Winchell of Northbridge, Mass., and Kwazi Nkrumah of Los Angeles.

Some of the complaints heard at the convention were that the planning process included too many people from the Cambridge, Mass., area; that the location made it too expensive for lower-income people to participate; that too many speakers were white men; that there were too many speakers, which prevented the task forces from completing their work in time enough to develop action proposals; and that Dugger and others exercised heavy-handed control at times.

However, Wade Hudson of San Francisco, the secretary of the Interim Steering Committee, noted that the participants appeared highly committed and enthusiastic.

The turnout was good, most local alliances were represented, the convention was expected to break even financially, and it even got good media coverage, including a report in the New York Times and exposure on C-SPAN.

Sharon Perpignani, a housewife from Somerville, Mass., who maxed out her credit card to bring herself and two children to the convention, at times was a tribune for the working class as she warned delegates that the Alliance had better not try to talk down to working people or tell them what they should do. "If we're going to talk about representing workers we have to bring them in, and what's constantly forgotten is the housewives who take care care of the kids and their homes and they work like dogs ... We have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from us."

Perpignani, who doesn't consider herself liberal, hasn't voted since 1980 and never has been politically active or attended a convention, learned about the Alliance from her community newspaper and became excited when she read Dugger's "Call."

"I haven't even registered since Carter and I still believe he was right on when he said that we have this malaise," she said. "I got so excited when I read the Call that when I made the decision to come to the convention somebody offered to watch the kids. Of course me and VISA have this close relationship -- I'm in hock up to my ears -- so it was a difference between $500 for myself and $1500 for all of us and I guess even though I was skeptical I hoped that this would be the start of something really really massive and really really different."

Midway through the convention she said she had misgivings about the organization, but she spoke up and told the delegates, "We can't be a movement and say we represent America when most of America doesn't look like us, doesn't live like us, doesn't think like us." She added, "People listened and that's what impressed me."

As the convention closed, Perpignani said she was heartened. "My gut feeling is that all these people are good people who don't know all the answers. I think what I'm excited about is that there are enough people who know they don't know the answers that we can accomplish what to me is more important even than the corporation stuff, which is pulling the whole country together and reach some families and communities and working people. I was afraid that wasn't going to happen."

Some younger delegates were concerned about a potential generational split. Scott Smith, 25, of Houston, a health-care worker and a volunteer for a community radio station, said the Alliance should avoid rhetoric, which he said is a "big turnoff," particularly for younger audiences who think "I just did that in high school." Instead, he said, they should approach it from a cultural point of view.

Sarah Craven, a 23-year-old Sierra Club organizer from Birmingham, Ala., said she had learned a lot during the convention. "I didn't come with the expectation that they'd have all the answers," she said, adding that the convention left the local alliances plenty of leeway to determine what programs are right for their local areas.

Larry Frielich, 36-year-old Sierra Club regional director for Texas and Arkansas, based in Austin, said the Alliance founders needed to recognize that they are still very different from mainstream America. "This isn't America," he said, motioning to the cafeteria filled with predominantly white men, (approximately one-third of the registered delegates were women and there were a few black, Hispanic and Asian-American delegates. "This is still The Nation's reading audience," Frielich said.

"We need to start with consumer issues and then bring in the stuff about the corporations," he said. "Start with the mainstream issues like campaign finance reform and then insert these other things. But we've got to keep it in terms American people can understand."

Beth Johnson of Dallas, an environmental activist, said virtually none of her fellow delegates from North Texas had been to a convention before, so they were experiencing the frustrations of a first-time conventioneer, but she was confident they could handle it. "Nobody ever said democracy was fast or simple," she said. "Totalitarianism is much more efficient. But I've been amazed at what we have been able to accomplish. There is a general sense as a group that it's very cohesive and there's not deep rancor over issues or sore losers.

As the convention came to a close, Kwazi Nkrumah, a Green Party coordinator and union organizer for the University, Professional and Technical Employees from Los Angeles, called the founding "a tremendous success," and not just because he was elected vice chair of the Alliance. "In fact, I think it got through some very thorny administrative issues very expeditiously."

"I think there's a lot of potential. I think that like every other social movement in the country that the Alliance has its work cut out for it in terms of finding the means to bridge the gaps that exist between diverse communities in this country, which is one of the most difficult things. But the history of populism itself in the United States has some real good precedents for that in terms of making real inroads in those kinds of relations ... So I think the commitment is there and most of people's hearts and minds are there so what it comes down to is the people-to-people skills and organizing skills, both to build strong movements that are inclusive in our communities and to build bridges across communities that are right now pretty divided from each other."

Dugger was upbeat after the convention. "I thought the spirit and hope was so strong -- the Alliance has happened. It's in our hands to do. We could blow it, but it's in our hands to blow it."

He acknowledged that the convention could have used another day to work on the task force reports and formulate a plan of action, but that would have added to the cost and made it more difficult for working people to attend.

Dugger acknowledged that he was too prominent in the past year. "I had to be extremely careful that my role in the discussion was not unfair. I don't want to take less of a role, but I don't want so many hats. I want everybody to come forward as leaders -- and they're doing it. We're becoming a much more democratic movement. I want to work as hard and be as helpful but I rejoice in receding."

Ruth Caplan, a longtime grassroots environmental activist now working on economic issues, was elected co-chair with Dugger. She was pleased with what the convention was able to accomplish, given its crowded agenda. "People left inspired and highly energized. We ended up agreeing on a name and a mission statement. The amount of work that took place was real amazing.

"Given the schedule it wasn't a big surprise that we weren't able to do [the task force reports]," she said. "At the same time in the workshops there was good work done. We don't have any issue policies and the council needs to focus on it and move us forward."

In the near future, she said, "Ronnie and I will both do a lot of thinking and talking," but both she and Dugger were careful to defer to the Council.

Caplan noted that the lack of national priorities would not stop local alliances from doing things they wanted to do. "The local alliances are autonomous. No specific policy apart from the constitution and bylaws, which gives them autonomy, was articulated. That doesn't mean we won't look for some kind of national focus, but we're definitely not going to do it top down," she said. "It has to be something that local alliances are excited about."

Caplan started out working on corporate power issues in the early 1970s, when she helped to form a grassroots group in Oswego, N.Y., to take on six electric utilities who proposed to build nuclear plants on Lake Ontario. The group studied the issue, intervened and managed to stop construction of three nuclear units, a nuclear waste incinerator and a waste dump that the state earmarked for the site after the nuclear plants were ruled out. After 10 years of exhausting work, when most of the activists returned to private lives, she continued in state and national energy policy and chaired the national energy committee of the Sierra Club. She became a lobbyist in Washington for Environmental Action in 1982 and was the group's director from 1986 to 1992, when she left to found the Economics Working Group, a project of the Tides Center.

"I see the Alliance as the successor to a lot of the kind of work that Environmental Action did," she said. "More than any other organization I feel we served the grassroots environmental organizations on equity issues and lifeline rates for the minority communities." But she felt the environmental movement was looking at economic issues in a superficial way. "If we were going to make change we needed to work on economic issues," she said.

Earlier, Hightower had urged the delegates to enlist the ordinary, working-class American majority who are either not voting or are voting "no." They should be sympathetic to populist economic and political proposals, he said. "Only we can do this," Hightower said of the populist organizing. "Its not easy of course and at times it will be kind of like loading frogs in a wheelbarrow, but we've got to make it. We've been here before ... They've got the fat cats but we've got the alley cats."

Asked if the Alliance could build upon the founding convention and organize working people around the country, Caplan chuckled and replied, "If we are willing to look at where people's pain is and really listen to people who are in pain, of all economic classes, the poor and the middle class, it is possible to organize a campaign that can resonate and build. That's the challenge. It can be done and I'll certainly put my all into it."

Hightower: Time for Alliance

Hunt, Texas

Populist agitator Jim Hightower said the Alliance for Democracy is in the right place at the right time to organize and to focus the rebellion against corporate power that already is going on among the people.

"Corporate power is running roughshod over working folks, over the middle class as well as the poor folks, over old people, over children, over our kind, over our values, literally over our destiny as a nation," he said.

Reform from the top is impossible for both major parties, he said. "I look up at Washington, D.C., and I see them strutting around not in Sears Roebuck workboots but in the same Guccis and Puccis as the Republicans. Both parties are terminally corrupted by the narcotic of corporate money.

"Any people out there who still harbored any illusions about the intentions of Clinton II, The Sequel, can only look at where the president has chosen to take his victory lap. Did he go to meet with progressives, the ones who want to reform of campaign finance? Did he go to meet with labor to figure out a jobs policy for this country, good jobs for good wages? No no, little Mary Sunshine, he did not. He went to the Phillippines where he is meeting, believe it or not, with the heads of 18 Asian nations and an entourage of global corporate executives to create a new NAFTA for Asian nations, where they don't pay 50 cents an hour like they do in Mexico but they pay 15 cents an hour, a nickel an hour, slave labor and child labor wages.

"As Lily Tomlin once said, 'no matter how cynical you get it's almost impossible to keep up.'"

Hightower noted what Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said to the Capital Hill magazine Roll Call about campaign finance reform: "We will kill it. Write it down."

"All of this ignorance and arrogance is why you and the Alliance are at the right place at exactly the right time," Hightower said. "It's no longer enough to be progressive. We have to become aggressive again.

"You are on target because you are focused on the real power in this country: the corporate rulers of America and the corporate rulers of the whole global economy. These are the powers that be, that separate us in this country, that have good people looking side to side at each other ... instead of all of us looking up because that is where power is concentrated.

"We're not enemies -- farmers and union members, union members and environmentalists, environmentalists and minorities--we're not enemies, we're natural allies. As Jesse [Jackson] put it, we might not all have come over in the same boat but we're in the same boat now.

"The good news is that people know it. ... They're mad as hell about it and they're ready to get after it. We do not have to create a populist political movement in this country. The movement is there. What we have to do is connect up to it and connect them up to each other.

Hightower said the key is to connect with the 75 to 80 percent of the American folks who make less than $50,000 a year, and who don't own stocks and bonds; the 80 percent of Americans who do not have a college degree, and who do not anticipate that their children are going to get one; and the 80 percent of the American people who are either not voting or are voting "no."

"This is a working majority of our country," he said. "The true political spectrum in our country is not right to left. It's top to bottom and the vast majority of our country, just like you, know that they're not within shouting distance of the powers at the top, whether those powers call themselves Democrat or Republican....

"All those ordinary folks out there want the same thing you and I want: We want our country back. We want it back from the spoilers and the speculators, we wan it back from the bankers and the bosses and we want it back from the the big-shots and the bastards who are running roughshod over our country.

"One hundred million people didn't vote in the last election. ... Michael Moore pointed out that when you have 100 million people not voting, that's not apathy, that's civil disobedience.

Hightower said the Alliance needs "to plant our flag and plant it proudly on the highest hill we can find for all the people to see, the boldest, most populist, progressive, pro-worker program that we can put together. Then we need to go to the people, all the people, not just the bean sprout eaters. We need to go to the snuff dippers out there as well. ... We need to go to their meetings. And here's a contrarian idea: Go to church."

Even fundamentalist Christians, who are too often written off by liberals as captives of the Christian Coalition, are up for grabs, he said. "Yeah, they're against us on abortion, they're against us on prayer in school and they're against us on saluting the flag and a couple things like that, but they're 100 percent with us on all the economic programs that we set out," he said. "We're in a battle for that 80 percent majority. They can go with Pat Buchanan or they can go with us.

"The third thing we need to do is to forge coalitions," he said. "Some will want to work with the New Party, some with the Labor Party, some with the Green Party, and some with the Democratic Party. I saw we must bless them all and when we can find ways to work with them, we should.."

Hightower admitted that he had his doubts when Ronnie Dugger, who was then living on Cape Cod, published his populist call in The Nation in August 1995. Hightower worked for Dugger as editor of the Texas Observer from 1977-79. But although some criticized the placement of the founding convention in a relatively remote Presbyterian camp in the Texas Hill Country, Hightower said it was important to remember the Populist movement of the late 19th century that was founded near here.

"Something's going to catch fire. Dugger obviously says it straight and right. Whether that was going to work I had no idea but in a year's time he's gone from Cape Cod to the Mo Ranch. That's pretty good progress for the Cape Cod rebellion. I think it's important that Howard Zinn and Larry Goodwyn [two populist historians] are here, and it's important that it is symbolically in this location, as hard as it may be and a deterrent for a lot of people to get here, because it's essential for organizing movements everywhere always to know that we've been here before, that this isn't the first time and that we're not alone and people have done it even against greater odds I think than we face today."

Contact the Alliance at (617) 491-4221; write PO Box 1011, North Cambridge, MA 02140; or email .

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