A Call to Hope and Action

Let Us Rebuild a True Populist Movement


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 savings 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 the 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 on 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 abolitionist, women's suffrage, farmers', union, progressive, civil rights, environmentalist, feminist and gay and lesbian liberation movements, and much more immigration, the question now 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 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.

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 December 27 to January 1, to pick up the banner where the People's Party dropped it on July 25, 1896, and form ourselves into a broad 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 a cue from a similar project in New Zealand) the American Alliance.

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 Populists' 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&emdash;the George Wallaces, David Dukes, Irving Kristols, Newt Gingriches&emdash;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 the time.

As Lawrence Goodwyn wrote in his definitive work, The Populist Moment, 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 one 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 longer.

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 intended only for people. The corporations&emdash;mere legal fictions created by the democratic states that are their only source of legitimacy&emdash;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.Os.

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 than anything Jefferson could have had in mind. One percent of the people among us own 40 percent of the national wealth. The after-tax income of the top 20 percent of U.S. families exceeds that of all other families combined. Between 1977 and 1989 the one 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 employers' 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 seven workers now belongs to a union&emdash;if you exclude public employees, only 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&emdash;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 36 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 bill 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.

Mostly we are shattered into subgroups&emdash;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' pension 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 airways are public property&emdash;ours&emdash;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 dollars.

Many millions of us know more than the imperious establishment wants us to, 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, and Nader is now 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 a 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 and 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 who 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 give collectively 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."

(To join and help organize the Alliance for Democracy, email Ronnie Dugger at RDugger123@aol.com.

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The Progressive Populist. -- Revised September 27, 1997--

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