excerpts from the book
Crashing the Party
Taking on the Corporate Government
in an Age of Surrender
by Ralph Nader
Thomas Dunne Books, 2002
Great societies must have public policies that declare which rights,
assets, and conditions are never for sale.
... a working, deliberative democracy has few real champions in
the Republican or Democratic parties. These parties , see their
self-perpetuation in the narrowest of dimensions-largely by allowing
business interests too great a say in local, state, and national
agendas. There is a relentless lobbying industry that enlarges
the privileges and immunities of corporations as compared with
individuals and makes sure that governments leave the people defenseless
and feeling powerless.
... Congress, the White House, and the state governments, have
given away the store to corporations through deregulation, privatization,
subsidies, reduced law enforcement, and limitations on civil lawsuits.
Third parties, which were the first to raise the seminal issues
of our past-from slavery to abolition to the status of women,
minorities, labor, and farmers - are now deemed "spoilers."
Today, much ... economic, political, and technological power is
in the hands of global corporations wielding immense influence
over our government in very intricate ways... The trajectory of
this power is to centralize control - using our own government,
wherever necessary, against its own people - and advance short-term
commercial interests at the expense of the elevated living conditions
and realizable horizons that should be the just rewards of all
The corporate quest for sovereignty over the sovereignty of the
people is an affront to our Constitution and our democracy.
[Camden, New Jersey] a devastated place of eighty thousand people
... is an economic and living disaster. Indicative of the devastation
in Camden is the absence of a single supermarket, motel, or movie
theater within the city limits. Camden's woes are hard to exaggerate:
two thousand debris-filled vacant lots interspersed between thirty-five
hundred vacant buildings and block after block of poor families
trying to send their children to run-down schools with dropout
rates soaring over 50 percent. Property values are so low that
Camden's tax receipts can't begin to meet school and city government
expenses; the bulk of the dollars come from the state. Street
crime and drug addiction surge through much of Camden's 210 miles
... In 1990 census figures put Camden, now the nation's fifth-poorest
city, in destitution land. One-third of its people lived below
the poverty level.
... Camden is emblematic of a systemic collapse in our smaller
inner cities, with across-the-board unemployment, non-living-wage
jobs going nowhere, pulverized lives of addiction, and serious
crimes of violence and ghetto exploitation by loan sharks and
unscrupulous merchants and landlords.
There are many Camdens in America-the world's richest and mightiest
economy. Not just entire cities like East St. Louis and Bridgeport,
Connecticut, but large areas of just about all our large cities.
People left behind in the tens of millions with only the urban
renewal of gentrification available to push them out. Nearly abandoned
farm towns and villages, former factory towns with shuttered plants
dot the scarred, contaminated landscapes and join with the longtime
poor regions of Appalachia, the Ozarks, Indian reservations, the
bypassed rural South, former mining and textile towns. These places
represent the "other America" so graphically described
by Michael Harrington, who helped motivate Lyndon Johnson's War
on Poverty in the mid-sixties.
President Nixon put forth a national minimum incomes plan as a
start in the abolition of poverty in America. Congress rejected
it, and the comprehensive national health insurance plan he offered,
and the proposal to emphasize rehabilitation of drug addicts instead
of such heavy reliance on incarceration. With glowing words, Nixon
signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, the
National Environmental Protection Act, NEPA, and legislation creating
the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety
Commission. Nixon sent legislation to Congress that would have
given the District voting representation in Congress-a goal verbally
supported by the Democrats but never backed by any serious campaign
during the past three decades. Would any Democratic politician
in 1970 ever have predicted that Richard Nixon would be a favorable
standard for comparison with today's party leaders?
Without mobilizing the political and civic energies of the citizenry
... the Democrats cannot deliver. So long as they continue to
reward the very power brokers whose avarice contributed to the
destitution and perpetuated social injustice, the Democrats might
as well be Republicans.
During the eighties, it became ever more clear that the Democrats
were losing the will to fight. Business money pouring into party
coffers melded into the retreat from progressive roots and then
into an electoral tactic that argued for defeating Republicans
by taking away their issues and becoming more like them.
The energy to strike out on a path extending the great American
progressive tradition was quickly leaking out of the Democrats
like a tire losing air. The party would address its Democratic
critics by defining itself by the worst Republicans instead of
becoming better. "Do you know how bad the Republicans are
on this subject?" would be the standard reply. Buying into
the lesser-of-two-evils argument simply meant that every four
years both parties would get worse and be rewarded for it. Abhorring
the Republicans, progressive voters had indeed nowhere to go.
I noticed how the political language began to change. Democratic
candidates almost never criticized abuses of corporate power or
concentrated wealth depriving millions of workers of their just
rewards. There was no modern language update for what Theodore
Roosevelt called the "malefactors of great wealth" or
what Franklin Roosevelt called "the economic royalists."
References to "the poor" or to "justice" were
out of style in major addresses by Democrats. The press chased
Michael Dukakis around the country trying to get him to admit
that he was a "liberal" during his 1988 presidential
race. Finally, a few days before the election, they cornered him
in the Central Valley of California and he confessed-grudgingly.
I knew when Democrats ran away from the word "liberal"
and began to use the word "neoliberal" as an adjective-as
in "neoconservative"-that this semantic shift reflected
a fundamental abandonment. The storied history of liberalism and
its achievements in our country receded from contemporary memory
under the onslaught of aggressive conservatives, their think tanks,
and associated media. These corporatists in conservative garb
pranced arrogantly, sometimes sneeringly, on the public stage,
as if they had much historical record to brag about. Self-described
conservatives (Tories) opposed the Revolutionary War and with
their business cohorts maintained slavery, opposed women's right
to vote, and pitted their power against workers trying to organize
trade unions. They sided with the banks and the railroads against
the rising farmer populist revolt in the late 1880s and continued
their war against this most fundamental movement for political
and economic reforms for the next twenty-five years. In the twentieth
century, reform after reform initiated by liberals found conservatives
and the dominant business community consistently arrayed in opposition.
These included forward progress in civil rights, civil liberties,
consumer and environmental protection, Medicare, Medicaid, workplace
safety, labor rights and women's equality rights such as equal
pay for equal work and nondiscrimination in the marketplace. No
matter how much these great initiatives improved the health, safety,
and economic well-being of the American people, the corporatist-conservatives
and their business lobbies never relented in their blocking, delaying,
diluting, or repealing of any reform that was vulnerable to their
reactionary influences. This intransigence was not always the
case. Conservative legislators like Senator Robert Taft supported
the GI Bill of Rights and public housing. For the most part, however,
they were on the wrong side of our history.
If I had to pick a date for the beginning of the latest cycle
of giant business's big-time resurgence, it would be in the last
eighteen months of the Carter administration. Basically, the combination
of oil price surges, gasoline lines, and inflation panicked the
Carterites and froze any programs and policies that business lobbies
viewed as inimical. The elections of 1980 were great tidings for
this lobby. In addition to Reagan's victory, a number of key senators-Warren
Magnuson (Washington), Frank Church (Idaho), Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin),
and George McGovern (South Dakota)-lost their seats, Democrats
who championed issues centered on abuses by companies through
detailed and publicized public hearings and legislative actions.
An unanticipated pattern began to emerge in that turnaround
period between 1979 and 1981. It was an incremental pattern that
was unforseen by most and therefore not given to forestalling.
Emboldened corporations on the ascendancy observed their opponents
inside and outside of government moving from resistance to retreat,
losing even the sense of trumpeting their successes of the prior
fifteen years in making America a better and safer place to live.
Once on the defensive, it is very hard to go on the offensive.
It was not lost on the numerous trade associations and corporate
law firms that senators, representatives, leaders of labor unions,
and citizen groups were experiencing ebbing energies. Unlike Ronald
Reagan, either they no longer knew who they were or were confused
about where they should be going. Historians often describe the
engines of such ebbs and flows between contesting constituencies
to be the rise of new ideas, dogmas, ideologies, or perceptions.
In this case, it was more a flood of propaganda repeated with
daily determination by business-sponsored institutions (the American
Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation) through reports,
conferences, and media programs attacking regulations and other
allegedly "failed" government programs while touting
so-called free-market solutions for what traditionally have been
The doctrines of corporate supremacy filled a concentrating
media, itself increasingly corporatized, led by those propaganda
bullhorns-the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages and Forbes
magazine. Instead of refining their programs, many established
liberals were busy reinventing themselves as corporatizers to
go with the Reaganite flows, getting along by going along. More
and more business money flowed into their coffers as a continuing
reward for their transformations. Noticing political decay, a
weakening democracy, and an overwhelmed civil society in Washington,
D.C., is not the stuff of headlines. But if they are not noticed
and aggregated, illusion sets in and citizen groups find themselves
working harder for less and less progress and justice within an
ambiance of lowered expectations.
In between their daily struggles, retreats, defeats, and occasional
defensive victories, citizen groups might have paused to reflect
on how many liberal Democrats, once defenders against both the
incursions of large corporations and arbitrary government violations
of civil liberties and civil rights, were replaced by members
of their party who took up the cudgels for capital punishment,
for weakening habeas corpus, for corporate prisons, for the failed
war on drugs, for the secret evidence practices of the INS and
its runaway powers against due process of law. These replacements
included Bill Clinton and Al Gore. While there remained some stalwart
liberals in the grand tradition, such as Congressman Henry Waxman
(D-California), the "new guard" reflected a political
shell seduced by corporate money and overtaken by corporatists
who viewed government as a "large accounts receivables"
for business interests and as an instrument to be deployed against
its own people.
What happened is the triumph of what Jefferson called "the
Citizen groups, accustomed to some significant victories and the
chance to take on the economic vested interests, were being shut
out of the process, squeezed out of forums, rendered more voiceless
and powerless with each year of rampaging corporatism over elections.
There are various ways to illustrate this closing out of the civil
society. One way to clarify the merger of business with government
is to list the major departments and agencies in Washington, D.C.,
and simply ask who is the overwhelmingly most powerful influence
over each of them. Seasoned reporters and commentators would scarcely
be surprised by the following list: Treasury Department and the
Federal Reserve (banks), Department of Agriculture (agribusiness),
Department of Defense (military weapons companies), Department
of the Interior (timber barons and the mining industry), Food
and Drug Administration (food and drug companies), Occupational
Safety and Health Administration, inside the Department of Labor,
no less (corporate employers), General Services Administration
(business vendors to the government), NASA (space industries),
Federal Aviation Administration (airlines and aircraft manufacturers),
and so it goes.
Of course, this has been the case for decades. The difference
today is that these agencies have become more symbiotic with their
clientele companies, often being led by former executives of these
very industries. The difference is also that Congress is far less
a countervailing force than a cheerleading crowd. The judiciary,
composed of corporatist judges, is more prone to roll over on
economic issues. Moreover, industry and commerce have become far
more organized, more media-aggressive, and richer at the same
time that organized labor's influence had declined as an opposing
force across the spectrum of public decision making. When this
severe imbalance of power becomes institutionalized, the sovereignty
of the people is diminished.
Still, the citizen groups plod on, as if riding a treadmill
that keeps slipping further behind. They cling to dwindling hopes:
the remaining progressives in Congress, a defensive court victory
on the environment, a new Clinton administration in 1993, a major
investigative report on national television or in a major newspaper
or magazine, a push from Western Europe on global warming or genetic
engineering, a successful labor-organizing drive for janitors.
It has been said that hope springs eternal, but for these groups,
hope has been springing many contemporary leaks. They could never
imagine, if told in the 1970s, that the economy was going to double
in thirty years yet the problems of energy, poverty, lack of health
insurance coverage, inadequate housing, real wages, consumer debt,
the savings rate, criminal justice systems, disrepair of public
works, family farms, wealth inequality, trade deficits, food safety,
and others would either be at a standstill or sliding backward
at the beginning of the twenty-first century. All this in a period
of restrained inflation, booming corporate profits, surging stock
markets, massive capital accumulation (heavily from pension and
trust funds), and more recently a period of federal and state
... the corporate influences on our political parties and the
media have dulled our imaginations about what the agenda should
be for creating a better society.
The decision to run a full campaign came to five principal reasons
rooted in disturbing realities. I jotted them down over Thanksgiving
1. The "democracy gap" had widened and deepened
over the past twenty years. Citizen groups were working harder
and harder and achieving less and less. It mattered less and less
which political party was in putative power. Both were morphing
into each other.
2. Solutions to our nation's injustices, needs, and unfilled
promises abounded. They were being applied, as with inner-city
schools or organic farming, on the ground in a few places but
without any engines of diffusion behind them to overcome bureaucratic,
avaricious, or nontechnical obstacles.
2. In their finest hours, however infrequent, the major newspapers,
magazines, and television shows repeatedly headlined investigative
stories about the failings of big business and government, but
nothing was happening. This was a telltale sign of a weakening
democratic society unable to provide the linkages that bring serious
misdeeds reported by the major media toward a more just resolution.
4. Having to spend so much time and so much of one's conscience
and dignity raising money from interests you don't favor or like
has turned away too many good people from running for office in
America. A political system that turns off good candidates can
hardly be in a position of ever regenerating itself.
5. People's expectation levels toward politics and government
had reached perilously low levels. Why try? Why bother? These
words become the mantra of withdrawal.
There is a major problem for anyone who runs for president, especially
a third-party candidate. No matter how long or extensively you
campaign in every state of the union, no matter how large your
audiences become, you cannot reach in direct personal communication
even 1 percent of the eligible voters. In essence, you don't run
for president directly; you ask the media to run you for president
or, if you have the money, you also pay the media for exposure.
Reaching the voters relies almost entirely on how the media chooses
to perceive you and your campaign. In short, this "virtual
reality" is the reality.
Since the media controls access to 99 percent-plus of your
audience, it is not shocking that 99 percent of most candidates'
strategies is born and bred for media play. The media is the message.
When George W. Bush nuzzles next to two little schoolchildren,
his handlers make sure that the AP and other photographers on
his campaign have good positioning. When A1 Gore stands near some
national park in his L. L. Bean attire, his handlers know they
succeeded only if the image and a few choice words are played
throughout the country. There are very few rallies anymore. Instead
there are carefully orchestrated photo opportunities that often
leave some locals resentful, feeling they have been used. And,
of course, they have been used, just as the candidates use journalism
for their poses, or try to, and just as journalism uses them.
There can be, though, alternatives to such contrivances. The
people could have their own media, a point I made repeatedly at
my press conferences. The people own the airwaves. "The people
are the landlords," I would say, "and the radio and
television stations are the tenants. They pay us no rent to our
real estate agents, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC),
yet they control who says what and who doesn't, for twenty-four
hours a day. What is needed are our own stations, well equipped,
our own audience network, both controlled and funded by viewers.
A portion of the rent that should be charged for this vast public
asset, which since day one we have given away, would amplify the
viewers' stations." The camera crews and attendant reporters
first would appear curious, then amused, knowing that this was
one long sound bite that would never make it onto the evening
news. Neither did my words reach the newspaper columns. The media
itself was never viewed as an issue in the campaign. A few years
ago I asked a candidate why not? His reply stuck in my memory:
"The media represents that part of my voice that gets through
to the people. I'm not going after my voice."
There is another, much older and inexpensive way to reach
people. Once under way, word of mouth is the most credible, quickest,
and most lasting medium of all. It goes from friend to friend,
neighbor to neighbor, worker to worker, relative to relative-between
people who afford each other longtime credibility. Word of mouth
goes on all the time, but it is very hard to escalate to high
levels of velocity or intensity. It would take a veritable cultural
revolution of civic interest, awareness, and engagement to change
the tide. We are far from that nexus as a society, except for
a few hot-button issues such as abortion and gun control, which
possess their own intense grapevines.
In an age of deepening concentration of conglomerate media
corporations, their executives have their own interests to defend
and expand. More and more, newspapers, magazines, and television
and radio stations are caught up in larger megacorporate strategic
objectives, which shape the nature of campaign coverage. During
the summer, on the television in my hotel room, I saw Sumner Redstone,
boss of Viacom, which bought CBS, being interviewed about his
reportedly strained relationship with CBS boss Mel Karmazin. "Nothing
to it," replied Redstone. "Mel and I are both driven
by our stock price." Shades of Herbert Hoover and Edward
R. Murrow, who saw the public airwaves as a public trust. That
being Redstone's yardstick means that hypercommercialism becomes
ever more the governing standard. This results in downgrading
respect for the public service requirement of the 1934 Communications
Act and its famous provision for licensees to reflect "the
public interest, convenience, and necessity."
When they are not merging or joint venturing, these mass communications
giants are in a frantic race down the sensuality ladder, filling
the airwaves with what John Nichols and Robert McChesney call
the "trivial, sensational and salacious." These authors
published a little paperback in the middle of the presidential
campaign titled It's the media, Stupid, where they illuminated
the connection between "media reform and democratic renewal."
This little volume is a factually immersed brief for their thesis,
best expressed by their own words:
The flow of information that is the lifeblood of democracy
is being choked by a media system that every day ignores a world
of injustices and inequality, and the growing resistance to it.
No, the media system is not the sole cause of our political crisis,
nor even the primary cause, but it reinforces every factor contributing
to the crisis, and it fosters a climate in which the implementation
of innovative democratic solutions is rendered all but impossible.
The closer a story gets to examining corporate power the less
reliable our corporate media system is as a source of information
that is useful to citizens of a democracy. Commercial indoctrination
of children is crucial to corporate America.
It is at least permissible to assume that corporations such
as Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation,
Viacom, Seagram (Universal), Sony, Liberty (AT&T), and General
Electric, which rely heavily on corporate advertising revenue
for their expenses and profits, are not likely to go out of their
way to cover candidates who are critics of their major advertisers
who are big contributors to both the Republican and Democratic
parties. It's just simple business sense.
As these media giants become ever more global, along with
global advertisers, their self-importance and impact become almost
unreal. On the occasion of announcing Time Warner's merger with
AOL, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin declared exuberantly that the
global media is "fast becoming the predominant business of
the twenty-first century" and is "more important than
government, it's more important than educational institutions
Even with fewer and fewer key individuals controlling more
and more print and broadcast media properties (one company now
owns eleven hundred radio stations), much of their power to frame
the agendas and confine the issues is the result of a two-party
default. Twenty-one years ago, the especially perceptive Duke
historian James David Barber wrote about the "emergence"
of mass communication
to fill virtually the whole gap in the electoral process left
by the default of other independent elites who used to help manage
the choice. Their power is all the stronger because it looks,
to the casual observer, like no power at all. Much as the old
party bosses used to pass themselves off as mere "coordinators"
and powerless arrangers, so some modern-day titans of journalism
want themselves thought of as mere scorekeepers and messenger
boys. Yet the signs of journalists' key role as the major advancers
and retarders of presidential ambitions are all around us.
In Barber's view, the political parties failed because "their
giant ossified structures, like those of the dinosaurs, could
no longer adapt to the pace of political change. Journalism could
adapt . . . journalism took over where the parties left off."
Well, maybe some Democrats and Republicans were reading Barber,
because they decided to take back from the media the management
of choice in one area of crucial importance to any political challengers
to them: the presidential debates. Until the late eighties, the
League of Women Voters sponsored these debates. In 1980, they
allowed independent candidate Congressman John Anderson to join
Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which helped Anderson considerably
in national recognition and the polls. At one point he scored
21 percent in the polls, and he ended up with 7 percent on Election
Day. The two parties did not like the League-a nonpartisan civic
group-setting the rules and running the debates. So a private
corporation was formed, given the official-sounding title of the
Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and headed by cochairs
who were the former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic
National Committees. Its phony purpose was voter education. The
debates cost money, so the CPD found corporations to write big
checks. These firms have included Anheuser-Busch, Philip Morris,
Ford Motor Co., and other companies that also gave soft money
to the parties' national committees.
In 1992, Ross Perot came on the scene, and his wealth and
widespread polling support led to his being allowed to join the
debates. His polls went up, too. He received nineteen million
votes, shaking the political establishment with his Reform Party
and his paid televised lectures. Never again, vowed the two parties.
Fully ninety-two million Americans saw the debate among Perot,
Clinton, and Bush, more than double the average of the three 2000
debates. Too destabilizing for the duopoly. Perot was barred in
1996 by a series of vague criteria based on interviews with columnists,
pollsters, and consultants who concurred that he could not win.
He was also barred by the national television networks from buying
the same kind of thirty-minute time slots that brought his message
of deficit reduction and political reform into the living rooms
of millions of households.
Speaking with him after the election, I said, "Ross,
at least you've proved that the big boys can keep even a megabillionaire
off the air."
In the year 2000, the CPD revised its criterion for third-party
candidates: 15 percent or more as measured by the average of five
private polling organizations (which just happened to be owned
by several major newspaper and television conglomerates). So if
their parent companies did not cover the third-party candidate,
the polls would not likely move up. Without moving up, there would
be little media, and so a catch-22 was built in the CPD's entry
barrier. How can a private company get away with this? By virtue
of the mass media default, of course. There's absolutely nothing
stopping the major networks and newspapers from sponsoring their
The televised debates are the only way presidential candidates
can reach tens of millions of voters. Several polls during 2000
showed a majority of the voters wanted Pat Buchanan and me at
the debates, regardless of folks' voting preferences. Larger audiences
and ratings would almost certainly follow. People want a wide
variety of subjects, viewpoints, forthrightness, and candidates.
They do not see the presidential debates as a cure for insomnia.
However, the great default is now on the shoulders of the media
moguls, and the major parties are back in charge of the ticket
for admission to the public.
This is all about giving small starts a chance to have a chance.
This does not mean that there be only three debates. It doesn't
mean there are no criteria. An Appleseed Foundation project suggested
in a report for campaign 2000 that candidates be included who
meet one of two tests: (1) the polls show that a majority want
the candidate included; and/or (2) the candidate has at least
5 percent support in the polls (the statutory minimum for receiving
federal matching funds) and is on enough state ballots to theoretically
be able to win a majority in the electoral college. Law professor
David Kairys, who advised us on the debate matter, wrote in the
The nation's broadcast media have so far been accomplices
in this charade. CPD debates should at least be accurately labeled
as Republican-Democratic campaign events, rather than as "presidential
debates." . . . [T]he rules of the debates should not be
left to the major parties or their handpicked representatives,
who have a history of excluding candidates and ideas the public
wants-and deserves-to hear.
We did not take the CPD's autocratic exclusionary mission
passively. Throughout the spring, summer, and early fall of the
campaign, I denounced the CPD to one rally or audience after another.
We encouraged citizens to communicate with the CPD, as we did,
and demand the opening of its doors to competition. I sent letters
to the major networks asking them to sponsor their own multicandidate
debates. Two replied sympathetically but to no result. In September,
I wrote the heads of the major industrial unions in the critical,
close states of the Midwest urging that they cosponsor presidential
debates with special emphasis on neglected labor agendas. No one
from the Steelworkers, the Machinists, the Teamsters, or the United
Auto Workers responded. I urged national civil rights organizations,
including the major Hispanic civil rights association in Southern
California, but to no avail. Granted, they had their reasons-the
CPD debates were already scheduled, logistics, and the risk of
being turned down and viewed as powerless. Now, with plenty of
time until 2004, I call on people and institutions who want robust
and diverse debates to join together and form a People's Debate
The newspapers take elections more seriously, comparatively
speaking, than the broadcast media. Television and radio have
many ready-made excuses for their shrinking coverage. A twenty-two-minute
national television news program, excluding advertising time,
is not sprung from holy writ. The format of the local television
news, with its nine minutes of ads, with several leadoff accounts
from the police crime blotter, four minutes of sports, four minutes
of weather, one minute of chitchat, and the prescribed animal
and medical journal health story, is not carved in stone. Apart
from public radio and the few nonprofit community radio stations,
commercial radio and television devote about 90 percent of airtime
around the clock to entertainment and advertisements. News is
sparse, abbreviated, and very repetitious. When radio is not singing
or selling, it is traffic, weather, and sports with headline news
spots. The number of reporters and editors has been cut to the
bone. No more are there FCC requirements for ascertaining the
news needs of the community. Gone are the Fairness Doctrine and
the Right of Reply. In 1996 there was near silence on the tube
regarding the congressional fight to block the giveaway of $70
billion worth of the new spectrum to the television stations-a
giveaway opposed even by the Republican candidate that year, Robert
Dole. The notorious Telecommunications Act of 1996 received the
cold shoulder, notwithstanding its paving the way for a massive
binge of mergers and further concentration of media power. In
2000 the FCC, under its chairman, William Kennard, started granting
community radio licenses to nonprofit neighborhood associations.
The formidable media lobby, led by the National Association of
Broadcasters, descended on Congress. They pummeled into line a
majority of Congress-Democrats and Republicans-to pass legislation,
which Clinton reluctantly signed, that blocked the FCC from licensing
these little stations which could accept no paid advertising.
A minor Hollywood celebrity's DUI received more television and
radio coverage than did the FCC's attempt to give people a radio
voice of a few miles' radius.
John Kenneth Galbraith, from an article written in the July 1970
issue of Harper's magazine, titled "Who Needs Democrats?
And What It Takes to Be Needed."
The function of the Democratic Party, in this century at least,
has, in fact, been to embrace its solutions even when, as in the
case of Wilson's New Freedom, Roosevelt's New Deal, or the Kennedy-Johnson
civil rights legislation, it outraged not only Republicans but
the Democratic establishment as well. And if the Democratic Party
does not render this function, at whatever cost in reputable outrage
and respectable heart disease, it has no purpose at all. The play
will pass to those who do espouse solutions.... The system is
not working.... The only answer lies in political action to get
a system that does work. To this conclusion, if only because there
is no alternative conclusion, people will be forced to come. Such
is the Democratic opportunity. Oddly, I do not think the prospect
Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, in his 1950 book Mirror
America's chief claim to greatness, he observed, is not in
its illustrious writers or in its outstanding scientists or thinkers.
It is in being the "first country to dedicate itself to the
conception of a society where the lot of the common man would
be made easier, where the same opportunities would be available
to all, where the lives of all men and women would be enriched
and ennobled. This was something new under the sun." He went
on to a deep insight: "Ideals of flourishing freshness that
adapt to changed conditions and to what is sound and creative
in the distinctive American Way are the only sure antidote for
our social ills. Only those ideals will spread and be accepted
which correspond to the culturally created emotional needs of
the people." He believed that "visions" must offer
men and women that "common nobility of purpose, which is
the vitalizing energy of any significant culture." While
"ventures," he added, will "be proved only if diminished
anxiety and greater gusto in day-to-day living transform the lives
of us all."
Our country's independence was declared in 1776 by patriots, many
of whom would be considered very young by contemporary standards.
Thomas Jefferson was thirty-two, James Madison was thirty-five,
John Hancock was thirty-nine, and John Adams was forty-one. Their
leader, George Washington, was only forty-four. Today our society
is borrowing heavily from future generations and debts of all
kinds are mounting. As history conveys to us, it is again up to
the young to give new character to their times, to forge the civic
personalities that will bring old wisdoms, new thinking, and new
democratic institutions to bear upon the torments of our world.
It is always the young who can give the people and their collective
judgments that "new birth of freedom," in Lincoln's
words, who can constrain greed and power-those classical Molochs-by
civil society's motivation and action. It is always the young
who break through the shams and frauds and raise our expectation
levels beyond our eroded horizons. It is always the young who
see the "impractical and the impossible" as entrenched
excuses by the established interests to avoid realizable caring
futures. When three hundred of the richest people on Earth have
wealth equal to the bottom three billion people on Earth, extreme
affluence is built on the backs of extreme mass poverty.
In the forward march of history, it will always be the young
who look at the conventional "can't be dones" and demand
that "they can be done, they must be done, and they will
be done." The questions remain: Are our younger generations
in America up for establishing the democratic sovereignty of the
people? Or will they continue to grow up corporate and let ever
larger global corporations increasingly plan our futures-economically,
culturally, politically, militarily, environmentally, and genetically
right into their obedient brave new world?
The civic personality, in contrast, sees through the politically
dominant ideology of commercial supremacy and evaluates what it
is doing by the measure of civic values. The tobacco industry
works ceaselessly to addict kids and sell its products to ever
more people. That millions die every year around the world from
tobacco-related diseases does not deter this industry. The processed-food
companies want to sell ever more fat and sugar to a population,
young and older, suffering serious diseases and disabilities from
such diets. The drug companies then push their pills onto children
and adults with ever less restraint and ever more overwrought
marketing mania. A serious published study in the American Medical
Association's journal estimated that more than one hundred thousand
hospitalized patients die from adverse drug reactions each year.
The military weapons companies search the world to sell, with
taxpayer subsidies, more and more of their lethal armaments to
whoever can pay, regardless of their customers' intent or uses.
When companies commercialize childhood, accelerate sprawl, imperil
the environment with contaminating fuels and chemicals (the EPA
estimates that sixty-five thousand Americans die each year from
air pollution), block sustainable technologies, encourage more
debt, own politicians, skew public tax dollars in their favor,
oppress labor, and gouge defenseless consumers, they are simply
following their commercial imperative without limits. Civilization
as if people are first is not just about opportunities; it is
about limits and boundaries around antisocial, criminogenic behavior
whose limitless logic eventually would spell omnicide for this
very limited home we call Mother Earth.
The British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote
that a society is great when its businessmen think greatly of
their calling. The young are very adept at searching out or creating
such models, and a good place to start is the Social Venture Network,
which consciously strives to inject civic values as the framework
for their successful midsize businesses. Reading, learning, and
thinking in a time of megamedia obfuscation and confusion are
a prerequisite for the civic personality. Just what are the proper
functions of an accountable government that is not paid to play
favorites and forfeit its trust and integrity? What is meant by
the commons or commonwealth of public property and public assets
that the American people own together but do not control? How
did our forebears motivate their fellow citizens to organize person
to person, reaching levels that organizers today, with all their
communications technology, view with unalloyed awe? Just how did
the power of creeping corporatism over the past two hundred years
take an artificial legal entity chartered by the state, called
the corporation, and have it endowed with the rights of real human
beings plus privileges and immunities denied human beings?
There are also distinct elements of courage to the civic personality.
Thousands of men and women each year in our country blow the whistle
on abuses in business and government, universities, unions, and
other institutions to the detriment of their jobs, careers, and
livelihood. Civic values drive them to expose avarice and wrongdoing.
Keeping an open mind to revisit positions and policies is part
of the way civic personalities maintain touch with reality and
other people's wishes. When I held a news conference with New
Mexico's Republican governor, Gary Johnson, a former businessman,
during the campaign, he again spoke out, urging a rethinking of
the self-defeating and cruel war on drugs. Johnson is the only
sitting governor to open such a taboo subject, even though he
told me that other governors privately agree with what he says
but think it too politically delicate to raise similar questions
in their states.
A civic personality possesses a keen awareness of how large
corporations have institutionalized the shifting of their avoidable
costs to police, soldiers, taxpayers, consumers, workers, and
the environment, and how governments waste or redirect tax dollars
to wealthy recipients who make up the corporate government. Being
sensitive to how some other democratic nations essentially abolished
poverty, as we know it, years ago and provided other safeguards
and services for workers, children, and needy citizens informs
the civic personality to be more insistent. Similarly, such a
commitment is strengthened by an expanding grasp of available
solutions or achievable ones shelved not because of any technical
objections but because of the resistance of the entrenched powers
that be. Solar energy in all its historic and modern active and
passive forms remains a prominent illustration of the penalties
society pays for not democratizing technology.
During the nineties when a new generation came of age, the
United States exhibited a dominance that Clinton and Gore called
"peace and prosperity." Apart from the sweeping veneer
over real conditions that this phrase obscured domestically and
internationally, it does raise the central question: What did
we do with all this peace and prosperity? Did we regenerate our
culture, strengthen our democracy, and launch a drive to abolish
poverty? Did our rulers keep a majority of workers and families
from falling behind? Did we meet long-delayed public needs? Did
we improve industrial efficiencies that reduce environmental degradation
and enhance the productivity of natural resource inputs? Did we
strive for world stability by reasonably demobilizing following
the demise of our traditional adversaries and instead vigorously
waging peace and justice to help humanity and the genius of other
societies to join in common efforts for sustainable living standards?
Did we move to a new way of thinking and acting apropos of William
James's notion of "the moral equivalent of war" back
in the late nineteenth century? Why didn't we ever wonder about
what we missed? Are we a society stuck in traffic?
What does this decade-long respite from the conventional excuses
and red herrings tell us about our political economy's unwillingness
to rise to such wonderful occasions and beckoning opportunities?
It tells us what happens when power is too concentrated and when
the dreams of avarice supplant the dreams of justice-the great
work, as Daniel Webster put it, of human beings on Earth. The
remarkable persistence of these human frailties throughout centuries
and millennia, despite dramatic secular changes, technologies,
and pretensions, is one reason why people can relate to ancient
plays from Euripides to Shakespeare. It is why the sayings of
the ancients remain so relevant today in an otherwise dramatically
different world. It is why the civic personality-to be true, resilient,
productive, and respectful of itself-cannot ignore these personal
failings and insecurities that can remain apart from but dominant
over intellect, knowledge, or one's desired contribution to higher
priorities in our world and community.
Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greek philosopher
Heraclitus said that "character is destiny." One might
add that "personality is decisive" for the capability
of people building civic cultures. It is character and personality
that spell the steady sense of commitment, that give recognition
to others in similar endeavors, that enable growth and development
of civic skills, perspectives, and frames of reference, that provide
the necessary pauses for reevaluation, for improved strategies
and modes of self-renewal, for keeping alert and alive the public's
imagination of life's possibilities for human beings everywhere.
It is indeed the young who take the risks, who break new ground,
who locate or create solutions to widespread needs, who think
the unthinkable, who show how prevailing ideologies regularly
lie to themselves through phony symbols and images. However, it
is also the young who can be most dissuaded by a sensual, tempting
corporate culture, who can be seduced into trivializing their
lives and postponing their potential. As I have said to many college
undergraduates, you have about fifteen thousand days or a little
over two thousand weeks before you turn sixty-five. Whether you
wish to relax and smell the roses after that age or continue making
this a better world, there is little time to lose. Put your knowledge
and your vision to work. Keep thinking of the valiant efforts
from the past and the children of the future. Put your beneficent
mark on your world. Become good ancestors. Let it never be said
by future generations that, during your days in the sun, your
generation declined to give up so little in order to accomplish