Skip to content

It was not your typical political candidate’s radio advertisement. But then it was not your typical candidate.

The ad started with a professional auctioneer auctioning off a U.S. Senate seat. Then the candidate, 31-year-old Tom Ryan of St. Louis, says, “Wait a minute. It is time to take democracy off the auction block.” He asked listeners whether they wanted corporate lobbies to buy elections, to control interest rates or energy policy. He asked for their vote for the Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. Senate.

Tom Ryan, a citizen activist full-time for 10 years, did not win that primary earlier this month. On a shoestring campaign budget of $20,000 and with no paid campaign staff, he drew 71,500 votes, or about 12 percent of the total primary vote. Veteran politicians were impressed by his seven-month-long campaign up and down the state of Missouri.

Ryan did win something else–the voters’ respect and, rare enough these days, their interest. The reason was not complicated: The young lawyer talked about the need specifically to empower people. He went beyond the problems of inflation, high interest rates, sickening pollution, unemployment, corruption and corporate crime and focused on the problem basic to them all–the powerlessness of people when they come up against special-interest lobbies for big business.

Having founded and directed the Missouri Public Interest Research Group, Ryan likes to talk about direct democracy rights like the initiative, referendum and recall. He developed an advisory referendum proposal a few years ago which would give citizens an opportunity to give their opinion on three or four issues during national elections. In this way, he believes, elections will be more about issues and less about personality politics.

One of his favorite issues would be whether to publicly finance election campaigns and give candidates a certain amount of free time on television and radio. Another issue for an advisory referendum would be broader representation on the Federal Reserve Board, which helps determine interest rates, than the present banker domination of that powerful agency.

Driving around Missouri with a sleeping bag in his 1971 Ford Maverick, Ryan found that many people from all walks of life agreed with him. That is, they knew that transferring power was the issue underlying the headline problems that politicians wrap their rhetoric around.

When he talked about the need for “concrete alternatives to the moneyed politics that has corrupted our democratic system of government and has taken it out of the hands of the people,” the people from the “Show Me” state knew what he was talking about. Get the moneybags out of politics, open up the mass media to the citizens, develop instruments that will let consumers organize around utility, energy, insurance, credit and other standard-of-living matters.

Ryan came in third in the August 3 primary. If he had had the money and media that the winner and runner-up had, he might have won. Which is why he wants to do something about a “democracy dominated by dollars rather than by ideas.” He challenged his opponents to debate the issues and they declined. He challenged the media to let the issues be reported and most of the Fourth Estate continued to dwell on personality politics. That is, many of the news stories were about who was endorsing whom and who was ahead.

Ryan was not daunted and his winning, friendly personality helped him take on the media without alienating them. He parked himself right in front of one St. Louis newspaper–sitting down on a chair behind a table passing out his literature. The paper wrote an article that day.

He broke new ground with some television stations–three to be exact–that responded affirmatively to his letter requesting free prime time for each Democratic candidate. One station gave the candidates 14 minutes each. Ryan’s success could become an important precedent for other television and radio stations to note. After all, they have a very profitable free license from the U.S. government to program the public’s airwaves.

Empowerment politics can be winning politics. Direct democracy, consumer cooperatives, facilitating the right of consumers to organize, regular access to the mass media, taking private money out of political campaigns, reducing the cost of citizens’ participating in their government and breaking the tight grip of Big Business over the political economy all are parts of what candidates like Tom Ryan call empowerment politics.

Empowerment means power with responsibility; it means giving Americans the chance to tame what Thomas Jefferson called “the monied interests” and create a prosperous and just democracy.