This column was published by Mr. Nader in January 1977 and handed to the new President, Jimmy Carter, at a White House meeting. Because of the article’s continuing timeliness, for the new President, Bill Clinton, it is reprinted here.
If the lessons of recent Washington history are to be heeded, Jimmy Carter should be launching a “two track presidency” to fulfill his campaign declarations. The first track is the familiar one. It involves treating the problems of inflation, unemployment, disease, poverty and crime on the domestic scene and the urgency of the arms race, international conflicts, and economic crises abroad. The second track involves providing citizens with the rights and remedies to assert their interests through a more democratic political and economic system. Without plowing the second track, Jimmy Carter will not have much success with the problems he wants to diminish on the first track.
Unfortunately, a president’s time is programmed to place second track activities so far below the more pressing first track matters as to be nearly out of sight. But without the ideas, participation, and support of a broader-based citizenry, President Carter cannot expect to accomplish much of significance.
THERE WERE SIGNS during the campaign that candidate Carter appreciated both the need to strengthen civic institutions outside of government and the necessity to end the isolation that grips the White House. But it will take an iron will to do this.
Consider some illustrations of the criticality that the second track holds for first track success. Carter repeatedly told Americans during the campaign that the country has gotten into trouble overseas whenever the people were left out of the decision-making process. Up to now foreign policy has been shaped and decided by a small clique at the summit of this country’s political and corporate governments. An informed and empowered civic presence in foreign policy-making is a second track challenge for Carter to facilitate.
President Carter wants to produce a genuine reform of the tax system – a first track goal. This cannot be done without displeasing powerful special interests who profit from the present inequities. It can only be done by small taxpayer participation in the reform process that builds at the community level and reaches all the way to Congress. Giving small taxpayers the legal tools of civic action is a second track mission for Carter.
The new President wants to rebuild the center cities — a prime Democratic Party platform plank. Can this be done without a second track role for neighborhood and other community organizations to both nourish and implement national policies with self reliant efforts on the receiving end?
Carter’s often expressed determination to defend the human environment will conflict with defiant corporations whose executives have owned the White House for the past eight years. These companies can continue their environmental blackmail of threatening worker layoff or plant closedowns if the anti-pollution health laws are enforced inside and outside the factories. Without effective rights for environmental and worker safety groups to utilize the courts and the regulatory agencies — both second track objectives -Carter will be unable to resist many of these corporate pressures.
WITHOUT A STRONG, persistent civic movement, the President can do little overall in changing the patterns of concentrated power that have bred so many first track abuses.
During the lean and indifferent Nixon-Ford years, the citizen movement and several Congressional committees have forged a whole series of what can be called initiatory democratic rights to make corporate and governmental power more accountable to the people they are supposed to serve. They provide the agenda for a second track presidency.
These proposals include a consumer advocacy agency, a national consumers cooperative bank, consumer and environmental class action rights, reducing the cost barriers to citizen participation in government proceedings, legal standing for citizens to sue to stop government waste and corruption, consumer and taxpayer checkoff systems to facilitate the organized representation of these constituencies.
Such proposals would be part of a second track presidency’s priorities. They are not drains on the Treasury; for they are mainly self-help procedures which deconcentrate power and strengthen the fibre of grass roots initiatives.
Jimmy Carter promises to maintain an open White House and an open administration. It won’t be long before Americans will learn whether the new White House operates to give them power or operates to continue instead the old practice of taking it away on behalf of an imperial corporate state. If it’s the former, Carter’s legacy will last for longer than his term of office.