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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Presidential Primary Time

Its Presidential Primary Time and never before have so many state primaries been stacked together so closely on the calendar.

The politicians hone their 5 minute speeches about “getting this country moving again,” tailor their sound bites to 5, 10 and 20 seconds with suitable slogans and flood the television with their vapid self-advertisements.

What is their expectation of the public? That the people will look at the ads and the slogans and intuitively jump to the desired conclusions. In turn, what are the people’s expectations of the candidates? Ah, there is the rub!

Society rots from the head down, but it is reconstructed from the bottom up. Democracy is like a tree — the roots and trunks are the people and the branches and twigs are the elected representatives. If the roots and trunks do not perform well, the branches and twigs become brittle and the leaves and fruits wither.

So, how do citizens train for an election campaign well before voting day? First, they need to see themselves as shapers of the political process and agenda, who summon the candidates to their gatherings, not as bystanders watching parading candidates whiz by as if on a fashion stage.

On a recent Phil Donahue Show in Bedford, New Hampshire, half the audience was composed of deliberate non-voters. They were not apathetic in their reasons for not voting. Some said that none of the candidates deserved their vote and they were simply not going to vote for the “lesser of the evils.” Others said they would not be used or they want to send a protest message by boycotting the election.

The other side of the Donahue Show room were people determined to vote because otherwise they would let others make the voting decisions for them. Besides, they added, one has to participate in the process if only to improve it.

This kind of exchange occurs when citizens view their role in elections as just either voting or staying at home. (Unfortunately, there is no binding none-of-the-above option on the ballot to accumulate the blanket protest vote).

Citizen roles start with an understanding of the tools of democracy to make self-government and sustainable communities a reality. Without the tools to obtain timely information, communicate that information to your fellow citizens inexpensively and mobilize for action and achievement, the best political reform manifesto remains dormant.

How, oh, presidential candidate, are you going to campaign with us, instead of in front of us, to help us develop and use these tools of democracy?

Tools that can be used by voter/citizens to clean up political rot and corruption and make government work, tools that make it easy for workers and consumers to band together, tools that organize taxpayers to monitor the use of their taxes (as with corporate welfare subsidies), tools that give the legal owners of massive assets such as the public lands, the public air waves, the $4 trillion in worker pension funds, and the stocks they own in large corporations, the mechanisms to control what they already own?

When I campaigned on these tools for democracy in the 1992 Presidential primary in New Hampshire — just as a write-in candidate for this agenda — 52% of the write-in votes came from Republicans and 48% came from Democrats. This indicated that, stepping back from specific policy issues, most Americans want to have democratic power to give voice and muscle to their working vision of America.

To make our political economy work and respect the future requires a new concept of citizen time. We need to reserve some hours during the year for citizen time at the local, state and national levels. We must insist on giving ourselves time to think and read and act. If we do that, we will discover a whole world out there of those valiant citizens who are serving our country by their civic initiatives and organizations.

We will learn the great successes of a relatively small number of engaged citizens in our nation’s history who started the abolition of slavery movement, the women’s right to vote drive, the trade unions and the civil rights, consumer and environmental breakthroughs.

We will also learn about how many practical solutions there are to so many of our nation’s problems affecting our children, jobs, schools, housing, savings, health care, energy, mass transit, media and many more. So many of these solutions remain on the shelf or are operating in a very few places in the nation without the fanfare they deserve.

There is a wry but profound saying: “when the people lead, the leaders will follow.” When this happens, the leaders will never forget where they are coming from — an informed, energetic citizenry, and not from a covey of global corporations dominating our nation.

(For a copy of the modern democracy agenda, send a self-addressed envelope to Concord Principles, P. 0. Box 19312, Washington, D.C. 20036).