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Ralph Nader > Breaking Through Power To-Do List

Excerpt from Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think by Ralph Nader (City Lights, 2016)

Let’s look at some of these areas where a left/right alliance constitutes a big majority. Powered by one percent or less of active citizenry and led by some small full-time citizen advocacy groups, reflecting majority public opinion, we can take back our delegated Congressional power that the plutocrats have hijacked in their favor and return it to “We the People.” Here is a short “to-do” list for people across the political spectrum; action on these matters will help us break through power and win greater justice and freedom.

Generate Direct Democracy at the State Level, Revert Airtime to the People to Use on Their Public Airwaves to Debate Issues

There are now 24 states that already have this initiative, referendum, and recall. The same need for direct democracy exists for local government as well. Any time attempts are made to diminish or obstruct direct democracy, conservatives and progressives jointly oppose them. But the people have no media time to counter blizzards of political ads by vested interests. The idea of returning some of the public’s airwaves to the public was supported at a House of Representatives hearing in 1991 by me and arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly. Convergence!

In 1995, when the Republican majority on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried to raise the cap on local media market ownership to 45 percent nationwide and allow any one corporation to own three television stations, eight radio stations, and the leading newspapers in any one local metropolitan market, over 750,000 letters and emails, mostly in protest, were sent to the FCC. They came from progressives and conservatives, from Common Cause to the National Rifle Association. Hard-line conservative New York Times columnist William Safire asked, “Why do we have more channels but fewer real choices today?” Mr. Safire’s answer: “Because the ownership of our means of communications is shrinking. Moguls glory in amalgamation, but more individuals than they realize resent the loss of local control and community identity.”

Defend and Extend Civil Liberties

Most Americans disliked the restrictions in the USA PATRIOT Act as illustrated by agreement between the ACLU and politicians like libertarian-conservative Congressman Ron Paul and progressive Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Both sides also want a more competitive electoral process with easier ballot access, and both question the ineffective mass-incarcerating war on drugs.

Abolish Unconstitutional Acts of War as Have Been Waged Against Korea, Grenada, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya Enforce Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, which includes the exclusive congressional authority to declare war that U.S. presidents have repeatedly usurped.

Drive Change by Changing Taxation

Increase taxes on pollution, addictive products, corporate crime, and, the big one, Wall Street speculation; and decrease taxation on paid labor and home properties. Remember the motto “tax what we burn before we tax what we earn.” Collect uncollected federal income taxes that the IRS estimates to be around 300 billion dollars a year that reflect the ease for many tax escapes by plutocracy: corporations and One Percenters.

Empower People to Challenge Corporations and Government in Court
Allow taxpayers the “standing to sue” the government and corporate contractors. Extreme waste, inefficiency, corruption, and neglect should be just a few of many grounds for taxpayers to hold power accountable in court. Establish rigorous and open procedures for evaluating demands for government bailouts, subsidies, handouts, and giveaways, plus rigorous annual reviews, which would significantly diminish crony capitalism and corporate welfare.

Increase Minimum Wage Nationwide

Increase the minimum wage for 30 million American workers who are making less than workers made in 1968, adjusted for inflation. The inflation-adjusted federal minimum wage would be $11.00 per hour instead of the frozen $7.25 it is today.

Rein in Wall Street

Big banks need to be broken up. Wall Street suits suspected of crimes need to be investigated, and if prosecuted and convicted, imprisoned like anyone else who commits a serious crime. No more bailouts for big business. Seventy percent of the American people think “most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law if they believed they could make a lot of money and get away with it.”

Audit the U.S. War Machine

Require, at long last, that the Department of Defense budget be auditable and audited by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the U.S. Congress. Disclose all government budgets.

Assist Community-level Businesses

Provide an equal playing field for community businesses and community self-reliance and end the unfair advantages that global corporations have lobbied into law.

Crack Down on Corporate Crime, Jail Corporate Criminals
Increase corporate accountability by cracking down on corporate crime, providing updated penalties and enforcement budgets with special attention to corporate crimes involving government programs (Medicare, defense contracting) and against consumers, labor, and the environment. Assert the ownership rights, vis-á-vis management, of individual investors, mutual funds and pension trusts.

Protect the Commons

Charge going market prices for exploiting our public lands, public airwaves, and taxpayer-funded science and technology presently given away free or at bargain-basement prices. Develop trust funds for people nationwide as the people of Alaska have done with oil-royalty revenues. The Alaska Permanent Fund distributes dividends that in recent years have ranged from a low of $878 in 2012 to a high of $2,072 in 2015 to each human being that has lived in that Republican state for a full calendar year.

Rein in the Fed

Curb the excessive powers exercised by the Federal Reserve through its out of control monetary policies and subject this central bank to Congressional audit and oversight.

All these redirections can be supported by a left/right alliance. They address important areas of reform in our country. They include giving the people effective tools for reforms that are now denied them inside and outside political institutions. Taken together they do reflect Cicero’s point that freedom has to be about participation in power. Each of these empowerment proposals should be rolled into one People’s Empowerment for Democracy Bill which can serve as a rallying point for one percent or less to get the drive for change underway. Procedural reforms will make it easier to make substantial reforms regarding taxation, illegal war-making, and sovereignty-shredding, so-called free trade agreements.

Therefore, what would activists do to break through power in each of the 435 Congressional Districts? They would agree to volunteer a minimum of 300 hours a year, working together to support and establish offices in each district with at least four full-time advocates to advance their substantive policy agenda. The efforts of these offices and their 4,000 (or less) committed citizens would have two goals. The first goal would be to establish an in-person advocacy relationship with their representative and two senators. This is the strategy used by all successful lobbyists. The second goal would be to continually arouse and mobilize the quiet majority of public opinion. The greater the number of people informed, the greater the number of people who will get involved to counter power. Forming local groups to actively spread the word through co-workers, friends, relatives, and larger social networks can have an enormous impact.

No one needs to feel alone. An aura of anticipation, expectations, and overall excitement will arise if all these groups are connected with one another throughout the country. All can learn from one another’s stories, ideas, proposals, and strategies. Moreover, in most congressional districts there are almost always some traditional, beleaguered organizations that could be convinced to join ranks and take up the local agenda. Even more, in some districts, there are civic associations, charities, unions, educators who would happily contribute their time, expertise, and donations. These groups are likely to have affiliations with national groups headquartered in Washington D.C. Remember: there are only 535 legislators in Congress and one person in the White House. We are in the millions.

How can we jumpstart this whole process? One way would be to raise money through small contributions and fundraisers to hire staff as quickly as possible. Most people don’t personally know any rich people, fewer still know any rich people who are genuinely progressive. If anyone in your local group does, consider forming a delegation to approach them for support. A delegation of twelve people could include educators, parents, clergy, builders, and representatives from local businesses, labor associations, and civic groups. The more varied the delegation, the more impressed your potential donors will be. Your arguments can boil down to a fundamental community appeal for the present and for posterity.

Breaking through power nationwide means designing local campaigns that can spread nationally. Doing so will require a focal point for legislation that will empower people and communities. Here is my suggestion: Call it the Citizens Summons. The Summons will call members of Congress to return home for sustained questioning and education by their voters about the set of points on the citizen empowerment agenda. The advantage of the Citizens Summons umbrella is that it is simple, clear, basic, and personal. It is also new and unusual enough to catch the attention of the media, especially if it gains momentum with a broad base of people across the spectrum of race, income, and political orientation. Politicians are used to running town meetings. The Summons would reverse the process and the dynamic. Henry Thoreau once said that “most people live lives of quiet desperation.” We are looking to change our communities into people of rumbling determination.

Accordingly, here is a draft of what a Citizens Summons might look like. It covers some basic derelictions of the Congress, but each local community would shape it and run with it in their own particular way. The main advice is at first to keep it generally centered on the theme of empowerment rather than on a laundry list of reforms that can dissipate your group’s initial focus and give your local representative an opportunity to distract you from getting to the more sustainable tools of citizen power.

Empowerment-centered demands could include public financing of elections (preferably through well-promoted, voluntary taxpayer check-offs on tax returns), easier ballot access and voter registration rules, universal voting with write-in and binding “none-of-the-above” options; processes of direct democracy that spell out initiative, referendum, and recall; citizen standing to sue the government, ending corporate personhood and any corporate participation in elections and lobbying (corporate employees could, of course, continue to participate in the electoral process, but not the artificial corporate entity); usable facilities to band together in civic associations as voters, taxpayers, consumers, workers, shareholders, and students; community networks with access to our public airwaves and control of the many “commons” that people have legally owned for many years so that their use reflects citizen priorities for a prosperous society now and for future generations; and, of course, simple and affordable access to the courts. These empowerments, and others, are spelled out in my proclamation called “The Concord Principles: An Agenda for a New Initiatory Democracy,” that I read on a very cold winter day (February 1, 1992), in front of the state government building in Concord, New Hampshire, see: https://nader.org/2002/06/06/the-concord-principles-an-agenda-for-a-new-democracy/

An example of the Citizens Summons follows:


Whereas, the Congress has caused gross distortions of our Constitution and laws, our public budgets and our commonwealth, that currently favor the burgeoning corporate state or crony capitalism;

Whereas, the Congress has welcomed the expansion of an electoral system, corrupted by money, that nullifies our votes, restricts our choices, insults our intelligence and commercializes civic values, both Congressional and Presidential elections are so dominated by corporate money that we now have a Congress that is chronically for sale;

Whereas, the Congress has repeatedly supported or opposed legislation at the behest of corporate interests and used many billions of taxpayer dollars to favor the crassest of organized vested interests to the serious detriment of the American people, their necessities, for peace and justice and their public facilities;

Whereas, the Congress has increasingly narrowed or blocked our access to secure prudent behavior from both our government and big business, leaving us unprotected and defenseless in many serious ways, while giving organized, largely commercial interests preferential treatment and allowing them full access to improperly influence or dominate the three branches of government;

Now therefore, the citizens of (insert state for Senators or the Congressional District for Representatives) hereby respectfully summon you to a Town Meeting (preferably during one of the numerous Congressional recesses) at a place of known public convenience. Your constituents will present an overdue agenda of how Congress should shift long overdue power from the few to the many, through the tools we need for the strengthening of responsive, accountable government and vibrant civic institutions. We deem this Summons, gaining grassroots support in (your district or state), to be taken with the utmost seriousness as the beginning of a tradition—that will institute a series of meetings expressing the deliberative will of the people. We expect to hear from you expeditiously so that the necessary planning for our Town Meeting can take place. This People’s Town Meeting reflects the Preamble to the Constitution that starts with “We the People” embracing the supremacy of the sovereignty of the people over their elected representatives as well as artificial entities, never mentioned in the Constitution, called (global) corporations.

Be advised, that this Summons calls for your attendance at a Town Meeting run by, of, and for the People. Please reserve a minimum of two and one- half hours for this serious exercise of deliberative democracy.

Sincerely yours,
(The names of citizens and citizen groups)

Throughout the land, we will see how many signatures are collected and how much time elapses before each member of Congress responds affirmatively. Social media offers a perfect communication tool to drive this “competition.”

Professor Richard Parker of Harvard Law School wrote a short book in 1998 with the intriguing title Here the People Rule. He asserted that the Constitution provides for an affirmative duty by government “to facilitate the political and civic energies of the people.” That is precisely what the tools of democracy and civic engagement enable.

To be concretely helpful, we hope to have a national convocation of citizens addressing the ways and means of making this Citizens Summons a reality in every Congressional District. We expect these proceedings to be streamed, so that you can witness ways you can connect with what is proffered in the following weeks of community energy and action.

There is often a deep and cultivated joy in seeking just outcomes that start overcoming the frequent frustrations and pressures arising out of confronting contentious opponents or stultifying bureaucracies. It is because you are giving expression to what you believe is right, and are helping others, that life is enriched and more significant in the long run. Back in 1993 we asked Anne Witte Garland to interview women who entered controversial civic arenas and challenged powerful interests, from a nuclear plant company to dangerous governmental military policies to an auto company’s defective vehicles.

Most of these women had families and had never been activists before. They learned, so to speak, on the job. It wasn’t easy. They were subjected to intimidation, ridicule, obstructive tactics, and stresses inside their families. As they dug into their mission, they had to devote more time. After Garland finished her interviews and researched their broader backgrounds, she returned to complete her book titled Women Activists. I asked her what was the most memorable impression she took from these women. Her immediate reply: “I have never met happier people.”

The combination of joy with justice augments one’s fulfillment of life’s possibilities. Throughout the centuries, humanity and society have evolved. Progress continues to be made in regard to the rule of law, due process, human rights, and social opportunities. The process has never been smooth and unhindered. War, disruption, and retreat mar every step of the way, but the curve continues upward, notwithstanding the arrival of new risks and uncertainties. Breakthroughs move us forward, but are inevitably followed by new problems that require “thinking anew . . . for a new birth of freedom,” to use the words of Abraham Lincoln. The potential for more fair and equable ways to live in one’s community, society, and world keeps expanding as well. So do optimistic realizations of what it takes to make changes that somehow escaped our formal education.

Before concluding these shared moments with our kind readers, let’s now start together a simple experiment for a long-overdue change in our election laws to provide a role for the disaffected, for the voters who choose not to vote for anybody who is on the ballot. It is called a binding none-of- the-above (NOTA) option on every voting line for the disengaged who want to register a “no confidence vote.” In our country, when you vote, you can only vote Yes to someone on the ballot, unless you write in a vote for someone not on the ballot. This is a cumbersome procedure, to say the least, and in some states and localities, officials don’t even bother to count write-ins. I should know.

Only Nevada has a none-of-the-above option, but it is not binding. A binding NOTA option will mean that if there are more votes for none-of-the-above than for any other candidate, that part of the election is canceled and, say in thirty days, new elections with new candidates would begin. Giving ourselves the option to vote for none-of-the- above will bring out more people to the polls. It will shake up smug and stagnant gerrymandered systems where too often just one of the Republican or Democratic Party can- didates dominates, or there are two nearly indistinguishable candidates, or no opposing candidate to the incumbent at all. You won’t be surprised to learn that, when they hear about NOTA, a majority of the American people favor a none-of-the-above option. Let’s get this straightforward movement underway, to exercise a little people power. For a useful manual on how to work for none-of-the-above on local, state, and federal electoral ballot lines, write for a free copy of NOTA Advance Packet: An Idea Whose Time Has Come to NOTA, P.O. Box 19367, Washington, D.C. see: http://csrl.org/csrl-books/ and indicate how much time and resources you wish to devote to this initiative and in what electoral district.