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What to do with a Democratic Congress?

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I want to thank all of you for taking part in the democratic process. As you are aware, democracy is not something that happens just once or twice year in a voting both. Democracy is an on-going dialogue between ourselves and with our elected officials. To borrow a phrase, it is a marketplace of ideas.

I know that in that marketplace some of you might expect me to take the role of critic tonight because I am a Green Party activist talking about how the major parties govern.. And I have to admit that knocking something down much more fun that building it up. But if all I did here was tear things down, then activist in me would leave here feeling very empty. So let's start with what we -- and I believe some of our representatives in Washington -- agree on.

Our shared vision is well expressed in the last two stanzas of the Langston Hughes' poem Let America Be America Again

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Langston Hughes says it so well. And we all know what that America looks like. We could each make a relatively similar list of what changes are necessary. Here are several:

• Leave Iraq. Now!
• Institute universal single payer healthcare.
• Abolish the death penalty.
• End Global Warming.
• Repeal the Patriot Act.
• Stop the torture.
• Institute a right a right to have your vote counted.

So the question becomes why aren't any of these things on the 100 hour agenda of the House or on the agenda of the Senate. Is it the military-industrial complex? The need for corporate donations? Fear of going against what the corporately-owned media tries to convince us is popular opinion?

Or is it -- as Senator Schumer describes in his new book that going to policy meetings where goals are (in his words) "turned into pablum - big ideas are made small; tough choices were made weak; bold plans were made timid." He concludes that "a lot of our best stuff was drowned in a sea of consensus."

I'm sorry Senator Schumer, but that is not consensus. Consensus where all parties' needs are separated from their wants, and an attempt is made to meet all parties needs. Or consensus could be described in less stilted language looking by to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones:

You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need

What Senator Schumer describes is just the opposite. It is the worst form of compromise, choosing the lowest common denominator or the lesser of two evils. That phrase always reminds me of the another musician. Jerry Garcia said in a 1989 interview that

"Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil."

To overcome this dilemma we need to band together to decide on what we want and work towards that goal no matter who is in charge. This is obviously the belief of the Move-On's of the world. Yes, they have tempered their descriptions of Congress since the Democrats took control, but I am still getting emails from these organizations telling me I have write to my congressman to get him to vote to "make America again" Obviously, they don't know my congressman is Peter King. But the Move-On's of the world do know that the Democratic Senators and Congressman can't be counted on as reformers either.

So what must we do? Let's look to a discussion of what is necessary to get change from a speech by Frederick Douglas:

"Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. [emphasis added] It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted...."

Keeping Frederick Douglas' words in mind, let's turn to the issue of the Iraq War. I feel it is the most pressing issue since the Iraq War was the prime reason given for the Democrats gaining control of the Congress. And since this Saturday many of us will be taking part in yet another mass demonstration to end the war in Iraq that we begged our Congresspersons and Senators not to vote for in the first place.

Where do our Democratic Congresspersons and Senators start from on the issue of the Iraq War? Let's look at my local representatives. Congressman Israel voted for war in Iraq. Congressman Bishop voted for war in Iraq. Congresswoman McCarthy voted for war in Iraq. Senator Schumer voted for war in Iraq. Senator Clinton voted for War in Iraq. (We remember well that Senator Clinton told us that she was going to vote for the Iraq War despite the 10,000 emails she received opposing it.)

Turning to Frederick Douglas' words what is our demand?

Leave Iraq. Now.

No quibbling over so-called troop surges like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. No timetables or excuses. Enough Americans have died. Enough Iraqis have died. When we threw off the mantle of England's rule, the French didn't insist on staying here to tell us how to run our country, the French didn't build huge military bases here, and the French didn't take our natural resources to pay themselves for it. Yes we had rebellions here, and the articles of confederation totally failed after 10 years. Not to mention that the second governing document, the Constitution, affirmed the evil institution of slavery. And thereby set the stage for an immensely bloody civil war. Sounds just like we've accomplished by invading Iraq, and trying to run it. Stay or go, a nation must find its way. Since staying has not improved the process, we must leave Iraq now.

Let's talk about what ideas the Democratic majority has put before Congress. There are several bills that are primarily focused on the distraction of the troop surge, which is actually means returning the troops to last year's level. There are also several bills that actually talk about leaving Iraq. All of them are disappointingly "time-table" bills. There is no bill before congress to get us out of Iraq immediately. The most popular of the timetable bills is the so-called "The Bring the Troops Home and Iraq Sovereignty Restoration Act" (H.R. 508) which requires SIX MONTHS to get out of Iraq. This bill is being pushed by all the Move-On type organizations and has the most co-sponsors. But don't get excited. In addition to it's sponsor California Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, there are a paltry 16 congresspersons co-sponsoring. The majority of them are the usual suspects that have been in Congress forever: (Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson, James McGovern, Raul Grijalva, Dennis Kucinich, Barney Frank, Maurice Hinchey, John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler, Chaka Fattah, Bob Filner, William "Lacy" Clay, Donald Payne, Steve Cohen and Sheila Jackson Lee.)

I understand the the Progressive Democrats of America just started seeking support for the same Congressman Jim McGovern is reintroducing the so-called ""Safe and Orderly Withdrawal Act" (HR 4232). This is also a six month timetable bill. When it was introduced last year it had a paltry eleven sponsors: John Lewis, Ms. Jan Schakowsky, Jose Serrano, Nydia Velasquez, Mr. Pete Stark, Carolyn Kilpatrick, and the same Barney Frank, Lynn Woolsey, Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich, Donald Payne, and Barbara Lee.

Where are all the new Congresspersons like New York's John Hall that were supposedly elected in opposition to Iraq? Where are our congresspersons Bishop, McCarthy, & Israel?

I know the answers. They fear being called unpatriotic and cowardly. The answer to them lies in the speech Dr. King gave announcing his opposition to the Viet Nam War. It was given exactly one year before he was murdered. In that speech Dr King quoted the Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who is still exiled from his homeland of Viet Nam for opposition to the Viet Nam War. Dr. King had previously nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Here are the words Dr. King quoted:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

This speech by Dr. King so beautifully lays out a vision of "making America again" that I was tempted to lay my own writing aside and just read his, so I ask you to indulge me as I turn again to Dr. King's speech. In its opening paragraphs he illuminates the paths that we, and our leaders, must take. Dr. King reiterates his host's statement on the Viet Nam War:

"A time comes when silence is betrayal."

He went on to state that:

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world.

Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.

I believe that Dr. King's message has a broader agenda than just dealing with the individual issues we all could list. For if I went through just the issues I have listed we would find that they all follow the same pattern. Pablum policy. Small ideas. Weak choices. Timid plans. A constant caving into lesser evilism. When you constantly have the same pattern over and over again with the same result no matter the issue, it points to systemic deficiencies. If we don't fix those systemic deficiencies, there is no hope for this or any Congress "making America again" If we don't fix we will constantly being running from issue to issue, begging our Congresspersons to "make America again" Though we might stem the retreat, and we might even inch forward, we will be kept from escaping the gravity of systemic deficiencies.

What is the first demand? Fix our electoral system. And I don't mean HAVA. That bill is the worst of all compromises. Republicans legislators got in an ID requirement. Democratic legislators got in electronic voting. And we got nothing. Electronic voting doesn't work. And no amount of paper records will fix that. Canada holds there elections on paper ballots. And they count them overnight. It is relatively simple to make paper ballots handicapped accessible. We should have a right to have our vote counted.

But we don't. In Bush v. Gore, the US Supreme Court said there is no Constitutional Right to have your vote counted. And speaking about what else is not in the Constitution, our winner-take-all election system is not Constitutionally required

Speaking of constitutionally required systems, 2 states have broken away from winner-take all to a more proportional system for the Electoral College. You don't get all the delegates if you get 42% percent of the vote, just because no one else got more. You should get 42% of the delegates. Now I am not suggesting that we adopt this for all states for the electoral college because the whole electoral college system should be replaced with a direct election. The Electoral College is the last remnant of the rich white male landowners having a check on the poor white male landowners.

But let's return to the idea why the candidate with only 42% percent of the vote shouldn't take the election just because no one got more. The Baseball MVP and the Heisman trophy winner are elected by a system caller Instant Run-off Voting. IRV for short. It's a simple idea. You rank all the candidates in order of your preference. If no one gets 50% of the vote, then the candidate with the least votes is dropped out of the counting. But here is the beauty of the system, the voters who for the last place candidate have their second choice move up to be counted. This goes on until one candidate reaches a majority.

This system is already at work in place like California and Vermont. Why bother? Because it allows you to vote for what you love rather than worrying about voting against what you hate. Even if your prime worry in the 2000 election was keeping Bush from getting elected, you could have freely voted for Nader first, and Gore second, because Bush would have had to get over 50% of the vote rather than just 1 more vote than Gore.

Now the only academic study I could find of this showed that based on polling figures if this type of system was in place Nader could have been elected president in 2000. That means that IRV frees candidates to talk about what they believe in, and elected officials legislate to "make America again" rather than constantly peddling"pablum".

It also frees the voters from listening to hours of worthless negative campaign ads because each candidate would be vying to be your second and third choice vote if they are not your first choice.

In places like NYC which has a requirement of a run-off election for mayor if neither candidate gains 50% percent of the vote, IRV could save the millions of dollars required for a second election. Hence, the name IRV which would instantly create a built-in run-off election showing voters choices.

These are the types are reforms that Lani Guinier was trying to talk about way back in the beginning of the Clinton Administration when she was nominated for the Justice Department. For her trouble the Right erroneously labeled her the "quota queen" and President Clinton made that label stick by running away from her nomination. Imagine if she had been confirmed.

Professor Guinier wrote about similar voting systems that could be used in electing multi-member districts through proportional representation just as it is used to elect some corporate boards. This would work for town boards, but could also be applied to county and state legislatures and congress. Instead of just voting for one representative from one geographic area, multiple legislators would be elected from a larger geographic area. The difference is that people with similar views could have representation in proportion to their voting strength. For simplification purposes let's say you have 5 congressional seats in Suffolk & Nassau. Then under proportional representation a 20% minority group spread over that area can have a voice in Congress from Long Island Again this encourages candidates to talk about what they believe in, and elected officials legislate to "make America again" rather than run campaigns of "pablum".

We also demand that we have a level playing field so ordinary citizens can run for office. Despite the media constantly using the phrase "two-party system," no such requirement exists in the constitution. Too many election laws are written so that only the choice of the major parties can run people for office. And in too many areas around the country, like in the Town of Babylon where I live, you have situations where year after year no Democrat is run against a Republican State Senator and no Republican is run against Democratic Assemblyman. That is not democracy. That is not healthy. That is not a market place of ideas.

I should note that I borrowed the term "a marketplace of ideas" from a Supreme Court case about the importance of the first amendment. The press is the only constitutionally protected business in order for them to facilitate this marketplace. The press have let us down. They regularly ignore anyone but registered Democrats and Republican who run for office. The Newsday editorial board refuses to interview independent candidates. News 12 similarly does not allow independent candidates in their debates. Now the press has the right to express its opinions, and dislike, and write bad things about any candidate it wants. But when it reports on certain legal candidates, and acts like other ballot-qualified candidates don't exist, that crosses the line in my mind into making a campaign contribution. In my mind, they should have to report it as such.

Speaking of campaign finance, we need serious reform there. The best solution I have seen is public campaign financing. It is also called clean campaign because it takes corporate influence out of campaigns. And I'm not talking about HR 4694 which was sponsored by Congressman Steve Israel, and some other Democrats. That bill would have basically funded Democratic and Republican candidates while making independent candidates jump through additional hoops. The model I am talking about is used in NYC and in New England. Every candidate has to get a certain number of small donations from a certain number of real people. Let's say 200 contributions of $5 a piece. At that point the candidate would qualify for funding.

Now I can hear the conservatives complaining that we would be adding another tax to pay for this. Well, we're already being taxed twice for elections and we have no say in how its spent. Corporations tax me by raising their price so they can pay for campaign contributions. And then the government taxes me when the corporations get payback through legislation that only applies them.

And what's so great about public financing? It would mean that money no longer warps policy making so the politics are pablum is replaced by the work of "making America again" One Vermont legislator proudly tells the story of a corporate lobbyist who promptly turned his back and started talking to someone else when he found out the legislator was a "clean campaign" candidate.

To me the intersection of problems in elections and campaign finance comes from corporations. The rise of the corporation as a force in American politics happened about the time of Civil War when the Republican party rose as the second majority party. The idea of corporate personhood arose through a misreading of a 19th century Supreme Court case, which has been carried over in every case since. And over that same 100 years since then another majority party has not been able to overcome the systemic hurtles as had happened several times over the 100 years before.

One self-reinforcing aspect of these systemic deficiencies is the ability to warp the power relationships. The company that owns Newsday also owns a TV station here. The corporation that owns the New York Post also owns 2 TV stations. President Clinton's Telecommunications Act helped usher in this era of media consolidation. And with the power and money accumulated by these large corporations, they are able to push Congress to allow for consolidation that benefits corporate person, but not real persons. The same dynamic works in all industries, the un-natural conglomeration of money and power in large corporations creates a gravity which warps legislation to the corporations needs despite the public interest. In the media arena, this means that there is no competition in the marketplace of ideas since there only a few vendors.

I heard an example of the effect of this lack of ideas while I was listening to a radio talk show yesterday. A caller complained that she had no way to judge President Bush's state of the Union address because she had not heard other plans to compare with his. Even if we change the system so we elect Congresspersons who feel free to propose the legislation to "make America again", we also need a media that will carry it through to that woman.

And don't let them make you think that it's consolidation into a liberal media. Last year, a bunch of Copiague High School alumni met to catch up on things at the bar owned by one of us. One of my friends told me of an encounter that happened before I arrived. My friend had mentioned that she worked for NBC News. She was immediately talked down to by the girlfriend of an alumni who didn't like how the liberal press was treating "her" president. My friend asked her what she was talking about NBC is owned by GE, a defense contractor.

Those are my demands to those in power. I would like to start winding up by recalling the circumstances of Dr. King's 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King had gotten arrested in Birmingham for peacefully protesting against segregation there. Eight pastors from the local community wrote a "Call for Unity" saying that segregation should be only dealt with in the courts, not the streets. I take the following paragraph from Dr. King's reply as a continuing call to action to enact the ideas proposed here:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

So please take my words as a call to action. For we must act together to "make America again" In the spirit of acting together, I would like to end my presentation with the same Marge Piercy poem that Bill Moyers just ended his speech at the National Conference on Media Reform.

The low road
What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can''t walk, can''t remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can't stop them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing filecan break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know you who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

 

Take action -- click here to contact your local newspaper or congress people:
Make America Again

Click here to see the most recent messages sent to congressional reps and local newspapers

http://www.onthewilderside.com

Ian Wilder is co-blogger at onthewilderside. He is a peace and justice activist, and a former NY State Green Party Co-Chair.

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you make several rather excellent points regarding... by ardee D. on Monday, Feb 5, 2007 at 11:08:32 AM