CIVIC AROUSAL, ADDRESSED TO THE CITIZENS OF AMERICA
by Ralph Nader, © 2004 Ralph Nader
For the young people of America
Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, by
I. Of the current state of our democracy, including its voting process, which deprives Americans of choices they deserve
II. Of corporate government, sold-out politicians, and the neglect of the people's requirements and needs
III. Of what citizens are capable of, if they exercise the full power of their rights
A NEW EDITION, with two letters from young citizens Erika McVoy and Robert Cirincione, Jr., which illuminate frustrations with our political system felt by many, and with responses
NEW YORK: PRINTED AND SOLD BY REGANBOOKS
August 23, 2004
Dear Mr. Nader,
I don't have anything nasty to say to you. I think you're a good man trying to do an impossible job. It is because of this that I am writing to you.
I have lived in Florida for all of my twenty-seven years, including (obviously) the disaster that was the 2000 presidential election. During that debacle, I actually lived in Tallahassee, so I got to see firsthand the nastiness and media frenzy and party polarization and so-called "activism" that we all remember so well. At the time, I must admit I was angry at Nader voters, because it did seem to me that people who voted for you could have voted for a member of the two-party system and made things go more smoothly for the candidate I favored. In retrospect, however, and as we face another presidential campaign and election cycle, my feelings are different.
I am not writing to tell you whether to run again or not. I'm a waitress: what do I know about campaigns and elections? I am writing you because I face another cycle of the same stories and the same faces and the same attitudes I've witnessed since I first registered to vote ten years ago. I am writing you because you have intentionally kept yourself outside of the two-party system and have stood for what you believe in and have sought votes from the people who are tired of the ways things are done. I am tired of the ways things are NOT done. I am tired of wanting money for education to go to students instead of administrators. I am tired of wanting to focus on the needs of my country and my fellow citizens and seeing attention given, instead, to international issues that DO NOT -- regardless of the assertions of either party -- affect the daily lives of people living here, voting here, paying taxes here. I am tired of knowing that something different must be done and yet voting within a system that guarantees -- no matter whether "liberals" or "conservatives" are "in power" -- that nothing new will happen, nothing will ever change.
What frustrated me the most about your campaign in 2000 was that I knew smart, active, dedicated people who were voting for you, and yet I couldn't, because I knew it didn't matter if I voted for you. Voting outside of the two-party system seems like a waste of a vote, because you and other candidates outside of the majority do not have the exposure or the support to win elections. However, voting within the two-party system is equally a waste of a vote because neither Democrats nor Republicans will say or do what needs to be said and done to bring about real change in the world. I have only been registered to vote for ten years, and I have only voted a handful of times in my life, and already I am tired of it. I want to speed through this election cycle and submit my will to whomever will be elected (or reelected) next, because in a system as corrupt as ours, what difference does any of it make? And at the same time, I am disappointed in myself for the defeatism I feel.
My question is not whether you will run again or not. Personally, I don't really care whether you do. My question, really, is HOW can we change the way things are done? To whom do I write? To whom do I complain? To whom do I speak? Even people who once cared about change are now too entrenched in the system to see beyond it, and the rest -- well, they either have too much money or not enough. I don't want to vote next year. I don't want there to be a President or a Legislature. I want them all to go away, to start from scratch. I am bored and frustrated with the same language and the same policies and the same problems.
This is a funny thing. You, yourself, are the closest "rebel" to the middle stage, and it is only because of this closeness to the American center that I have even heard of you, that CNN even bothered with you years ago. And this is why I'm writing. You come the closest to being them.
What should I do?
I suppose, in the end, none of the politics matter. I hope, finally, that you are just a good man. And that no matter what happens with the rest of the mess you continue to be so.
September 15, 2004
Dear Erika McVoy:
Your message reached me in a swarm of e-mails but it stood out with its thoughtfulness and honesty. You ask the important questions of yourself and others. You would like to demand more of the political system -- captive and indentured as it is to powerful interests -- but "defeatism" you feel renders you unable to demand more from yourself.
Although I must say that you have a special rhythm in the way you express yourself, what you are conveying are sensibilities and disdains that young people have felt throughout many past generations both here and in other countries as well. Given the vast gaps between where we are and where we could be as a society and as a culture, your frustration is understandable as are your questions: "How can we change the way things are done? To whom do I write? To whom do I complain? To whom do I speak? What should I do?"
When I was your age, out of Law School and studying why the auto companies made cars in ways that let millions of Americans die or be injured because the manufacturers refused to place simple safety systems in these vehicles, I asked the same questions of many people in state and federal government, in traffic safety circles, even of the auto companies themselves. They gave me many answers and nonanswers and, strange as it may seem, I found the latter the most motivating. Then I realized that the questions similar to those you presented had to be asked to one more person: myself, and in the most insistent manner, the most relentless "don't let go" manner.
Over two thousand years ago, Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, said that "character is destiny." I'll add four more words: "and personality is decisive." Those two works-in-progress -- one's character and one's personality -- create the bedrock off which to bounce your questions. Without such introspection, we will always be wandering in the wilderness, wondering and shrugging and questioning, without a compass. Cynicism -- another word for rejection followed by withdrawal -- will thwart skepticism -- another word for doubt followed by resurgence. How do we find the right direction? First, we must decide to look for it. But isn't that what many achievements in life entail?
As a waitress, you interact for short amounts of time with many different people, which means you make fast appraisals and have quick reactions. Over time this kind of feedback becomes a skill. Watching your customers process their reactions to the menu -- regardless of age -- lets you see how even the small indecisions or impulses by eaters reflects anxieties, knowledge, dependencies, and tastes that flow from their character and personality. Choices for harm instead of for benefit can have over time serious consequences for health, obesity, and disease.
I grew up working in my parents' restaurant opposite a sprawling textile mill in Winsted, Connecticut, learning various jobs in the kitchen, behind the counter, and at the tables. It was such a valuable experience. Serving and conversing with such varieties of customers -- factory workers, jurors, clerks, salespeople, vacationers, artisans, retirees and families with small children -- gave me many windows to look through. When these customers spoke of their occupations or hobbies, they often exuded confidence and self-reliance. But when their talk turned to "politics," their tones changed. They expressed a range of differing opinions, but also dollops of cynicism, powerlessness, and absence of self-confidence that they could do something about public woes, corruption, stupidity, and overlooked necessities.
I marveled at their strength when they spoke about their own tragedies and hard times, and the ways they adjusted or overcame these adversities. I also marveled at how this fortitude seemed to disappear when the topics turned to their civic life and public concerns. In this arena, they couldn't seem to muster much effort or drive for change. I couldn't understand it. Raising their children, responding to a prolonged illness in the family, making a living, and their other daily challenges were so much tougher than being a modestly active and consistent citizen in their community and country.
For years I would ask myself why their priorities fell this way. There are many explanations, of course, but one that stayed with me was one I experienced in school. Even before television and its distractions, children knew little about the history of their community, received little practical civic education to connect their classrooms with the conditions in which they lived, and, in my father's words, were taught to believe rather than to think.
Still, all in all, giving up on oneself as a public citizen is an internally reversible state of affairs. Willing yourself toward civic activism is made easier by a developed awareness of injustice, without which one can scarcely command a sense of justice. They are frames of reference for one another.
Reaching this awareness requires clearing out two tendencies that seem all too widespread -- believing everything put forth by out flattering leaders (successful propaganda) and believing nothing. Both reactions have something in common -- they allow one to go through life without thinking.
Thinking about the pursuit of justice, which is the road to the pursuit of happiness, can become a pleasant experience. "Justice," Senator Daniel Webster said some 160 years ago, is "the great work of man on earth."
How did the better of our forebears confront the pervasive wrongdoing tolerated by the political systems of their day? Put yourself for a moment in the shoes of those early Americans who started four major social justice movements in the nineteenth century -- the abolitionist, women's suffrage, trade union and farmer -- populist progressive revolts. It started with the perception of suffering, humiliation, and deprivation. Then it moved to a realization that such abuses and exclusions were not ordained. Citizens began talking with one another. Conversations start change -- with two or four or eight people -- neighbors, friends, coworkers, relatives. Talk leads to solidarities, a feeling that one is not alone, that people can exchange motivations, ideas, and strengths with one another. This is how civic personalities begin to develop -- in small groups brought together around common causes.
As Maggie Kuhn, the phenomenal organizer of the elderly in the seventies and eighties, used to exhort, "Do at least one outrageous thing every day." How important is civic personality? Let's not underestimate -- it's critical. A person with a driven civic spirit does not get discouraged, feels resilient in learning from past mistakes and defeats, emerges smarter, stronger, and more strategic than before. A civic personality does not hog credit for acts of progress, but instead bends in the other direction of giving credit to others (including elected officials who crave recognition and deserve it, should they do the right thing). A civic personality keeps reading, thinking, and becoming more civically secure in herself to bring more neighbors and friends into the civic life. Our country's history demonstrates that almost all of the great and small social justice movements started with citizens putting out the call that something should or should not be done in the name of fairness. More often than not such moves took courage and sometimes outright bravery. Take for example the organizing of trade unions, perpetuated in the heat of company-hired goons generating mayhem and havoc against the workers and their families around the steel mills, the coal mines, and the auto plants years ago.
Intensifying one's civic personality requires civic motivation, which can be nourished endlessly by the example of others past and present. You may have heard of Granny D from New Hampshire who at age eighty-nine ignored her arthritis, went to the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1999, and then WALKED across the entire United States to Washington, D.C., under her banner of campaign finance reform. She was determined to educate everyone and every media outlet she encountered on the way that dirty money in politics was a cancer inside our democracy and was blocking many improvements for people and their country. It was amazing. When she arrived in Washington, Congress knew about her and some members met her on her arrival. She symbolized what my mother meant when she gave her children those marvelous words: "Determination puts your dreams on wheels." So almost four years later, what is Granny D doing? She is still pressing for public financing of public elections. This time she is a authentic civic celebrity getting media attention. She doesn't give up.
There was the Peace Pilgrim who gave up all her worldly belongings and walked from community to community speaking for peace and finding other peace advocates. Highway after highway she journeyed until she lost her life when a car struck her. Today her adherents, galvanized by her moral example, continue her critically important work.
There was Lois Gibbs, a working-class mother and homemaker in Niagara Falls, who noticed health problems with her children and similar ones with neighborhood children in their Niagara Falls, New York, housing project. It turned out that the neighborhood was built on toxic waste-soaked land. An uproar ensued. Companies and public officials were berated. Ms. Gibbs -- never an active citizen -- emerged as a community leader, and with others, fought for their children's lives against an unseen, invisible seepage of silent chemical violence. Lois Gibbs and her neighbors received compensation for their homes and got out of there. Last year she marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Love Canal crisis at her Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Virginia, where for many years she has organized and helped thousands of community groups confronted with toxic wastes endangering their families. "Our daily work is with people in tears," says Lois. Yet the Center's biennial convention celebrates victory after victory by ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary results. Isn't that what the American people at their best have accomplished when they arouse themselves to work for just outcomes?
What we rarely learn in our history classes is how a little effort by the people has gone a long way for the people. Growing up feeling that we do not count and that no one is listening to us breeds a mistaken sense that it takes huge mobilizations to make change. Well, for some objectives that is a correct assumption; but for many important changes, it takes a lot less citizen energy than many people realize. In 1993, during the White House-Congressional struggle over health insurance, I don't think there were fifty full-time organizers working the Congressional districts on behalf of universal health insurance -- a proposal sent, and rejected by Congress fifty-five years ago by President Harry Truman. It lost then and a far weaker bill lost in 1994. Imagine if there were two thousand full-time field organizers instead -- not that big a number, given the stakes and support by labor unions and elderly groups. Then the 120 House members who already supported full Medicare for all likely would have found their majority there and in the Senate.
So if we decide to put some time into our civic responsibilities, work up our civic motivation, begin conversations with others similarly inclined or with citizen groups already established, our civic personality takes hold and the joys of seeking justice grow to make our daily routines less daily.
You wrote that you lived in Tallahassee "during the debacle" of the 2000 campaign. Then you know that the Secretary of State Katherine Harris, with the approval of Governor Jeb Bush, set out to disenfranchise tens of thousands of Floridians who were likely to vote Democratic. In one of her forays, her office hired a company that erroneously labeled 50,000 people as ex-felons and ineligible to vote. One problem: they were not felons. Oops, so sorry. But no one was fined, prosecuted, or otherwise reprimanded for taking away these Floridians' constitutional right to vote. That alone would have won Gore the election, quite apart from the other even larger electoral shenanigans attributed to the Republicans who ran the state government. Now assume in 1999 -- and the clues were already observable -- a group of citizens in Tallahassee formed a watchdog group over Ms. Harris's office, filed Freedom of Information requests, called the media, maybe even found a pro bono lawyer or law professor to expose in a court of law what was going on. This could have been done as a good government civic club with very part-time efforts.
Of course, this initiative would have been more likely had the schools there taught civic skills -- such as how and why to use the state's Freedom of Information Act to get government documents, contracts and files. The schools pridefully teach or try to teach students computer skills, accounting skills, and other business management skills like marketing and public relations. And yet they seem oblivious to teaching youngsters civic skills, such as how to organize, where to get information relevant to social improvements, the ways and means of getting media and putting on press conferences, the preparation of voting records of legislators in clear, understandable formats, the development of stamina and many other know-hows and know-whos. Still, we can't fully blame inadequate education: people have shown again and again that if they have the desire, they can learn these skills as they take on an injustice or push an available solution. Someday an entrepreneur will start a nationwide cluster of storefronts teaching citizen-skill seminars.
There was one part of your letter which -- taken out of the context from the rest of your observations -- could suggest that you're considering dropping out of voting altogether. I refer to your feeling that voting is a waste because the two parties won't "bring about real change," and a third-party candidate (under the present system which I called rigged against small parties) won't get the exposure or support to win. You add "in a system as corrupt as ours, what difference does any of it make?" and then you chide yourself "for the defeatism I feel." You're right at the end -- defeatism is disappointing and must be viewed personally as unacceptable. What justice we've received thus far has been because enough of our forebears rejected defeatism and rook on the wrongdoers, the excluders and the naysayers.
Ani DiFranco said to me in 2000 that for her, "inaction is not an option." Inaction or "surrender" has let many bad situations and brutalities continue to spread without challenge. Apathy creates lots of space for the rascals, for the greedy to fill and take over. Apathy allows bad things to happen and signals that worse things will be encouraged to occur in the future. So it is with not voting. I've always believed that the only wasted vote is the vote for someone you do not believe in. Voting for small parties or candidates who you think well of helps expand such efforts for good ideas, higher visions, and brighter strategies before and after election day. What would nature be like if seeds were not given a chance to sprout? We know what business is like when small business is not given a chance to take on the big boys. Why is it in politics we cannot recognize where reform and regeneration come from -- almost always from outside challenges or jolts?
In our rigged two-party monopoly, third parties or independent candidates do not usually win, but what they do is push the agendas, bring new energies for new leadership along, build for a future in which the system gets unrigged and true political choices and competitions can freshen the paths to a more just and creative society and world. The mighty Mississippi River starts with a drop of water in northern Minnesota, and that drop joins with other drops, which form a rivulet, which joins with other rivulets to form a brook. From there water fills streams and streams fill small rivers, which fill tributaries, which flow into the mighty Mississippi. That's how our individual civic energies flow into mighty social achievements, protest movements, and transformations.
Make a list of the protections and rights you have in this country. Chances are high that they originated with a few individuals who stirred others, who then organized even more others for the breakthrough. Women's suffrage -- the right to vote for half of all Americans -- was attained nationally in 1919 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Organizationally, historians tell us the drive started in a farmhouse in 1846 in Seneca Falls, New York, with six women who, along with many followers, braved insults, abuses, arrests, and assaults before the day was won. How can anyone feel defeated knowing how our forebears turned defeatism into victory through endless profiles of courage and determination? Perhaps because the forces of defeatism are all around us -- explicitly by the power brokers and implicitly by our concessions to that power. After all, half of the American population does not vote in presidential elections.
Let me mention how the two major parties deal with potential challenge and replacement by what is called third party or independent political movements during elections. The stifling domination of the Republican and Democratic parties is based on a whole set of exclusions, starting with the winner-take-all electoral system itself. This system discourages people from voting in part because it has neither instant run-off voting nor proportional representation. It creates the atmosphere for defeatism. It makes voters worry that voting for small party or independent candidates will steal the race from the lesser-of-two-evils candidate belonging to a major party. Underneath this concern about supporting a "spoiler," as third-party candidates are frequently and unfortunately called, lies the belief by millions of nonvoters that politics has nothing to offer them.
In European democracies, there is some form of proportional representation. For example, in Germany when the Greens received over 5 percent of the vote, they were awarded 5 percent of the national Parliament. If they achieved 7 percent of the vote, they would have 7 percent of the parliamentary seats. This threshold is low enough to encourage voters who favor Green Party politics to vote for that Party. In the United States, such voters would be told they are wasting their vote because the winner of the most votes wins it all. Forty-nine percent of the voters get nothing and 51 percent get it all in single member districts -- a convenient adjunct to ensure that one or the other of the major parries wins elections at the local, state, or congressional levels.
Sounds a bit complex until one thinks about it for a minute. The Democrats are constantly whining about the Green Party as a spoiler. There is a simple solution and that is for the Democrats to push for legislation that establishes Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). Though about a quarter of our votes would have gone to Bush, says one exit poll, a larger number (about 40 percent) would have gone to Gore. The rest would not have voted at all. So if there was IRV and voters who voted for me could put down Gore as their second choice or Bush as their second choice, when the votes were tallied and neither Bush nor Gore had a majority, then the second preference votes would be instantly shifted. Since more of my voters would have preferred Gore to Bush, all other variables aside, Gore would have won Florida (though subsequent media-organized Florida statewide recounts had Gore the winner anyway). Nonetheless, the Democratic Party still has not made IRV a priority issue or even come out in favor of it at all. So it makes me wonder whether the Democratic Party really views the Greens as a spoiler or whether it is just indulging in old-fashioned scapegoating so it doesn't have to look inside itself first and foremost to correct its deficiencies and reverse its decays.
Indeed, politicians usually try to co-opt a small parry by reaching out to it after an election to take away some of its issues. The Democrats have not reached out to the Greens in the four years after the election. So degraded has the competition between the two major parties become that there are more and more one-party districts in the House of Representatives and in state legislative districts -- either uncontested Republican or Democratic districts. I read that over 40 percent of state legislative districts have no major party opponent to the incumbent; it may be higher in Florida. We're heading for a country being carved up this way by redistricting or by abandonment. Imagine, voters are supposed to pick the candidates; instead, one major Party or the other in power gets to pick their voters in grotesquely carved-up districts that look like snakes or doodles.
When I was a student I read Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom, which was about people who retreat from using the freedoms they have and abide by authoritarian rulers and systems. Just before the New Year, I was reading in the New York Times how low the voting turnout in Russia is since the Soviet Union dissolved. Each year it seems to get lower -- depending on the elections, only about one-third of the eligible voters bother to vote and in some local elections even fewer people voted, This in a country that has known tyranny and dictatorship. This in a country that for over a decade has even had a "none of the above" option which lets a voter go to the polls and vote NO -- no confidence in all the candidates.
I mention all this to make the point that we need more freedom and justice in our country, more clean elections, more facilities to band together as workers or consumers or taxpayers. And we need to ask: Why don't we use the freedoms available to us now to achieve those higher levels of democratic politics as if people mattered? Let's take the issue of a livable wage. I don't know what your income is, but unless you work in an expensive hotel or a tourist spot where the tips are generous, it is not likely you're making enough to start looking for a financial planner. Well, there are over forty-five million full-time workers in this country who do not make a livable wage for themselves, much less to support their family -- that is, they make less than $10 gross an hour. And this is before deductions and paying the cost of just getting to work (car, transit, insurance policy, repairs, etc.). All this during a great surge in overall economic growth whose benefits went overwhelmingly to the top 5 percent of the population. Over 100 million Americans are essentially broke, which is why the nation's expert on wealth distribution, Professor Edward Wolff of New York University, can calculate that Bill Gates' financial wealth in the year 2000 was equal to the combined financial wealth of over 100 million Americans. This is not my idea of America the Beautiful.
Now imagine if millions of these workers got rid of just one attitude -- that they are powerless, do not count, and nobody will listen to them if they protest -- and wrote their member of Congress demanding an increase in the minimum wage to what it was in real purchasing power back in 1968. That would make it over $8 an hour. If each one wrote that letter telling their congressional representatives that they are going to talk this up with their friends, publicize their response, and vote accordingly in the next election, the Congress would stand, salute and pass the livable wage law, ending the unchecked exploitation of workers by businesses like Wal-Mart and McDonalds (where their bosses are paid millions of dollars each a year). All it takes to make progress is for workers to start demanding that their voices be heard by their Congress -- in return for their promise to vote accordingly. Sounds easy. Perhaps naive. But it's achievable -- if individuals did their part, like each person in a boat picking up his or her oars. Will they do this without some assurance that others will do likewise to make it matter, to make it happen? Why not, what's the downside? A stamp, an envelope, some word of mouth with fellow workers, make a call to a talk radio station, a meeting, a demand to see your congressional representatives next time they are in your community. Throughout American history, that's how things start -- the more active convince the less active. I remember in the late eighties, no more than 200,000 calls and letters to the House of Representatives, and some talk radio activity, did something almost unheard of in Washington. These people reversed a proposed big congressional pay raise for the boys and girls on Capitol Hill. It stunned the lawmakers -- whadaya know -- the people were watching.
When my siblings and I were youngsters, our father would ask us provocative questions. One day he asked, "what is the most powerful, event-producing force in the world?" We guessed and guessed. His answer: ''Apathy.'' What? "Yes," he said, "apathy, because huge numbers of apathetic citizens, or victims, allow bad guys to create all kinds of problems on the ground -- from dictatorial regimes, to repressed economic conditions to health and safety hazards, to corruption, to wars and so forth." Edmund Burke, the British conservative philosopher around the time of our country's revolution, put it another way -- ''All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."
Behind most things that are done right is a wide-awake group of people who have not given up on themselves, who gave themselves a chance to get the changes made, who had a thirst for justice that was very gratifying to them when they quenched it around a certain condition or situation.
People ask me what keeps me going. Hmmm, I think to myself, which answer among the many shall I choose this time? What keeps me going is the valor and example of people over generations and centuries who have discomforted themselves to make a better world for us all. I sometimes imagine them crying out to us, "continue on, carry on, finish the job." Or, looking at the present world, I see so many solutions to hunger, energy, poverty, violence, discrimination, pollution, waste, illiteracy, crime, addictions, commercialism, boredom and many diseases -- solutions too often on the shelf or working only in a few proven places, which are not applied to the festering problems that should sear our consciences and shame us into action. Or doing nothing, surrendering as the alternative to action is simply not in the cards. Or what are we going to say to our descendants when they wonder or ask why we didn't do anything to stop the disintegration of our world, our country, our community? That we were too preoccupied with our favorite television reruns? It comes down to our own self-respect as thinking and doing human beings, who want to leave this planet in some way -- small or large -- better off than it was when we entered it. This, interestingly enough, is the Athenian oath of citizenship over two thousand years ago -- boiled down, of course. So this idea of civic self-respect has been around a long time, but it does need to be renewed in every little head of every child as one essence of both upbringing and education.
Erika McVoy -- I've trespassed on your time, but your heartfelt words are my excuse. As we roll thoughts, doubts, and despairs in our minds, we should resort to communions with other intelligences, other spirits, or the wisdom of the ages through reading. I've always treasured books as just about the best of bargains. Authors labor for months, years, sometimes decades, and we can taste, digest, and relish the results of their work in just a few hours. We live in times where staring at videos and screens consume so many hours of the day (except for eyeball to eyeball jobs like yours). I shouldn't say "we" because I'm writing this on an Underwood manual typewriter, do not watch television very much and avoid most glowing screens. But millions of people would do well to resume the practice of reading -- not just for knowledge per se, but for motivation, for learning not to feel sorry for ourselves or cynically comfortable, given the sacrifices made by people in the past for our benefit today.
There are so many good current books -- not to mention the classics in the social justice movements. They improve and inform our judgments, our conversations with our friends. So impoverished is small talk these days, never mind the shrinking vocabulary of "cool," "you know," "sort of," "kinda," "like" and more "like," that to greet someone and ask "how's your civic life?" instead of "how's your social life?" these days would be considered strange, or bizarre. But why? A "civic life" attends to important issues of well-being, health, safety, freedom, life and death, bigotry, intolerance, pain, anxiety, tedium, fear. Anyone who doubts all this -- and wants concrete examples -- just read the newspaper accounts of the daily afflictions people have to face in their community and the strains and drains that come down on them from the corporate and political powers that be. Not to mention what they pay for but don't feel. For example, experts from the General Accounting Office of the Congress and those at the Department of Health and Human Services and Harvard University estimate that anywhere from $160 billion upwards every year is taken from our health care dollars due to "computerized billing fraud and abuse" by these companies and practitioners who sell health services. That's about enough to cover the uninsured. Consumers don't get billed proportionally for this fraud, but they certainly end up paying for it.
A civic life keeps the mind open for solutions to serious or nagging problems and abuses. Solutions bore a culture like ours; solutions bore the media, they bore people generally, compared to the stories about crimes and sports and the weather. But solutions that relieve pain and anguish and create a better life are not boring when you lead a civic life. You learn how to make solutions exciting and applicable. Traffic safety was certain to produce yawns when it was discussed before 1966. It was so boring it wasn't even studied at engineering universities like MIT even when traffic fatalities were the fourth leading cause of death in our country. By highlighting safety devices and showing with actual auto crash victims how the greed and indifference of the auto executives were causing millions in preventable casualties every year, traffic safety became exciting because it was capable of being improved when before it was viewed fatalistically. The excitement caught the attention of Congress, especially when GM behaved like a clod against its critics and was caught hiring a detective firm to follow me in order to "get some dirt." Laws were passed in 1966 and over a million American lives have been saved, plus many millions of injuries prevented or reduced in severity. The unexpected, the near impossible, begins to happen when people start demanding change. Who else is going to do that? Raising our expectation levels about what we want out of business and government and their unions and universities is the way to start. These changes sometime come incrementally but relentlessly. Who would have thought in 1964 when the first U.S. Surgeon General Report came out linking smoking to cancer that forty years later the once all-powerful tobacco industry would be in retreat, would finally admit the link to cancer of their product, would pay huge sums to states, would be unable to stop the spread of non-smoking areas, and would see their customers shrink from 46 percent of the adult population to under 23 percent at present. That 420,000 Americans die every year from smoking-related diseases was not enough to restrain the cancer industry's lust for profit. Bur what Abraham Lincoln once called "public sentiment" became a mighty wave behind a health movement that is now on the offensive for health, for life.
Look at seat belt usage -- up over 80 percent. Back in the fifties and sixties, people would grimace and guffaw when I would talk about buckling up. The response was almost automatic -- ''American drivers will never buckle up." Well, today they are buckling up and so are their families. Many children and adults are alive today because of the change in attitudes and laws.
When it comes to politics, if people do not think some more, and look at the records of the politicians instead of being lulled with slogans and rhetoric and manipulative symbols, they'll be taken again and again and made to believe it was their independent decision in the voting booth. The late Tony Mazzocchi, a great labor leader and a World War II combat vet, was once asked what had been his greatest disappointment, and he replied: "Why do so many workers vote for politicians who vote against them?" The worst anti-labor, anti-union, anti-job safety, anti-consumer, anti-toxics control, anti-clean money elections are supported by half the workers in this country. Go figure! How can a Wal-Mart worker making $6 or $7 an hour support members of Congress who are opposing raising the minimum wage simply to what it was in purchasing power back in 1968? How can they vote for politicians who in turn vote to stifle opportunities to form a trade union, by not repealing the union-busting laws on the books? You know what my answer is -- people don't give themselves time to see through the lies, the distractions, the phoniness that elect politicians who harm them and allow big business to dominate and plunder. If people do not demand to have a say, they'll pay and pay and pay and so will their children and grandchildren.
Let me drive this point home with regard to our Congress. This national legislature of ours spends about 22 percent of the average working family's income to fund all those federal programs -- half of these dollars now go to bloated military expenditures and wasteful military contract programs. Imagine if someone knocked on your door and said, "Hi, I'm your new neighbor, and I just wanted to let you know I spend 22 percent of your income, have the power to raise your taxes, allow others to toxify your environment, and send young Americans to war. See you later." How would you respond -- "Hey, you're interrupting the second re-run of Cheers?" Or would you say, "Hey, if you've got that much power over my life, you mean a lot to me. Come back here, because I want to mean a lot to you." Well, this neighbor is your member of Congress. So doesn't it make sense to spend a few hours a year, along with your fellow citizens, watching this member and others in Congress? I don't think there are 20,000 Americans outside of politics and lobbying groups who spend over 100 hours a year monitoring the Congress. Imagine what 200,000 people could do if they made this their hobby.
Speaking of hobbies, I'm told there are 15 million birdwatchers in the country, and several million of them take their hobby very seriously with equipment, diaries, and a readiness to hit the road on a moment's notice of some new bird in the region. A few years ago, I recall reading in the papers that a bird native to Europe was sighted in New Jersey for the first time ever. The word zoomed out -- by radio, television, telephone, computer -- and a mad rush to the location ensued. Thousands of people headed to Jersey to see if they could see that bird. Well, that is a nice, healthy, outdoors hobby, certainly one to be enjoyed while there are still different species of birds around. But I was possessed by a musing. What if, oh, what if that bird had flown down to Washington, D.C., and alighted on the Capitol dome of the U.S. Congress, followed by a rush of birders? Imagine if some of them then switched from bird-watching to Congress- watching ... oh well, just dreaming.
Earlier I mentioned some good books but neglected to give their names. How about trying William Grieder's Who Will Tell the People, which led to a PBS TV special. Explore the searing wit and eye-opening facts in Jim Hightower's If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates. A little-known book by the sage of Washington, D.C. (the non-federal part), Sam Smith, titled Why Bother? Getting a Life in a Locked-down Land is all about civic motivation, but it's not set in a lecturing style. He takes the reader all over the place with all kinds of inserted wisdom from all kinds of agitators. This paperback is full of inspiration to stiffen backbones and demand more from our leading politicians, up to their ears in corporate cash, when they tell us in so many condescending words "Shut-up and Shop." Sam Smith gives us a remarkably concise message from Mahatma Gandhi, the great leader of Indian independence through non-violent action. These are what Gandhi called the "seven deadly social sins":
And I would add "belief without thought" and "respect without self-respect" to this list.
Grieder's book came out in 1993, and it's probably in your local library. The books by Hightower and Smith I'm going to put in the mail to you.
In a refreshing way, your letter, expressing disdain for politics and parties so characteristic of younger generations everywhere, also comes to me unencumbered. You have no fixed mantras that close down thinking, like so many hereditary Republicans and Democrats. I hope to be correct in thinking that your doubtful mind is an open mind -- open to the touch of hope, graced with the breezes of change toward horizons that offer the fulfillment of life's possibilities for the peoples of our finite and beautiful planet. Would you write and tell me if I guessed right?
19815 Spring Creek Road
November 17. 2003
Dear Mr. Nader,
I have started this letter a number of times but have always lost my focus before finishing. I cannot figure out whether I am writing to encourage you to run for President, to seek career advice, or to simply relate my present circumstance and experience as a recent college graduate. I suppose it is a little of each.
To tell you about myself is to describe many in my generation. I am a twenty-three-year-old Princeton graduate with a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. I am hardworking, creative, and self-motivated. In general, I respect authority and play by the rules. The Atlantic wrote about the likes of me when they profiled "The Organizational Kid," who does what he's told, strives to succeed, and packs his day with constructive activities.
I never questioned my priorities, or for that matter, really analyzed them. Yet somewhere along the way, influenced by the college experience, your Presidential campaign in 2000, and the events of September 11, I became dissatisfied with the status quo. I wanted to question so much. I wanted to ask why my generation is so apathetic. I wanted to find out why we don't demand change. I wanted to know why we are so willing to accept the values of those in power.
I recently turned down a high-paying job with a major automotive manufacturer. I was very unsure of my decision until I heard a story on National Public Radio about a new policy instituted by the Big Three, whereby they would continue buying from their present suppliers -- but at the lowest available market price. In effect, demanding quality parts at inferior prices. As the reporter commented, not only does this force domestic suppliers to compete with plants in Mexico, which might pay their workers $1 per hour, but also China, where workers might earn $l per day. So the American economy is ailing, and this is how a major industry responds? It made me sick.
I get a similar feeling when I see television commercials touting the research of alternate energy vehicles jointly undertaken by General Motors and Exxon. Are consumers really supposed to believe that the aims of GM, which makes the 8 mile/gallon Hummer H1, and Exxon, which sells oil, align with the goals of hydrogen fuel research? This hypocrisy of intent and conflict of interest extends beyond the corporate boardroom. Our nation's inefficient consumption of energy and its half-hearted pursuit of renewable and alternate fuels demand a serious review. Academic institutions, which should be at the forefront of this effort, are joined at the hip to industry, which provides funding for so many projects these days. The public, on the other hand, relies on Congress to mandate energy standards, a Congress that is run amok with special interest money.
By deciding to not be a part of that cycle, I have made things very difficult for myself. Big business is by far the most accessible and viable option for job seekers such as me. If you attend the science and engineering job fair at Princeton today you might think that all graduates go to work for an investment bank, a defense contractor, or Microsoft. Given the dearth of new jobs in the present economy, the search for a satisfying position in engineering is even more difficult. Still, I think it would be more painful to surrender my principles.
One thought that gives me hope through all of this is that there are people like you in positions of national exposure who believe in the ability to change the system. The groundswell of support behind your last campaign was the most positive show of force by a progressive movement that I can remember. It gave me an optimism that had been missing from my future outlook.
Mr. Nader, the nation needs you to run for president. The American workers in danger of losing their jobs to an oversees factory need you to run for president. The scientists who want research to outpace California Emissions Standards need you to run for President. And the impressionable youth like me -- affected by authenticity and integrity -- need you to run for president.
As my friend and fellow Princetonian Phil Buffa recently noted after listening to "Things Have Changed," a 1999 song by one of the icons of the sixties movement, even Bob Dylan senses that the work of his generation is done. Well then, the torch has been passed to my generation, but we are in desperate need of a leader.
Thank you for your time, and for listening to my ideas, whatever they might be worth.
Robert J. Cirincione, Jr.
September 15, 2004
Dear Robert Cirincione, Jr.:
I received your reflective letter before Thanksgiving and it brought back memories of Princeton when I was a student there in the fifties. A day before graduation a bunch of us were lying in the grass near one of those gothic dorms shooting the breeze. The atmosphere was lackadaisical -- hardly raring to go into the cold hard world. Some of us were on the way to graduate school and tired of school year after school year. A few were facing either the military draft or joining up. Anyhow, the conversation was anything but intellectual. Never mind pondering Princeton's motto which was "Princeton in the nation's service." The languid day helped this ambience.
Suddenly, one of the fellows -- a well known grind -- became Diogenes. "What the hell did we learn anyway for the last four years?" ''Aw, come on, what's this, another precept?" drawled one of the southerners. ''I'm serious," said our Diogenes, "tell me one asset that gets us ready for the world out there." A flurry of responses. "Well, we learned how to ignore the likes of you." "We fine-tuned our writing skills." "Learned how to think, sure did," and some of us learned how to "dance, sing, drink and be merry" (he of the MacArthur Theatre and Omar Khayam). "You're all pitching me evasive maneuvers," said our agitator. "Let's see what we did not learn -- how to be effective citizens, sharp shoppers, demanding taxpayers, wise parents, and lifetime self-renewing learners." The others groaned, rolled over, and some lit new cigarettes to smoke with their beer.
I remember the gist of this exchange but remember nothing of the graduation ceremony except that it was quite hot. During the week before, insurance salesmen were knocking on senior doors. I opened the door and a happy Princeton alumnus sporting his class button in orange and black started trying to sell me life insurance. It never occurred to me to say to him, "No thanks, I don't have any dependents." We were all babes in the woods when it came to insurance salesmen or most vendors with huckstering talents.
America 1955 -- fast super-powered stagnant cars, McCarthy winding down but the scars and fears were fresh, economy expanding, thick campus apathy, the toughs on communism winning elections, the few activist seniors turned off by the torpid fifties and wishing they'd grown up in the tumultuous thirties, no burning aspirations other than making money and buying snazzy things, no burning issues beyond Brown vs. Board of Education, though there were plenty of signs building up for the fires of the sixties in our cities -- just a chrome gloss over so much grim reality. For many people, it was a complacent decade -- certainly not one that would ignite the kind of letter a graduate in mechanical and aerospace engineering would write in the twenty-first century.
What's the difference? An accumulated loss of innocence handed from one decade's young to another. I mean, GM could do no wrong then, no one ever heard of a defect recall, no one had any idea that cars could be different than the gas-guzzling, repair-prone, unsafe, polluting behemoths with the aggressive names (Cutlass Supreme, Marauder). After expose and scandal, Pentagon boondoggles, corporate crimes, natural resource giveaways, CEO greed, looting of pensions, freezing of wages, union-busting, air and water pollution sewers, runaway multinationals, surprise sell-outs after surprise rip-offs, official lies, unofficial betrayals of trust, institutions failing us, public works crumbling, libraries shorn, clinics deprived, everything for sale, pay-or-die health care, poverty out of sight, and television trash everywhere in sight -- well, many Emperors have lost their clothes. For thinking young people, above all, it is the lies, the facades, the doubletalk, the hypocrisy, and the patronizing evasions that wear and tear on them. The more idealistic these young people are, the more fragile is their sensitivity to the wrongs and the harms and co-opted potential of their generation. These injustices are abundant, with three billion people in our world living on $2 or $1 a day. Tens of thousands of children die every day from dirty water, malnutrition, and a bevy of preventable diseases. Tyrants and oligarchs leech off the Earth, sacrificing the necessities of life for billions to pursue their rancid greed and power. Our country has been hijacked by an avaricious corporate government, which takes working peoples' taxes and turns them into handouts to the super-rich and the grotesquely bloated military contracting machine. The government's military-industrial complex, as Eisenhower called it, continues to enlarge -- along with the military-industrial domination of federal budgets and deficits now that there is no major enemy to give it cover. It's a Moloch devouring public funding better dedicated to the requirements of our people, our children, our country -- its health, safety, well-being, and environment. How many more generations can forgive their lack of civic motivation while they fail their descendants and turn our society over to a King Corporation, now accorded most of our individual constitutional rights. Corporations are artificial entities and not real people, and yet they are seizing privileges and immunities denied real people. Then they subordinate and subjugate with more and more controlling processes over these individuals' lives. When we object and challenge, they remind us how free and great this country is -- as if they deserve credit for the blessings obtained by other often forgotten, citizen movements. We don't even bother to argue back that it is civic values, democratic institutions like direct democracy and access to the courts, public investment, reflected in our Declaration of Independence (freedom to) and the Bill of Rights (freedom from) that made the America whose praise we sing. Large commercial interests had to be compelled to give up some of their power from our nation's inception -- including the power to enslave, the power to terribly exploit workers, to deny women and African-Americans the right to vote, to block the organization of trade unions, to thwart competition challenging monopolies to pollute and sell hazardous or contaminated products. Corporations generate capital and wealth, but they don't like to remember their history of how much they reaped from the public's wealth, the huge land grants, the public subsidies and public works right up to the massive taxpayer monies going into research and development over the past fifty years that are given free to corporations. Commercial interests in the form of big business don't like to remember the price ordinary folks paid for their schemes, extractions, plunders, and profiteering. Since 1890, for example, well over 400,000 coal miners have died for their companies -- more than all the Americans lost in World War II. And that is just one industry. Every year more of our people die due to work-related injuries and diseases than all the GIs who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.
Not only do these companies forget their own corporate history, they've seen to it that we don't learn much about it either, other than the glowing renditions that they disseminate. It is democracy that makes capitalism behave and be fairer to small businesses, workers, consumers, and communities. Without democracy and more democracy, the aggressive single-minded capitalism can become fascism, plutocracy, and the destroyer of the many civic values that spell a civilized society. Without the rule of just laws, corporatism unlimited will entrench the domination of the many by the few.
Without these countervailing democratic forces, the major business interests find themselves on the wrong side of history fighting nearly every major social justice movement in our country. There are some exceptions, such as the GI Bill of Rights after WWII, and some enlightened business leaders who saw that the largest markets in the world come with democratic progress. By and large, however, the business establishment said NO to the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, the women's right to vote, the workers' right to organize unions, banning child labor, the late nineteenth-century populist-progressive movement, most of the regulatory agencies of the twentieth century (including the FTC, the SEC, the EPA, the FDA, OSHA, NHTSA), which represented the successes of the consumer, labor, and environmental movements. Business lobbyists, along with prejudices, blocked for years civil rights legislation (equal pay and access to public accommodations). Business largely opposed many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's reforms, including the minimum wage and social security. For years corporatists blocked Medicare and Medicaid, and they still oppose negotiated drug prices, universal health care or full Medicare for all, and injured peoples' rights to their full day in court. The munitions industry profited from war but fought against the progressive income tax and the excess profits tax. Fortunately for the American people, democratic forces working over time prevailed significantly in all these struggles. Business prospered as a result, but the lobbyists never cease pushing to rollback, dilute, or stall all of these efforts to make America a healthier, safer, and better place to live.
It is quite remarkable how few of the above-referenced power struggles found their way into our Princeton education. There was a professor in the Politics Department by the name of H. H. Wilson who became quite controversial within the faculty and in some alumni factions because he taught a course titled, "Power and Politics in America." Isn't politics basically about the concentration, distribution and use of power? Nonetheless, Hugh Wilson was considered a radical on campus and by the corporate Board of Trustees. His controversial act was to have his students grapple with reality instead of conventional fictions. Cicero, the great Roman lawyer who defined freedom as "participation in power," would have understood Wilson. Looking back on that era, I'm reminded of the saying that the "blasphemy of today is the commonplace of tomorrow." Some universities and colleges offer Hugh Wilson-type courses today, but still not nearly enough for the students who need to have them. Instead, too many colleges are like trade schools, emphasizing vocational skills at the expense of a liberal education in the grand tradition of the inquiring humanities and the probing social sciences.
I dwell on the above to point out that our "growing up corporate" -- that is, accepting these assumptions and grand veneers that frame what we see and don't see about our society, what we believe we can do and not do about our country and world, and what we expect of ourselves beyond a material living standard -- is what experience, education, and curiosity should shake off while still young. One's twenties must be seen as a priceless period of awareness, conscience, and innovation. Instead, young people often waste these years getting over personal problems and hang-ups they should have gotten over while teenagers.
A first step is to shuck growing up corporate so that we are free to see the present as reality rather than a bundle of myths, deceptions, tinsel temptations, and ideological rigor mortis.
I learned about growing up corporate firsthand during my investigation of the auto industry's unsafe engineering of cars. How consumers evaluated vehicles for the decades leading to the sixties originated with the auto companies themselves -- their advertisements, the foci on horsepower, style, and imagery, together with their sales forces. Ford, Chrysler, American Motors pursued what economists call "protective imitation" of the giant in their industry -- General Motors. The minimal variations were the names of the models, the slopes of the vehicles, the designs of the grill patterns, and other trivia. But then see what happened when new information came into public awareness. showing what life-saving, gas-saving, environment-saving features cars could have but did not. Motorists began to expand their expectations. The information monopoly by the industry was broken. Consumers began to welcome the civic values of safety and cleaner air, forced on the Michigan companies by Volvo competition, government mandated standards first at some state levels and then by the federal government in the mid-sixties. Engineering for safer crashes (crashworthiness) was on the minds of more and more people -- seat belts, padded and recessed dash panels, collapsible steering columns, stronger door latches, head restraints, and later, air bags. Increasingly, people could view vehicles in terms of their functions and risks, and not just in terms of the glossy advertising images. Democracy tamed the hard edges of capitalism once again. But as your letter notes, the tension continues between short-term commercial values and humane civic values.
Who hasn't grown up corporate? It is so unconscious yet so easily self-tested. Take the words efficiency and productivity. Who gives them definition? The corporate economy, because they draw the circle within which these terms are discussed. So, requiring pollution control or safety devices is viewed as inefficient and unproductive within the circle of the corporations' short-term costs and profits. That more lives are saved and more disease is prevented are not within the corporate circle, though it certainly is more efficient and productive for the people so spared and protected. Efficiency for the larger societies is not the way we have traditionally studied economics -- until recently, when concerns about sustainable economy and safety regulation have become a part of the discourse.
Other self-tests? Make a list of what you own down to the last paperclip and pen. It is not likely that you will add part-ownership in the great American commonwealth -- the public lands, the public works, the public airwaves, the worker pension funds, the publicly funded research and innovations. That's what growing up corporate. does to one's mind. It closes it. "When we realize that we legally own this commonwealth, we will start to ask why corporations and their cohorts in government control what we own and often give it away. Take for instance the 1872 Mining Act, which essentially gives away to domestic or foreign corporations hard-rock minerals, such as gold and silver, on federal lands. We are the only country in the world with such a give-away law.
Another self-test. Who defines human beauty? Cosmetic and fashion companies and their media see it as skin deep and body shape, not as compassion, wit, friendliness, and empathy. So at a young pubescent age, we look at each other, size up each other, react to each other through corporate visual filters. Since beauty has to sell, the absence thereof, by commercial criteria deeply embedded into the culture, has to hurt to create the market demand. The beauty industry's inventory is anxiety, pain, and hope.
How many times have you signed a standard form or fine print contract -- or simply adhered to one? Ninety-nine percent of all contracts that bind us are the take-it-or-leave-it, non-negotiated contracts used to sell us software, insurance, banking services, credit card usage, transportation, health care, housing, and so on. Growing up corporate means never thinking about taking out our pens and crossing out a paragraph here, or increasing the warranty there, or deleting the notorious and spreading binding arbitration clause that takes away your constitutional rights to go to court and have your dispute heard by a jury and judge. There is no contract competition in this private legislative realm of the corporations. The credit card companies, the banks, the car dealers have the same one-sided, standard forms.
The self-tests are endless. What immediately comes to mind when you hear the words crime, violence, welfare, and regulation? Certainly not the largest magnitude of these words -- corporate crime and violence, corporate welfare and corporate regulation both of our government and ourselves. This would all be obvious were one to grow up civic. One would seek data on the corporate financial crime wave, on the toxics, product defects and hospital malpractice, on the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies. handouts, tax escapes, giveaways, and bailouts given to corporations each year. Or the way corporations grip government so that government in turn grips the populace. Or the way these same corporations strive to regulate consumers directly through deception, penalties, surcharges, privacy invasion and power to harm your credit rating, for starters.
Once the young understand that the powers that control our politics -- remember that word was used in ancient Athens to counter autocracy -- affect our everyday lives in the most intimate, varied and consequential manner, politics ceases to be an abstraction that can be dismissed. Students often come up to me at gatherings and say that they're not turned on to politics. I say to them, the lessons of history are that if you are not turned on to politics, politics will turn on you with a vengeance. Just look at other countries where over time the level of civic-political engagement was far less than here. See how much crueler the results. Power indeed abhors a vacuum. Let's not be complacent because of the comparisons abroad. A George Orwell specialist concluded that 100 of the 137 predictions or indicators depicted in the novel 1984 are already here!
All right. Enough background for my reaction to your standout letter. As I read it, it struck me what an intricate path you trod to ask the questions, to resist the temptations and channeling pressures of your peer group, and to emerge as a free man. Quite a remarkable feat of the mind. It required overcoming absorbed conflicting personal tendencies, contemporary realities, our society's lost opportunities and the concentrated powers that reduce our options and cloud our horizons. You traded, with no guarantees, a promising material career, centering on your specialized knowledge, for the preservation of principles pointing to some unknown frontiers. You are a risk taker, a pioneer, confident enough in your own uncertainties to confront the future with inquiring resolve and a dignified outreach. What is interesting is that, as you observed, you came to where you are now from a background that is similar to many in your generation. You write, "I am hardworking, creative, and self-motivated. In general, I respect authority and play by the rules. The Atlantic wrote about the likes of me when they profiled 'The Organizational Kid,' who does what he's told, strives to succeed, and packs his day with constructive activities. I never questioned my priorities or for that matter, really analyzed them."
Then came some experiences in college, the Nader/LaDuke presidential campaign and the events of September 11, which converged to cause you to become "dissatisfied with the status quo." You continue, "I wanted to question so much. I wanted to ask why my generation is so apathetic. I wanted to find out why we don't demand change. I wanted to know why we are so willing to accept the values of those in power." You turn down a "high-paying job with a major automotive manufacturer." You find this painful but you write, "Still, I think it would be more painful to surrender my principles." You kindly say that what I and others have done has given you both hope and optimism "that had been missing from my future outlook." And then you conclude that your generation -- to whom the torch is being passed -- needs me to run for President.
You must know, Mr. Cirincione, that any social justice movement without the constant infusion of the young cannot sustain itself, though it can continue stagnating. I knew this from reading history, from watching the organized labor movement, the cooperative movement and from my constant working with young people in every phase of our activities, including the launching of the student public interest research groups (see USPIRG.org) around the country. For years I fought the good fights inside the civic arena to build forces and networks for justice to work on the political institutions so that, for example, health and safety standards would be issued, government and corporations would be held more accountable and be more open to citizens in their many roles so as to increase their responsiveness toward the people.
So, I surmise, you have thrown the ball in my corner. I shall explain therefore at some length why I decided to stand, as our forebears used to say, for the Presidency of our beloved country. It started with a desire to gather like-minded Americans who want intensely to improve their society and abolish the widespread poverty around us. These are people who are willing to spend the time, talent, and energy to strengthen our democracy by clearing away the autocratic, oligarchic concentrations of private and public power that repress the good life all Americans deserve. Such a change goes hand in hand with a more visible presentation of the many assets and solutions throughout our land which greed and power hold back and tender almost invisible. All this implies our sharing of responsibility together for the expansion of our civic duties to achieve these new directions and just applications. Civic motivation! There is an old Chinese proverb that fits nicely here: "To know and not to do is not to know." Our America has the wealth, technology, and skills to transform our problems and injustices into receding memories and affect the rest of the world in like fashion. What we need is to touch these advantages with moral, humane, sensitive and caring attentiveness. Let's be concrete. We know and we are able to rapidly improve energy efficiency and use of renewable resources, health, and health insurance. We should be able to enjoy nutritious food, more benign natural environments of air, water and soil, living wages, stunningly innovative public transit, affordable, decent housing, active retirements that are economically secure, education that gets a youngster thinking, and caring for our fellow human beings with disabilities.
Take another level of concrete realization. Our democracy is being dismantled. There are many indicators -- dirty money politics, one-party districts, two-party duopolies, an electoral system that is a winner-take-all insult to tens of millions of actual voters. Others include corporations that should be required (as Business Week itself editorialized) to "get out of politics," instead of dominating politics by installing a corporate government in Washington and state capitals, by restricting individuals' access to the courts, by concentrating media ownership. There are declining numbers of trade unionists and unions. The militarization of our government and its foreign policy with very little accountability (over half of the federal government's operating expenditures are now military at the expense of deep public necessities) is growing. These are just some of the yardsticks of decay. Did I say "expand rapidly" in this sphere of a strengthened democracy? Why, yes, this is where an aroused public must signal the need for a change. Consider this: the NFL Super Bowl festivities are watched by 100 million people, we are told, for an average of over four hours. That is more than 400 million hours. That amount of focused citizen time on Congress will get us universal health insurance at last or a major move into solar energy or a big enforcement crackdown on corporate crime, fraud and abuse that in the past four years has drained or looted trillions of dollars from millions of workers, small investors and pensioners. The first big secret of democracy is how well it can work for us, if we try, and the second secret is that it doesn't take the kind of enormous effort many resigned people think it would take. If people only knew how major advances in our past were accomplished by so much smaller a level of timely, coordinated citizen muscle, they would rush to the "village square" with their favorite causes. That's what a society with a framework for a functioning democracy does -- it requires less effort for more result than an authoritarian one by far. After all, there are 535 men and women in Congress -- the institution that can launch the resources and authority necessary for many transformations -- and we are many millions of people who can pull our civic weight in the pursuit of justice. Yet 1,500 major corporations exercise vastly more control than we do. And these companies do not vote. We do. These 535 congressional representatives are paid by us and should work for us, and we can make sure they or their more suitable replacements never forget that -- for a single day. For this to happen, people have to sweep the cobwebs that come from growing up powerless out of their heads. "This land is our land," sang Woody Guthrie. Oh, did this great American ever mean it! Shouldn't we?
You do not discover if you do not set sail. The clarion call to action by your generation must connect knowledge to action -- infused with open, democratic procedures graced by values that speak to a greater humanity -- peace, justice, and the fulfillment of human possibilities. Young people who care want to leap forward; they provide impatience and daring to older people ground down by life's attritions to a routine caution. Higher expectation levels clash with the circumspection of choosing the least worst.
You need us, you write to me; do you have any idea of how much we need you -- on the ramparts of moral courage heading toward the horizons that beckon the valiant? We are a society like most that reserves most of its encomiums for physical courage, which on the battle field, General George Patton once crustily defined as "fear plus five minutes." Moral courage can have its distinct forms of retaliations, repression, and enduring suffering. Think of the patriots who spoke up and defended the defenseless against tyrants. Recall those who blow the whistle on corporate corruption or suppression of known dangers. Many lost their careers and livelihood in more democratic societies. But moral courage rarely receives praise or prizes compared to the medals for physical courage even if the former saves many more lives or averts greater disasters.
The irreverent poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko described a repressive or self-censoring climate as one in which "common candor is called courage." Such is the state of our contemporary political climate that candor in public about our failing institutions and their manipulative exudations of phony patriotism is not the coin of everyday political dialogue. Far from it. But throughout our history it has been the coin of dissent, of small parties and independent candidates for political office. Recall the unsung contributions of these intrepid candidates, paralleling civic drives, because they were willing, as I. F. Stone put it, "to lose and lose and lose" until their agenda won to a significant level that made our country better.
Today there is a civil liberties crisis being inflicted on political candidates taking on the two major parties. It is a crisis ignored by most civil libertarians who pride themselves on going to the mat to defend the right of free speech even for those whose views or talk they see as odious. But when it comes to exercising freedom of speech and assembly, which after all is what campaigning for elective office comprises, inside the electoral arena, a severe insensitivity turns its back on third party or independent candidates. Here I am including the liberal-progressive Democratic Party adherents who would agree with just about everything we say but do not want us to say it inside the electoral process as candidates. It is easy to understand this clear inconsistency. These partisans are hostages to our electoral system, starting with the atavistic electoral college to a winner-take-all voting structure in which the two major parties find reassuring comfort. Apparently, instead of fighting against this ossified structure that strips huge numbers of actual voters of any representation, these partisans focus their ire on any small candidate who they feel may tip the balance. To compound the ironies, they want to silence the exercise of campaign speech by the very small candidates who can speak out and start a movement to rationalize distorted elections -- so that those who win the most votes, as Al Gore did (with Instant Runoff Voting assuring a majority), win the presidential election. Since the 2000 election we see this bizarre virus affecting otherwise stalwart civil liberties advocates, who will defend Jesse Helms's and Tom Delay's decision to run but oppose our decision to run. Rather than attempting to make counterarguments, the opposition gives only a censorious "do not run" demand not to speak, to remain silent inside the electoral arena. To suit their major party candidates, they are willing to put up a stop sign when our freedom to speak crosses the boundary into elective campaigning. It is not enough for these double talkers that the two parties collude in state legislatures to erect ever more obstructive, arbitrary, and costly ballot-access barriers, when there should be only one federal standard for federal elections. It is not sufficient that money barriers, debate barriers, hereditary voters, and myriads of other impediments and attitudes and media aversions make the tasks of small candidates comparable to climbing a steep cliff with a slippery rope. No, these partisans, who often are severe critics of the decay of the corporatized Democratic Party, adhere to the "least worst" or "lesser evil" argument. This, of course, is a sure sign that both parties, pulled only in one direction by corporate supremacists, will continue to be worse every four-year cycle. There is no end date for this surrendering logic. I know this feeling because I tried to distinguish between the least worst from 1984 until 2000, even as Washington's corporate-owned doors were closing, under both parties, on the citizen's groups' right to be heard, to have a decent chance to prevail. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote and spoke before the Civil War, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." The struggle for justice must never be adjourned. The forces of injustices do not take vacations. Societies are not static in this regard. They await the political and civic energies of individuals who engage the arenas of power, multiply their numbers and emblazon in deeds and institutions the immortal principle that "Here the People Rule." Welcome to this agonizing yet profound gratification.