Saturday, November 8, 2014

What ever happened to 'of the people, by the people, for the people'? A manifesto

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What ever happened to 'of the people, by the people, for the people'? A manifesto

Zephyr Teachout

Tuesday, November 4, 2014
The Guardian

One early morning in Brooklyn a few months ago, when I was still running for governor of New York, I encountered a man talking to himself, agitated and loud. As I passed him on the sidewalk, he turned to me and started muttering, a blend of insults and epigrams. And then, just as I was about to vanish down the stairs into the subway, he yelled with a full throat:

I am the captain of my ship. I am the master of my soul.

I was shaken, and not a little moved. This man is all of us, protesting that we still have control over ourselves despite the obvious evidence otherwise.

Because I was on the way to a political event, I felt it more broadly. We – America – we are that man, yelling about our own self-government, broadcasting these elections, trying in bluster to defy this simple, terrifying truth: we are not governed by ourselves. We have given up control of the ship.

The United States is facing more inequality than in 80 years [1]. We have increasingly segregated schools [2], and fewer good jobs [3], and more hunger [4], fear and powerlessness. A few very wealthy interests – the wealth is so secretive and concentrated that the numbers are difficult to parse – have made clear that they intend to keep stripping our country of its resources and taking it for themselves. The 1% owns more than a third of the wealth in America [5], and four years ago, the Citizens United decision gave constitutional permission for corporate America to shamelessly enter politics.

Now, in the face of this quickly separating society, modern American political reporters are facing the difficult challenge of covering politics when politics itself has fundamentally changed. Are they reporting on a democracy or an oligarchy? In the frenzy preceding the elections on Tuesday, this duality has been on special display, when in one moment, reporters write about how this or that candidate lacks “charisma”, and five minutes later about how, really, palatability to big funders is the sole determiner of who runs for office.

This spring, a study by professors at Princeton and Northwestern [6] reported that voters’ preferences were essentially irrelevant in determining what policies their elected officials pursued. This midterm election cycle, some $3.67bn will have been spent [7], most of it by a tiny fraction of wealthy interests; turnout is expected to be low.

Americans feel this disconnect. While there are many theories for the disgust and apathy towards this election [8], perhaps it is as simple as this: people don’t like being told falsely they have power when they don’t.

Which is to say, there is one issue that subsumes all other issues, upon which all other issues depend – and that is restoring democracy itself. If we don’t have a responsive democracy, all the debates about charter schools, and fracking, and high-stakes testing, and the militarization of police forces – all of which are issues I care about – they aren’t real debates. When elections are not democratic, even the most populist discussions become superficial, disconnected from real power; they are theatre.

Perhaps I can convince 70% of New Yorkers to support a financial-transactions tax. But if there is no responsive democracy, those numbers won’t translate to a financial-transactions tax. I care about dental care, and ending mass private and public surveillance, and funding schools so they can have small class sizes. But I can spend a lifetime advocating for universal dental care, and in a non-responsive democracy, it does not matter. You may recall the 90% of Americans who wanted gun reform [9] following the tragedy at Sandy Hook – but got none. Public opinion without public power inflects every issue in America now.

So we need to hold on to whatever remaining levers of power we have left. We need a populist movement made of candidates and protests and clear demands, with two key prongs:

Throw out the current system of privately financed campaigns, and adopt a public financing system, like those used in New York City, Connecticut, Arizona, Maine and most modern democracies in Europe.
The key to fixing public financing is to free politics from big money. New York state – and then the US – could adopt the New York City system, which provides $6 in matching funds for every $1 contributed in small donations [10]. Or the country could follow the Connecticut system, which provides a lump sum [11]. What matters is that we need to release politicians from working for their donors.

Many Democrats around the country can’t oppose fracking because it will erode their donor base. They can’t fearlessly defend teachers’ unions because hedge-fund support will dry up. And if they want to take on a totally fearless platform, candidates are forced to find that magical, rare national attention that creates a huge online donor base. It happens; I know it happens. But it is not a system. We can’t rely on lightning to strike for democracy to work.

Bust the trusts by breaking up the big companies that are threatening our democracy.

We need to revive antitrust, because we cannot have concentrated private power that starts to become public power. We must stop the Comcast-Time Warner merger, and stop Amazon’s discriminatory practices, and break up the big banks.

In banking, energy, gas, cable, agriculture and search, we have a limited number of companies that have accumulated so much power they are acting as a kind of shadow government, controlling policy, vetoing laws before they can even be presented. Candidates refuse to stump about a cable-TV merger because they’re afraid to get shut out of MSNBC. They don’t take on big banks because big banks have become too big to fail, to jail and even to debate about policy.

We can keep protesting our own democracy, despite the facts, or we can actually deal with the root cause: concentrated wealth taking over our politics. And, like the best generations of American reformers before us, we can change the basic structures. We can actually build something – and the people will get the power back.

Zephyr Teachout, a candidate for governor in New York in 2014, is an associate professor at Fordham Law School and the author of Corruption in America: From Ben Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United. Follow her on Twitter: @ZephyrTeachout

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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