All Good Politics Are Local
The national government may be in the hands of sell-outs and ideologues, but there is still work to be done.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
What an embarrassment our national government is. Mired in the muck of corrupt corporate money and right-wing ideology, our so-called leaders continue to divert our public treasury and our nation’s unlimited potential for good into war, into the pockets of the superrich, into the whims of corporate greedheads, into a rising police state, into the desecration of nature…into waste.
Then why am I almost giddy with optimism about where we’re heading? Indeed, I know a few leaders of progressive groups based in Washington who have been drained of all optimism. Looking at the national scene, they share Woody Allen’s observation: “We stand today at a crossroads: One path leads to despair and hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction.”
Luckily, however, my work is not based in Washington, and my travels allow me to be in touch with a grassroots America that’s unabashedly progressive and on the move. Yes, Washington is ignoring our country’s real needs and squandering our democratic promise, but out beyond the Beltway there are folks, groups, coalitions, and even elected leaders who’re taking action at the state and local level to build an America based on our historic ideals of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity for all. I have great hope, because grassroots people are so much stronger, more resilient, more creative, and more American than the gooberheads at the top, and they’ll not long be held down or held back.
We should take heart in our people’s history, which is the long story of ordinary folks agitating, organizing, and mobilizing for a little more justice.
Progress often gets diverted or dammed up by the avaricious powers, but it ultimately finds another outlet. I can give my own testimonial to this dynamic. Coming of political age in segregated Texas in the 1960s, recalcitrant state and local officials were blocking progress, so all of us involved in the civil rights movement looked to Washington as the channel for producing progressive action. Likewise, in the 1970s, it was through the national government that we opened channels for progress on women’s rights, worker safety, environmental protections, etc.
I have great hope, because grassroots people are so much stronger, more resilient, and more American than the gooberheads at the top, and they’ll not long be held back.
By the 1980s, however, the monied interests were locking down both parties in Washington, and progressives were largely stymied. But not for long—a trickle of action soon began coming out of cities and states across the country. I was one of those small trickles. Having been elected Texas agriculture commissioner in ‘82, my office became a source of action for small farmers, organic production, pesticide regulation, rural development, renewable energy, and more.
Since then, with corporate and right-wing interests seizing
all three branches of the national government, and with the
Democratic leadership being co-opted or inept, the flow of
progressive energy has moved steadily out of Washington and
(like water finding a new course) into grassroots organizing.
In the past decade, these feisty groups using street actions,
ballot initiatives, lawsuits, the Internet, media exposés,
local elections, festivals and every other tool at their
disposal have become a powerful force, and they are changing
American politics from the ground up.
For years, Washington and Wall Street have been waging a war on American wages, using everything from monetary policy to immigration policy to push workers’ pay down.
The most visible of these efforts is the obscene sight of fat-cat CEOs and well-paid Congress critters conspiring to keep our country’s wage floor stuck at the subpoverty level of $5.15 an hour (about $10,500 a year). As John Edwards says, “it’s a moral disgrace.” Yet despite support for boosting the minimum wage from 86 percent of Americans, corporate lobbyists have kept hourly pay nailed down at $5.15 for nearly a decade. Washington won’t budge, so there’s nothing we can do, right? Wrong.
Led by ACORN, the innovative community-organizing group, a broad coalition has shifted the battlefield to the cities, counties, and states, putting forth a concept called the “Living Wage.”
The idea is that corporations getting contracts or other benefits from local governments should not get away with poverty pay. Pushing local ordinances or ballot measures, the Living Wage coalitions work to raise the minimum above the region’s poverty level. Well, you might think, that’s a nice proposition, but people are way too conservative to go for it. Wrong. In fact, when put before voters, Living Wage initiatives typically win by more than two thirds of the vote.
For these Living Wage battles, coalitions have been forged among workers, poor people, women, churchgoers, small-business owners, neighborhood groups, civil rights advocates and even some conservative business leaders who either see it as a moral issue or understand that higher pay means more spending and a stronger local economy. That’s a pretty stout coalition!
More than 130 cities, counties, and states have already
enacted some form of the Living Wage.
The relentless pursuit of corporate dollars by practically all of our top political leaders shows that we no longer have elections—we have auctions. Can’t something be done? It can be…and is.
Once again, the action is in the countryside. In the past decade, eight states and 14 cities have passed “Clean Election” laws to end the money chase, and eight other states and at least one major city are moving toward passage of such laws this year.
The key component of Clean Elections is to provide public financing to candidates who agree not to accept money from corporations or other favor-seeking interests. This means candidates don’t have to spend the bulk of their time raising money—and owe absolutely nothing to the monied powers!
It also means that regular people can run for office, for they could qualify for a level of public funding that would make them competitive with a lobbyist-financed candidate. Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut now have public-financing laws for all of their state offices. Vermont and Massachusetts have also approved statewide systems. In addition, North Carolina has OKed public funding for its judicial races, New Mexico has done so for its Public Regulation Commission, and New Jersey has approved a pilot project for public financing in four legislative districts.
Cities are on the move, too. Portland, Oregon, will have the Clean Election alternative for all of its city races this year. In 2005, 69 percent of Albuquerque’s voters said “yes” to a charter amendment providing public funds for its mayoral and City Council candidates. Another 12 cities have put partial systems in place, and Los Angeles is presently structuring a plan for full public financing.
Most important, the Clean Election system works. In Maine, a coalition came together in 1996 to pass an initiative creating the nation’s first public-financing program. When first implemented in 2000, half of the state’s senators and 30 percent of house members were elected without taking a dime in special-interest money, and the program has grown more successful with each election. Today 83 percent of Maine’s senate and 77 percent of its house are made up of legislators who ran “clean.”
In 2003, Maine became the first state to pass a bill providing health care for all of its people. As a state legislator says, “There is just no way this bill would ever have seen the light of day under business-as-usual politics dominated by private campaign contributions.”
There’s no need to wait on Washington for electoral
The Power is Ours
On big issue after big issue—such as cutting the greenhouse
gases, declaring energy independence, and giving Americans
relief from the price gouging of drug companies—Washington has
become the enemy. But rather than wring our hands about that,
we can roll up our sleeves and join hands with the grassroots
groups that are taking action on these problems and making
progress. We have to lead ourselves—and there is opportunity
for you to be part of the renewal right where you live.
JIM HIGHTOWER is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of several books, including Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country And It’s Time to Take It Back.