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A National Call to Link Arms for Democracy

Americans only have a small window of opportunity to break the grip of moneyed interests on our government.

Moral Monday in Asheville, NC, January, 2014. (Photo: Will Thomas / Flickr)

“When I despair I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, think of it – always!” – Mahatma Gandhi

For Americans, these are dangerous and momentous times. We have only a small window of opportunity to break the grip of moneyed interests on our government, before an advancing oligarchy consolidates power and locks in tyranny.

This article is an urgent call to organize a mass-based political movement in the coming months and through the 2016 elections. If we rise to the occasion and fight, we can reclaim democracy, regain control of our future, and preserve the dreams of our children, and for the coming generations.

Without a sweeping grassroots movement, loudly pushing and protesting for reforms, populist candidates, or coalitions in Congress will never have the power to defeat the forces of a corrupt ruling class. Robber barons have resurfaced with a vengeance in the past four decades, openly attacking our democratic system, while buying power to extend and protect their privilege in perpetuity.

The immense tide of social progress that flourished in the 20th century, from antitrust reforms and the New Deal social safety net, to environmental regulation, civil rights and women’s rights, are collectively in the bull’s eye of a demolition ball. As manufactured austerity and deep cuts to essential social services continue, Wall Street banks and US multinational corporations remain the true welfare queens. In 2013, corporate tax breaks amounted to $176 billion. Incredibly, companies like General Electric, Boeing, Verizon, Bank of America, and Citigroup paid no income tax at all, and some even received a refund!

Robber barons have resurfaced with a vengeance in the past four decades, openly attacking our democratic system, while buying power to extend and protect their privilege in perpetuity.

Economic disenfranchisement of working Americans has metastasized since the 1980s, when right-wing and corporatist coalitions began limiting wage growth, outsourcing, union-busting, and transferring jobs to so-called “right-to-work” states or sending them overseas.

We know we are under siege. Less clearly understood is how the oligarchs achieved their goals of privatization, a disempowered workforce and a weakened populace.

A variety of dirty strategies have been deployed to fully subvert “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” All around the country, and particularly in states like North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, they have gerrymandered electoral districts, suppressed millions of votes, and outright rigged and stolen high-stakes elections. Now, they are attempting to further rig blue states by changing Electoral College rules from winner-take-all to proportional representation. Meanwhile, the activist right-wing Supreme Court’s anti-democratic decisions that money equals speech and corporations are persons have ensured that voters are out-gunned by billions of corporate dollars unleashed into the bribery system known as campaign financing.

“We have to be every bit as ambitious, and every bit as holistic in seeking to defend democracy, as those who are seeking to destroy it.” This galvanizing call to action by Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, is a roadmap for our nascent democracy movement.

We cannot continue struggling separately for myriad causes, while social progress is reversed piecemeal and democracy itself dismantled. Unless we organize to preserve the ability of the people to shape public policy, it is crystal clear that there will be no justice, no peace, no ecological sustainability, no amelioration of climate change and no end to poverty and economic oppression.

Now is the time to link our formidable strengths as organizers and activists.

At this 11th hour, the corruption of the US political system is endemic and has become a global threat. All the criminals involved in Wall Street’s massive Ponzi conspiracies, which crashed the world’s economy, have escaped indictment. Climate change deniers are elected to Congress and financed through campaign contributions from fossil fuel billionaires. Diabolically, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty provisions are being crafted in secret by lobbyists, targeting every sector of society for corporate domination, while members of Congress are kept in the dark.

“We have to be every bit as ambitious, and every bit as holistic in seeking to defend democracy, as those who are seeking to destroy it.”

Our political system is now fully rigged to allow the ruling elite to permanently manipulate our economic future, while granting corporations the freedom to exploit and pollute the world at will.

The malignant strategy began in 1971 when Lewis Powell – then a corporate tobacco lawyer — galvanized the US Chamber of Commerce. The Powell Memo was a call to arms for corporate interests to mobilize against the “frontal assault” of 1960s progressive activism. Powell recommended monitoring textbooks, infiltrating campuses, forcibly injecting “free market” propaganda into the media, stacking the courts and packing government with allies. The effort spawned theAmerican Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, and other powerful consortiums of far-right think tanks and lobbyists. Over decades they succeeded in dramatically warping the American political and economic landscape in the image of Ayn Rand; champion of laissez-faire extremism and the deranged, sophomoric “virtue of selfishness.”

The result is that not mere selfishness, but obscene greed has been elevated to virtue.

Over the past 30 years,60% of all wealthhas been funneled to the top 1% of the population.Wall Street and their lobbyists are at war with Main Street; offshore tax loopholes inflate corporate balance sheets, while creating a disincentive for investing in American factories, infrastructure and jobs. The United States is not “broke,” as austerity pundits proselytize – we are being deliberately starved. Our debt, and our balance of trade would be healthy if we had not cut taxes for the wealthy and mega-corporations, while outsourcing industry. The ultimate travesty, of course, was the (fraudulently elected) Bush-Cheney administration and its accomplices using the 9/11 tragedy to orchestrate a privatized war on false evidence. Iraq has cost $2 trillion to date, and with interest may increase to $6 trillion.

Never before in American history have we simultaneously conducted a war and cut taxes.

The brutal conflict itself, and the sham economic crisis that ensued, has endangered millions of Americans’ health and survival, including Iraq veterans whose suicide rate skyrockets while benefits are delayed or denied.

Barack Obama’s presidency put an end to the hopes of many progressives that profound change will come through the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton certainly will not take on Wall Street. The truth is that too many Democratic politicians spent the past decades sucking up to corporate donors, and are now trapped in a lobbyist-controlled box canyon, where bag-men for industry hold most of the cards for their elections. Moderate, progressive and populist candidates who may truly want to restore democracy are overpowered by increasingly expensive campaigns, and a ruthless cabal that doesn’t hesitate to cheat and surreptitiously buy elections. In 2013, the Koch brothers spent over half a million dollars in anonymous campaign donations to derail the Wisconsin recall campaign against Tea Party favorite, Governor Scott Walker.

All together, it is a multi-pronged assault, crippling our ability to confront the barrage of regressive laws aimed at social progress and the democratic process itself – legislation often disseminated in the states by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

Yes, the situation is dire. We can despair, or we can act – we choose to act.

The story of the American people is one of unyielding struggle to make real the promise of opportunity, democracy, justice and equal rights. Our struggle may have been derailed, but it is not dead. We do have the power to pull together a political movement to stop this onslaught.

“Never before in American history have we simultaneously conducted a war and cut taxes.”

Our constituency for democracy is vast and growing. Veterans who have fallen through the cracks share the outrage of victims of fraudulent home foreclosure. Working parents holding down multiple jobs share the exhaustion of students struggling under insupportable debt. The unemployed who lost skilled jobs to outsourcing, and underpaid workers without labor rights, share the anger of retirees who lost their pensions and seniors who fear for the social safety net.

The list goes on. Minorities, whose votes are suppressed, women once again fighting – and being arrested – for reproductive rights, victims of the for-profit prison industry and the “war on drugs.” Millions opposed to wars of aggression, to drones, to the NSA spy network and attempted corporate domination of the internet – the last bastion of democracy.

We are a potentially massive constituency, comprised of entire cities – like Detroit and Flint – forced into bankruptcy and “emergency corporate management,” whole communities threatened by fracking and extreme environmental degradation. And finally, the younger generations; millenials who know that climate change is fundamentally jeopardizing their future.

Together, we cannot fail to effect change. We must be ready to put aside parochial and ideological differences, stand together, and link arms to pass on a working democracy and a livable planet.

Growing a Mass Movement

History provides us with time-tested strategies for success. Our people’s movement must be as rooted in democratic values as Gandhi’s India was in its struggle against the British Empire; as morally grounded as the Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements; as indefatigable as women’s suffrage activists. Imagine what these brilliant democracy warriors could have done with the power of the internet and social media to instantly reach millions.

Coalition-building is the critical first step among established organizers, recognizing that our key issues will ultimately be won only by uniting to radically rebalance the political playing field.

The fix will require nothing less than a coordinated grassroots democratic revolution, emerging from rural towns and cities, building state-by-state and initially tackling with laser-like focus:

  • The issue of money and corruption in politics and elections
  • Preventing vote rigging, suppression and gerrymandering of pivotal elections in 2014 and 2016
  • Economic justice reform
  • Ending corporate personhood / passing campaign finance reform (CFR)
  • Establishing public financing of elections in cities and states
  • Requiring transparency of political contributions and contributors
  • Closing the revolving door of politician-lobbyists
  • Protecting voting rights and preventing suppression
  • Restoring transparency of the vote count
  • Taxing all Wall Street transactions up to 1%
  • Ending corporate welfare tax loopholes
  • Supporting cities being forced into bankruptcies
  • Supporting families in bank foreclosure or auction
  • Creating public financing of elections
  • Organize boycotts and protests at the Wall Street banks

The exceptionally good news is that powerful democracy movement-building efforts are already gaining traction, spearheaded by organizations like the NAACP’s Moral Mondays, Move to Amend, the New Hampshire Rebellion, Wolf Pac, Represent Us, and dozens of others.

Mutual respect alone will deter infiltration and prevent dissolution of our efforts.

Long-term strategies include ending “corporate personhood” by a constitutional amendment or convention, and closing Washington’s corporate lobbyist revolving door through federal anti-corruption legislation. Immediate legislative victories are being won at the state level for transparency and limits of campaign contributions, and public financing of elections. Voting Rights organizations are defeating ALEC’s new Jim Crow Voter ID laws in multiple state courts. Election Integrity activists are struggling to protect our ballots, but need the muscle of a real movement to secure full transparency of our voting systems, as Germany and Ireland have done by outlawing riggable electronic voting machines we still use in the US.

Meanwhile, online activist networks are exploding daily across the internet, while protests and marches are proliferating. Citizens of all ages and classes are risking arrest in nonviolent civil disobedience in frontline states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan. Activists across myriad “issue silos,” are beginning to link arms, coalescing toward the inevitable movement to reclaim American democracy.

We are very near to reaching the tipping point.

In Detroit on July 24, a federal court will decide how the bankrupted city’s assets – including pensions – will be carved up and privatized by banks, Koch-funded extremists and a corporate “emergency manager” appointed by right-wing governor Dick Snyder. Citizens will protest the hostile takeover. Lets join them!

We are natural allies with the burgeoning global climate change movement. An unprecedented climate mobilization is planned for the weekend of September 20-21 in New York City, where heads of state from around the world will gather. This is an opportunity for the democracy and climate movements to converge in mutual support.

To become a more unified democracy movement, we should debate tactics and solutions, but we must avoid toxic divisiveness, unnecessary competition and negative criticisms of each other’s efforts. During the 1960s’ anti-war movement, many organizations fought for dominance, imagining their organization was the “vanguard of the revolution.” Mutual respect alone will deter infiltration and prevent dissolution of our efforts.

However, to reach our ultimate goal – to inspire tens of millions of Americans to act boldly and in concert to save democracy – our movement must catalyze around a set of demands that will also clearly lead to economic, social and environmental justice.

Rebuilding Main Street: Taxing Wall Street and Ending Corporate Welfare

The Democracy Movement can rapidly build broad public support for a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) on all Wall Street trades of stocks, derivatives, bonds and other financial instruments, which could generate trillions of dollars over the coming decade. A properly designed FTT (0.05% up to 1% – depending on how risky the trade) – will not affect small individual investors, normal consumer activity, or pensions and savings. However it will impact hedge funds, casino-style speculative banking and high frequency trading – the very activity that crashed our economy in 2008 and is certain to do so again. The FTT should be designed to suppress the type of speculative gambling that led to the 2008 crash.

Ending corporate welfare by closing tax loopholes would bring trillions of tax dollars and capital back into the American economy. Of the top 100 publicly traded companies, 83 engage in pervasive tax evasion.

Why are these two essential economic reforms ideal for building a movement? Because they are already popular on both the left and the right, and they have powerful moral justification: Polls show that Americans do not believe justice was served after the financial crisis, and that Wall Street, the wealthy and corporations do not pay their fair share.

The massive derivative Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Wall Street bankrupted millions of families and homeowners. Yet in the aftermath of the bailout, Wall Street and its clients gained practically all the wealth created, while Americans lost their livelihoods, security, and trillions of dollars in home equity. As the nation drifts further into debt, the Dow is up 3,000 points from pre-crisis levels; financial markets continue producing trillions in profits for their “high-value clients” who anonymously squirrel away wealth – currently estimated to be a substantial portion of the $21 to $32 trillion hidden in Bermuda, Cayman Islands or other offshore shelters.

Most importantly, these financial reforms provide tangible hope for Main Street. Think of it: We could use the funds to rebuild our nation’s decaying infrastructure, create millions of good jobs in construction and technology, including renewable and green industry, and environmental restoration projects. We could publicly finance higher education, keeping our workforce competitive, and preserve senior pensions and medical programs. Finally, we could eliminate the deadlock in Congress over how we should balance the budget and begin to reduce the national debt.

Alone, these reforms could stop our collective bleeding and reverse our feudal austerity-bound economy.

These proposals are not radical: An FTT tax is going into effect soon in 11 European Union countries. A US sales tax on Wall Street stocks and bonds existed between 1914 and 1966. Currently, a new FTT tax has been proposed by the National Nurses Union, the Robin Hood organization, and the Tax Wall Street Party.

Occupy Wall Street activists proposed a financial transaction tax, just before the police forcefully attacked their encampments in multiple cities. The demand was dropped soon after. Some suspect deliberate infiltration of Occupy squashed this brilliant organizing goal and directed the movement into a “no demand” zone.

We could publicly finance higher education, keeping our workforce competitive, and preserve senior pensions and medical programs.

Currently, Occupy-inspired groups nationwide are developing innovative ideas for democratic, social and economic change. Perhaps the Wall Street FTT will once again become a strategic rallying point for the movement that brought us the most illuminating, slogan of the 21st Century: We are the 99%.

Grassroots Organizing, Goals, Strategies and Actions

Movement building can grow quickly at the grassroots by organizing where local activists meet to build the relationships and coalitions that are the basis of a mass movement.

A strong movement builds around activists who have been involved in organizing efforts, creating local democracy assemblies. Such assemblies should embrace the positive leadership of those who are respectful and listen well, avoid male dominance and ensure diverse participation. It is absolutely necessary that we create a cohesive, optimistic common vision of democratic social change, and guard that it is not corrupted by anger or extremism. Vigilance should be maintained against disruption of meetings or campaigns by intelligence agencies or private security companies.

Community assemblies are best used to educate through readings, videos or guest speakers. They should define the negative effects that attacks on democratic institutions have had on their various constituencies. Citizens who lost their homes in the fraudulent loan modification foreclosures should be invited to share their experiences.

From these assemblies, spokespersons can be elected to attend city-wide, regional or state organizing conferences to develop legislation initiatives, coordinate protests and define overall state and regional goals.

Additional goals can be added by local organizers, based on local conditions and issues (please forgive us if your core issues are not mentioned).

Another critical area of focus is to stop the mass suppression of First Amendment rights. In all states where capitol buildings have been recently closed to speech, petition, assembly, singing and other peaceful conduct, we need to mount legal teams to eliminate the restriction of protest by “free speech zones.”

Actions, Protests, Marches and Nonviolent Civil Disobedience

Like previous effective movements, ours must have its base in education and peaceful direct actions aimed at gaining mass support. Experienced activists should be welcomed to share the successful tactics and strategies employed by groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Civil Rights organization and the antinuclear Clamshell Alliance.

Absolute nonviolence is essential, knowing that the illegal COINTELPRO – style efforts begun in the 1960s are still underway, and that 99 percent of the time, violence is perpetrated by provocateurs sent to infiltrate and disrupt effective movements. We must follow the traditions of nonviolent resistance set forth by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. Always, always disassociate from violence!

Each community and individual can decide what kind of activism they are comfortable embracing, and this can change over time, and in differing circumstances.

In all states where Capitol Buildings have been recently closed to speech, petition, assembly, singing and other peaceful conduct, we need to mount legal teams to eliminate the restriction of protest by “free speech zones.”

Local democracy organizing work can focus on public education, voter registration, citizen Election Day watchdog groups, ballot initiatives, legislative and regulatory reform. Each state has different electoral laws and regulations, run by a secretary of state or other officials; every county has election offices. Many officials may be sympathetic or helpful, so should not be approached as “the enemy.” However, in some states, they are the enemy; deliberately obfuscating honest reform attempts or attempting to suppress voters for a partisan agenda.

When reform is resisted, demonstrations and protests may be warranted, including nonviolent civil disobedience (NVCD).

NVCD should not be taken lightly, especially in repressive states or cities. Activists need training, legal support and a fund for bail. They must isolate aggressive and violent infiltrators if they appear in the midst of a demonstration. Each assembly or network should have a nonviolence agreement that all members must sign. Discussions with local police departments before actions may keep violence by security forces to a minimum. Police departments can be approached by ministers, rabbis and priests in advance of demonstrations to set a civil tone.

All protest movements need a target that focuses public attention on a glaring injustice that is easily identifiable and channels anger toward reform. Highly effective targets today are Wall Street Banks. A primary action could be to boycott and protest at the banks that perpetrated massive fraud in mortgage modifications and illegal foreclosures. These include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, CitiBank Group, and Wells Fargo.

JP Morgan Chase was recognized as the worst perpetrator of mortgage and foreclosure fraud following its $25 billion dollars government bailout; just Google “Chase loan modification scam” to find thousands of complaints and lawsuits. This abuse continues today. Millions of people have lost their homes or have friends and relatives who lost their homes. Chase offers more than 5,100 branches and 16,100 ATMs nationwide. A national boycott of JP Morgan Chase, or a coordinated protest by millions of democracy movement activists at Chase bank offices in thousands of communities is recommended, at the same time demanding that Wall Street and its political allies in Congress and the White House pass the Financial Transaction Tax and corporate-welfare reform legislation.

A focused protest movement targeting Chase can – and almost certainly will – go viral nationally and internationally. Chase operates in more than 85 countries. When President Nixon derailed the United Farm Workers grape boycott by shipping grapes to Europe, Cesar Chavez convinced European unions to take up the boycott, ensuring the grapes could not be unloaded in Europe’s docks by union members. Think about a Chase boycott by our pro-democracy, anti-austerity allies in Europe.

Si, Se Puede!

Yes, we can. And, we must.

We know that the coming years are critical to the well-being and survival of our communities, our society and our environment. In our hearts, and in our guts, we know that we must birth this democracy movement now. We owe nothing less to the coming generations. The elders of past movements must contribute and pass the baton of dedicated, nonviolent resistance. We must teach our children by example how to fight for freedom and justice. Only in this way will we fulfill the dream of opportunity for millions of Americans, and in the spirit of Martin Luther King, bend the moral arc of the universe back toward justice.

Will you join us?

Without you, we can’t win. With you, we can’t lose.

Suggested Democracy Movement Organizing Goals for 2014-2016: Legislation and Action

Corporate Personhood / Campaign Finance Reform (CFR)
A long-term strategy is already underway to end corporate personhood by means of a Constitutional Amendment (or Convention). Our short-term strategy should be to promulgate state-by-state legislation or ballot initiatives for limiting the corruption of special interest contributions to political candidates and parties. Despite Citizens United and McCutcheon, strong reforms are possible; it’s still legal to limit direct corporate or individual contributions to candidates or political parties both at the State and Federal level, and public financing of elections is a viable, constitutional alternative.

● Public Financing of Elections
Every state democracy movement should promote public financing of state-wide political candidate and legislative races. Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Arizona and a number of other states have various laws allowing candidates to raise small contributions from voters, which are then matched exponentially with public funds.

● Transparency of Political Contributions and Contributors
Any donation over $200 dollars to any political campaign or issue advertisement during the election campaigns must be posted, and contributors identified. Vermont proposed legislation requiring any donor contributing more than 50% of a Super PAC’s revenue must appear in any electronic advertisements purchased. If the donor is a corporation, then the chief executive is required to appear in the ads.

● Close the Revolving Door of Politician-Lobbyists
The suggested reforms vary, but no politician or legislative staff should be allowed to lobby the governmental body in which they worked for a number of years after they leave their office or government staff position. A three-year moratorium is supported by many groups.

Protect Voting Rights and Prevent Suppression
Though the Supreme Court has undermined the Voting Rights Act, we can ensure that every eligible citizen can vote by joining the successful state-by-state fight against discriminatory Voter ID laws, purging of voter roles, and to promote fair citizen-controlled redistricting. We can mobilize citizen watchdog efforts to expose and prevent attempts to restrict voting (the Tea Party Secretary of State in Ohio recently shut down Sunday voting, which will predominantly affect African-American church-goers), place insufficient voting machines in minority districts (creating up to 11 hour lines), and myriad other Election Day “dirty tricks.”

Restore Transparency of the Vote Count
Nationwide, secretly programmed corporate electronic voting machines have undermined the integrity of our elections and trust in democracy. Touchscreen machines in 17 states currently provide no paper ballot. Paperless Internet voting is now being proposed despite the inevitability of rigging, hacking, loss of voter privacy and intimidation. In counties where voting systems are being replaced, we have the immediate opportunity to demand paper-based systems, so that hand counts, audits, and recounts can be conducted transparently, with full public oversight – the requirement of democratic self-governance.

Tax all Wall Street Transactions Up to 1%
Most Wall Street transactions are trades or investment purchases that the wealthy (and corporations) recycle into the financial markets to grow their nest egg of tax- exempt earnings. We can exempt pension plans, 401Ks, and health savings accounts. Small investors will not be unduly affected.

End Corporate Welfare Tax Loopholes
A grassroots campaign could focus on all candidates running for Federal office in 2014 and 2016, demanding they pledge to end all corporate welfare and off-shore tax avoidance.

Organize Boycotts and Protests at the Wall Street Banks
Focus on the banks that perpetrated massive fraud in mortgage modifications and illegal foreclosures. The Democracy Movement will work to organize a Boycott against JP Morgan Chase starting with protests at the 5100 Chase offices nationwide.

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