An Open Letter to Ralph Nader
What is the most important political issue in America today? There are probably many different answers to that question; however, most of them, if not all, can be reduced to one important root. In essence, we might say that root is a deficiency of democracy. That is, the core problem that leads to most or all of our other problems is that we are not sufficiently democratic. The people of the United States are not provided with sufficiently equal access to participate in our political deliberations and decisions, even though they affect all our lives, and as a consequence, the decisions made by our government are too often contrary to the interests of the American people, or even the nation as a whole. Instead, our political system provides access to corporations and those with the most capital to spend, and these are the beneficiaries of most of our public policy, often to the detriment of the rest of us, to our nation, and to the world.
For instance, if you are in agreement with the plurality of folks in this country, your answer is “the economy.” So then we must ask ourselves what is the problem with the economy? Again, there might be several different answers. In fact, most of the likely answers to this are actually interconnected. Some might say the problem is outsourcing of jobs. Some might say it is the influx of undocumented immigrants. Others might blame the subprime lending crisis. Yet others may reply that the occupation of Iraq is primarily responsible. The most clearly connected of these issues are immigration and outsourcing. Corporate globalization and so called “free trade” agreements have done considerable harm to the working classes here and in other nations, primarily for the benefit of large multinational corporations. NAFTA is largely responsible for the outsourcing of certain jobs to Mexico while also damaging small farms there and setting off a chain reaction that has led to falling wages throughout Mexico and an increase in immigration, both legal and illegal, into the United States. The combined effect of losing skilled jobs to Mexico and an influx of unskilled labor from Mexico has also had a negative impact on jobs and wages here. While many try to paint the immigrants themselves as the culprits, they are victims of the same policies that we are. So, why did our government approve a policy that would have these effects? Well, certainly some of the politicians who supported it can honestly claim ignorance. Some of them simply believed their “leaders” who told them it was a good idea, and did not believe the thousands of people in the streets who knew it was not. However, many of them were complicit with or unwitting victims of corporate lobbyists (and their own greed, of course). Who has benefited from NAFTA and other such agreements? Almost exclusively, it has been multinational corporations, the politicians who take their money, and the investor class.
Well, what about the other choices? If you are among those who believe the subprime lending/housing crisis is behind our economic hardships, you are not wrong, but you may be among those who simply did not notice that our economy has actually been going downhill for a while. In reality, the subprime banking industry came about because the economy was already slumping. More and more people were finding themselves unable to meet the credit and cash-on-hand standards to purchase a new home, so a new sector of the banking industry was created to meet a new need. Of course, the nature of banking being what it is, the industry that had already sent many of these folks swirling down the economic drain by sucking out their savings through credit card debt incurred from usurious interest rates had to take yet another stab at squeezing out whatever blood might be left in the stone. Well, how does that relate to the other issues, or to the common root issue? To answer that, we must ask how this new subsector of the credit industry was allowed to come into existence. Subprime lending, along with higher credit card rates, payday lending, and new bankruptcy laws that favor the creditors more than ever are results of new changes in related laws that all favor whom? That’s right, large multinational (banking) corporations, the politicians who take their money, and those who can afford to invest in those companies. And who have been the victims? Once again, it has been Americans who have to work 40 or more hours per week to keep food on the table and roofs over their heads. Dare I say “the working class” without fear of some right-wing pundit calling me a class warrior? Yes, I do. One of the hard truths that we must face as a nation is that the solutions to our national problems will inevitably involve the rich becoming less rich. That may not necessarily mean a direct redistribution of wealth, but it does mean at least ending subsidies, no-bid contracts and other sweetheart deals to corporations, tax cuts for the rich, and other laws that favor the wealthy over the rest of us and allow them to get richer from our toil while we get poorer.
That brings us to the other possible answer to what is driving our economy down: the occupation of Iraq. While it is one possible reason for our slumping economy, for other Americans, it is in itself the most important current issue in American politics. So, here we’ll be bridging the gap from the economy to our next subject: the military-industrial complex.
Some of you may call the occupation of Iraq “the war.” I refuse to do that. It is not a war, except a civil war among Iraqis. For the United States military, it is an occupation subsequent to an invasion. Like all our other military misadventures since the end of World War 2, there has been no declaration of war by Congress, and yet again, our troops are there in the middle of another country’s civil war, only this time, they don’t even know which side they’re on.
The problems with the Iraq issue are so numerous, it could easily be a book on its own (and certainly, it already has been), but I will try to keep it as brief as I can. First, I must point out that the invasion was illegal and entirely unwarranted. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or even WMD programs. There were no meaningful connections between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda. There was no authorization from the United Nations Security Council for an invasion. Furthermore, there was a very good reason why there was no such authorization: because anyone who bothered to check the media almost anywhere outside the United States, and even in the “alternative” media within the US knew there were no WMD in Iraq, knew the UN weapons inspectors were doing their jobs and had control of the situation, and knew that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were not a threat to the United States or any of its allies, nor to Iraq’s other neighbors.
Scott Ritter, who had been the UN Chief Weapons Inspector in the 1990’s, before Bill Clinton ordered him and his team out to begin a bombing campaign in Iraq, told us that even then, at least 90-95% of Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons had been destroyed by his team, or destroyed by Iraq and verified by his team. Furthermore, he told us that because of the tough sanctions program and relatively tight monitoring of the Oil For Food program, that US and UK officials inspected just about everything that went into Iraq, and the likelihood of Iraq being able to reconstitute any of its WMD under such scrutiny was very close to zero. That aspect was further supported by reports from humanitarian activists from the US working in Iraq that many needed medicines and other medical supplies were unable to get through to the people of Iraq because they were deemed by the US-UK coalition to be “dual use” materials. Add to that the fact that well before the invasion the UN had assigned Hans Blix to lead a new team of weapons inspectors and had been able to find no evidence of any WMD. Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s chief inspector, Mohamed El Baradei, had found no evidence of any nuclear weapons capability or program. In addition, the US sent Joseph Wilson to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium from Niger, and returned to tell us that those claims were false (and then, of course, his wife was outed as an undercover CIA operative as punishment for not playing along with the administration’s game)….
So that was all before the invasion. The rest of the world knew it, and that is why the Security Council would not approve a resolution that authorized an invasion. I knew it, and millions of other Americans knew it, yet somehow 296 of our Representatives and 77 Senators apparently did not, including 81 of 208 (39%) of the “opposition” Democrats in the House and 29 of 50 (58%) Senate Democrats. And if you believe that, there’s a little place in your neighborhood strip center that would like to offer you a payday loan….
The invasion of Iraq and toppling of its previous regime took around 40 days. Our military has been there now for over five years, and despite occasional lulls in the violence of the civil war, there has been no political progress toward creating any sort of sustainable society for the Iraqi people. So again, let’s ask ourselves who is benefiting and who is suffering as a result. The “winners” in this debacle have been Halliburton, Bechtel, Blackwater and other mercenary groups, the military-industrial complex, the politicians who support them and take their money, and those wealthy enough to invest in those companies…and let’s not forget al-Qaeda, whose recruiting and donations have been rising due to increased antipathy towards the United States, as we show ourselves to be ruthless invaders, imperial occupiers, and corporate colonists. And of course, once again, the losers are the working class of America, who pay a larger portion of their income in taxes to finance military misadventures we cannot afford instead of rebuilding our schools, roads, bridges, levees or power grid, instead of creating new “green” jobs through promotion of renewable energy, and instead of developing a single-payer universal health care system….
Speaking of which, perhaps some of you wondered why I didn’t mention our health care crisis as a possible reason for our economic woes. Others have simply been waiting for me to get to it as their number one issue in our current political vortex. Certainly, many of our nation’s nearly-poor and newly-poor have gotten there because of health care related debt, and this is undoubtedly having a negative effect on our economy, but that is only a part of the problem. As of 2005, the people of the United States spend 53% more per capita than the second biggest health care spenders (Switzerland), and 140% more than the median of other industrialized nations (1), yet our health care system is ranked 37th in overall effectiveness and 40th in satisfaction by the World health Organization (2, page 4). Our for-profit health insurance industry spends 31% of its revenue on administrative costs (3), while Medicare overhead costs only about 3%. We spend a large chunk of money reimbursing hospitals for emergency room care for people without insurance, instead of offering a universal health care system that would cost less and cover those same people, and allow them to seek care before it became an emergency, which would, of course, cost even less. Yes, moving to a single-payer system would add some taxes for many of us, but for most, it would be more than offset by eliminating insurance premiums, co-pays, co-insurance, and other health care costs under our current for-profit private insurance system. In this case, even most corporations would benefit from such a move, as they would no longer have to be responsible for maintaining a corporate health care plan to cover their employees (not that they are forced to by law now, but many must in order to compete for employees and/or to meet the demands of labor unions). So then, who benefits from this wrong-headed system? Just two industries really, but they are very powerful: the insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and again, the politicians who are in their pockets and the investors who own their stocks.
The other two issues that polls show most Americans believe to be among the most important right now have already been mentioned here: terrorism and immigration Let’s address terrorism first. Despite the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, terrorism did not really measure on the public radar as a major issue until the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then, despite very few terrorism related arrests, and very few terrorism events, it remains near the top of our list. However, while many Americans are concerned about it more than we were before that tragic event, what are we really doing about it? It is difficult to say exactly, as our government has become very secretive, but in general, when they talk about it, they talk about our military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In reality, confronting terrorism has very little to do with the military. Domestic law enforcement is what protects us from most potential avenues of terrorism, and dramatic attacks, like those of 9/11 would involve the military, but in a wholly defensive mode within or very near our own borders, not halfway around the world. Another important step we should be taking to prevent future acts of terrorism is a cultural exchange and outreach to those who seem most likely to threaten us. It is probably common enough knowledge that I need not say it, but I will anyway, to avoid any confusion or ambiguity. The current threat of terrorism seems to be greatest from radical, fundamentalist Islamist groups. One thing we should be doing as a nation in response to this is educating our own people. Specifically, Americans need to have a better understanding of Islam and Islamic cultures. We need to understand that the threat is not from the average Muslim, not from Islamic nations, is not a by-product of Islam as a religion, but is merely a small percentage of Muslims who have perverted their own religion in similar ways to how many Christians have. From the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Salem Witch Trials to the modern apocalyptic fundamentalists who would install a theocracy in place of our pseudo-democracy or the white supremacists who twist the Bible to fit their hatred and xenophobia, we have seen this before in a slightly different mask. We should also be developing diplomatic, political and economic connections with the people of the world, not only in Islamic nations, but also in southern Africa and South America, rather than pursuing corporate globalization and military hegemony that can only lead to further anti-American sentiment that might lead to new waves of terrorism in the future. We should also realize that there is a continuing threat of domestic “terrorism.” Within the US, there are separatist and survivalist groups who are usually well-armed and generally unhappy about the current state of affairs in our own country. Despite that threat, our government will often cite anarchists, environmentalists and animal rights groups as our greatest domestic terror threats, despite the fact that these groups, while often guilty of acts of vandalism, almost never cause injury (or death). Nevertheless, whether we call them terrorists or vandals, we should realize that their actions are a response to our society, and while we may not be willing to alter our behavior as they would desire, there might be avenues of progress that could diminish the threat without adversely affecting our society.
Furthermore, there is another type of domestic terrorism that we usually do not call by that name: violent crime, or even crime in general. While our overall crime rate has not risen dramatically, our perception as portrayed in our mainstream media suggests that it has. Furthermore, while the number or percentage of incidents of crime may not be increasing, perhaps the intensity is, although that may also be merely an impression resulting from media sensationalism. In any case, rather than merely calling attention to it, increasing law enforcement efforts (which never actually reduce any sort of crime), imprisoning more Americans, and propagating fear (i.e. terror), we ought to be taking proactive steps to reduce crime in America that can only come from addressing the controllable causes of criminal behavior. For the most part, these are socio-economic: poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, homelessness, social isolation. It should be easy to see that these are interconnected issues that lead us back to where this discussion began: our failing economy.
Moreover, as we look at each of these subgroups of “terrorism,” we see that our military approach to international terrorism has not only failed to decrease the risk, but has actually strengthened the groups we have singled out. The more we antagonize people in Iraq and Afghanistan by destroying their lands and killing their people, including tremendous numbers of civilians, the more we increase anti-American sentiment, which results in both greater funding and new recruits for the very groups we should be trying to diminish. Similarly, our economic and military policies in other parts of the world only increase the risk that new terror threats will grow from them, and our domestic “crack down” approach to crime and home-grown “terrorism” increases the number of people in prisons and children without one or both parents in the home, but does nothing to actually address the conditions that drive people to criminal behavior. Why? The military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, our antiquated fossil-fuel energy industry, and huge agricultural corporations are driving policy rather than the people.
Finally, we come to immigration. As I noted earlier, one of the primary causes of our increases in immigration in the last decade or so has been NAFTA. Passed in 1994 and effective in 1995, it has allowed subsidized American corporations to sell cheap foods and other goods in Mexico, driving many small farms and other small businesses out of business, or at least forcing layoffs as smaller producers transition to niche markets. This drives unskilled workers into urban centers where they can work below standard Mexican wage levels for newly relocated American corporations who have moved there for cheaper labor and production costs. This drives wages down and forces workers north for better wages, and driving some of them, as well as many displaced workers in the north, across the border to find work in the US. Simultaneously, of course, those jobs that have moved south of the border have evaporated from the American economy, creating higher unemployment here, which in turn creates hostility toward the immigrants who have come here to work. However, the jobs must be here, or they could not stay. Yet our government fails to increase the quotas for immigration to match the actual demand for the labor, so we end up with a tremendous number of undocumented workers. Certainly, they do not remain undocumented and receive lower wages without any occupational safety protection or other standards purely by choice. Some may immigrate hoping to achieve citizenship, others may simply desire employment and an eventual return to their home country, but our failure to provide a pathway to either in sufficient number to meet our own demand is simply that: our failure. The results are:
- the anger of many Americans over what they see as criminal behavior, again as a result of economic conditions imposed by our own policy;
- millions of undocumented people in this country who are probably afraid to come forward to report crimes, create black markets for a variety of goods and services, are virtually untraceable to our law enforcement if they do commit a crime, etc.;
- reduced wages and occupational safety standards for all American workers, especially in those industries that use considerable amounts of undocumented workers.
I probably should not even need to say it by now, but once again, let us ask ourselves who is benefiting from these policies. Undoubtedly our answer again will be corporations (those selling cheap goods in Mexico, those taking advantage of cheaper overhead costs for production, and those hiring undocumented workers at reduced wages and not maintaining proper safety standards here in the US), the politicians who accept their contributions, and the stockholders in those companies.
It should not be difficult to understand now that all of our top political issues are problems stemming from the influence of corporate lobbyists and corporate money in our political system and the solution to all of these problems begins with reversing that. On this, I am sure that Ralph Nader would fundamentally agree; however, where we differ is in how we should confront this problem.
Earlier this year, I attempted to mount a campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to initiate a plan to tackle this issue by shifting political power to the people. I believe that it could be a very effective plan, but it will require someone other than me to pick up the banner. I believe you, Ralph Nader, could be that person. While my base of support was a small number of Greens, a few progressive independents and even a few Democrats here in Travis County, several of whom did not even live in the district; you have a national support network, national name recognition and considerably more resources than I. While it is certainly too late for you to exit the presidential contest this year and begin a congressional race, I hope that you may still be willing to consider a congressional run in 2010, utilizing some or all of my plan for bringing the people of your district, and eventually all Americans, into the political process in a much more meaningful way than merely voting.
The main plank of my platform was to develop a path by which every resident in the district could participate directly in discussion and deliberation of the issues; and through a democratic process, reach decisions that will be based on the needs of the people not of corporations; to seek solutions, not quick profits; and to direct their representative in Congress to pursue those solutions, or face a certain defeat in the next election.
My plan might have to be adjusted somewhat to fit the specifics of your district and others, but what I did was divide the district into 16 divisions of between 12 and 19 voting precincts each in such a way that each division was entirely embedded in one county (My district includes six whole counties and portions of two others). If I had been elected, the process would have worked like this:
Twice a year, each precinct would hold a caucus. These would be entirely separate from the partisan caucuses of primary season. Rather, they would be transpartisan, open to every registered voter in the precinct. If a caucus exceeded two hundred participants, it would be subdivided into assemblies of two hundred or fewer. Each caucus (or assembly thereof) would discuss the various issues of concern, and try to achieve some resolutions.
At the end of the session, each caucus would elect four or five delegates using Single Transferable Voting, or some such system that would produce a proportional balance of representation. These delegates would then attend a division assembly, where they would each bring forth the resolutions passed by their precincts. When possible, several resolutions might be combined into a compromise resolution. Again, after their deliberations, they would elect delegates to a district assembly.
The district assembly would meet at least once per month until the next one was elected (roughly six months), and would serve as the advisory committee to the Congressional Representative. In addition to their monthly deliberative sessions, they would also hold an open hearing each month for residents to express their concerns on issues that might arise or change between precinct assemblies.
This process would provide a way for voters to participate directly in discussions and deliberations that could actually affect the way their representative votes in Congress, a more meaningful access path to their representative than letters or phone calls, and would create an organizational structure that citizens could use to oversee their representative, apply political pressure, and if necessary, choose and elect someone else who would be more responsive to the people’s concerns.
Of course, none of the career politicians who currently inhabit our Congress is likely to initiate such a plan, and despite the best efforts of myself and the state and county Green Party organizations, we were unable to provide this opportunity to move closer to democracy here in Texas. I can think of no person besides you who might be both willing and likely to succeed in such a venture. I know that running for the presidency in some sense give you a chance to talk about crucial issues on a national stage, but more and more, you are being shut out from that national stage, despite of, or perhaps because of your presidential bids. This would give you a chance to set in motion a real process of democratization that the corporate media could not stop.
Ideally, if you win and establish these democratic assemblies in your district, it will inspire the residents of other districts to organize in similar fashion and develop a Congress that is entirely accountable to the people. Perhaps that will eventually lead to amending our constitution to enshrine such democracy into our political system officially, and make even more democratic progress, like allowing the people the ability to recall a representative in mid-term. I sincerely hope you will choose to use the popularity and other resources you have won over the years to give the American people one more gift. I am opening the door, but you must step through it. Welcome to democracy.