How To Take Back America
This lack of political power is a crisis others have faced before. We
should learn from their experience.
Published on Monday, March 24, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
How To Take Back America
by Thom Hartmann
Marching in the streets is important work, but wouldn't we have greater
success if we also took control of the United States government?
It's vital to point out right-wing-slanted reporting in the corporate
media, but isn't it also important to seize enough political power in
Washington to enforce anti-trust laws to break up media monopolies?
And how are progressives - most standing on the outside of government,
looking in - to deal with oil wars, endemic corporate cronyism, slashed
environmental regulations, corporate-controlled voting machines, the
devastation of America's natural areas, the fouling of our air and
waters, and an administration that daily gives the pharma, HMO,
banking, and insurance industries whatever they want regardless of how
many people are harmed?
This lack of political power is a crisis others have faced before. We
should learn from their experience.
After the crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, a similar crisis
faced a loose coalition of gun lovers, abortion foes, southern
segregationists, Ayn Rand libertarians, proto-Moonies, and those who
feared immigration within and communism without would destroy the
America they loved. Each of these various groups had tried their own
"direct action" tactics, from demonstrations to pamphleteering to
organizing to fielding candidates. None had succeeded in gaining
mainstream recognition or affecting American political processes. If
anything, their efforts instead had led to their being branded as
special interest or fringe groups, which further diminished their
So the conservatives decided not to get angry, but to get power.
Led by Joseph Coors and a handful of other ultra-rich funders, they
decided the only way to seize control of the American political agenda
was to infiltrate and take over one of the two national political
parties, using their own think tanks like the Coors-funded Heritage
Foundation to mold public opinion along the way. Now they regularly
get their spokespeople on radio and television talk shows and
newscasts, and write a steady stream of daily op-ed pieces for national
newspapers. They launched an aggressive takeover of Dwight Eisenhower's
"moderate" Republican Party, opening up the "big tent" to invite in
groups that had previously been considered on the fringe.
Archconservative neo-Christians who argue the Bible should replace the
Constitution even funded the startup of a corporation to manufacture
computer-controlled voting machines, which are now installed across the
nation. And Reverend Moon took over The Washington Times newspaper and
Their efforts, as we see today, have borne fruit, as Kevin Phillips
predicted they would in his prescient 1969 book "The Emerging
Republican Majority," and as David Brock so well documents in his book
"Blinded By The Right."
But the sweet victory of the neoconservatives in capturing control of
the Republican Party, and thus of American politics, has turned bitter
in the mouths of the average American and humans around the world.
Soaring deficits, the evisceration of Social Security, "voluntary"
pollution controls, war for oil, stacking federal benches with
right-wing ideologues, bellicose and nationalist foreign policy, and
the handing over of much of the infrastructure of governance to
multinational corporate campaign donors has brought a vast devastation
to the nation, nearly destroyed the entrepreneurial American dream, and
caused the rest of the world to view us with shock and horror.
Thus, many progressives are suggesting that it's time for concerned
Americans to reclaim Thomas Jefferson's Democratic Party. It may, in
fact, be our only short-term hope to avoid a final total fascistic
takeover of America and a third world war.
"But wait!" say the Greens and Progressives and left-leaning Reform
Party members. "The Democrats have just become weaker versions of the
True enough, in many cases. And it isn't working for them, because, as
Democrat Harry Truman said, "When voters are given a choice between
voting for a Republican, or a Democrat who acts like a Republican,
they'll vote for the Republican every time." (And, history shows,
voters are equally uninterested in Republicans who act like Democrats.)
Alternative parties have an important place in American politics, and
those in them should continue to work for their strength and vitality.
They're essential as incubators of ideas and nexus points for activism.
Those on the right learned this lesson well, as many groups that at
times in the past had fielded their own candidates are now still intact
but have also become powerful influencers of the Republican Party.
Similarly, being a Green doesn't mean you can't also be a Democrat.
This is not a popular truth.
There's a long list of people who didn't like it - Teddy Roosevelt, H.
Ross Perot, John Anderson, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader - but nonetheless
the American constitution was written in a way that only allows for two
political parties. Whenever a third party emerges, it's guaranteed to
harm the party most closely aligned to it.
This was the result of a well-intentioned accident that most Americans
fail to understand when looking at the thriving third, fourth, and
fifth parties of democracies such as Germany, India, or Israel. How do
they do it? And why can't we have third parties here?
The reason is because in America - unlike most other modern democracies
- we have regional "winner take all" types of elections, rather than
proportional representation where the group with, say, 30 percent of
the vote, would end up with 30 percent of the seats in government.
It's a critical flaw built into our system, so well identified in
Robert A. Dahl's brilliant book "How Democratic Is the American
When the delegates assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 to craft a
constitution, republican democracy had never before been tried anywhere
in what was known as "the civilized world." There were also, at that
moment, no political parties, and "father of the Constitution" James
Madison warned loudly in Federalist #10 against their ever emerging.
In part, Madison issued his warning because he knew that the system
they were creating would, in the presence of political parties, rapidly
become far less democratic. In the regional winner-take-all type of
elections the Framers wrote into the Constitution, the loser in a
two-party race - even if s/he had fully 49.9 percent of the vote -
would end up with no voice whatsoever. And the combined losers in a 3-
or more-party race could even be the candidates or parties whose
overall position was most closely embraced by the majority of the
The best solution to this unfairness, in 1787, was to speak out against
the formation of political parties ("factions"), as Madison did at
length and in several venues. But within a decade of the
Constitution's ratification, Jefferson's split with Adams had led to
the emergence of two strong political parties, and the problems Madison
foresaw began and are with us to this day.
This is particularly problematic in presidential elections. H. Ross
Perot's participation in the 1992 election drew enough votes away from
the elder George Bush that Bill Clinton won without a true majority.
Similarly, Ralph Nader's participation in the 2000 election drew enough
votes away from Al Gore that it was easy for the Supreme Court and Jeb
Bush to deflect media notice away from Florida's illegal vote-rigging
in the pre-election purging of the voter rolls and thus select George
W. Bush as President.
Conservative activists recognized this inherent flaw in the electoral
system of the United States and decided to do something about it,
recruiting Ronald Reagan and forming his infamous "kitchen cabinet."
They took over the Republican Party and then successfully seized
control of the government of the United States of America. As we can
see by comparing documents from the 1990s Project For A New American
Century with today's war in Iraq, these once-marginalized conservative
ideologues are the real power behind Bush's throne.
Liberals weren't so practically minded. Instead of funding think tanks
to influence public opinion, subsidizing radio and TV talk show hosts
nationwide, and working to take over the Democratic Party, many left to
create their own parties while others gave up on mainstream politics
altogether. The remaining Democrats were caught in the awkward
position of having to try to embrace the same corporate donors as the
Republicans, although they weren't anywhere near as successful as
Republicans because they hadn't (and haven't) so fully sold out to
corporate and wealthy interests.
We see the result in races across the nation, such as my state of
Vermont. In the 2002 election for Governor and Lieutenant Governor,
the people who voted for the Democratic and Progressive candidates
constituted a clear majority. Nonetheless, the Republican candidates
became Governor and Lieutenant Governor with 45 percent and 41 percent
of the vote respectively because each had more votes than his
Democratic or Progressive opponents alone. (Example: Republican Brian
Dubie - 41%; Democrat Peter Shumlin - 32%; Progressive Anthony Pollina
- 25%. The Republican "won.")
Similarly, Republicans have overtly used third-party participation on
the left to their advantage. In a July 12, 2002 story in the
Washington Post titled "GOP Figure Behind Greens Offer, N.M. Official
Says," Post writer Thomas B. Edsall noted that: "The chairman of the
Republican Party of New Mexico said yesterday he was approached by a
GOP figure who asked him to offer the state Green Party at least
$100,000 to run candidates in two contested congressional districts in
an effort to divide the Democratic vote."
The Republicans well understand - and carefully use - the fact that in
the American electoral system a third-party candidate will always harm
the major-party candidate with whom s/he is most closely aligned.
The Australians solved this problem in the last decade by instituting
nationwide instant run-off voting (IRV), a system that is making
inroads in communities across the United States. There are also
efforts to reform our electoral system along the lines of other
democratic nations, instituting proportional representation systems
such as first proposed by John Stuart Mill in 1861 and now adopted by
virtually every democracy in the world except the US, Australia,
Greece, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
These are good and important efforts for the long-term future of
American democracy. But they won't happen in time to influence the
2004 elections, and we're facing a crisis right now. A few Democratic
stalwarts survive who may oppose Bush on the national stage, but while
the rest of us fixated on the war, neo-cons are creeping on cat's paws
into the very heart of Jefferson's Party.
Thus, the best immediate solution to advance the progressive agenda is
for progressives to join and take back the Democratic Party, in the
same way conservatives seized control of the Republican Party.
After writing the first draft of this article, just as the first 2003
attack of Baghdad began, I thought about how the Democratic Party could
change if most of the protesters in the streets were to join the
Democratic Party and run for leadership positions in their local town
or county. In short order, it could become a powerful force for
progressive principles and democracy in America and the world, maybe
even in time to influence the 2004 election.
So, I called the Democratic headquarters in my home state of Vermont.
"Sign me up!" I said to the startled young man who answered the phone.
"What?" he said, taken aback by my enthusiasm.
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," I said,
standing and waving my arm as I talked on the phone. "We have to stop
the right-wingers from ripping up our constitution, despoiling our
earth, and turning America into a fascist state! Sign me up!"
"Are you a Democrat?" he said.
"Can I be a progressive Democrat?"
"Sure!" he said.
"Then I'm also a Democrat now!"
He chuckled, and said. "We're getting a lot of calls like this."
He took my contact information, and gave me the name of my county's
Party leader. I told him to put me on the list for future fundraising
events, to let me know how and when I could run for local Party
leadership, and how I could participate on a regular basis in the
decision-making processes of "my" local Democratic Party.
An hour after that call, I received an email characteristic of so many
I get these days.
"I've never been so depressed in my entire life," the correspondent, an
attorney and longtime progressive activist wrote. "Bush is completely
ignoring us. My nation, using the same rationale Germany did in the
1930s, has just gone to war against a nation that did not attack it,
and my president has declared himself a military dictator. Every time
we announce peace marches, they raise the 'threat level' so they can
keep us away from government buildings or use force to prevent us from
marching. I've lost all hope."
A few minutes later, another old friend and activist wrote that her
"heart was heavy and tears came easily." A flood of other emails
arrived after the publication of my most recent article on Common
Dreams, and all but one expressed despair, fear, or panic.
So I've started answering them by saying:
"The nation I love is confronting a crisis no smaller than those faced
by Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Washington: a crisis that will determine if
American democracy survives to the next generation. So-called
'conservatives' are turning our government inside out, trying, as they
say, 'to drown it in the bathtub,' killing off regulatory agencies,
ripping up the Constitution, cutting funding to social services, and
turning pollution controls over to industry. Government expenses in the
trillions of dollars are being shifted from us, today, to the shoulders
of our children, who will certainly have to repay the deficits Bush's
so-called 'tax cuts' (which are really tax deferrals) are racking up.
War is being waged in our name and without our consent.
"And, most disconcerting, the leadership of this administration is made
up of blatantly profiteering CEOs, former defense industry lobbyists,
and failed hack politicians so outside the mainstream that one -
Ashcroft - even lost an election in his home state against a dead guy.
"Unlike most other modern democracies, our American electoral system
only allows for two political parties, at least at the national level.
So, given that the rich, the polluters, the paranoid, and the zealot
war-mongers got to the Republicans first, we have no choice but to take
back the Democratic Party, reinvigorate it, reorient it, and lead it to
success in 2004. We may not be able to stop Bush now, but we sure as
hell can throw him out of office next year at the ballot box."
But what, some have said in response, about the corporate-controlled
That was the same problem faced by the Christian Right 25 years ago,
when the coverage they could get was of Tammy Faye Bakker scandals. But
once they'd taken over the Republican Party, the press could no longer
ignore them, and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are now regulars on
Another person answered my now-form-email by saying, "I want to
participate in producing a detailed plan for the future of America,
rather than just joining a corrupt and tired-out political party."
My response was that if there were enough of us in the Democratic
Party, it could become a cleaned-up and powerful activist force. It's
possible: just look at how the anti-abortion and gun-nut folks took
over the once-moribund Republican Party.
Another said, "But what about their rigged computer-controlled voting
My answer is that only a political party as large and resourceful as
the Democrats could have the power to re-institute exit polling, and
catch scams like the voter-list purges Jeb Bush used to steal the 2000
and 2002 elections for himself and his brother.
And the Democratic Party can only do it if we, in massive numbers, join
it, embrace it, and ultimately gain a powerful and decisive voice in
its policy-making and selection of candidates.
Thom Hartmann (e-mail: thom at thomhartmann.com) is the author of over
a dozen books, including "Unequal Protection" and "The Last Hours of
Ancient Sunlight." www.thomhartmann.com This article is copyright by
Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for reprint in print, email,
blog, or web media so long as this credit is attached.
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