How workaday folks are curbing the power of plutocratic elites
12 min read
Rest in peace, Sahu. The Lowdown’s multi-talented design director, our beloved colleague Debra “Sahu” Barron, passed away in late November. She was a passionate truth-teller and friend whose life and example still inspire, and we will miss her.
What does the workaday majority of Americans want their lawmakers working on? Check any legitimate poll–or just listen in to almost any barstool conversation down at the Bottoms Up pub–and you’ll hear clear, consistent support for middle-class jobs, health care for all, fixed-up infrastructure, government uncorrupted by corporate cash, less greed, and, you know, the Common Good. But what have we been getting from our national and most state governments? Tax giveaways for the superrich, a shredded social safety net, union busting, privatization, support for an insane 2,000-mile border wall, racial and gender repression, dark money politics, fear-mongering and xenophobia, voter suppression, and, well, the building blocks of an American plutocracy. In short, our elected “representatives” have been bluntly ignoring us and delivering precisely what we don’t want.
How can we get lawmakers to reverse that perverse agenda and produce public policies that serve the people? Pleading with entrenched incumbents is as hopeless as teaching table manners to a hog–it annoys the hog and wastes your time. The harder, slower, but tried-and-true path to “influence” is to target, expose, challenge, and un-elect the bastards. That’s been done by organizing and mobilizing big grassroots movements, including during the New Deal years, the 1950s and ’60s civil rights struggle, and the anti-war movement of the ’60s and ’70s.
Don’t look now, but we’re in the midst of another progressive political uprising that’s been coalescing since around 2010. And ever since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 barrier-busting run, this movement has been steadily expanding, maturing, and gaining electoral strength. Indeed, in last month’s congressional, state, and local elections, hundreds of the plutocracy’s servile officeholders were defenestrated by progressive forces–and many promising new voices for the people were elected.
But recruiting, training, and electing good candidates is not our only, or always our surest, route to the policies and laws we want. Here’s another way: Have the people themselves make the laws.
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When congress critters, lobbyists, and other political elites with monopoly control of the public agenda refuse to introduce–much less to pass–measures of crucial importance to the larger public, we can go around them through the direct democratic processes of Initiative & Referendum.
When legislators obstinately ignore the people’s will, ballot initiatives allow grassroots citizens to propose a new law and put it up for a direct democratic vote. And when a legislature passes a special interest law, the referendum process lets citizens put it on the ballot and veto it. Both I&R processes require a prescribed number of registered voters to sign petitions, but then–Bingo!–their measures go on the ballot at the next election. By circumventing the middlemen, rank-and-file citizens mitigate the power of increasingly autocratic and plutocratic elites.
With these direct democracy tools available in 26 states and over 80% of cities, grassroots activists are increasingly implementing progressive change. And no wonder people are turning to do-it-yourself government, given (1) corporate money’s lock down on Washington, Trump pandemonium, and right-wing intransigence; (2) too many state governments essentially controlled by corporate lobbyists, tea party nutballs, and Koch-funded anti-government ideologues; (3) an electoral system that is gerrymandered, money-clogged, and repressive; and (4) deep public distrust of the boneheads and greedheads running our country.
And the people are winning! Even though, as University of Southern California’s John Matsusaka notes, “corporations have spent $925 million [on ballot initiatives] in California alone since 2000, far more than they contributed to candidate elections,” the direct democracy process generally favors the public interest. And 2018 greatly added to the people’s victorious tally.
👇 DO SOMETHING 👇
If you don’t like what the plutocrats are doing in (or to) your state–if you, like Katie Fahey and her fellow Michiganders, are “just tired of waiting”– start your own initiative to change things for the better! Or join forces with others who might take the lead on issues you care about.
Find out how at: The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center: ballot.org. The site provides a great overview of how the initiative process works, as well as how it has been used–and abused–over the years.
BallotPedia: ballotpedia.org is, as its name suggests, a recent-results-plus-history site with all you want to know about how citizens have used the ballot. Dig around–you’ll find much helpful info, including a comprehensive overview at: ballotpedia.org/Ballot_Measures_overview.
You’ll also find lots of useful information and resources from USC’s I&R Institute at: iandrinstitute.org.
We the People, getting it done ourselves!
Minimum Wage Since 2007, America’s federal wage floor has been stuck at $7.25 an hour–roughly $15,000 a year for full-time work–even as Congress poured trillions of dollars into bailing out Wall Street banksters and doling out tax giveaways to billionaires and multinational corporations. This disgraceful betrayal has working-class groups turning to the initiative process as a way of achieving a measure of economic justice. For example, despite vehement opposition by the fast-food giants, Walmart, and other low-wage profiteers, all four states (AZ, CO, ME, and WA) with wage-hike initiatives on their 2016 ballots passed them handily. And again, this year, the people in four more jurisdictions (AK, MI, MO, and Oakland) pushed and won initiatives for fairer pay, lifting hourly minimums to $12-$15. All of this stems directly from the “Fight for 15” street rebellions sparked six years ago by poverty-wage, fast-food workers who transformed pay and inequality into both a front-page political issue and a basic question of American morality. Protest Matters!
Healthcare Nineteen GOP governors who are acolytes of the Koch brothers’ calcified, anti-government ideology have refused to expand Medicaid’s healthcare coverage to millions of the poorest families in their states. The effects of their immoral obstinacy on so many–including millions of children–is so appalling that the people have taken to the initiative process to overrule their leaders. In November, voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah said yes to expanding Medicaid to meet the basic health needs of low-income residents. In addition, the Time To Care coalition in Michigan qualified its initiative requiring companies to let workers accrue paid sick-time benefits for personal or family health needs. The Republican legislature responded by preemptively approving “adopt and amend” (or, as sick-leave proponents dubbed it, “undo and screw”). The maneuver let lawmakers sneak back in a September lame-duck session and gut the law. Buoyed by beating the Republican gubernatorial candidate and breaking the GOP’s monopoly control of the legislature, Time To Care advocates are fighting the devious scam. Even in victory, democracy requires the people’s vigilance.
Voting The right wing has gone all out during the past decade to rig America’s elections. Partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression have blatantly stolen the ballot from millions of qualified voters (see the October 2018 Lowdown). This year, the people in half a dozen states launched a revolt against these un-American, plutocratic partisans, enacting citizen initiatives to begin restoring fairness to their corrupted electoral systems. Maryland made it easier to vote by approving election-day registration, Nevada passed automatic registration, and Michigan enacted both measures. Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah voted for non-partisan redistricting commissions to draw rational legislative lines, rather than letting incumbents draw squiggling maps to assure their own political perpetuity.
Portland, Oregon, voted to amend its city charter with a “clean governance initiative” that strictly limits campaign contributions and requires full disclosure of political ad funders. North Dakota set up an ethics commission, banned foreign political donations, and tightened rules on lobbyists and conflicts of interest; voters in New Mexico (one of only six states with no ethics commission) said yes to creating one; and Denver voters strengthened campaign finance regulations.
Especially significant, a supermajority (65%) of Florida voters restored voting rights to 1.4 million convicted felons who have served their time. Progressives teamed up with conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition to say citizens who’ve paid their debt to society should be fully reintegrated into public affairs.
Note that these grassroots reforms are coming not just from blue states, but from purple and red ones, too–and practically all received 60-70% voter approval. With people of all stripes fed up with the partisan monkey-wrenching of our democratic rights, these successes will spur reforms elsewhere. (Bonus result: The odious Kris Kobach, a blowhard Trumpster who built his political career by demonizing immigrants and demagoguing about illegal voters, got his comeuppance, losing by 5 points–in ruby red Kansas–to Democrat Laura Kelly. Xenophobes take note!)
Marijuana The legalization movement for cannabis keeps puffing along, having largely been started and fostered through various initiatives during the past decade. This year, citizens of Missouri and Utah said yes to medical marijuana measures, while Michigan and both the Madison and Milwaukee metro areas overwhelmingly approved legalization of recreational pot.
Slavery Colorado’s state constitution had long banned slavery and involuntary servitude, except “as punishment for crime.” But, no longer. Last month, 65% of voters approved prohibiting slavery “in all circumstances.”
A continuum of democratic progress
EVEN BEFORE THERE WAS A US CONSTITUTION, citizen initiatives were introduced into American government by Georgia in 1777. But it was the Populist Movement, arising almost 100 years later, that ignited a prairie fire of popular support for this straightforward method of direct democracy. After all, as movement leaders put it at the time, they were battling “capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts … and the oppressions of the usurers” in an extraordinary grassroots effort to advance the common interests of the “plain people.”
In the late 19th century, robber barons ruled everything from the economy to the agendas of the major political parties, so populist leaders formed their own political voice: the People’s Party. At its historic 1892 convention in Omaha, it became the first US party to call for such forward-thinking measures as women’s suffrage, an 8-hour day and wage protections for labor, a graduated income tax, direct election of US Senators, no subsidies for private corporations … and legislation by popular initiative and referendum. Wall Street’s power elites choked on their cigars and brandies at the audacity of these ideas, with the likes of J.P. Morgan railing against this “awful democracy.” Yet, even as the monopolists and their political whores ruthlessly undermined the economic and political structures of the Populist Movement, the platform of the People’s Party was carried into the 20th century’s Progressive and New Deal eras by such diverse reformers as Teddy Roosevelt, W.E.B. Dubois, Mother Jones, Fighting Bob LaFollette, and Eugene V. Debs.
Indeed, we modern-day progressives are still benefitting from the original Populists’ revolutionary concepts and unflagging democratic spirit, including their spread of I&R democracy. This year, there were 64 citizen initiatives on statewide ballots and 5 veto referenda. In addition, in a testament to the political punch of direct democracy, the provisions of ten other initiatives that either qualified or came close to qualifying for the November ballot were enacted by spooked state legislators. They rushed to OK the measures and avoid the cost of ignoring the public’s will.
Victories galore The power of these direct democracy tools is evident from the diversity of issues, the geo-political range of progressive-populist wins, and the sheer numbers–way too many for comprehensive coverage in this 4-page newsletter. But I want to call out several additional breakthroughs that not only pave the way for similar initiatives elsewhere, but also show that the progressive agenda can be enriched by even bolder proposals:
"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower
✅ Fighting water privatization With Wall Street and multinational corporations lobbying to take control of multiple public water systems, 77% of Baltimore voters declared their system an “inalienable city asset” that cannot be acquired by private corporate interests.
✅ Fairer felony trials Rather than allowing accused felons to be convicted by only 10 members of a 12-person jury, 64% of Louisiana voters said verdicts must be unanimous.
✅ Loan Sharks Gouging hard-up poor people is not nice, declared 77% of Colorado voters who passed a welcome initiative to reduce triple-digit interest rates, fees, and other charges for payday loans to a mere 36%.
✅ Tax loopholes A super-whopping 92% of Dane County, WI voters passed a referendum advising the state legislature against allowing corporate property owners to use tax loopholes to shift the burden of state funding to homeowners and renters.
✅ Environment Several state and local ballot items addressed humankind’s trashing of water, air, ourselves, other creatures, and Earth itself. In Florida, 69% of voters rejected Trump’s edict to let Big Oil drill in nearly all offshore waters; and in Portland, Oregon, 65% approved an innovative “clean energy program” to provide $30 million a year to weatherize homes, support solar energy conversion and local food production, fund green infrastructure, and offer green energy job training.
Victories over bad bills Of course, the forces of repression also use the I&R processes, but alert progressive activists scored several wins by beating back bad proposals including:
👍 A Massachusetts referendum that would have nixed a state law prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people by hotels, restaurants, stores, and other public places was killed by 67%.
👍 An Oregon ploy to prohibit spending public funds on abortion was defeated by 65%.
👍An attempt by Oregon’s Republican legislators to repeal the state’s sanctuary cities law by mandating that state and local police go after “suspected” immigration violators and turn them over to federal deportation authorities was squashed by 63%.
. . . and some losses Progressives did lose some initiative battles this year, including salmon habitat protection in Alaska, a repressive voter ID provision and a regressive abortion edict in Arkansas, limits on Big Oil fracking in Colorado, a home healthcare program in Maine, a requirement that Massachusetts hospitals maintain a safe level of nurses, an ethics law in South Dakota to rein in official corruption, and a carbon emissions fee in Washington. Still, our wins greatly outnumbered our losses. We’ll be back.
Crackdown on democracy
In a screaming case of driving in reverse on the Highway of Progress, Flagstaff, Arizona’s restaurant lobby and chamber of commerce, pushed Prop 418 onto the city ballot. It called for decreasing the pay of tipped workers (servers, bartenders, hair stylists, et al.) to $3 below the current $11/hour minimum, letting managers seize workers’ tips, and eliminating overtime pay. Corporate dark money from Koch-backed right-wing groups like American Encore poured into this iconic Old West town, claiming to defend small businesses. But, as Beth Heenan, co-owner of Village Baker, retorted: “If you can’t pay your employees a real wage, you need a new business model.”
Flagstaff agreed; 56% rejected the wage-busters’ decrease.
You might not like your governor or legislators, but hey, Bucko, many of them don’t like you either! You, the political busybody, that is. You, who signs petitions and votes for ballot measures that restrain corporate abuse, plutocratic rule, and the consummation of donor/lawmaker quid pro quos. Seeing the gains that We the People are making, establishment lawmakers and the moneyed interests they serve have mustered their might and machinations to subvert direct democracy.
👎 They demonize initiative voters as somewhere between stupid and “hoodwinked”–as South Dakota’s GOP governor scoffed when his state passed new ethics rules in 2016.
👎 Special interests stifle the people’s will by (1) refusing to implement initiatives, (2) passing laws to nullify the democratic vote, and (3) autocratically preempting the people’s legal authority to make laws.
👎 Corporations are beginning to use Koch-funded front groups like ALEC to push obliquely worded bills and even ballot initiatives that would outlaw initiatives.
So, heads up, friends. The reason power elites are so desperately trying to suppress access to the I&R process is that it is greatly advancing our goal of grassroots democracy–and impeding their goal of imposing plutocracy. We must defend this crucial democratic tool and use it aggressively to push a bold, progressive agenda–and do for ourselves what the established political system is too timid or too compromised to do.