1996 DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION DIARY by PETER COYOTE
The disparity between the country I've left and the territory I'm going to could not be greater. I've been driving and camping with my son the last month, passing through Salmon, Idaho fishing the Lemhi River; crossing vast, deserted spaces in eastern Oregon through Burns, to Bend and then South to the Salmon River country of the Trinity/Siskyou Wilderness where I lived on a commune years ago. Each August old friends and companions reconvene there, to trade books, gossip, swim, fish, and best of all, talk politics.
The common denominator of local people observed in all these recent travels is that they are poor and getting poorer. Pickups are dented and older than they should be. Makeshift repairs are apparent everywhere; clothes are threadbare, and each year I return, the eyes of the men, women and children, express more of the flat, hopeless opaqueness of migrants and Okies photographed by Dorothy Lange and Walker Evans. Beef is down to .55 cents a pound, driving small farmers to desperation. They think NAFTA has a lot to do with it; also think Wolf re-introduction programs are pre-cursors to regulating them out of existence. When you observe the money dedicated following each wolf (through poor country) and the fact that Fish and Game people did not ask local Idaho residents how they thought re-introduction might go, their ideas seem less paranoid.
A friend of mine spent a weekend at a militia convention here and was surprised. "Sure there were racists in the audience", he said, "but what was emanating from the speaker's platform sounded exactly like SDS rallies of twenty years ago." The only item missing from their critiques of big-government, bureaucracy, red-tape, disenfranchisement and corruption was a systematic critique of the role of big-business in this picture. "Where were we?" My friend wondered, meaning of course, why wasn't the Left organizing there and helping people perceive the bigger picture.
The day I returned home, President Clinton signed the welfare bill, abolishing the social safety net established by Franklin Roosevelt and potentially grinding the poorest, least defenseless citizens in our nation face-first into the dirt. Of course, 40% of them are children who can't vote, so he needn't fear political repercussions. In an economy where 5 1/2 % percent unemployment gives Wall Street jitters, (about 7 million people out of work) the political class and their attendant flacks continue to generate endless rhetoric about getting the poor off welfare and putting them to work, and zero rhetoric about a national policy of full employment. Where will they work? Will they fight with the 5 1/2% already looking for work? Of course they will, and the subsequent lowering of wages as desperate people claw one another for opportunities to feed themselves and their children would have pleased Caligula and will certainly please captains of industry paying them less than they might otherwise have had to. If the minimum wage were computed in constant dollars from 1973 it should be over $7.00 an hour. Celebrating the raising of the minimum wage to 30% less than that is disguising the fact that American workers are being steadily beaten back. It would be more honest and less cruel to admit that we are actually paying the poor a) to stay out of our garbage cans and off the front pages of the foreign press, and b) to fight inflation. If all those poor folks were working, generating more money to superheat the economy, think what might be happening to those venerable old family fortunes stashed in the bond market.
I challenge any politician in the United States to live on welfare for one month. To pretend that people on welfare are being coddled is a preposterous fiction; a smoke-screen to deflect attention from the fact that even after the fall of Russia policy makers are preserving a Cold War military budget three times the size of any other on the Planet. (Hey, our 80 billion dollar criminal justice budget is larger than any extant military budget.) Anyone who can watch a rain-drop slide down a window knows that all welfare money flows directly back into the cash-registers of merchants and bankers like sunlight circulating through the food chain. The only residue left in the poor is their survival. The posing and posturing on the backs of people they are charged to protect actually declares that politicians begrudge them even the marginal niche they have managed to glean from that cycling of the currency.
So I'm going to Chicago as a delegate for the Democratic party and free-lance muckraker for Mother Jones and I'm pissed off. I anticipate salad bars and free lunches that could feed an army of school-children. I'm sure I'll endure bad speeches, halfhearted promises, enough earnest looks and double-clasped handshakes to make me think I'm in church.
I'm not cynical, I'm outraged. I've watched America metamorphose into the richest and most powerful Third World Country imaginable in the interval of twenty years, institutionalizing the same injustices and disparities of opportunity we used to ridicule in banana republics. The same bland, shining boys, who missed the collapse of the Soviet Union command the helm of State, debating the fine points of "value" vs. "virtues" while they steer us into the rocks. The rhetoric is thinner than treacle, and so routinized they don't notice they're playing to empty houses as 60% and more of the electorate D.A.R.E.S. to "just say no" and stays home.
That's one reason I've agreed to go Chicago as a delegate; to display and demand involvement; remind peers that we have a window of opportunity to claim this democracy as our own once again by participating. I also have an agenda of my own.
Our national situation is no accident. The political class, like the rest of us, work for the people who pay them. They need our votes occasionally, which is what this particular dumb show is about, but the need for the money, is endless. Consequently, the politicians real constituency, protestations to the contrary, is the well-heeled lobbyist and contributor. I would like to facilitate the return of our leaders to the leash of the people. While my ideas for doing so are neither original nor foolproof, there are several things which might be initiated in the election process to return fiscal power to the rank-in-file, sober, hardworking, generally honest and beleaguered general population who spend their lives in thrall to the splendiferous 5% who own most of everything. I would urge that we declare that the most critical business of a democracy is free and fair elections and to that end insure:
a) That all Federal elections be subsidized by the tax payer; with absolute spending caps. Part of what we want to learn of a candidate is what they can do with what they have. Limits spur creativity, and this limit will also create a level playing field (a term we usually reserve for situations where the oligarchy has lost a previous advantage.) Since the Reagan/Bush Supreme Court has decreed that spending money is an act of free speech, this will require different appointments to change that majority.
b) In return for using the public airwaves, all TV and cable companies must offer free airtime to qualified candidates, and that no paid ads be accepted. The airwaves belong to the public. Why should politicians have to raise money to pay TV stations to transmit their platforms and agendas to that public? Such a change would free politicians et al from wasteful, inaccurate and disgraceful (and disgracefully expensive) media campaigns. The banning of paid ads would diminish disinformation, sloganeering, and campaigns of personality.
c) In return for that free airtime all qualified candidates must participate in debates and/or question and answer forums on the air. Enough of this hanky-panky crap where teams of partisans meet to determine the rules of debate. Trot-em-the-hell out there to meet the public and answer questions and let us get a good look at 'em.
d) That citizens and non-profit groups enjoy the same tax-deductible advantages for disseminating information as major corporations currently receive for disinformation. This would affect a major transfer of resources and power back to the average citizen. For example, the local "forums" sponsored by the big Three auto manufacturers, "explaining" the Clean-Air act to citizen's groups, disseminated enough falsehoods to generate a blizzard of astro-turf (synthetic grass-roots) correspondence, from Boy-Scout Troops, handicapped groups and Little League mothers who had been informed that passage of the Clean-Air act would preclude cars larger than a Honda on the nation's roads. The costs of the these dog and-pony, chart-and-pointer carnivals were tax deductible to the Big Three. However if I should choose to send copies of the book Clearcut, which graphically chronicles the rape and dismemberment of the Nation's public forests, to every legislator in Washington, I would have to foot that bill, despite having paid more taxes last year than ten major corporations.
This is a reform that will never begin or be supported by Washington. While anti- government chatter is usually a smoke-screen for pro-monopoly behavior, this will have to be a citizens' referendum, state-by-state, like the nuclear freeze. It will have to be thought out carefully by better minds than my own, (What about PAC's for example? How would people subvert it?) but it is less of a challenge to envision than the Civil Rights movement or the Anti-war movement, and without it we will no longer have much of a country.
So that's my howdy and introduction. I'll keep my eyes and ears open, and promise to report faithfully on the quality of the food, the nature of the men, women, and entertainments I encounter. I am neither a pundit nor a professional reporter and so beg pardon for occasional lapses of taste and judgment. I will speak truthfully and I'll try my damnedest to keep descriptions of the whole gallumphing, thrashing, white-whale stabbing party interesting. That's a promise.
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