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It's Not Enough to Criticize Obama: Citizens Need to Take Action

President Obama abandoned the movement that started under his campaign. Here is look at what is required, and how a version of it is forming in California.

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  • a popular base;
  • organizing tools;
  • a generally accepted morally-based conceptual framing;
  • an overall narrative, with heroes, victims, and villains;
  • a readily recognizable, well-understood language;
  • funding sources;
  • and a national communication system set up for both leaders and ordinary citizens to use.

The base is there, waiting for something worth getting behind. The organizing tools are there. The rest is not there.

That is the present reality. Expecting Obama to be FDR was politically unrealistic. And complaining that he isn't doesn't move anything forward.

Howard Dean was right when he said, "YOU have the power." What is needed is an organized activist public with a positive understanding of what our values are and how to links them to every issue. Barney Frank was only half-right when he said that the public gets active only when it is angry. That may be true for isolated issues - he was talking about regulating Wall Street. But anger is directed at isolated negatives. An effective movement must be positive, organized, and long-term, where an overall positive understanding defines the isolated negatives. And it must have all of the above.

The California Democracy Movement

We have the beginning of such a movement in California.

The central issue in California is basic democracy. California is the only state in America where the legislature is controlled by a relatively small conservative minority. Because it takes a 2/3 vote in both the Senate and Assembly to pass a budget or any tax, 1/3 plus one - 34% - in either house can control the vote by saying no to measures that would finance public needs.

Conservatives exercise that control for the simple reason that they don't believe that government should serve public needs, that instead government should be privatized and shrunk to fit in a bathtub, as if governing would disappear with government.

But governing doesn't disappear when government shrinks; instead corporations come to govern your life - like HMO's, oil companies, drug companies, agribusiness, and so on, with accountability only to maximizing profit, not to public needs.

An overwhelming majority of Californians - over 60% - disagree. They believe that government should serve public needs, and they have elected sensible legislators. But they don't quite make up 2/3. And so an extreme right-wing minority - about 37% - controls the state, its present and its future.

Luckily, there is a way out for the majority in California. The initiative process that created this situation can get us out. I have proposed The California Democracy Act as an initiative in the November 2010 election. It changes two words in the California Constitution - "two-thirds" becomes "a majority" in two places. It can be described in one simple sentence: All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote. That ballot initiative needs only a majority to pass. It would return majority rule to the legislature on everyday economic issues, bringing democracy back to California. Those interested can join the campaign by clicking on

Democracy is the central issue, and that is what our movement is about. We are setting up an infrastructure in California, with a statewide organization and a speakers' bureau, for those who want to continue democratizing the state after the election.

Democracy is The Issue

The majority vote campaign gives us a chance to talk not only about this particular issue, but about democracy as it affects all issues. The clearest articulator of what democracy is about has been Barack Obama - the campaigner we cheered for, campaigned hard for, and voted for.

Democracy, he has observed, is based on empathy - on citizens caring about one another. That's why we have principles like freedom and fairness, for everybody, not just for the rich and powerful. True empathy requires responsibility, not just for oneself, but also for others. And since we, as individuals and as a nation, are far from perfect, empathy demands an ethic of excellence, of making oneself better, one's family and community better, and one's nation better.

That view of citizenship in a democracy comes with a view of government. Government has two sacred moral missions: protection and empowerment.

Protection goes well beyond police and the military and the fire department to consumer protection, environmental protection, worker protection, health care, investor protection, social security, and other safety nets.

Empowerment is what the stimulus package was about: building and maintaining roads, bridges, public transportation, and public buildings; systems for communication, electricity, water; education, from pre-school through graduate and professional schools; scientific research and technological development; a banking system that works; a stock market that works; and a judicial system that works.

No one earns a living or lives well without protection and empowerment by the government. That is what taxes pay for. And the more you make from what the government gives you, the more you should contribute to keeping it going

Tax Shifts

When you cut taxes that pay for public needs, you are actually shifting taxes. You are taxing others. In California tax cuts for corporations last year led to cuts in the support for public universities, which led to 32% higher tuition and a drastic cut in the number of students educated. That 32% constituted a tax on those students and their parents, and when they had to borrow the money for college, interest payments on the loan effectively double the cost of the loan. That's a very high tax shift. But an even higher tax is shifted onto students who cannot afford the higher tuition: the tax of a lost education lasts all one's life and its cost is not only monetary, but a cost in human potential. It is also a cost to employers, who get less educated workers, and to society, which gets less educated citizens.

The Movement

We will be talking about all of this and more. Take economic democracy. California is the world's seventh richest economy. It is ludicrous to say that there is no money in California. If the money for public needs is there, where is it? In California, the richest one percent owns more assets than the bottom 95 per cent. The money is concentrated at the top.

Just about every issue comes down to the issue of democracy. That is why we are starting with the California Democracy Act, which would finally end the rule of the state by a small minority of ultra-conservative legislators. It would finally give the voters of the state a voice in their own future and the future of their children and grandchildren.

If you live in California (one out of eight Americans does), then join the California Democracy Movement. If you live elsewhere, form your own democracy movement and unite with us. The principles are simple, and they are Obama's:

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