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Vision: 8 Ways We're Making America a Better Place -- in Spite of the Disasters Coming out of Washington

We can have the kind of economy, government, environment, and country we want, if we keep pushing, organizing, building, and otherwise doing the work of democracy.
 
 
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Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock form the Flatlanders, a powerhouse trio of Texas singer/ songwriters now based in Austin. But each of them was raised on the West Texas flatlands (hence the group's name) around Lubbock. They were shaped, both musically and personally, by the full 'Lubbock experience,' which includes a few cultural oddities. Several years ago, Butch explained one of these on a national radio talk show that Susan DeMarco and I hosted.

He pointed out that growing up in the straight-laced, God-fearing Protestant churches of that region could be very confusing for hormone-driven teenagers like him. "They told us that sex was the most vulgar, nastiest thing on earth," Butch said. "And that we should save it for someone we loved."

Politics is not sex, but these days it can be almost as confusing. Obama and the Democrats are in power, but they've been unwilling to assert it with any boldness on the big issues America faces. Instead, they keep capitulating to petulant, recalcitrant Republicans in the vain hope of engaging these pious, right-wing fundamentalists in some sort of bipartisan Kumbaya.

Meanwhile, the GOP's new wave of neo-Neanderthal leaders (Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, the Koch Brothers, Jim DeMint, the entire menagerie of Fox TV's nattering nabobs, et al.) have plunged the party of Lincoln (and of Reagan, for that matter) headlong into the abyss of political absurdity. EXAMPLE: Obama, they insist, is not merely the centrist, establishment liberal that he has proven to be, but an Islamo-socialist-fascist-marxist Kenyan, a spawn of Satan.

Seriously. Heed the babbling of Newt, who was always strange, but has now turned scary, having loosened all of the nuts and bolts on his sanity to free his inner lunatic. In September, the former leader of the House of Representatives of the United States of America embraced the nutty 'birthers' to declare that Obama exhibits "Kenyan anti-colonial behavior," and that the President's long-dead African father is channeling revolutionary thoughts through his son to rule America from beyond. Remember Newt is a guy who actually thinks he can be elected your president in 2012.

We live in strange times, do we not? Perhaps it's no cosmic coincidence that the balloting for November's congressional/gubernatorial elections began only 31 hours after Halloween.

But now it's the holidays, which raises the big question: is there anything political in 2010 for which we progressive/ populist Americans should be thankful?

Happily, yes! As I've rambled from town to town this year (crisscrossing from Chico to New York City, Cape May to Santa Fe, Pittsburgh to Princeton, Fort Worth to Fort Collins, Buffalo to San Francisco, Portland to Portland, the Wisconsin Dells to my old home place of Denison... and points beyond), I've found that while people are vastly disappointed by the meekness of the Democrats and totally dismayed by the willful weirdness of Republicans, neither has deterred them from pushing on with the groundwork that still must be done to revitalize our country's democracy.

However, rather than looking to Washington for the changes America needs, progressives are now uniting locally, focusing on direct actions they can take in their cities and states. As a young woman in Colorado Springs put it: "We voted for change, but we see that the money monsters in Washington eat change for breakfast. We don't have the power to fix that, not yet, but that doesn't mean we're powerless. We can make a difference where we live, gain more strength, and show the way. A national movement has to come from down here."

She's right. First of all, don't forget that it was the grassroots organizing, energy, and enthusiasm of progressives (especially young people) that created the Obama candidacy and presidency, so the activist base is far more solid and extensive than the corporate and political elite (forgive the redundancy there) want us to realize.

More importantly, local activism and success is intensifying as fast as faith in national politics is dissipating. The media mavens don't cover it (being far too busy touting the 11 percent of the public who say they identify with the corporate-backed teabag groups), but progressives are forging surprising coalitions, not only in San Francisco and New York City, but also in such places as Iowa, Houston, Syracuse, central Missouri, New Haven, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Here, outside the country's media centers, people are producing new solutions and structural changes that add up to real hope for a progressive America. On issues big and small, there's much we can be thankful for... and build on.

Wall Street

Rarely does the plutocracy reveal itself to the hoi polloi as crudely and flagrantly as it has done with Washington's ongoing bailout and shameless coddling of the Wall Street greedheads who wrecked our economy. While Republicans and Democrats alike have loudly decried the greed, they continue to reward the narcissistic barons and increase the power of the monopolistic financial giants.

Obama Democrats passed a meek reform bill that allows top bankers to keep grabbing obscene bonuses for continuing to run their banks as casinos, while letting the banks gain a tighter grip on our wallets and get away with no requirement to invest in productive enterprises, middle-class jobs, and housing. Worse than meek, Republicans are mendacious, having shamefully and openly tried to kill even the modest reforms offered by Democrats, in exchange for getting millions of dollars in campaign cash from Wall Streeters. Then comes the Tea Party, which initially rose from the public's red-faced outrage at banker greed, but got co-opted by GOP operatives. Far from going after Wall Street, the party has largely put its electioneering clout behind a host of congressional candidates taking banker money (often indirectly) and wailing about "big government" efforts to "punish" rich bankers.

Is there anyone who'll push honestly for justice and real change on Wall Street? Yes--the people themselves! Here are a few important grassroots efforts underway and gaining oomph:

1. National People's Action.

This is a growing network of more than two dozen community organizations across the country (workers, farmers, small business owners, retirees, students, clergy, homeowners, et al.) focused squarely on the unchecked greed of big banks. They have successfully confronted Federal Reserve honcho Ben Bernanke and bankers who secretively finance and profit from payday lenders (who charge 400 percent interest for 30-day loans). Deploying more than 200 organizers, their Showdown In America.org campaign seeks to break up the too-big-to-fail banks, decentralize Wall Street power into small and medium-sized banks, impose a moratorium on home foreclosures, and recover some $140 billion of bonus money being siphoned off this year by banker elites.

2. Financial Speculation Tax.

Having poured trillions of the public's dollars into the rescue of Wall Street, the Republicans, 'Blue Dog' Democrats, and Tea Party leaders insist that there is no money left for the bold job creation initiatives (such as a nationwide program for green jobs and for repairing and extending our country's essential infrastructure) that America and the middle class desperately need. Disingenuously, they ask: where would you get the money?

Easy. Get it from where it went--the pockets of Wall Street's high-rolling, casino-style speculators. They do nothing but game the system for their own fast-buck profits, dumping trillions into rapid-fire computer trades involving such nonsensical, unproductive schemes as credit default swaps. Put even a tiny tax on these gaming transactions (ranging from 0.02 to 0.25 percent), and America could recoup over $100 billion a year for job creation and deficit reduction.

After all, we tax Las Vegas' casinos, why not Wall Street's? This is nothing new--for 50 years, up until 1966, the US had a transaction tax in place, and it was doubled in 1932 to help recovery efforts in the Great Depression. Also, England has a very successful one working for it today.

Such groups as the AFL-CIO and SEIU are mounting a major organizing campaign behind the FST. Called 'Make Wall Street Pay,' the effort already has congressional backing, and is gaining strength. As usual, the media isn't covering this, but a growing number of activist groups are joining the call for this policy of common sense fairness. For more information and action suggestions, check out the 'Action Center' at www.banksterusa.org.

3. Elizabeth Warren.

Grassroots clout has already produced one bright spot in Washington's dim response to Wall Street greed. The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection survived a ferocious onslaught of banker lobbying to be included in the otherwise lukewarm reform bill.

This idea came from a levelheaded, plainspoken, populist-minded bankruptcy expert, Elizabeth Warren. A Harvard professor of law, Warren also is a graduate of the University of Hard Knocks, having seen her own hardscrabble Oklahoma family endure bankruptcy. "I learned early on what debt means, how vulnerable it makes people."

By rallying outsider progressive forces to the cause, Warren became a major inside player, pushing relentlessly to get this important consumer position included in the final law. Having the position is nice, but who would fill it? Bankers wanted one of their own, but consumer and community groups had sprung into action even before the bill passed, organizing tens of thousands of regular folks to demand that Obama name Warren herself to head the agency. Despite furious pressure from bank lobbyists, the people were clear: the President had to give us this one. Warren accepted, but--showing the savvy she'll need to be effective--she agreed to be named special adviser to the President in charge of overseeing the new agency. This avoided the long, brutal, and iffy confirmation fight that the financial giants would've mounted to kill an outright nomination. As a result, she'll probably have a shorter tenure, but she starts right away, allowing her (and us) to fend off the lobbyists and give the fledgling bureau a strong, consumer-oriented beginning.

4. Move Your Money.

For your own private rebellion against the financial finaglers and manipulators, withdraw your money from them--and tell them why you're doing it. Viable options for stashing and investing your funds abound, including credit unions, community banks, and socially responsible credit card and investment firms. MoveYourMoney.info is a spreading movement that literally helps you move, allowing you to escape the tainted tentacles of Wall Street. In addition to your personal funds, look into shifting the accounts of your business, union, church, co-op, neighborhood association, and other organizations into financial institutions closer to home... and much closer to your values. After all, it's your money --why let the bastards have it? Talk it up with friends and family, write letters to the editor, send emails, post blogs, and find other ways to expand the movement.

5. Dog Poop.

It's worth recalling that even the smallest dog can lift its leg on the tallest building. Indeed, when trying to change the world, even small steps can make a big difference, so turn your creative impulses loose.

Take the 'Park Spark,' built by Matthew Mazzotta, an artist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At his local dog park, he thought about all that canine excrement being bagged and tossed into trashcans. A bulb lit in Mazzotta's head: why not convert the waste into poop power?

He put two 500-gallon oil tanks, painted a cheery yellow, in the park where people can deposit their pooch's poop. Microbes in one tank digest the waste and send methane gas into the second tank, which fuels a gaslight lantern to illuminate the park. Mazzotta's functional sculpture tidies up, provides free renewable energy, and helps us think differently about what's in front of us, including seeing waste as a resource.

6. De-Paving.

Another small step with a big progressive payoff is being taken in such cities as Boston, Davenport, Houston, Portland, and Seattle. People in these places have come together to address the seemingly pedestrian matter of pavement (this is but one of many freewheeling ideas for local activism spun from the fertile mind of enviro-maestro Bill McKibben, who has prompted thousands of local folks to form 'work parties' that come up with hands-on solutions for their communities--check it out at www.350.org). In this case, the problem is that cities simply have too much of their land locked under pavement, which causes flooding, toxic runoff, heat, and an inhuman disconnect from nature. Thus, the rise of a de-paving movement.

Somerville, Massachusetts, for example, has 77 percent of its land coated in asphalt, concrete, and other impervious slabs. So teams are volunteering to free the land, bit by bit, reclaiming green spaces in yards, school grounds, traffic medians, etc... It's hard, hard work, and it's slow, but the payoff is tangible as gardens, parks, and life emerge. A similar group in Oregon has put up a website (Depave.org) that offers planning tips, a list of tools, and step-by-step instructions for others who want to uncover the joy of the green earth. As one de-paver says, "There's some-thing really empowering about literally taking things into your own hands and restoring your community."

Buying Our Democracy

This will sound loopy, but I think we must also be grateful to the Koch brothers this year. Yes, the billionaire, laissez-faire extremists whom we outed in the February Lowdown, detailing dozens of front groups (including the Tea Party) that Charles and David funded and orchestrated in a secretive, long-term effort to impose corporate rule over our nation.

We owe them a huge "thank you," because their political excesses and ideological overreach have finally shredded the cloak of secrecy around these front groups. Now, even such establishment media outlets as The New Yorker are covering the Kochs (see Jane Mayer's extensive, well-written story in the August 30 issue). The brothers are turning into the bobblehead dolls of the emerging plutocracy. Thanks to these free-spending zealots, the public is beginning to see that there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy to undermine public supremacy over corporate power.

The Federalist Society, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Mercatus Center are just a few of the brothers' creations that for years have tried to remake the judiciary into a governmental monkey wrench to undo our people's democratic authority. In January, this perfidious effort culminated in the constitutional coup that five Supreme Court corporatists pulled off with their decree in the hoked-up 'Citizens United' case (Lowdown, March 2010). As you'd expect, congressional Republicans applauded the coup, and, while Obama and the Democrats have merely complained about this raw power grab, they've essentially accepted it as a done deal. That would be that--except for one thing: you. Ordinary people, who usually pay little attention to arcane court decisions, grasped the import of this one from the moment it was issued, and 80 percent oppose it (including 76 percent of Republicans). This has fueled two important, though little reported, uprisings across the country:

7. Amend the Constitution.

Amending is not easy to do, though it's hardly impossible (twelve amendments were added in the past century), and it is the definitive way to halt the Court's enthronement of corporate money. Also, the very attempt to amend can be a big positive, for the process educates and enlists people in a historic democratic cause that is worthy of them.

Several pro-amendment coalitions have come together to work on this important issue. FreeSpeechForPeople.org includes Public Citizen, Voter Action, the Center for Corporate Policy, and the American Independent Business Alliance. The MovetoAmend.org coalition includes such groups as the Program on Corporations and Law in Democracy (POCLAD), the Alliance for Democracy, Family Farm Defenders, Reclaim Democracy, the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Media and Democracy, and the Liberty Tree Foundation. The coalitions press for a broader approach that would eliminate the fiction of 'corporate personhood,' explicitly stating that only humans are persons with constitutional rights. MoveOn.org, Common Cause, People for the American Way, and other groups are also working on this issue.

8. Clean Elections.

Long overdue, this would bring the public financing alternative (which a growing number of states and cities have successfully implemented) to all Congressional elections. Maine, North Carolina, Arizona, and New Mexico are among the pioneers of this system, which disarms the corrupt, pay-to-play lobbyists by giving candidates the ability to forego the corporate campaign funds that influence peddlers dole out in exchange for legislative favors. This is a game-changing, structural reform that works, which is why it's getting vehement opposition from Republicans and only lip service from the Obamacans.

Despite this, the idea is on the move. Thanks to a grassroots coalition organized through FixCongressFirst.org and to a national network of clean election experts and organizers called PublicCampaign.org, the Fair Elections Now Act is moving through Congress. It has over 25 co-sponsors in the Senate and 160 co-sponsors in the House. The bill made it out of a House committee last month.

Shine Where You Are

The message here is simple: we can have the kind of economy, government, environment, and country we want... IF we keep pushing, organizing, building, and otherwise doing the work of democracy. Producing change we really can believe in is up to us--not to Obama or the Democratic Party. They are not the progressive movement, we are.

It's never easy to confront the corporate order, to challenge the moneyed powers. As Henrik Ibsen instructed us long ago: "Never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth."

But fight we must, for freedom, truth, justice, and democracy don't just happen. We The People have to produce them. The good news is that even when the national political scene momentarily darkens, we can be thankful for the thousands of candles, torches, and other lights beaming with such promise all across the country, lit by people like you. In fact, you're probably already one of those hopeful beams, so we're thankful for you, too. If not, become one, and join with others to keep America's grassroots shining bright.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the new book, "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow." (Wiley, March 2008) He publishes the monthly "Hightower Lowdown," co-edited by Phillip Frazer.
 
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