Building the Alliance for Democracy

It's nine days before Christmas 1996. Recent news headlines report: Boeing seeks to buy McDonnell Douglas for $13.3 billion leaving only two commercial airplane manufacturers in the world; banks report record earnings for fiscal year 1995-96; Wal-Mart has a policy banning music products that don't reflect the company's mission as a "family-oriented store"; and a 15-year-old boy shoots and kills a Boy Scout leader in a robbery because, the boys says, he needs money for his family.Except for names, little was different in the last century.In 1892 populist agitator Ignatius Donnelly spoke to Populist Party platform convention in St. Louis, MO. He said, "We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin...the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes...governmental injustice (breeds) two great classes -- tramps and millionaires..."Over a hundred years later, liberal publisher and author Ronnie Dugger, in an Aug. 1995 article in The Nation, began his call for citizens to begin a new populist movement by writing: "We are ruled by Big Business and Big Government as its paid hireling, and we know it...Big corporations and the centimillionaires and billionaires have taken daily control of our work, our pay, our housing, our health, our pension funds, our bank and savings deposits, our public lands, our airwaves, our elections, and our very government. It's as if American democracy has been bombed."Men and women "surged forward to surround Donnelly on the platform and grasp his hand," wrote Lawrence Goodwyn in The Populist Moment. It was an enthusiasm and demonstration of will reflecting a desire to forge a direct relationship between the people and government, an insistence leading to the eventual establishment of such outcomes as government regulatory agencies, the 8-hour workday, women's suffrage and the progressive income tax.Dugger's appeal also brought a response. By asking for "Real Populists Please Stand Up," he awoke people who, in a kinship with those from a hundred years ago, felt disassociated from their government, angry at how big money was shredding the link between the people and elected representatives, fearful that democracy was nothing more than an agenda item to be dealt with on a CEO's flip chart. Like the 19th century Populists, Dugger asked others to deny "the legitimacy of corporate domination of a democracy."Over 1,700 wrote, called and telephoned him. In return, Dugger hit the progressive political circuit traveling the country. He met with die- hard activists, supporters of Ralph Nader's presidential bid, Green Party members and hundreds of people pushing progressive issues or studying the effects of corporations on public policy and popular culture. A rough consensus was forged: in the Populist's spirit, begin a grassroots movement to replace corporate rule with an "equitable economic and political democracy." It was to be called The Alliance.By September 1996, The Alliance claimed 39 local chapters, an Internet presence, was publishing a monthly newsletter and logged in 4,000 people having responded to Dugger's call. A need to solidify the movement, at bare bones, with an agreed upon name, mission statement and constitution, began to occupy Dugger and a small national steering committee operating out of an office in North Cambridge, MA."Taking Back Our Live and Our Democracy From Corporate Domination," the founding convention of The Alliance, was held on Nov. 21-24 at MO Ranch 90 miles from San Antonio in the Texas Hill country. Amid the cedar and oak covered hills, along the flowing waters of north fork of the Guadalupe River, some 250 activists from 28 states gathered at a church-run conference center, ironically, on land once owned by the former chairman of Conoco Oil.It was a symbolic and concatenating choice. In September 1877, a group of farmers had gathered at a farm in Lampasas County to organize against the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, seeking to ease the agricultural credit crunch and form farming cooperatives. Calling themselves The Farmers Alliance, they were the forbearers of the Populist movement. Texas is Dugger's country, also. In 1954, he founded The Texas Observer, an independent weekly newspaper that broke journalistic boundaries in its progressive reporting on social, economic, racial and civil liberties issues. Dugger left the publication in 1994 for a fellowship at Harvard University. The Observer is now a bi-weekly operated by the non-profit Texas Democracy Foundation whose directors include national radio commentator Jim Hightower and syndicated columnist Molly Ivins.When Dugger went to podium the opening night of the convention, he must have grasped some sense of history. A history of Populists that went before him and the unknown history that lay ahead. The antithesis of an intellectual, Dugger is, in appearance and personality, a teddy bear of a man. A man of emotion, a hugger of strangers, a patient listener yet gentle admonitor of those who waste time and a reference point when need brings a question."There must be some deeper cause why some of us aren't getting anywhere," Dugger said rhetorically, knowing that the crowd before him had already had grasp the answer months, maybe years, before. Democracy was threatened, power belonged with the corporations, our political system only reflected the largess of money."I know you're right, people," he said, congratulating them for coming. "The time is right, the idea is right...This is us together. We came her to start a movement."A time to take back our country from the corporations. "We did not ordain or establish the United Corporations of America," said Dugger. A convention of "hope and action" where the "point and purpose was the well being of the person." It was not a media event, Dugger said, but a time for strategy yet a time to avoid sinking down into rules and process. A time for the "people first and last," a time to "resume the cool eyeing of the corporation."The passion carried forward with historian Lawrence Goodwyn. That corporations dominated America was not questioned. "The American people know this," said Goodwyn, "their problem is that they don't know what to do about it. That's our problem."Those who came to MO Ranch didn't need convincing about the power of corporations in American life. They applauded Dugger's courage in articulating the threat, and in Goodwyn challenge to turn the problem of tactics into a victory for the "soul of the Republic." The sharing of who the enemy was, was had by all. But joining The Alliance wasn't automatic."Dugger's approach is consistent with American ideals, essentially what most of us would like to see happen," said Larry Dash, a retired state department economist from Pennsylvania. "What we don't have is a good alternative to the ballyhoo given the market system." For Dash, when power is focused in democracy or on market forces, it distorts the intent of that power. "Still," Dash said of The Alliance, "it would be a neat thing if it worked."If nothing else, The Alliance, through Dugger, was relief from the disorganization of the Greens, the egomania of Perot, the fanaticism of the Republicans, the emptiness of the Democrats and the inertia of single issue politics. Corporate influence was pervasive. By nature, any response to that in itself required ubiquity."I think people are here because they want something to happen," said Nick Biddle, a teacher of Latin American history in North Carolina. "The disenchantment, disillusionment, the sense of hopelessness and insolence people carry with them these days needs some response. And when there's a possibility of a response, you know, act on it." Acting with Biddle was Hunter Schofield, a 26-year-old city council member from Boone, NC. "I'm looking for something that can bring fundamental reform of the two-party system," he said. "Being in politics and knowing more every day, I see first hand the nature of the two-party system and how devastating it is and can be for someone with ideals and conviction."If I want to work in politics, do I want to do it within the very narrow constraints of the two-party system...coopting ideals, pandering for money? Or for something authentic and real, and really part of a major force for change and giving people back control of their lives."Control is what Arnold Stanton wants. As a psychotherapist in private practice in Newark, DE, he has seen patient confidentiality and professional independence wither under the shadow of managed care. "Oh God, talk about anger," he said.Stanton said he took financial hits in his practice to avoid compromising his professional ethics. But he had other income. Fear of losing money didn't not overwhelm him but a lot of his friends couldn't afford to take the chance. To him, the people organizing The Alliance ignored economic fear; principles took status over money. Dugger's article spoke to Stanton on a "very deep level...the core of my social being," he said.Initially hesitant, Stanton later succumbed to the amicability of the gathering. He kept his optimism. "One of the things I came to is, I can't lose on this. There's no way anyone here can lose," he said. "Because what needs to be stated, and if it's stated, that's a win."Stanton's remarks would please Joanne Sunshower. As a MA-based consultant and trainer of nonprofit organizations, Sunshower helped guide the convention planners into deciding of what to include in the convention program. One of the questions she asked herself was: "Do people care?"They do, Sunshower said. "People care deeply and desperately. People know their lives are being very, very affected. There are very few people whose lives are turning out like they thought they would from when they were growing up."Sunshower has been involved in social justice issues most of her life. She lived in Kansas City, MO, for 20 years; went to St. Teresa's Academy and the University of MO/KC; spent time in Central America; and has a master's degree in divinity. Sunshower will likely lay the legal foundation for The Alliance, helping decide a structure that may allow the organization to lobby or begin community enterprises with alternative economics. Whether The Alliance will become a political party has yet to be determined, she said.But if not The Alliance, an anti-corporate movement would happen, anyway. "If The Alliance didn't choose to focus on the abuses of corporate power, just the fact that corporate power shouldn't exist at the level that it does,..somebody else would," Sunshower said. "Because since that is the problem, human consciousness would come around to understanding that."The program Sunshower helped design at the founding conference sought to construct an experience, offer tools to analyze corporate power and begin a movement. Around which there would be an excitement to carry people into the organizing when they reached home, a universal buzz reinforcing the need to counter corporate power."If we do our job right, this will be remembered as an historic event -- a turning point for freedom and democracy in America," said David C. Korten on the second day of the convention. Korten has advanced degrees in business from Stanford and teaches at Harvard. He is a Vietnam veteran and has lived in various countries as an advisor on development management for the U.S. Agency for International Development.In contrast to the straightforward title of his latest book -- When Corporations Rule the World -- Korten looked beyond organizational necessities facing The Alliance in accepting a mission statement, agreeing to a constitution, incorporating specific issues into a platform and decided on a final name. He talked of the "value of nature's diversity, respect for the earth and life-sustaining" activities. He challenged his audience to "go beyond a political agenda -- excite the imagination of a broad spectrum of America.""A true Populist," he said, "rejects big government and big business. At once liberal and conservative, he is suspicious of both and seeks to find a true center." Big business creates the need for big government. "It is a basic institutional equation," Korten said. "To reduce the need of big government, first reduce the scale and intrusiveness of big business."If one looked beyond "the facade of development," it would show that something is going wrong. The causes of "our collective crisis" have their source in environmental limits and governance failure, he said. By advancing economic growth, "We have intensified the competition between the rich and poor."Korten asked people to image a world at a slower pace with time for reflection. A world absent a car dependency, toxic chemicals, a world bank, with a clean environment, a multitude of small businesses and access to an adequate livelihood. People now serve an economic system, he said. It is time to break up corporate concentration.The beginning of that effort is defining a corporation. Following Korten, Peter Kellman and Jane Anne Morris reminded the audience that corporations are artificial entities, yet given more rights than individuals. Kellman is a labor activist from Maine, and Morris is a corporate anthropologist and founder of Democracy Unlimited of Wisconsin Cooperative, an offshoot of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy."Read the corporation's charter," Morris said, as a beginning strategy to fight corporate power. The charter, a license to do business, has a specific purpose. The charter can help determine if a corporation exceeded its authority. Some states can revoke a charter, reflecting the view that the country's founders never intended that "corporations would overwhelm our democracy."Lighting up the topics were closing speakers Howard Zinn, Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower. Zinn a historian and playwright, author of the groundbreaking 1980 book, A People's History of the United States, and Emma, a play about the anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman, broke the house up by remembering a bumper sticker he had seen: "If God would have intended us to vote, He would have given us candidates."Ivins said The Alliance would be "wise" to reach out to the Reform Party. "We take our allies where we find them," she said. Ivins also typecast Ronnie Dugger as a "cross between Louis Farrakhan and Ross Perot," demonstrating that activists can't be too serious. "We got to have fun. Might not win,..might be the only fun we have is beer and the imagination. When you find your earnest quotient has been raised too far, activate your fun committee," she said.Hightower told the group that "all this ignorance and arrogance is why you (The Alliance) exist." And in an interview prior to his speech, he said, "The words corporations and class must be said before we (the people) are in the ballgame." But time was right, according to Hightower, "because the right wing has bared its ugly ass and its corporate connection so plainly that now its not a matter of just rebels and agitators and poor people, it's the middle class of this country."And the middle class plainly evident at MO Ranch. A highly educated, aging, mostly white, baby boomer concentration. A fact that escaped no one."You can look at that two ways," said Kwazi Nkrumah, an African American union organizer from Los Angeles. "Our society has been constructed in a way whereas it has created divided communities; structured in such a way that we are basically separated from each other ethnically, among other lines." But realizing that, Nkrumah said, doesn't necessarily mean a judgment is being made on a particular group. "The question is: Where does a group end up in terms of that?"Part of what defines a genuine progressive movement versus a movement that thinks itself progressive is the ability to create within itself the means and the basis for changing people's consciousness, and creating new relationships that didn't previously exist."Marc Loveless, a public policy analyst from Chicago, wasn't surprised by the whiteness of those who came to MO Ranch. "Location," as in being far from a major city, was his comment. But Loveless did noticed the sparsity of "people of color on the podium."Getting The Alliance message about abuses of corporate power listened to in communities of color would be difficult said Loveless, though "people know its there, they know of the impacts of it." Suspicion and cynicism are high in minority communities. Loveless said recent revelations about a possible CIA connection to crack cocaine distribution was long suspected by African Americans before it was publicized in the mainstream press. "I heard that argument since I could reason," he said.Loveless, who is an elected local school council member, plans to seek other elected offices. Whether the argument is being against big government or big business, the key is to organize around an issue. "You can organize people around the issue of campaign finance reform in communities of color," he said. "You can organize people about corporate responsibility in communities of color. You can organize around pollution...environmental racism. You've got to make the issues real."But the one issue Loveless said he wasn't hearing at the convention was gentrification. "For us, in our community, that's a major issue. And that issue is around ownership of real estate, who owns the land, who makes the decisions and who holds the power."While he may recognize gentrification as an issue, Nkrumah does not believe issues are strictly local in minority, or any communities. "Whether it is the problem of poverty, the problem of the environment, or problems with the educational system, none of the most crucial problems that people are facing today are strictly local in character," he said. "The nature of our problems, the nature of human and social relationships, economic relationships, political relationships, have all outgrown a simply local context."Nkrumah believes most people understand that corporations rule there lives because of their experiences through ongoing disempowerment. "Disempowerment is becoming a universal experience for most people these days," he said. "It transcends the limitations of race, ethnicity and in some cases, even social class."One doesn't have to be old and experienced to feel powerless. The feeling brought 23-year-old Sarah Craven to The Alliance. She is a staff employee for the Sierra Club in Birmingham, AL."Seems more and more when you want to make a change (in improving the environment), it keeps coming back to the source of this lack of control, lack of change -- corporations have the control whether its with the government, regulatory agencies or...no matter what issue I chose and you finally get to the top of ladder, it's the corporations making all the decisions," she said.Craven considered the mainly aging demographic of Alliance members a valuable asset, an opinion generally shared by all the younger people attending the convention. "We can really learn from a lot of these people that have been activists in several movements," she said. But Craven also found inspiration from older Alliance members, those of retirement age and beyond. "Seeing some of these people who are in their 70s and 80s that are here, and still want to make change, I feel its kind of a duty," she said. "Why should I accept the way things are (when) we could have a better way of life?"Finding a "better way" was the bond for Alliance people. Sure, it's a phrase torn from the 1960s and the faces of those in attendance reflected that. "Maybe they feel they got another shot at it," said 68-year-old Larry Bross, a retired teacher from Oceano, CA. "But that's good, at least they haven't forgotten."If participants had doubts about identifying with others on the first day of attending the convention, they were gone by the time the convention closed. A schedule of events that enticed involvement, the establishing of issue-focused task force groups open to anyone, and Dugger's sure but soft hand of leadership as people had their say in front of the group was participatory democracy at work.Nowhere was that more evident the general meeting in voting on what to call the organization. The Convention Name Working Group recommended eight names, using various combinations of the words alliance, Populist, democracy, progressive and people's. The pros and cons -- such as "provides continuity," "too leftist," "used by militia groups," "has historical significance" -- were presented by the working group. Then, name suggestions were taken from the floor, including one by John Ratliff of Austin for calling the organization The Beatles, because it had proven popularity. Nearly five hours later, the name Alliance for Democracy received majority acceptance.Loud, emotional and almost chaotic, that gathering still brought people into the process even if a particular position or approach wasn't accepted by the majority. That appeared to be true for most every meeting at MO Ranch"One thing I'm impressed by," Ratliff, a writer for the Texas Legislature, said in a more serious tone, "is the ability of a lot of people to take a defeat -- on something they really care about -- and say, okay, I can live with that."Nearly a month after the convention, Alliance members still have strong opinions on the name choice. That, along with tuning up the Alliance constitution with possible amendments, and continuing the input process on task forces' proposals on issues such as children's rights, health care reform and the food supply, remain. The bulk of the communication between members is through email."We still trying to put all pieces in place," said Kati Winchell, national coordinator from Massachusetts. "We're still responding to the nearly 300 calls we had in the first week and a half after the convention plus information requests from members who both attended and did not, and the media. Also, we've had 35 requests from people wanting to start new local Alliances."At present, the Alliance is governed by a 25-member national steering council, the bulk of which were elected at the founding convention. Two members represent seven geographic regions; five are at- large members and there are six council officers. "The way it works," Winchell said, "the governing body is the (overall) membership and the council runs things between conventions. Major decisions will be made at yearly conventions, a task Winchell admits would be logistically demanding, and one that would test the group's commitment to open, participatory decision making.In Columbia, MO, Mike Givel, who is a state employee and has a degree in political science, has begun Alliance organizing meetings. "We are planning a kick-off event and looking for coalitions with other groups with similar economic concerns." Givel said the group plans on doing research on who runs Boone County and to find out what mid-Missouri interests give in campaign donations.He believes the Alliance is a reaction to national and international trends, especially concerning widening gaps in income of U.S. citizens. "There's a strong feeling things have gone awry and people want a voice in organizing the political system," Givel said. "The Alliance might be the way it happens."The MO-KAN Citizens Alliance is planning a regional meeting -- including Iowa and Nebraska -- titled the "Challenging Corporate Dominance on the Prairie" in March in Lawrence, KS. Ben Kjelshus, Alliance member and co-coordinator for the Greater Kansas City Food Circle Project, said the principal intent of is to look at building coalitions with other groups. "To be serious (about the issues), we have to be thinking about forging coalitions," he said.His counterpart on the Kansas side is Frank Neff, a retired UMKC faculty member living in Overland Park. "I think some of the local issues we pick up here help clarify the issue of corporations, like campaign financing," he said. Neff said MO-KAN would like to talk with the United We Stand organization for a "mutual interaction on campaign finance reform to impact both state legislatures."Both Kjelshus and Neff were at MO Ranch. They remain upbeat about the potential of the Alliance in the political system. But, added Neff, "We have to keep things moving to get at least incremental change."The extent of influence the Alliance for Democracy has on America's political body depends mostly on the commitment of its members and supporters. For Jacquelyn Battise, a Native American blue-collar worker from Houston who stretched pennies to attend the founding convention, commitment is the first step."For me, commitment is really something," she said. "For this to work, it's got to take spirit and enthusiasm that generates other people. It really has to...We fall into our safe places and we've got to start challenging even our own safety areas as individuals, as people,..who we are, to keep pushing forward."On his way to the last meal Alliance members would have at their founding convention, David Korten said, "We either made history or we didn't. It will take a while to find out."SIDEBAR: ResourcesThe mission of the Alliance For Democracy is to free all people from corporate domination of politics, economics, culture, the environment, and information; to establish true democracy; and to create a just society with sustainable, equitable economy.Resources:* The Alliance For Democracy, P.O. Box 1011, N. Cambridge, MA 02140, 617-491-4221, 617-259-0404 (fax), Peoplesall@aol.com (E-mail), http://www.igc.org/alliance (web site).* MO-KAN Citizens Alliance, 412 E. 122nd St., Kansas City, MO, 64146, 816-924-3003 or 913-469-5680, Bkjelshus@aol.com or Fneff@umkc.edu (E-mail).* Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform, 4144 Lindell #504, St. Louis, MO, 63108, 314-531-9630, 314-531-7356 (fax), MACRMO@aol.com (E-mail).* Working Group on Electoral Democracy, 70 Washington St., Brattleboro, VT, 05301, 802-257-5644 (phone/fax), mjezer@igc.apc.org (E-mail).* INFACT, campaigning for corporate accountability, 256 Hanover St., Boston, MA, 02113, 617-742-4583, 617-367-0191 (fax), infact@igc.apc.org (E-mail).* Institute for Consumer Responsibility, National Boycott News, 6506 28th Ave., N.E. Seattle, WA, 98115, 206-523-0421.* Independent Progressive Politics Network, P.O. Box 170610, Brooklyn, NY, 11217, 718-624-7807, 718-643-8265 (fax), indpol@igc.apc.org (E-mail), http://sunsite.unc.edu/spc.ippn (web site).* Economics Working Group, 3407 34th Place N.W., Washington, DC, 20016, 202-244-0561, 202-537-6045 (fax), rcaplan@mcimail.com (E-mail), http://www.igc.org/econwg/gane (web site).* People-Centered Development Forum, 14 E. 17th St., New York, NY, 10003, 212-242-1901 (messages/fax), pcdf@igc.apc.org (E-mail), http://iisd1.iisd.ca/pcdf (web site).* The Progressive Populist, P.O. Box 150517, Austin, TX, 78715, 515-447- 0455, reporter@eden.com (E-mail), http://www.eden.com/~reporter (web site).

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