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Unfinished Business: Can We Beat The Special-Interest State?

In 1968, I was bitter from the bloodshed of Vietnam, blood that seeped home. I was bitter at betrayal by the Democrats, first in 1964 when they rejected the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, then in 1965 when they sent ground troops to Vietnam after promising not to. I was bitter toward my father, and elders in general, for abandoning so many of their own children rather than listening to them.I did not expect a peaceful death.If this sounds melodramatic, I'm sure it was. I am only trying to recall the raw feeling of the time. I remember sitting in a bar before the Chicago Democratic National Convention then, morbidly discussing how many were going to get hurt, even killed, in the coming protests.This was not altogether paranoid. Mayor Daley had given "shoot to kill" orders during the rioting after Dr. King's assassination. In January 1968 I had been placed on a secret F.B.I. list of New Left leaders to be "neutralized." In May, a J. Edgar Hoover memo ordered an accelerated F.B.I. plan to "neutralize" myself and other young radicals: "You should bear in mind that one of your prime objectives should be to neutralize him in the new left movement. The Bureau will entertain recommendations of a counterintelligence nature in order to accomplish this objective."Already I had lost hope that the political establishment, including the liberal powers of the Democratic Party, could be reached with moral arguments. The party was an impersonal machinery of power, the Vietnam War an "executive action" that Congress would not stop. This desperation bred a strategy. If there was little time or likelihood of persuading the Democrats, was there a way they could be forced to reverse priorities and end the war? Only, we concluded, if we showed the unrepresentative character of the political system by exposing its repressive response to human need and protest. In this hardened view, reform would be possible only if those in power felt their authority and institutions were in jeopardy.As history turned out, confrontations like that in Chicago in 1968 did have the effect of exacting reforms from a recalcitrant establishment:¥ The 18-year-old vote ended a system in which young men could be drafted to kill or die but could not vote a war-making politician out of office;¥ the selection of presidential candidates in voter primaries brought politics significantly out of the traditional back rooms;¥ the assertion of a Congressional war powers role trimmed the imperial presidency down to a more democratic size;¥ the F.B.I. was forced to dismantle its neutralization programs against U.S. citizens.Even in my radical despair, I had not ruled out the possibility of these reforms, but I was taken by surprise at the speed of their adoption. I had underestimated the wellsprings of public feeling that could be aroused on behalf of democracy against the abuse of power. It was shocking to me that officials like former Attorney General John Mitchell, who had failed to jail the Chicago Eight, were going to prison themselves instead.I also realized that the deeper, transformative energies of the sixties would be stranded with the end of the war. The sixties radicals faced a threat of isolation as a result of success. The galvanizing issue of Vietnam was over, Lyndon Johnson was retired and the archvillain Richard Nixon all but impeached.The transition to mainstream politics was difficult. I was stigmatized as illegitimate by many of those who previously argued that radicals should work within the system. It is difficult anyway for a radical conscience to come in from the cold. While others have a driving ambition to rise to leadership of the system as it is, a radical conscience believes the system has to be transformed, not taken over by better management. One is weighted with inner worries about succumbing to ego, being entrapped in compromise or (worst of all) accusations of selling out.Instead of legitimizing radicalism, the Democratic eggs we broke in 1968 gave birth to a generation of pragmatic reformers beginning with the 1972 McGovern campaign and leading to the Clinton Administration. Every Republican President or candidate since 1968 has pledged to erase the dread impacts of the sixties "counterculture" yet failed to do so. We have elected a President and Vice President who as moderates opposed the Vietnam War and inhaled the winds of that decade.But have we changed the root causes of the evils we opposed? If that's not a fair question, how about this one: Have the positive changes wrought by the sixties been enough to meet challenges involving race, class, the environment and our quality of life?My own children, now in their 20s, say no. They identify with the struggles of the sixties while at the same time feeling that the sixties failed. They are outraged at what they see, and at the apparent lack of alternatives our generation presents them. They support Clinton for President (I think) but don't expect any real progress from a second term. They think the shadow over their generation is accurately depicted in a movie like Trainspotting, whose main characters are expendable young people hooked on heroin. What my children are expressing is a feeling, but I think the facts since 1968 back up those feelings, and constitute a legacy of unfinished business:Fact number one: The racial situation in the United States has worsened. In 1968, the Kerner Commission warned that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white -- separate and unequal." Few would disagree with that conclusion today.In a recent reflection on The Future of the Race, two distinguished sons of the sixties, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West, note that "everything was supposed to have been different from the way it turned out." Gates and West acknowledge the growth of a black professional class, but also note that "in 1993, 2.3 million black men were sent to jail or prison while 23,000 received a college diploma -- a ratio of a hundred to one."The poverty rate for African-American children is 44 percent; for Latinos 42 percent; for whites it is 17 percent. All across the country, these racial and economic divisions are reappearing ominously. In Los Angeles, for example, a recently adopted growth plan frankly acknowledged that an "affluence gap" would increase between white residents on the one hand and African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans on the other. There was no protest at this official acceptance of the inevitable widening of racial gaps.The breakdown is apparent in the judicial system too. In the late sixties, many Americans agreed that a Bobby Seale could not get a fair jury trial. In the nineties, most whites are convinced that O.J. Simpson was found innocent by black jurors because he was black. There is a disappearing common ground of "truth"; instead, the perception of "truth" is filtered through a racial or class lens.Fact number two: The law-and-order policies launched in 1968 have succeeded in building the largest prison system in the Western world.As the National Criminal Justice Commission's The Real War on Crime reminds us, Richard Nixon was the first modern presidential candidate to make a successful national issue of crime in the streets. That he overreached in his indictment of the Chicago Eight, that he undermined himself with Watergate, does not change the fact that his dismal vision has succeeded.The number of people incarcerated in the United States has tripled in the past fifteen years. About half the 507,000 in jail are simply awaiting trial. Almost two-thirds of the 104,000 in federal prison are there on drug offenses. In California, the numbers in state prisons have risen from 28,000 to 130,000 during my terms in office, and we are spending more on prisons than on universities.I am not always an A.C.L.U. partisan on crime issues. I'd want at least the option of the death penalty if anyone were to murder my wife or children; I would lock up violent repeat offenders for up to twenty-five years. But I also believe that the "war on crime" and "war on drugs" are one vast quagmire, an unmentioned dirty war that leaves a trail of blood, a hemorrhage of tax dollars and a spirit of meanness across America that demonizes thousands of young people as the new untouchables, fit only for imprisonment.If the great economic conceit of the sixties was that the United States could afford both guns and butter, the conceit today is that we can afford both prisons and prevention. The vicious circle of the war on crime drains funds from the very prevention, training and education programs that could reduce crime. Instead, the United States now has the highest rates of imprisonment, poverty and income inequality of any developed country.Fact number three: The cancer of special-interest campaign contributions has metastasized to a point that it harms the democratic process, widens the income gap, prevents more investment in education, health care or environmental restoration, and thus perpetuates the priorities on more prisons and police.Since 1968, spending on political campaigns nationally has more than doubled in real terms. The Watergate scandal opened an opportunity to drive big money out of politics. Instead, the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo (1975) made an absurd ruling that private money is an instrument of political communication, clearing the way for unlimited expenditures by corporations, banks and billionaires.Today the political machines of old have been replaced by the slicker fundraising machines of special interests, which determine which candidates are taken seriously. As a result of what Jamin Raskin and John Bonifaz call "the wealth primary," a candidate like Gene McCarthy today would find it impossible to compete in a presidential election. Ask Ralph Nader.What is the connection between campaign finance and the ascendancy of law and order over justice? The National Rifle Association has the largest political action committee in the United States, and was the principal funding source for the "three strikes" legislation that originated in California, where the largest single contribution to Governor Pete Wilson in 1994 was $1.6 million from prison guards, whose salaries are tied directly to the expansion of inmate numbers.While these groups lobby for prison expansion, the corporate special interests are busy helping themselves to the kinds of tax loopholes that result in the underfunding of education, training and health care. The biggest corporate special interests have traditionally been more Republican than Democrat. Tobacco, sensing an addicted friend in Bob Dole, is the largest G.O.P. special interest. But increasingly we are seeing what I call a "special interest state" built on a bipartisan basis. The Republicans did not even include campaign finance reform in their Contract With America. The Democrats are more sympathetic to reform, but are trapped in a special-interest fundraising treadmill of their own.For the Republicans, greater dependence on corporate America for campaign dollars simply reinforces their agenda. But for the Democrats, the possibility of genuine populist or environmental politics is paralyzed by their growing dependence on big checks from the likes of Allstate Insurance, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois, J.P. Morgan, Motorola, PaineWebber and Xerox (all corporate contributors to the Democratic National Convention).The tragic result is that just when the excesses of corporate greed have become an issue, when Time and Newsweek covers depict executives as virtual criminals, when even The New York Times decides to make "the downsizing of America" a front-page issue, there is little progressive energy, especially in the Democratic Party, to fight back and offer an alternative. Democrats are better on education and training, but abdicate job creation to the very corporations that have been brutally downsizing, restructuring and outsourcing hundreds of thousands of jobs in the nineties. Does this explain why children like mine, who have education, who have security, still feel angry and abandoned in this system of so few exits? And if they feel this way, how depressed, angry and lost are the children of (the now further endangered) welfare mothers, the working poor or the falling middle class?Though for the next few months most progressives like myself will work to re-elect Bill Clinton and a Democratic Congress, it is not enough to beat back the Gingrichites only to return to the Democratic status quo. The next great debate, reminiscent of the sixties, should be over the values and direction of the Democratic Party. The fight will be for the soul of our politics, not a policy-wonk debate about training vouchers for jobs that may not exist. I would begin with a public demand to free the political system from the suffocating grip of special-interest money, thus opening the possibilities of building a sustainable economy and environment for the next generation, instead of dooming them to corporate downsizing, a public sector dominated by prisons and a planet degraded beyond repair.Too many of our elders in the sixties discarded their rebellious children or remained silent when the time came to take a controversial stand against their government. The question haunts me: Now that authority has fallen to this generation, how will we be different from our parents toward those downsized to despair?

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