by Andy Lee Roth
January 15, 2017
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Citizens have allowed plutocratic forces to siphon away our political power. In his new book, Ralph Nader puts forth a plan to organize around “bedrock commonalities,” which unite right and left, promising to return power to the people.
While a few privileged Americans enjoy what Ralph Nader describes as a “plutocracy of maximums,” most Americans today subsist on a “democracy of minimums.”
Nader’s assessment of how concentrated wealth and power undermine democracy is clear and compelling, but it’s his substantive vision of how we ought to respond that makes Breaking Through Power essential reading.
Written just before Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, Nader’s latest book reads with even greater urgency now. Trump, who campaigned as a populist, has selected one billionaire after another to cabinet positions, thus amplifying the relevance of the systemic critique Nader presents in his book’s early chapters.
For Nader, breaking through entrenched structures of corporate and government power begins by raising the public’s expectations regarding democracy. Expectation levels are the “ignition switch,” stoking the public sentiments necessary for enacting progressive change.
The premise of his argument is that small groups of individuals have initiated most of the significant, progressive political reforms in U.S. history – from the abolition of slavery to securing women’s right to vote, from tobacco regulation to citizen initiatives on climate change. “Take a sweeping look at history and you will discover that almost all movements that mattered started with just one or two people.”
The book’s final chapter, titled “Why Democracy Works,” is Nader’s call to action. It begins by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “We’ve got to massively confront the power structure,” King announced at the start of the 1967 Poor People’s Campaign. To that end, Nader proposes the creation and activation of a new 1 percent – one that will expose “conditions of deprivation and abuse” and champion “basic fair play.” Invoking Black Lives Matter, the citizens of Flint, Michigan, and the movements for climate justice, gun control, and economic justice, he imagines 2.5 million Americans “motivated by a diverse range of interconnected issues … bubbling over with moral indignation, passion, and commitment.”
Nader calls on this new 1 percent to devote 300 volunteer hours and $200 to $300 per year to establish advocacy offices in each of the nation’s 435 congressional districts. In each office, at least four citizens acting as full-time activists would establish an “in-person advocacy relationship” with their congressional representatives. This direct, personal relationship, he writes, is “the strategy used by all successful lobbyists.” In addition to direct lobbying of Congress, this core group of committed citizens would also work to mobilize “the quiet majority of public opinion.”
The second crucial component of Nader’s action plan is what he calls Citizens Summons, in which citizens call their congressional representatives home “for sustained questioning and education” by voters. Organized and run by citizens, these meetings would reverse the power dynamics to which politicians are accustomed. Because they are “new and unusual,” the Summons will draw media attention; because they are “clear, basic, and personal,” they promise to activate communities of “rumbling determination” within each congressional district. Nader offers a sample text for a Citizens Summons, focused on activating and expanding what he describes as “sustainable tools of citizen power,” which he first articulated in 1992 as the Concord Principles.
Underlying Nader’s plan for a new, politically organized, progressive 1 percent is his vision of a “left/right convergence,” based on issues of “bedrock commonality.” With this point, the combination of Nader’s critique of plutocracy and his plan for reviving democracy reaches its greatest power.
Like ruling classes throughout history, Nader argues, our contemporary Republican and Democratic parties use a divide-and-conquer strategy to “deliberately undermine organic solidarities” across lines of race, gender, and class. By organizing around shared “bedrock” issues – including the desires for clean elections, working wages that provide for meaningful livelihoods, quality health care that is affordable, and clean air, water, and food – we develop a “civic personality” inspired by a sense of community, purpose, and self-respect, rather than by loyalties to political parties that play on our fears and encourage divisive thinking.
I would hone Nader’s compelling call to action with insights from two readings that have proven persuasive to students in my sociology courses over the years:
From the 2012 book The Rich and the Rest of Us, I would add Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s “Poverty Manifesto,” which identifies 10 “lies about poverty that America can no longer afford” and advocates 12 points for transforming poverty to prosperity. Smiley and West’s argument that we can eliminate poverty “if and when we break from traditional paradigms and map a new course based on shared humanity and shared accountability” resonates with Nader’s vision and sharpens it.
From a 1993 presentation, now widely anthologized as “Racism: The U.S. Creation Myth and Its Premise Keepers,” I would add Elizabeth (Betita) Martínez’s critical analysis of the relationship between racism and capitalism in U.S. history. Martínez describes how white elites in the 13 original colonies promoted a racist “ideology of whiteness” as a divide-and-control strategy, encouraging lower-class, often indentured whites to understand their identities and interests in terms of color rather than class.
Today, as the nation grapples with the mainstreaming of white-identity politics, including white nationalism and white supremacy – which Trump’s presidential campaign not only benefited from but almost certainly helped to promote – Martínez’s succinct account of deeply institutionalized racism in American history is more relevant than ever. Keeping firmly in mind her insights about elite uses of race and racism as hegemonic tools will fortify Nader’s plan for progressive activism based on “bedrock commonalities.”