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A citizens’ voyage towards a renewed American democracy: August 1979

[Editor’s note:  In the spring of 1979, a group of organizers came together to form The Citizens Party, with the intention of creating a new national political party that would enter candidates in the 1980 elections. They issued this call in August 1979. That December they declared themselves The Citizens Party The Party’s founding convention was held in April, 1980.  Despite the fact that there were neither cell phones nor computers of any significance, 271 delegates came from 31 states to attend the convention]

125 years ago, a small group of people met in a Wisconsin  town to form a new political party. They founded the Republican Party because neither of the country’s major parties were confronting the great national issue of the day: slavery. Today this country is in a similar crisis and faces a similar opportunity. And today, also, neither of the nation’s dominant political parties is confronting the crisis or acting on that opportunity. Consider the facts: 

  • Prices have risen more in the past decade than in the 20 years before. The cost of buying or renting a modest home is soaring beyond the ordinary family’s reach. There is no end to inflation in sight.
  • The wealthiest nation on earth can’t provide jobs for its citizens. Millions who want to work are on unemployment or welfare. Among inner city minorities, joblessness is worse than in the Great Depression. College graduates can’t find the work they have been trained for.
  • Faced with gas lines and a deepening energy crisis, the government compounds the problem. It advocates inflationary decontrol. It dismantles energy efficient rail service. It backs expensive and dangerous nuclear power and synthetic fuel. And it largely ignores the major solutions which are clean, decentralized and potentially cheap – energy efficiency and solar power.
  • The American working man and woman have lost ground. Hard won raises are erased by inflation. The Administration tries to limit wages, but not prices.
  • A decade and a half after Martin Luther King spelled out his American dream, minorities and the poor are still waiting for their share. The great promises of the 1960s – better housing, job training, national health care, the rebuilding of our cities—remain a mirage.
  • After several “tax reform” bills, there are more loopholes than ever for the rich and the huge corporations; the burden falls still more heavily on the poor and the middle class.
  • The government already has enough military to kill everyone on earth. Yet it builds additional new missile systems and weapons to wage electronic war in space.  It continues to arm dictatorships around the world. And it pretends that still more billions will buy more security.
  • Women’s gains are under attack. The Equal Rights Amendment is stalled. If she is luck enough to find a job, the average woman will earn a wage only 60% that of the average man.

Small  wonder, given all this, that half of the eligible voters don’t register and that half of those who do register usually don’t vote. Polls show a plummeting confidence in government and big business, a pervasive fear that the future will be worse than today.  People feel—and rightfully – that a dream has been betrayed, that the vision we once allowed ourselves has been replaced by smog-choked skies, by TV screens advertizing shoddy products we don’t need, and by a country which has somehow, like a car without a driver, slipped out of control.

What happened? Has there been a conspiracy of corporate chieftains or power-hungry politicians to plot a takeover? Of course not. Rather, times have changed: an economic system which in its infancy spread prosperity across the continent has gradually become outdated.

This country began as a place where people had control of their lives, to a degree perhaps unmatched in history: as family farmers, as independent artisans and entrepreneurs, as participants in town hall democracy. The free enterprise economy meant something important: hard work was usually rewarded; if you made as good a product in your workshop as the next person, you prospered; and you did not need a huge capital investment to start a small business.

But our system today no more resembles free enterprise than a freeway resembles a dirt road. Small companies of all kinds are being squeezed out. In many fields,  – from automobiles to light bulbs to breakfast cereals – four firms or less control more than 90% of U.S. production. And more important still, these vast corporations- many with annual budgets greater than those of most countries – spread across national boundaries.  A multinational corporation can switch profits to a subsidiary in Panama when we tax it, switch jobs  to a plant in Taiwan when American workers ask for higher wages, make a dangerous pesticide in Brazil when its manufacture is banned in the U.S. For the multinationals, this is no age of “lowered expectations”; their power is greater than ever. Beholden to no one but stockholders, beyond the control of most governments, protected by the myth that they are merely small business writ large, large corporations unaccountable to us increasingly shape our lives.

Their decisions determine what gets produced, and for whom. Auto companies make more money selling high priced gas-guzzling cars, so they do so – even when the national interest calls for  small cars with better mileage, or for trolleys and buses instead. Conglomerates market additive-filled junk food because the profit margin is higher than for fruits and vegetables. Private interests come first, the public interest last.  Gradually, almost imperceptibly, a whole lifestyle—energy intensive, ridden with cancer causing pollution, fueled by advertizing—has been given to us. It is a lifestyle that we did not choose for ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with profit, or with private ownership. What is wrong is when private interest, and not the public good, determine how we live.  That is what must be changed, and that is the issue the two major American parties can not and will not face.  Elevating the national interest above vested private interests is what the Citizens Party is about.

What is to be done?  We do not have all the solutions. We invite others to join us in enlarging and refining our program. But we believe that, at a bare minimum, a citizens’ movement to retake control of this country must work for the following goals: (bullet points follow)

  • Public control of the energy industries. In the midst of an energy crisis that affects every American, we cannot let the decisions of Mobil, Exxon and the rest determine how much oil and gas is produced, and where.
  • A swift halt to nuclear power. If this is not done, our environment maybe poisoned for thousands of years to come. One Three Mile Island accident is enough.
  • A strong push, instead of the Administration’s lip service, for conservation and solar energy. And for related forms of power such as methane gas and alcohol fuels. These also are safe, non-polluting and can be produced on a small scale by communities across the country, without the multi-billion dollar high technology plants that only big business can build.
  • An immediate, sharp reversal in the rate of military spending. Protecting the U.S. from aggression is worthwhile, but building and exporting unneeded new weapons systems has already escalated the arms race to the edge of disaster.  A good place to start these cutbacks: the dangerous new MX missile program.
  • A guaranteed job for everyone who wants to work. National planning and conversion of the armaments industry to productive activity can ensure this.
  • Stable prices for the basic necessities of life: food, fuel, housing, medical care.  Price controls can accomplish part of that job; more important is to attack inflation’s cause – all of which are controllable. One is the massive arms budget, which soaks up hundreds of billions of our dollars but produces nothing people can use.  Another is our dependence on the depleting supply of fossil fuel. Whether oil in Saudi Arabia or coal in Kentucky, getting it out of the ground costs more each year than the last.
  • Vigorous support for human rights at home and abroad. Here, that means work for civil liberties, affirmative action, the ERA, and equal rights to all health care, preventive and therapeutic. Overseas, that means an end to U.S. aid and military alliances with all countries that deny justice to their citizens.
  • Putting the vast corporations which control our economy under our control. We believe in citizen control of major investment and resource decisions. We want to see that control as decentralized as possible. Experiments in worker and community ownership should be encouraged. Cities, towns, and neighborhoods should have control over whether a factory with needed jobs can move to another city or county, or whether investors are allowed to abandon an area, leaving it a bombed-out war zone like the South Bronx. 

We believe that these are good goals for today – and the future. We are building a Citizens Party for the long run. It is not a third party, for we reject the relevance of the two existing ones. 

It is a new party, to raise the issues the existing parties ignore. We start today because none of the major party Presidential candidates, announced or unannounced, are discussing these issues, and we are tired of wasting our votes.

We ask you to join us. We appeal to Republicans and Democrats who are fed up with their parties’ evasions. We appeal to citizens who have stayed away from the polls and want a party that gives reason to return. We appeal to labor and independent business people, who know the interests of the giant corporations are not the same as their own. We appeal to the minorities and working people who have suffered the most in the current recession. And we appeal to activists in the women’s movement, in the churches, and in the struggle to protect our environment, all of whom have given new meaning to American’s democratic traditions in the last few years.

We are embarking on a long but exciting voyage.  The economic system we have inherited clearly no longer fits our needs. Such times come in human history; Jefferson knew it when he wrote: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes… but institutions must advance to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coast which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of its ancestors.” We have reached the time for one of those historic passages today, and we ask all Americans to join us.

The Citizens Committee
Washington, DC 20036

 

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