Frogs in the wheelbarrow:
Alliance tries to focus revolt,
By Jim Cullen, Editor
There is little doubt that, if you will pardon the expression, the people
are revolting. In the recent presidential election 51 percent of the electorate
voted with their buttocks and many of those who got as far as the polls
expressed dissatisfaction with the corporate-sponsored choices. So on the
weekend of November 21-24, approximately 250 activists from 30 states gathered
at a Presbyterian camp in the Texas Hill Country to set up a national alliance
to organize that rebellion.
Ronnie Dugger, the founding editor of the Texas Observer, now living in
Massachusetts, wrote the "Call to Citizens: Real Populists Please Stand
Up," that appeared in The Nation in August 1995. Dugger received 1,700
responses from readers of that liberal magazine as well as other publications
that reprinted it, including The Progressive Populist. From that number
65 activists met in Chicago in November 1995 and formed a steering committee
to build a progressive populist movement.
The necessity of broadening the base of the movement from the readership
of The Nation was apparent to the predominantly white male Alliance organizers.
Dugger went around the country evangelizing for the Alliance while other
volunteers formed 45 local alliance chapters, selecting their own agendas,
actions and models of governance and reaching out to working people, including
It took 15 months for Dugger and the steering committee to get the Alliance
for Democracy together in the Texas Hill Country, north of San Antonio.
The founding convention in this remote location was a homage to the Populist
movement, an alliance of farmers and workers that got its start in 1877
with angry farmers in the Hill Country town of Lampasas. Over 20 years the
Farmers Alliance grew to threaten the political and economic establishment,
particularly in the South and the Midwest. Although they were largely co-opted
into the Democratic Party, many of the issues the Populists promoted were
enacted in the Progressive Era and the New Deal.
The grievances of a century ago are strikingly similar to those presented
this year: Political and economic systems that apparently are accountable
only to monied interests and resist efforts at democratic reform.
In his opening remarks, Dugger said, "We proposed the emphasis on populism
because the 19th century populists denied the legitimacy of corporate domination
of democracy, whereas in this century the progressives, the unions and the
liberals, including me ... gave up on and forgot about that organic and
controlling issue. ... Like the populists of the 19th century, starting
out right here, we are ready again to resume the cool eyeing of the corporation
with a collective will to take back the powers they have seized from us:
the power to farm or no farm, job or no job, living wage or no living wage,
medical care or no medical care, home or no home, pension or no pension.
Where did these CEOs get that power? ...
"Can a people so different in origin, race, religion and history, and
250 million of us to boot, know and care about each other enough and act
together in our common interest powerfully enough to save our democracy
and ourselves? ... I don't know if we can do it. Will we be able to see
ourselves in the others and the others in ourselves? The answer in events
will be the answer we give in history. But let's try. With Tom Paine, 'We
will lay then the ax to the root and teach governments humanity.'"
For three days speaker after speaker delivered bills of particulars against
the corporate control of government and society, domestic and international.
Populist historians Larry Goodwyn and Howard Zinn, journalists Jim Hightower
and Molly Ivins, former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, corporate anthropologist
Jane Ann Morris, labor activist Peter Kellman, populist economist David
C. Korten and campaign finance reformer Damacio Lopez were among those who
preached to the choir against corporate-dominated politics and economics.
Goodwyn, author of The Populist Moment [Oxford University Press, 1978],
the definitive history of the agrarian revolt in the 19th century, now a
historian at Duke University, said there have been few truly popular movements
throughout history -- "because movements are indescribably difficult
to put together." But some such movement may be needed to restore confidence
in American democracy. "In the past year I found myself worrying for
the first time about whether we would have a democracy 100 years from now,"
he said. "... The democratic idea is here and we are in deep trouble
because of the greed and the power of a small number of us."
He related it to the 1890s, when the People's Party was forming in Dallas
and a black farmer asked the white farmers if blacks would be welcome in
the Alliance. In the discussion over whether blacks should be represented
on the state executive council a white farmer stood up to say, "We
have to support the black people. They are in the ditch, just as we are."
The threat of a biracial coalition of poor whites and blacks in the South
so alarmed the ruling Bourbon Democrats in the late 1890s that they enacted
the Jim Crow laws to enforce segregation of the races and disenfranchise
black voters. A new populist movement must put that coalition back together.
"If the issue is a democratic society, they are in the ditch, just
as we are," Goodwyn said.
He also advised the Alliance not to get sidetracked on side issues. "The
Populists were besieged by all sorts of special interests, the prohibitionists,
all kinds of people, single taxers. They would come in and knock on the
door and say 'We'll join you if you'll adopt our one issue.' In every case
the Populists said 'no thank you; we're going to reform the banking system
in this country or nothing else will work. We're in favor of this and we're
in favor of that but you go do that where you want to. This movement is
not a coalition. This is a movement to change America.' If you get big you'll
get besieged by everybody in sight. Just say no. Just say no.
"If you don't say no you'll spend all your time arguing with each other
and not recruiting the American people. Our problem is out there,"
Delegates leaned toward focusing on campaign finance reform. Between speeches,
the convention was splitting into task forces that met to discuss food and
agriculture, the environment, alternative economics, the media, economic
insecurity, education, health care, electoral reform and constitutional
All the best intentions notwithstanding, the crunch started Saturday night,
when the plenary session first considered three options concerning the mission
statement, in a cumbersome process complicated by counting the weighted
votes of designated delegates. Eventually the convention narrowed the proposals
to one, then considered several proposed amendments from the floor. Finally
it approved the statement: "The mission of the Alliance is to free
all people from corporate domination of politics, economics, the environment,
culture and information; to establish true democracy; and to create a just
society with a sustainable, equitable economy."
Then the name selection committee presented its report with about 10 options.
More options were nominated from the floor and listed on a board on the
stage. The committee then circulated ballots and everyone ranked their top
Sunday morning, as many delegates already were leaving, approval of the
name and the bylaws had still to come up for final action. Weighted voting
was thrown out and the name and the bylaws were adopted by a show of hands,
although it was noted that the action was approved by less than 9% of the
The bylaws, which are provisional until the next convention, stipulate that
the annual convention is the source of all authority and policy. A national
coordinating council was elected to make decisions in the meantime.
The convention strayed from the bylaws it had just adopted when it elected
co-chairs, Ronnie Dugger of Cambridge, Mass., and Ruth Caplan of Washington,
D.C. and vice chairs, Kati Winchell of Northbridge, Mass., and Kwazi Nkrumah
of Los Angeles.
Some of the complaints heard at the convention were that the planning process
included too many people from the Cambridge, Mass., area; that the location
made it too expensive for lower-income people to participate; that too many
speakers were white men; that there were too many speakers, which prevented
the task forces from completing their work in time enough to develop action
proposals; and that Dugger and others exercised heavy-handed control at
However, Wade Hudson of San Francisco, the secretary of the Interim Steering
Committee, noted that the participants appeared highly committed and enthusiastic.
The turnout was good, most local alliances were represented, the convention
was expected to break even financially, and it even got good media coverage,
including a report in the New York Times and exposure on C-SPAN.
Sharon Perpignani, a housewife from Somerville, Mass., who maxed out her
credit card to bring herself and two children to the convention, at times
was a tribune for the working class as she warned delegates that the Alliance
had better not try to talk down to working people or tell them what they
should do. "If we're going to talk about representing workers we have
to bring them in, and what's constantly forgotten is the housewives who
take care care of the kids and their homes and they work like dogs ... We
have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from us."
Perpignani, who doesn't consider herself liberal, hasn't voted since 1980
and never has been politically active or attended a convention, learned
about the Alliance from her community newspaper and became excited when
she read Dugger's "Call."
"I haven't even registered since Carter and I still believe he was
right on when he said that we have this malaise," she said. "I
got so excited when I read the Call that when I made the decision to come
to the convention somebody offered to watch the kids. Of course me and VISA
have this close relationship -- I'm in hock up to my ears -- so it was a
difference between $500 for myself and $1500 for all of us and I guess even
though I was skeptical I hoped that this would be the start of something
really really massive and really really different."
Midway through the convention she said she had misgivings about the organization,
but she spoke up and told the delegates, "We can't be a movement and
say we represent America when most of America doesn't look like us, doesn't
live like us, doesn't think like us." She added, "People listened
and that's what impressed me."
As the convention closed, Perpignani said she was heartened. "My gut
feeling is that all these people are good people who don't know all the
answers. I think what I'm excited about is that there are enough people
who know they don't know the answers that we can accomplish what to me is
more important even than the corporation stuff, which is pulling the whole
country together and reach some families and communities and working people.
I was afraid that wasn't going to happen."
Some younger delegates were concerned about a potential generational split.
Scott Smith, 25, of Houston, a health-care worker and a volunteer for a
community radio station, said the Alliance should avoid rhetoric, which
he said is a "big turnoff," particularly for younger audiences
who think "I just did that in high school." Instead, he said,
they should approach it from a cultural point of view.
Sarah Craven, a 23-year-old Sierra Club organizer from Birmingham, Ala.,
said she had learned a lot during the convention. "I didn't come with
the expectation that they'd have all the answers," she said, adding
that the convention left the local alliances plenty of leeway to determine
what programs are right for their local areas.
Larry Frielich, 36-year-old Sierra Club regional director for Texas and
Arkansas, based in Austin, said the Alliance founders needed to recognize
that they are still very different from mainstream America. "This isn't
America," he said, motioning to the cafeteria filled with predominantly
white men, (approximately one-third of the registered delegates were women
and there were a few black, Hispanic and Asian-American delegates. "This
is still The Nation's reading audience," Frielich said.
"We need to start with consumer issues and then bring in the stuff
about the corporations," he said. "Start with the mainstream issues
like campaign finance reform and then insert these other things. But we've
got to keep it in terms American people can understand."
Beth Johnson of Dallas, an environmental activist, said virtually none of
her fellow delegates from North Texas had been to a convention before, so
they were experiencing the frustrations of a first-time conventioneer, but
she was confident they could handle it. "Nobody ever said democracy
was fast or simple," she said. "Totalitarianism is much more efficient.
But I've been amazed at what we have been able to accomplish. There is a
general sense as a group that it's very cohesive and there's not deep rancor
over issues or sore losers.
As the convention came to a close, Kwazi Nkrumah, a Green Party coordinator
and union organizer for the University, Professional and Technical Employees
from Los Angeles, called the founding "a tremendous success,"
and not just because he was elected vice chair of the Alliance. "In
fact, I think it got through some very thorny administrative issues very
"I think there's a lot of potential. I think that like every other
social movement in the country that the Alliance has its work cut out for
it in terms of finding the means to bridge the gaps that exist between diverse
communities in this country, which is one of the most difficult things.
But the history of populism itself in the United States has some real good
precedents for that in terms of making real inroads in those kinds of relations
... So I think the commitment is there and most of people's hearts and minds
are there so what it comes down to is the people-to-people skills and organizing
skills, both to build strong movements that are inclusive in our communities
and to build bridges across communities that are right now pretty divided
from each other."
Dugger was upbeat after the convention. "I thought the spirit and hope
was so strong -- the Alliance has happened. It's in our hands to do. We
could blow it, but it's in our hands to blow it."
He acknowledged that the convention could have used another day to work
on the task force reports and formulate a plan of action, but that would
have added to the cost and made it more difficult for working people to
Dugger acknowledged that he was too prominent in the past year. "I
had to be extremely careful that my role in the discussion was not unfair.
I don't want to take less of a role, but I don't want so many hats. I want
everybody to come forward as leaders -- and they're doing it. We're becoming
a much more democratic movement. I want to work as hard and be as helpful
but I rejoice in receding."
Ruth Caplan, a longtime grassroots environmental activist now working on
economic issues, was elected co-chair with Dugger. She was pleased with
what the convention was able to accomplish, given its crowded agenda. "People
left inspired and highly energized. We ended up agreeing on a name and a
mission statement. The amount of work that took place was real amazing.
"Given the schedule it wasn't a big surprise that we weren't able to
do [the task force reports]," she said. "At the same time in the
workshops there was good work done. We don't have any issue policies and
the council needs to focus on it and move us forward."
In the near future, she said, "Ronnie and I will both do a lot of thinking
and talking," but both she and Dugger were careful to defer to the
Caplan noted that the lack of national priorities would not stop local alliances
from doing things they wanted to do. "The local alliances are autonomous.
No specific policy apart from the constitution and bylaws, which gives them
autonomy, was articulated. That doesn't mean we won't look for some kind
of national focus, but we're definitely not going to do it top down,"
she said. "It has to be something that local alliances are excited
Caplan started out working on corporate power issues in the early 1970s,
when she helped to form a grassroots group in Oswego, N.Y., to take on six
electric utilities who proposed to build nuclear plants on Lake Ontario.
The group studied the issue, intervened and managed to stop construction
of three nuclear units, a nuclear waste incinerator and a waste dump that
the state earmarked for the site after the nuclear plants were ruled out.
After 10 years of exhausting work, when most of the activists returned to
private lives, she continued in state and national energy policy and chaired
the national energy committee of the Sierra Club. She became a lobbyist
in Washington for Environmental Action in 1982 and was the group's director
from 1986 to 1992, when she left to found the Economics Working Group, a
project of the Tides Center.
"I see the Alliance as the successor to a lot of the kind of work that
Environmental Action did," she said. "More than any other organization
I feel we served the grassroots environmental organizations on equity issues
and lifeline rates for the minority communities." But she felt the
environmental movement was looking at economic issues in a superficial way.
"If we were going to make change we needed to work on economic issues,"
Earlier, Hightower had urged the delegates to enlist the ordinary, working-class
American majority who are either not voting or are voting "no."
They should be sympathetic to populist economic and political proposals,
he said. "Only we can do this," Hightower said of the populist
organizing. "Its not easy of course and at times it will be kind of
like loading frogs in a wheelbarrow, but we've got to make it. We've been
here before ... They've got the fat cats but we've got the alley cats."
Asked if the Alliance could build upon the founding convention and organize
working people around the country, Caplan chuckled and replied, "If
we are willing to look at where people's pain is and really listen to people
who are in pain, of all economic classes, the poor and the middle class,
it is possible to organize a campaign that can resonate and build. That's
the challenge. It can be done and I'll certainly put my all into it."
Hightower: Time for Alliance
Populist agitator Jim Hightower said the Alliance for Democracy is in the
right place at the right time to organize and to focus the rebellion against
corporate power that already is going on among the people.
"Corporate power is running roughshod over working folks, over the
middle class as well as the poor folks, over old people, over children,
over our kind, over our values, literally over our destiny as a nation,"
Reform from the top is impossible for both major parties, he said. "I
look up at Washington, D.C., and I see them strutting around not in Sears
Roebuck workboots but in the same Guccis and Puccis as the Republicans.
Both parties are terminally corrupted by the narcotic of corporate money.
"Any people out there who still harbored any illusions about the intentions
of Clinton II, The Sequel, can only look at where the president has chosen
to take his victory lap. Did he go to meet with progressives, the ones who
want to reform of campaign finance? Did he go to meet with labor to figure
out a jobs policy for this country, good jobs for good wages? No no, little
Mary Sunshine, he did not. He went to the Phillippines where he is meeting,
believe it or not, with the heads of 18 Asian nations and an entourage of
global corporate executives to create a new NAFTA for Asian nations, where
they don't pay 50 cents an hour like they do in Mexico but they pay 15 cents
an hour, a nickel an hour, slave labor and child labor wages.
"As Lily Tomlin once said, 'no matter how cynical you get it's almost
impossible to keep up.'"
Hightower noted what Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said to the Capital
Hill magazine Roll Call about campaign finance reform: "We will kill
it. Write it down."
"All of this ignorance and arrogance is why you and the Alliance are
at the right place at exactly the right time," Hightower said. "It's
no longer enough to be progressive. We have to become aggressive again.
"You are on target because you are focused on the real power in this
country: the corporate rulers of America and the corporate rulers of the
whole global economy. These are the powers that be, that separate us in
this country, that have good people looking side to side at each other ...
instead of all of us looking up because that is where power is concentrated.
"We're not enemies -- farmers and union members, union members and
environmentalists, environmentalists and minorities--we're not enemies,
we're natural allies. As Jesse [Jackson] put it, we might not all have come
over in the same boat but we're in the same boat now.
"The good news is that people know it. ... They're mad as hell about
it and they're ready to get after it. We do not have to create a populist
political movement in this country. The movement is there. What we have
to do is connect up to it and connect them up to each other.
Hightower said the key is to connect with the 75 to 80 percent of the American
folks who make less than $50,000 a year, and who don't own stocks and bonds;
the 80 percent of Americans who do not have a college degree, and who do
not anticipate that their children are going to get one; and the 80 percent
of the American people who are either not voting or are voting "no."
"This is a working majority of our country," he said. "The
true political spectrum in our country is not right to left. It's top to
bottom and the vast majority of our country, just like you, know that they're
not within shouting distance of the powers at the top, whether those powers
call themselves Democrat or Republican....
"All those ordinary folks out there want the same thing you and I want:
We want our country back. We want it back from the spoilers and the speculators,
we wan it back from the bankers and the bosses and we want it back from
the the big-shots and the bastards who are running roughshod over our country.
"One hundred million people didn't vote in the last election. ... Michael
Moore pointed out that when you have 100 million people not voting, that's
not apathy, that's civil disobedience.
Hightower said the Alliance needs "to plant our flag and plant it proudly
on the highest hill we can find for all the people to see, the boldest,
most populist, progressive, pro-worker program that we can put together.
Then we need to go to the people, all the people, not just the bean sprout
eaters. We need to go to the snuff dippers out there as well. ... We need
to go to their meetings. And here's a contrarian idea: Go to church."
Even fundamentalist Christians, who are too often written off by liberals
as captives of the Christian Coalition, are up for grabs, he said. "Yeah,
they're against us on abortion, they're against us on prayer in school and
they're against us on saluting the flag and a couple things like that, but
they're 100 percent with us on all the economic programs that we set out,"
he said. "We're in a battle for that 80 percent majority. They can
go with Pat Buchanan or they can go with us.
"The third thing we need to do is to forge coalitions," he said.
"Some will want to work with the New Party, some with the Labor Party,
some with the Green Party, and some with the Democratic Party. I saw we
must bless them all and when we can find ways to work with them, we should.."
Hightower admitted that he had his doubts when Ronnie Dugger, who was then
living on Cape Cod, published his populist call in The Nation in August
1995. Hightower worked for Dugger as editor of the Texas Observer from 1977-79.
But although some criticized the placement of the founding convention in
a relatively remote Presbyterian camp in the Texas Hill Country, Hightower
said it was important to remember the Populist movement of the late 19th
century that was founded near here.
"Something's going to catch fire. Dugger obviously says it straight
and right. Whether that was going to work I had no idea but in a year's
time he's gone from Cape Cod to the Mo Ranch. That's pretty good progress
for the Cape Cod rebellion. I think it's important that Howard Zinn and
Larry Goodwyn [two populist historians] are here, and it's important that
it is symbolically in this location, as hard as it may be and a deterrent
for a lot of people to get here, because it's essential for organizing movements
everywhere always to know that we've been here before, that this isn't the
first time and that we're not alone and people have done it even against
greater odds I think than we face today."
Contact the Alliance at (617) 491-4221; write PO Box 1011, North Cambridge,
MA 02140; or email .
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