By Ralph Nader
Dear President Obama:
I listened to your farewell address to the nation on C-Span radio (January 10, 2017) and read the text in its entirety. Its strength lies in recounting basic values of a civil society, the struggle to improve a democratic society, and memorable referents to both. To those of us who have followed your eight years in office and urged you to attach deeds to words on behalf of a stronger civil society – from which almost all justice and protected freedoms have emanated – the address masked lost opportunities on a major scale in connecting words to actions.
In past years, I’ve written you letters specifically addressing this gap and how to jumpstart with your bully pulpit and policies these inexpensive and voluntarily used facilities for democracy. While you and others have recognized the need for robust rights and modest remedies, far less attention has been given to facilities that make it ever easier to mobilize and organize for the use of these rights and remedies. Throughout your address you plead for a “call to citizenship” that “has given work and purpose to each new generation,” and “the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a greater good” (See Harvard Law Professor Richard D. Parker’s book, Here the People Rule).
In a corporate economy relentlessly entrenching a corporate state, it behooves you to propose to the people facilities by which they can find one another and come together as workers, consumers, taxpayers, voters, candidates and as local communities. These include stronger labor union organizing and rank and file rights, consumer checkoffs to band together publicized by the government and/or required to be attached to billings by regulated companies, stronger class action facilities for commonly aggrieved individuals, local and state initiative, referendum and recall facilities for the accountabilities of public servants, expanded “standing to sue” by taxpayers to challenge the corporate subsidy state’s many programs with their cloistered immunities, audience networks and other facilities to give meaning to the historic ownership of the public commons presently controlled by corporations, such as the public lands and taxpayer-funded government R&D giveaways to corporations.
These are just some of the concrete organizing facilities that can give life to paper rights and remedies. How else can your words that “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it” or “But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works” or “All of us, regardless of party should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions,” be given concrete applications?
You stressed more than once the responsibility to “respect and enforce the rule of law.” In the area of civil rights and criminal justice reform, you speak with considerable credibility. But in the area of corporate lawlessness and runaway presidential power, both overseas (as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner) and domestically (as with deprivation of due process, illegal surveillance and secret evidence) your unlawful record is gravely lacking. (See, for example, Law Professor Jonathan Turley’s article in the Washington Post, “Ten Reasons We’re No Longer the Land of the Free” (January 15, 2012).
For over four years I and others have asked you to make a major address advancing functional content to the kinds of verbal exhortations you have given to the citizenry to exercise their civic powers for a better society. We proposed you go to a nearby large hotel ballroom or public auditorium in DC to speak and meet with over 1000 civic leaders with millions of members around the country (Jimmy Carter did this as president-elect in 1976). These leaders would include urban and rural associations, health, environmental, labor, consumer, housing, child welfare and anti-poverty groups, secular and religious charities and other pillars of the non-profit, job-intensive civil society. You could have given higher visibility to their efforts, encouraged more people to participate in their endeavors and, most importantly, outline a platform for strengthening the citizenry’s role, now so sorely subordinated to commercial and bureaucratic vested interests, to assure a broadly functioning democracy and political economy. In short, proposing the universal tools to give muscle and supremacy to “we the people” as befits our Constitution’s fundamental preamble.
Alas, you have not even responded to this offer to advance such an enduring legacy. By contrast, you have given visibility and prominence to many profit-seeking corporations, as in your trip to India boosting sales for Boeing and Harley-Davidson, your many trips to corporate production sites and your many invitations to the White House of sports champions and a few days ago five novelists. Don’t you see the asymmetry here? Don’t you see the asymmetry in your walking across Lafayette Square to pay homage to the Chamber of Commerce in 2010, while declining to visit the nearby headquarters of labor AFL-CIO? Or right after your inauguration in 2009 driving to dinner with right-wing columnists at the home of George Will? You have seemed more attentive to those who oppose you than to those “who brung you there,” to quote a vernacular southern saying.
In a similar vein, it is intriguing to note that you have learned from those who disagree with you and have power like the corporatists (causing your restricted, overly complex Obamacare without even the public option) but not from those who you ideally agree with but have opposed for political expediency. This anomalous practice is not unrelated to losses by the Democratic Party, starting in 2010, of many state legislatures, state governorships and, most defeating for your agendas, of the U.S. Congress. Excessive caution on restoring the inflation-gutted federal minimum wage or investing in public works (infrastructure) or cracking down on corporate crime and a myriad of corporate subsidies – among other missed opportunities – contributed to political isolation.
As you become an active post-presidential citizen (noted in the last words of your farewell address), can you manage to address an assembly of 1000 civic leaders in Washington, DC with a profoundly galvanizing presentation around the organizing facilities that further people banding together for various common causes to implement the principle of making government more self-governance?
Given my dozens of letters to you that have gone unacknowledged and unanswered (See my collection of letters to you and George W. Bush in the book Return to Sender sent to you in 2015). I do not expect a response. But that is no barrier to addressing civic leaders “right there with you, as a citizen” for a formidable start to your self-declared role post January 20, 2017.
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