By Ralph Nader
Candidates for public office, especially at the state and national levels, are never asked this central question of politics: “Since the people are sovereign under our Constitution, how do you specifically propose to restore power to the people in their various roles as voters, taxpayers, workers and consumers?”
Imagine that inquiry starting the so-called presidential debates of both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. I’m not sure any of the candidates – so used to saying “I will do this” and “I propose that” would even know how to respond. Regardless of their affiliation with either of the two dominant parties, politicians are so used to people being spectators rather than participants in the run-up to Election Day that they have not thought much about participatory or initiatory democracy. Too many of them, backed by the concentrated wealth of plutocrats, have perfected the silver-tongued skills of flattery, obfuscation and deception.
Many voters oblige candidates by not doing their homework about the candidates, their records and the issues they want addressed. Such passivity lowers expectations of what voters should demand from the elected officials who, after all, are supposed to hold their delegated power in trust and not sell it to big-money donors.
Let’s begin with voters. How could elected officials empower the people they represent?
Power to the voters would mean eliminating the private money financing public elections. Big commercial interests nullify votes, and turn most elections into low-grade ditto days of tedious repetition. Well-promoted voluntary checkoffs up to, say $300, can make public financing of elections into a more politically acceptable reform. But to strengthen the power of voters there must also be more voices and choices on the ballot lines, the Electoral College should be abolished and state legislators must stop gerrymandering districts that ensure seriatim one-party domination. Same-day voter registration and a binding none-of-the-above choice can give more voters significant leverage as well. Voters themselves must demand that legislative votes by their representatives be immediately put on their public website with their justification.
Taxpayers lack the tools and resources to challenge the many hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars that each year are used illegally, corruptly or are shockingly wasted. Taxpayers have no standing, under our laws, to sue to stop such abuses. They are rendered weak and meek by this exclusion. When will voters hear a candidate pledge to give them their day in court? Another way to increase taxpayer power is to provide for a voluntary checkoff on the 1040 tax return that makes it easy for taxpayers to voluntarily contribute funds and band together with a full-time staff of watchdogs focused on the government’s waste, fraud and abuse. Big-time leverage is likely with this taxpayer searchlight.
Workers are empowered when they demand that candidates stand for the repeal of the notorious Taft-Hartley act of 1947—the most handcuffing law obstructing union organizing and union rights in the western world. Enforcing fairer labor standards that are already on the books, protecting pensions from looting by corporate management , establishing full improved Medicare for all and lifting the minimum wage – all of these initiatives increase the power of workers.
Finally, how can it be that the “customer is always right” when the consumer has no might? Consumers are becoming serfs in many ways—deceived and tied up by fine print contracts that exclude them from the courts, even if wrongfully injured, and allow vendors, using the same fine print, to unilaterally change contract terms whenever they want. Consumers have no way to easily band together either for collective bargaining or collective justice, such as negotiating away those fine-print contracts and restoring the exercise of trial by jury.
Corporate power, led by the cruel U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., is stripping consumers of class action remedies, imposing severe penalties and fines in the marketplace and intimidating them from complaining for fear of lowering their credit ratings and credit scores. Add to this the gouging prices for drugs and health care, malpractice, near-zero interest rates on their savings, high rates on credit cards, and vulnerability to unregulated foreign imports of food, medicines and other products, and you have a compelling case for a power shift from vendors to consumers.
Inserts in billing envelopes or online required by vendors—such as electric, gas and water utilities, banks and insurance companies—inviting consumers to band together in non-profit advocacy organizations, with full time champions, can be a great step forward in getting consumers seats at the tables of power.
Consider how much of your money and assets the government spends to facilitate business organizations – with subsidies, handouts, bailouts and giveaways, with tax credits and deductions and with privileged bankruptcy laws to give mismanaged or reckless companies second and third chances.
Consumers and taxpayers pay for all these goodies. Where is the reciprocity, where is the modest payback for all these exactions? Let consumers have easy ways to organize, with full time advocates, as bank customers, insurance policyholders, car owners, , energy and credit users, and those simply wanting food that is safe to eat. When enough consumers can organize, through easy checkoffs, they can defend themselves and make for an efficient and equitable economy.
The appeal of these power shifts is that they come at little or no cost to citizens. No more than the equivalent of one week of the Pentagon’s budget would comprise the aggregate costs of all of these resets for a functioning democratic society. By their own accomplishments, they would save consumers, workers, taxpayers and voters more dollars than the entire Pentagon budget. Not to mention the quality of life, peace of mind and life-saving justice that cannot be measured just in dollars.
Meet your candidates; ask your candidates “The Question Never Asked!”
To find more ideas for citizen empowerment, check out the introduction to the Public Empowerment Act of 1997.