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Ralph Nader Headshot

Enlist the Enlightened Super-Rich!

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You often hear progressives bemoaning the massive war chests of the right-wing funders, particularly after their successful backing of the boisterous Tea Party movement. But a common mistake made by the left is not adequately focusing on cultivating their own likeminded super-rich to provide the necessary resources to advance their own noble causes. It would only take a few enlightened mega-billionaires to provide the major funding needed to shift power from the few to the many and to get the ball rolling on long overdue, fundamental solutions to our country's biggest problems.

History shows a precedent. The greatest civil rights struggles in American history were bankrolled by wealthy, enlightened benefactors. Gerrit Smith, Joshua Bowen Smith, Arthur and Lewis Tappan and James G. Birney were some of those who funded the abolitionist movement -- using their resources to create organizations like the Anti-Slavery Society and the Liberty Party, an independent, antislavery third party. Louisine Havemeyer, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alva Belmont and Julia Ward Howe contributed their finances to the women's suffrage movement. Catt, the wife of a wealthy engineer, contributed a million dollars (about $25 million today) to send out information to newspapers and magazines and to mobilize activists during the final push to gain the women's right to vote in 1917-1918.

In 2013, we need to tap into that fervor which led to such great progressive victories. With adequate resources, it is possible to build powerful new constituencies to make government open and honest and reflective of the prevailing public sentiment.

The difference between charity and justice must be made clear. Soup kitchens are a vital and humane charity. Justice, on the other hand, looks to the root of the problem, and asks why the wealthiest places on Earth, such as the United States, have any starving or hungry people at all. It's true that many wealthy people donate substantially to charity -- presently, most philanthropy does go to charity. But by directing billions of dollars to preventing deprivation in the first place, the impact could be much greater.

A society with more justice needs less charity. This practical approach has been proven again and again in the areas of public health and safety. Think of seat belts, clean air and safe vaccines. Furthermore, more resources are needed in the much neglected area of corporate accountability. Wall Street and other commercial interests have met too little resistance to their wrongdoings for too long. The public sentiment is there, what is needed is the fuel.

A vast frontier of opportunity exists for our political economy to serve the needs of the many, especially our children, and not just the overpaid executives of massive corporations. Justice needs financial resources to spread its embrace. Enlightened, senior super-rich have the power to give our citizens much needed organization in communities around the country. As an example, back in 2003, hundreds of retired military, diplomatic and national security officials publically and separately challenged George W. Bush's drumbeats to invade Iraq. The commercial media and Congress -- even the Democratic leadership -- refused to hear these numerous experienced and credible antiwar voices.

What difference could a wealthy backer have made to the antiwar movement? Look to George Soros, the wealthy philanthropist and progressive-cause supporter. During the lead up to the second Iraq War, his voice was one amongst the opposition. He accurately predicted the quagmire the United States would find itself in as a result of its march to war. His criticism received some media coverage, but like the others, it wasn't sustained enough to counter the months-long propaganda campaign of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. What Soros failed to do was devote some of his considerable resources to creating an equal-footed coalition to oppose the warmongers. Soros could have used that nucleus of three hundred or so retired officials and expanded upon it with a backup secretariat that coordinated a mass media campaign and placed full-time organizers in congressional districts to directly challenge senators and representatives to assert their constitutional duties. To Soros, the $200 million cost of such a campaign would have been a small part of his annual income. The potential payoff could have saved billions of dollars, millions of lives and injuries and avoided the sociocide of Iraq.

My book, "Only the Super-rich Can Save Us!" laid out a blueprint for such a movement by the enlightened super-rich that could actually happen. Using 17 real-life wealthy Americans in fictional roles, led by Warren Buffett, a massive, well-funded campaign is launched to galvanize millions of Americans to organize themselves and restore their problem-solving sovereignty over their government and the massive corporations that have co-opted too much power and influence in Washington, D.C. for too long.

One thing is clear -- we can't enact great change without making a serious commitment to civic engagement. Such a commitment can be jumpstarted right now by a few of our wealthiest citizens -- only they have the immediate resources necessary to turn the tide against the corporate oligarchy. Who among them will step forward?

For more on this issue, see the chapter "Court the Enlightened Super-Rich" of my new book, The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. Available and autographed from Politics and Prose, an independent book store in Washington D.C. And for those wanting a glimpse of the broader agenda the super-rich could advance, start reading "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!"