THE BLOG
09/24/2014 04:46 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

The Critical Need for a Citizens' Rights Movement

The United States of America is controlled by minorities.

Those minorities are not African-Americans, Hispanics or members of any ethnic group. They are the wealthy, elite, lobbyists, special interests, and selected elected representatives and others who exercise a disproportionate influence over public policy and practices.

These minorities are disenfranchising tens of millions of Americans. As importantly, they are destroying the faith of the average American in our democracy and its major institutions.

If the country continues down this path, which elevates the concerns of the few over the interests of the many, it may be necessary to change the opening words of the U.S. Constitution to read "Wee the people" instead of "We the people." We desperately need a movement to make citizens central to our governance and decision-making process again.

Are things really that bad? Yes!

In fact, they are even worse than many would have thought. Recent studies suggest that this triumph of the minority has and will continue to produce dire consequences for the nation and its citizenry.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC news poll released in early August revealed that 76 percent of adults lacked confidence that their children's generation would be better off than they are; 79 percent expressed some level of dissatisfaction with the American political system; and, 70 percent blamed the current malaise "more on Washington leaders than on deeper economic trends."

This was just one of many polls over the past few years that have shown disturbing results in terms of the public's attitudes regarding America and the American dream writ large. It might have been easily dismissed if had not come out at approximately the same time as two other reports: a study by two university professors that gauged the influence of ordinary Americans on public policy issues; and a Standard and Poor's study on the impact of income inequality on the economic recovery.

What effect do average citizens have on public policy issues at the national level? Virtually none!

That's what Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University found after studying 1779 public policy issues to assess the influence of average citizens, mass-based interest groups, economic elites and business-dominated interest groups.

Based upon their analysis, Gilens and Page conclude, "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

In their study, the professors also dispel the myth that the policy preferences of business and the wealthy align with those of common citizens. In fact, they assert quite the contrary is true and that when those interests diverge "economic elites and business interests almost always win and ordinary citizens lose."

Darrel M. West examines the "gulf" in attitudes between the "super rich" and ordinary citizens in his new book, Billionaires: The Upper Crust. Drawing upon the research of Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, West puts a spotlight on the substantial difference in viewpoints on a variety of matters including the following issues:

  • I favor cuts in Medicare, education and highways to reduce budget deficits (The wealthy - top 1 percent = 58%. General public = 27%.)
  • Government should spend what is necessary to ensure that all children have good public schools. (The wealthy = 35%. General public = 87%.)
  • Government should provide jobs for everyone willing to work who can't find a private sector job. (The wealthy = 8%. General public = 53%.)

The reported distinction in attitudes and influence is stunning, but may not be persuasive for those who do not put much stock in analytical, scientific or evidence-based research from the academic community. For those naysayers, let's turn to the business community to see what Standard and Poor's (S&P) has to say about our current economic condition and circumstances.

After an extensive analysis of data from a variety of sources, S&P concluded that "At extreme levels, income inequality can harm sustained economic growth over long periods. The U.S. is approaching that threshold." S&P went on to say that the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else has slowed the recovery and made the economy more prone to boom-bust cycles. Based upon these findings, S&P reduced its estimate for annual growth in the next decade down to 2.5% versus 2.8% forecast 5 years ago.

Taking all of this information together, there is a clear and compelling message. That is the American political system and economy is not working in the best interests of the majority of Americans.

When this occurs, citizens need to exercise their rights individually and collectively to reclaim America and the American dream for Americans.

In a perfect democracy, this could all be done through the ballot box. Because of factors such as gerrymandered districts, election rules that make voting difficult, low voter turnout, and a Supreme Court that has seen fit to equate money with speech and corporations with individuals, the ballot box must be a means but definitely not the end.

What is needed is a citizens' rights movement that is multi-pronged. One of those prongs must be reform of the national American electoral process.

We have written about this need in other blogs. Changes here should include: implementing a national fair districting initiative; revamping the primary voting processes; and, structuring the voting process to ensure maximum feasible participation of all eligible voters. Add to this list, reversing the Supreme Court's egregious Citizens United decision of 2010.

We are not delusional. Changing the electoral process will take effort, money, and time. But, in the long term, it must be done, to continue the pursuit of that "more perfect union" envisioned by our founders.

In the short and near term, the citizens' rights movement must be comprised of cause-centered initiatives launched and sustained by individuals and groups of individuals on issues that matter to them and for a truly representative democracy. These initiatives will require taking it to the halls of Congress, to the internet, and to the streets.

Recent examples of the citizens' rights movement in action include: the climate change protest on Wall Street by tens -- some say hundreds -- of thousands; millions of average Americans weighing in to the FCC on net neutrality; and, strikes at fast food restaurants across the country in an attempt to increase the minimum wage.

Can citizens' movements make a difference? Absolutely, if they are targeted correctly, mobilized properly and sustained effectively. Consider the civil rights and women's movements of the '60's and '70's and more recently the GLBT movement -- movements which expanded the concepts of citizenship for all.

Consider even the tea party movement which demonstrated that a small group of citizens -- a minority -- could elect representatives in their own image and likeness from their districts or states. By doing so, they transformed the agenda of a national political party and focused legislation on doing one thing -- constraining government.

Citizens have power when they organize as a community -- whether that community is geographic, similar interests/circumstances, or like-minds. The tea party members recognized the importance of community organization and that is why Rules for Radicals, the famous book by well-known community organizer, Saul Alinsky, is near the top of their reading list.

Another book that should be at the top of the list for all those interested in initiating or becoming part of a citizens' rights movement for a cause is America: The Owner's Manual: Making Government Work for You (Manual) by former Senator Bob Graham (FL). Senator Graham's work is a practical handbook for how to effectuate positive and meaningful grassroots change in and through the political and public policy-making process.

Given the current unfortunate political and economic reality, this Manual is more important than ever. That's because while "average" citizens may have the manual someone else owns the car, the highways on which it's driven, and the direction in which it's going.

Citizens need to use the Manual as one of the tools in their repertoire to get that car back, to change course, and to wrest control from the privileged few - the minorities - who are thwarting the will of the majority.

That majority has been far too silent for far too long. It's time for citizens' voices to be heard and a citizens' right movement. It's time now before it's too late.