How to take back America

By Mike Gravel

"Who is sovereign? He who commits the acts of sovereignty." -- Tocqueville

Next week activists and progressives from around the country will meet in Washington in an effort, as organizers put it, to "take back America." It's always an important conference. But this year, given the state of our politics, it's especially urgent.

At the same time, the determination to set things right suggests an important question: How?

If I may be so bold, despite the fervent desire of most Democrats for "New Vision, New Ideas, and New Energy," it's not clear if the hierarchy in either party is even discussing the kind of fundamental political reform that's needed to truly "take back" the country.

It is a truism nowadays that people are fed up with most of their institutions of government -- not just President Bush, but the Congress as well; and not just Congress's Republican leadership, but with some Democrats too. Polls by John Zogby and others show that voters feel not just a temporary dissatisfaction with this or that policy, but a deep, seething contempt for business as usual, and the whole elected aristocracy that conducts it.

It is from that perspective that Democrats and progressives need to address the issues of political mismanagement in 2006 and beyond. We face a political crisis of confidence in our elected representatives generally, indeed, in the system itself.

Consider, for example, Mr. Bush's war in Iraq. It is fine, and it is right, for Democrats to criticize the mismanagement of this war today. Yet in 2002 and 2003, the country watched as most Republicans and many Democrats in Congress accepted uncritically the intelligence fed to them. In the years since, both houses have fully funded the Iraq war.

Where were the filibusters? Where, in the face of obvious distortions and selective presentation of intelligence, was the release of vital information on the rush to war, on the House or Senate floor? What did our elected representatives do to stop the war they have acquiesced in ever since?

Americans may rightly wonder, after this abdication of responsibility, whether either party, or any branch of the existing government, has the courage to handle the task of deciding issues of war and peace. A much better solution, for this war and future wars, is to redistribute the authority for war and peace to those who will bear the burden of the fighting -- to the people.

The same observation applies to the progressive agenda on domestic policy. All decry the distortion of data that went into Mr. Bush's ill-named "reform" of Medicare for prescription drugs. But having said that, Congress seems unable to rouse itself to hold the perpetrators responsible -- let alone, reverse the costly mistake it led to. Similarly, we all bemoan the bungling of Katrina by the Bush Administration -- but Congress, state, and local governments failed too.

From taxes to energy policy, all can see the vast price imposed by Mr. Bush's tax-and-spend, tax-and-make-war policy. But does anyone really expect the kind of fundamental changes needed in the U.S. tax code to pass through the Senate Finance Committee -- whoever chairs it? Does anyone think that changing a few votes -- or tinkering again with campaign spending rules -- will remove the choke-hold that well-funded interests have on policy debates from energy to Social Security, when all they need to do is sway a few well-placed elites to alter, or simply not hold, a vote?

It is tempting to blame our current leaders in Washington, from the Republicans to their feeble enablers on the Democratic side. The fault, however, my fellow progressives and my fellow citizens, lies not only with our leaders but with ourselves. And the answer, as well, lies with us.

For real political change, Americans must change politics. It seems self-evident, if you think about it. It's ironic, that at a time of unprecedented agreement that politics itself is broken, one hears virtually no discussion of "New Vision, New Ideas" for political reform.

The only way for Americans to really take back America is to take back some of the initial lawmaking power they are implicitly granted in the constitution, in both the preamble and in Article VII -- and that is their fundamental, human right under natural law, as expressed by the Declaration. That means, simply, a process of National Initiative, under which the people can propose and vote on laws directly at the federal level -- as they do in half the states, and most cities and towns, today.

As one of my colleagues has put it: It's the culture of representative government, stupid. As the Federalist observed: "The people can never willfully betray their own interests; but they may possibly be betrayed by the representatives of the people."

Recently, a young man sent me a very troubling email. His message should concern every American, but especially Democrats and progressives.

The young man said he believes the country is in great peril under the Bush war policy -- but that the Congress, whether Republican or Democrat, will never have the guts to reverse it, or to stop future preemptive wars. He said we need a fundamental change in our disgracefully complex tax code -- but it will never pass.

He said he'd like to receive Social Security someday -- but doesn't expect to. He said something needs to be done about global warming -- but hasn't, over 20 years of Republican and Democratic presidents and congresses.

In short, this young man believes certain fundamental changes are necessary -- but that our government, or the politicians who occupy it, cannot make those changes. The implication, as one columnist in the Washington Post suggested earlier this year, is that "representative democracy itself" is failing.

If I could arrange for an airplane to appear over the America's Future Conference next week and skywrite one message, it would be this: "If the people cannot make laws, we can never take back the country."

Take back America? Yes, we must.

But if we try to do it purely through the organs of representative government, then almost none of the changes we seek are possible.

If instead we make the people lawmakers -- if the people themselves rise up and walk, into their just and natural right to legislate, by enacting the National Initiative -- then almost nothing is impossible.

(Mike Gravel was U.S. Senator from Alaska, 1969-1981, and is founder of the National Initiative movement, www.nationalinitiative.us, to establish the people's right to legislate. He is a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2008.) www.gravel2008.us