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NOW with Bill Moyers

Democracy in Danger Panel


MOYERS: MOYERS: The experience of John Biggs opens yet another window on who wins and who loses in Washington. Understanding what's wrong with our system — and what's right-- — is especially important now, with war in the air and the economy reeling.

So I asked some people I know to talk about our democracy. They're not your usual suspects, and I think you'll be surprised by some of their thoughts on where we are now and where we're headed. Here's our conversation.


MOYERS: A few days from now we'll have a new Congress. What's at stake?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: The big dynamic is the war dynamic. Nobody knows exactly what it will be. If the president is really Machiavellian he might end up getting the benefit of the war dynamic in the election, getting a very small Republican majority but a Republican majority nonetheless and then backing down somewhat and accepting a much less drastic scenario, but if he does go the war route or circumstances take us into the war route, then I think the next dynamic in Congress is how people react to the war.

That's likely to make some real difference in terms of partisan numbers won't matter as much then.

MANNING MARABLE: I think that the debate about the war is central in the political discourse for this November.

The reality is that the majority of American people feel a disconnect both from the Democrats and from the Republicans that real issues that affect people's lives in terms of the cost of groceries, employment, issues of shelter, certainly health care and prescription drugs, those are driving the concerns that American people feel and yet we're not getting very much of that from the discourse of the party candidates of both major parties.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Well, the economic issues which people really haven't dwelt on will probably come to the fore especially if there's any truth to the suggestions that the war will have negative effects on the economy.

Now, I think that's probably the key for the party divisions to start re-emerging again in a major way, if you have a war, if you have an economy that's being affected by the war, that probably forces them in ways they can relate to.

I agree the Democrats and the Republicans, given their druthers, would just rather take checks from the people they spend so much time buttering up. But forced to confront either the economy or the war, the two big things that we're likely to confront, I think they have to.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Voters are concerned about the economy, that's true but they're not holding anybody liable for a bad economy. That's interesting.

That favors the Republicans because people are saying I'm worried about the economy but I don't really blame Bush- onomics for it. There's no name for it. And I wasn't prepared for that.

It seems to me Democrats only have a winning issue if two things happen. One, people say, "Oh, the economy is sour," and two, "The Republicans are to blame." They're saying the first but not the second.

MOYERS: What do you make of the fact that despite the closeness of the race in the year 2000, only 55 percent of all eligible adult voters voted compared to 70 percent in 1960?

And get this: there were 100 million fewer people in 1960, but more of them watched the Nixon/Kennedy debates than watched the Gore/Bush debates in the year 2000.

What's going on here?

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Anybody, say, 40 and younger now came up at a time where they didn't see government work. I tell people all the time, I grew up and I got my first civics lesson when I was about seven years old during the Watergate hearings.

I'm sitting there six years old trying to watch cartoons and here comes Nixon interrupting my cartoon hour very rudely. Another cartoon.

My whole generation, that whole Generation X, for lack of a better phrase, figured out politics doesn't work, doesn't work for me. Your question is interesting. It says people don't believe in it anymore. I would ask you to divide the whole pie demographically. Anybody 40 and less it's not a question anymore. We never believed that government was the arm through which you correct social ills. If I see homeless people I don't go call my Congressman. Are you kidding me?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Get your church to do something.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: You go to your church, roll up your sleeves. Get them a sandwich. I'm not going to call my Congressman.

MANNING MARABLE: I think that the problem within American politics is a kind of sickness within the political process. Where millions of Americans feel disconnected from the major issues that are being debated.

I think that part of the problem is the structure of the democratic process itself that mitigates against voices, whether they're from the right or the left, having a real say-so in the national discussion.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: It could be that we're at the end of a particular era of a two-party system. You know, we've had Democrats and Republicans for a long time. Kevin, you've written about this, how the Civil War gave this a great boost to that system. It kind of set it in concrete and it has gone for longer than a century.

MICHAEL LIND: One thing that's happening is gerrymandering. With each successive census there are fewer and fewer competitive seats where you don't have a safe one-party seat. There are only about a dozen Congressional seats that are really in play this year.

We have a system — it's seldom discussed in public, the media don't pay attention to it — the state legislatures draw most Congressional districts, mostly sometimes along racial lines primarily along partisan lines so that you have a 100% safe Democratic district, 100% Republican district.

Now this means in much of the United States it makes no sense to vote.

MOYERS: Here are the facts. Three quarters of the House of Representatives win re-election by a landslide every two years.

One out of seven don't even have a major party challenger while more than 40% of the state legislative candidates run without serious opposition.

MICHAEL LIND: Why vote if you have an unopposed candidate.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Really what this is, this is the permanent corruption. I was in a panel in Mexico City on the Mexican party system, and somebody asked one of the press people routinely, well, we had a real election in Mexico and in the United States the Supreme Court picked the candidate.

Now I think what we've got when I say the permanent corruption is that we do have something in which you now have an artificial two-party system. They contend with each other but only on a very limited terrain.

And to think of it as a duopoly is not wrong, and the debate has been narrowed so much that the Democrats can't really challenge the Republicans on Republican-onomics so to speak because they have the president who collaborated with Wall Street and beat his chest while a bubble was being blown up saying how great Wall Street thinks I am.

So how are they going to indict them? But there's this incredibly narrow debate coming out of this incredibly duopolistic system.

And, who knows in a couple of years? Because the secret to the malfunction of all of these things is m-o-n-e-y because the cost of running for everything have gone up in the last 20 years that you put the money together with the mechanisms and you've got the mess.

MOYERS: THE WASHINGTON POST just this morning carried the story that the Bush administration has been holding meetings with corporate executives to find out what they want when the new Congress convenes and an official of the Heritage Foundation, which is a foundation funded by corporations and wealthy individual, says business lobbyists in Washington are "salivating" at the prospect of what comes after January.

So the real politics is follow the money, see who gives and gets it.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Both parties. The Republicans do it basically with private interest and business and upper-bracket people and the democrats do it with labor, with.... Teachers unions, with the entertainment business which wants a lot.

MOYERS: Just 100 donors over the last decade gave over a billion dollars to federal candidates and the national parties. Some of the biggest donors were labor unions but business out gave labor 15-1. So both sides play the money game.

You don't think that's new or a problem, Richard?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: No, I don't think it's new. I think there's more money involved because we're a richer society than we were 200 years ago or a hundred years ago.

We also have... We're a big country. So it costs a lot of money to run national elections. It costs a lot of money to run some state elections.

You know, your home state, my home state, California, these are as big as European countries. It is not cheap... It's not Israel. It's not some little geographically little country where you can drive from one end of it to the other in virtually a day.

MOYERS: I was just reading that in Texas, my home state, that the two candidates for governor will spend $100 million in the major media markets for this election. I mean that's just in one state.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: You're asking that question to a representative from a major media company. Just so you know.

I'll say in Texas, for instance, one of those candidates, Tony Sanchez is spending $60 million. He's got 60% of that pie already in terms of his own personal wealth. He's an enormously wealthy... He's worth $600 million and he's spending $60 million of it. Yeah it's a big game. It's a very big game.

MOYERS: Tony Sanchez is the Democratic candidate for governor of Texas right now. When George W. Bush ran for president he gave $300,000 Tony Sanchez did.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: He's a very Republican- friendly Democrat. I'll tell you something, voters are not objecting to that.

This is not sort of a Steve Forbes phenomenon where people are saying he's trying to buy the election.

He has made a very persuasive argument that says I'm running against a career politician. He's been getting free headlines from you people in the press for 25 years and he's been cashing government checks. Give me a chance to catch up with name I.D. It seems to have neutralized the debate.

MOYERS: But you couldn't have done that.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: If I had $60 million, I'd want to spend it differently.

MICHAEL LIND: This is the point, Bill. People get the idea of money and politics wrong in my opinion.

Money does not affect the outcome of most races in which the primary determinants are race, ethnicity, income, religion, and factors like that. If you look at the blue and the red areas on the map....

MOYERS: Blue areas for Gore.

MICHAEL LIND: And red for Bush. Norman Lear and People for the American Way can spend $100 million in some right-wing white county in Mississippi and it won't work. They won't elect the liberal Democrat.

However, money does affect who gets to be the right wing Republican....

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: As a player.

MICHAEL LIND: Or the liberal Democrat.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Part of the debate on money here just ignores collateral effects because, you know, I'm willing to agree it's not going to change the outcome in a certain place in Mississippi if the Democrats pump in a whole lot of money in other places.

But we all know-- and the data is there to prove it-- that the marginal swing districts tend to go with the money.

Now because that's the case, I've heard lots of people in both parties say, you know, I wish I didn't have to take all this money, but because I do I've learned how to speak out of both sides of my mouth and on a lot of votes where it doesn't really involve my district.

I'm going to vote with the banks, with the insurance companies or whatever. So what we wind up with instead of what Arthur Schlesinger called a vital center we have the venal center.

This is right there in the middle collecting money, influencing thought processes. That is right at the core of the problem.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: In general the phenomenon that we're discussing has to do with a kind of demobilization of voters, and the weakness of the parties is part of that.

Parties used to be very effective at getting out the vote and at bringing young people up. You know, you had Democratic families and Republican families and people got socialized into a party the way they inherited a religious belief and so on.

There were other institutions that gave people a political identity and made sure they got out to vote. When the unions were strong they did that in a particular direction and so on.

During the Civil Rights era when the whole focus was on gaining the franchise for disenfranchised African Americans, that issue, again people organized around that, they had a base for organizing in the black Baptist churches in the South and so on. So you need institutions.

It's not just, you know, you've got a whole bunch of individuals out there who ought to care about this but they don't. I mean, what institutions...

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Churches. Churches. Churches.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Churches...

KEVIN PHILLIPS: The First Fundamentalist Church of Greater Jouston with 20,000 members who votes 92% Republican.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Churches are about the only ones doing it right now.

EMILY LEVINE: But I find something so much deeper here wrong, and that is I don't think... And I think both parties have been so complicit in creating this situation where people don't believe in government, they don't believe in the government as an institution that's going to make their lives better, that's going to create the kinds of changes, address the kinds of issues that they have.

I think in the bubble of the late 1990s and 2000, suddenly everybody was encouraged to believe in the economy, that if you bought into this new economy and you bought into... Yes, the economy was going to address all these problems.

And then suddenly the economy bottomed out, and now we're left as a country not even knowing what to believe in, as that.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: There must have been an interesting time in America where the Democrats had all the ideas. The Republicans had nothing. Now it's reversed.

EMILY LEVINE: Exactly.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Now the Republicans have the ideas objectionable though they maybe in some cases. Democrats have been reduced to saying me too.

MOYERS: I know you as a writer who takes ideas and turns them into compelling one-woman shows.

EMILY LEVINE: I have to tell you recently in developing the material I'm working on now I was pulling out some articles that were written in 1998, and I was not a big Bill Clinton fan.

But I'm reading these articles and the lead article of each of the lead paragraph of each of these articles says something like, "the Clinton administration is grappling with the idea that such-and-such might affect the way we think about..." And you know, it was every one of them was an idea, and I felt such a sense of loss...

MICHAEL LIND: George W. Bush is the most idea driven conviction politician, to use Margaret Thatcher's phrase, since Reagan.

To his credit, I think he campaigned on the issue of Social Security privatization. Everybody said that was the third rail, you could never talk about that. Whether you agree with it or not, I thought it took a certain amount of courage to raise that.

If you look at the foreign policy, you know, this proposed unilateral American grand strategy... This is the most creative, dynamic, possibly erroneous and harmful, but we can debate about this. But this administration, I think, has got lots of ideas.

EMILY LEVINE: Excuse me, I think there's a difference between ideas and ideology, and the actual facts don't change...

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: The national security document, which you've read it, I'm sure, I've read it. It's a very interesting document.

MOYERS: That is the new...

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Yes, the new national security strategy...

MOYERS: The new vision for America and for the world.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: And it's an attempt, at least after years of drift as far as foreign policy is concerned, the post Cold War years, to trying to think of what ideas should guide American foreign policy in a vastly changed world since 1989.

And it's not a narrow ideology at all. I mean, you know, the strategy should be in favor of freedom. But the freedom has to do with the importance of constitutional democracy and so on.

EMILY LEVINE: I think it's about the freedom to make money. I think that's what the word freedom has come to mean.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: I don't think that's fair. I mean, you really do have some very interesting people like Condoleeza Rice, who has, as you know, a Ph.D. In international relations, and others who are idea driven. Again, you may disagree with the ideas, but it's not about money and...

KEVIN PHILLIPS: I just don't know how you define freedom.

EMILY LEVINE: How do you build a coalition around a document that says it doesn't believe in coalitions.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: It doesn't say that.

MOYERS: He knows what he wants to do.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: I think both camps are right. You can live in a congressional district in middle America where you look around and say, gee, there's no ideas. And the reason is simple: ideas are dangerous.

Ideas are dangerous because ideas might offend people, and offended voters might not vote for me. So I have no interest in putting ideas on the table.

Now, that's fair enough, but Michael's also right about George Bush, because having the benefit of a 60%-65% approval rating means you can throw out ideas, up into and including-- catch this one-- amnesty for illegal immigrants.

It's not just the radical Latino left who's talking about that, it's George Bush who's talking about it, and didn't stop talking about it even after 9/11.

MICHAEL LIND: I should point out that another one of the ideas of this conviction politician is channeling government funds to faith-based institutions which is a massive welfare program of taxpayer revenues channeled to particular churches.

MOYERS: The first 500,000 with Pat Robertson's operation in Virginia.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Are we surprised?

MICHAEL LIND: What I'm hearing is there haven't been any liberal dynamic liberal ideas for 20 or 30 years. I can list four or five dynamic conservative ideas: vouchers, faith-based choice, unilateral global strategy. So it seems to me that we can't complain about an absence of ideas. There's an absence of centrist and left ideas. There are lots of right wing ideas out there.

EMILY LEVINE: I'll go out on a limb here because that's where I'm most comfortable. Without talking about class, I mean, Republicans and Democrats alike in government tend to belong to a certain economic class.

And defending the interests of those classes... Of that class comes before anything else.

MOYERS: You know, do you think it really matters... Do you think it really matters to our democracy that the 13,000 richest Americans have almost as much income as the 20 million poorest?

EMILY LEVINE: Yes. Sorry if I seem to be in the minority, but I think it makes an enormous difference, because when you have all the money you also own the media, for instance.

MOYERS: In WEALTH AND DEMOCRACY, Kevin Phillips has written that we are the most polarized and unequal society of any of the major industrial nations.

Would that explain this? The minimum wage is lower adjusted for inflation than it was in 1979. Middle class is shrinking. Wealth at the top is soaring. It seems to me that some party, some candidates could mobilize all the disenfranchised voters that you're talking about. Why aren't they?

KEVIN PHILLIPS: The big reason I think at the present time is that you have two parties that represent different branches and layers of American money. But you have the Republicans represent a lot of defense, agribusiness, old line manufacturing, the sort of physical production crowd.

You have Democrats really are the pre-dominant party among the people in the entertainment business, the media, a lot of high tech. And for people who think the Republicans really have all the money, if you went back in early 2000 and looked at the capitalization, market capital of the different industries, it was Democratic money.

And it was a Democratic president in there whose bubble was breaking. So this should be confused at this point. The problem is the American people are paying for the confusion.

MOYERS: There is no third party, no candidate in either party or outside the party who can mobilize this great discontent that you're talking about.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: When has this not been so? I mean, come on, you used to have tenant farmers of wealthy landowners who told them how to vote.

I mean, one description, Robert Livingston, drove his tenants to the polls like sheep.

And these were not slaves; these were free, but they were tenant farmers. You know, the word came down from the manor house. You know, it's happened one way or another throughout our history. I don't see that this is news. Maybe it's bad, but it's not news.

MANNING MARABLE: This is before universal education, this is before mass media. So we're in a very different time.

I think that one of the reasons that it's so difficult is that again, the electoral system does not encourage a multiplicity of political voices.

Another reason is because of widespread disfranchisement. Now, perhaps it's because I'm an we're talking about millions and millions of working class and low income people regardless of race who have been relegated to the political side lines in part because of things like felony restriction. Another reason is because they feel that the plutocracy does not speak to them.

MOYERS: What do you think about the statement that we have an illegitimate system right now in which a minority of wealthy people can determine not only who wins but who runs. How can you call that a legitimate system?

MICHAEL LIND: There is a crisis of legitimacy in our democracy. If you look from the 1960s until the present, the number of people who call themselves Independents, who don't like the Democrats, don't like the Republicans, has risen from effectively zero to about one-third of the population.

Some polls in one 2000 poll 50% said they were not Democrats or Republicans.

Now what is the difference between 1960 and the present? The parties have become much more polarized and ideologically homogeneous.

Right now the leaders of the parties by the time the people who are selected to lead the parties tend to be the most liberal liberals and the most conservative conservatives.

I think that's one of the problems that people are looking for some alternative to teacher union, plaintiffs attorneys, environmental movement liberalism on the one hand and religious right conservatism on another.

There used to be alternatives within the Republican and Democratic parties. There are not now.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: It is a very interesting fact that people, when asked about the overall system, do fret about the kind of corruption you've been talking about. Do they like their own local representative, their own congress person? Most of the time they do. They think they're doing a pretty good job.

They think, you know, that's kind of fine. This perhaps is an exception, but we sort of like this guy or this gal. We think they're doing okay. It's not just one, you know, this is a multi-layered, very, very complicated system.

I think that the term illegitimate is a very powerful term and must be used with a bit of caution.

MANNING MARABLE: I think that there really is a crisis of legitimacy in the way one can measure it is along the lines of who feels that... Who participates within the electoral political process? I can tell you that if in 1984 blacks, Hispanics, low-income people and blue-collar workers had voted in commensurate numbers with people who earned over $50,000 a year, Walter Mondale would have been elected.

Some people would say that's a bad thing. Maybe it was a good thing. But we have to figure out a way to make democracy healthy again. We have to build structures of accountability, of reciprocity within a vibrant civil society. The real way to change American politics probably is not at the top down but the bottom up.

We have to figure out a way to do two things: build citizenship, build notions of civic engagement at the grass roots level. That's going to be independent of both political parties largely.

The second thing that we have to do is find ways to change the rules of the electoral game. This is not pie in the sky. You're already beginning to see this happen at the grass roots level.

MICHAEL LIND: But, no, the changing the electoral system has to be a top down because one of the reasons the two parties have this duopoly is 50 state legislatures control who gets a district drawn for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Under the U.S. Constitution Congress has the residual power to take redistricting out of the hands of the 50 states, the Democratic or Republican majority, to do it along some more less non-partisan way.

I think we ought to nationalize these electoral rules. We ought to break down all of these residency requirements, the 50 different regimes for who can vote in a presidential election, have a single national standard.

MANNING MARABLE: I would agree with that except that I think that in getting democratic change, people have to see tangible results around and Saul Alinsky learned this a long time ago.

MOYERS: The organizer.

MANNING MARABLE: That's right. First thing you have to do as an organizer is put the stop sign on the corner where the kids cross the street. You've got to win reforms one brick at a time.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: The slogan is don't do for people what they can do for themselves. You're back to the civil society model. That's the slogan of that organizer.

MICHAEL LIND: The civil rights revolution in this country was not won one city one state at a time. It was federal power.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: If you want to take Saul Alinsky. The modern manifestation is occurring right now in 20 or 30 different American cities through things like Victory Outreach that are targeting the Hispanic community.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Texas Inter-faith Coalition.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Texas Inter-faith Coalition. The immigrant community. One quick example. People got fed up with teachers unions controlling the public education discourse. They didn't go to the normal P.T.A. meetings because P.T.A. was saying we can't get enough minorities. P.T.A. is a mostly white group. They can't get minorities.

What happens? It comes from the ground rises from the ground in places like Phoenix and Dallas Latino immigrant PTAs, immigrant P.T.A.s. So there's this whole game going on.

If I read the NEW YORK TIMES everyday and I do and if I read the WASHINGTON POST and watch all these other networks and I watch PBS there's still part of the game I'm missing.

What's going on out there that we're not always hearing about is happening at the grass roots level.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: That's exactly right.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: In this case because of immigrant PTAs that are popping up and challenging the educational system.

I refer to it as a Clinton paradigm because Bill Clinton was in one respect the most racially progressive president we had in a while and on the other hand one of the most backward presidents.

Every television he ever sat in was black and white. That's his paradigm. The problem with that is that obviously with the growth in the Asian community, the growth in the Hispanic population across the country that no longer applies. That will make the game a lot more interesting.

I'm of the opinion that the immigration... Immigration has been typically a very good thing because it revitalizes the American spirit.

People all of a sudden have respect for the law, they send their kid to school and pay taxes and they aspire to something better.

EMILY LEVINE: We're in an either/or thing here. The fact is it needs to be from the bottom up and the top down. You don't reject out of hand any attempt to have it happen from whichever direction it's coming.

MOYERS: The story goes on but our time does not. I want to thank each of you for being here. This has been a very enlightening and interesting discussion to me. I hope to see you at the polls next Tuesday.