Democracy Needed as Mainstream Conventions Decay
Senator Feingold Speaks to Shadow Convention
The “shadow convention” that ran alongside the Democratic Party’s convention featured some pretty interesting speakers. Among them was Senator Russ Feingold. Here’s what the Senator had to say.
Frankly, I expected more out of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and the American people have a right to expect more out of those conventions.
Although this Shadow convention here and the speakers are not to specifically address particular campaigns and candidates, I am in Los Angeles as a Democratic Party delegate for a reason and I’m enthusiastic about the efforts of my party to win the election in the fall. But, my friends, I confess to you that as I came in to L.A. yesterday, I had a real feeling of disappointment with what has happened to our conventions, to our government, and to our democracy.
It seems that this convention nearby here is all about money, and especially, corporate money. This is why I believe there are Shadow Conventions. This is why I believe there are strong protests at both national conventions. The protesters know that the real action is at the corporate and wealthy donor breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and they are not invited. They know that. That’s why they’re protesting.
What we are seeing on television are not really party conventions, where representative delegates come to confer and choose, rather, these are basically now corporate trade shows for the delegates, while the main show is behind closed doors at big dollar soft money fund-raisers, and those soft money contributions, make no mistake, are setting the agenda for the American congress, and for the United States as a whole.
So, my friends, these conventions are both examples and symbols of a broader problem. We have devolved from a representative democracy to a corporate democracy in this country. This is not a system of one person one vote, or one delegate one vote, but a system of one million dollars, one million votes. It is a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion. That’s what it is.
And to be sure, this is true of both the Democratic and Republican conventions; my guess is that it was probably a little worse in Philadelphia, if I know the Republicans, but I don’t know for sure. I know that one Senator at the Republican National Convention apparently raised between $600,000 and $700,000 just during that one week at seven different fund-raisers, and the convention has become what the deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee called a convention behind the convention — the nine hundred separate events that travel along with the convention like so many carnival sideshow acts at a state fair. There are fund-raisers, there are thank-you spreads for the big donors. There are the corporate finance salutes to the law-makers who oversee the corporate business and, all too often, those lawmakers salute right back.
This June, former Republican Party chairman Frank Fahrenkoph told the Washington Post that the political parties rely on this captive audience of donors. He said quote; “You have most of your die-hard supporters in one place, and it’s a very critical source of money for both parties” — the former party chairman said. He as much as admitted that the reason the party conventions drag on for so long is simply to help the politicians to extract money from wealthy donors. That’s essentially what he said.
Friends, those descriptions of the Republican Convention do not give me any comfort. They do not give me any comfort in saying, “We are not as bad as they are.” Why? Because I’m a Democrat and this is my party. The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party of the people. The party of Jefferson, the party of Jackson, not the party of the big money interests. That’s what I thought a Democrat was supposed to be. So what do we see when we come here to L.A.? Corporate names emblazoned in gigantic letters across the very building where the nominee will be chosen. Corporate sponsored parties, corporate sponsored concerts, corporate sponsored golf tournaments, corporate sponsored wine-tastings, corporate sponsored yacht cruises, corporate sponsored shopping excursions, and of course, in between, the corporate sponsored breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I don’t think anybody’s going hungry, I’ll tell you that.
In fact, this convention this year to me is kind of like a Jurassic Park version of the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Now, in 1996, that was the first time I was ever a delegate to a national convention. Before, I backed the wrong horse every previous time. In 1996, I was a Senator, so I was automatically a delegate. I came to support President Clinton and Vice President Gore, but the first thing I started to notice was the beginning of this corporate influence over these conventions. Nonetheless I went and got my credentials, and I looked down and saw this; a little piece of string that was holding my first credential, and it said all over it “United Airlines United Airlines United Airlines.” Couldn’t we afford a little twine or string with the public money that goes to the Democratic Convention? So it bothered me, and I kept the string.
But just four years later — four years later, it’s much worse, and it’s much more hidden. What is going on now at this convention down the street is a big difference between the haves and the have-nots of the convention. I’m sorry to say it, but the big story at the Democratic Convention is really influence buying and pedaling. Soft money is a legal version of what corporations are prohibited by American law from doing overseas. Under the Foreign Practices act you could never do this, but here, it’s legal. The story is not whether to have a fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion, but the obscenity of unlimited special interest soft money contributions.
The story is not whether the President is upstaging the Vice President by holding fundraisers in L.A. this week; it’s the staggering size of the contributions required to get in to the darn thing. That’s the story — that’s the issue. The story is not the elaborate security arrangements to protect the convention participants at the fund-raisers, it’s that people feel so shut out of the process that they feel they must take to the streets. That is the real story.
My friends, why can’t the Democratic Convention honor and build upon some of its past luster and role in our democracy? Why instead of evoking memories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 convention speech in which he said “All we have to fear is fear itself” why, instead of that must we commence this convention with a reception this evening — including $100,000 plus and $50,000 plus soft money contributions, led by Prudential, the American Council of Life Insurance and American Express? Why, instead of recalling the legacy of Senator Hubert Humphrey’s 1948 convention speech in which he urged us to come out of the shadow of state’s rights and into the bright sunshine of human rights, why instead of that must we contemplate a Democratic Party Trust reception, in the middle of the afternoon during the convention proceedings, sponsored by the Occidental Petroleum Association? Weren’t gas prices high enough already this summer? I thought they were. Why instead of the excitement and passion of Eugene McCarthy’s 1960 plea of “Do not reject this man” (with reference to Adlai Stevenson), why instead of that do we have on the very nominating night at the convention, a soft money fund-raiser hosted by Bell South, US West, EchoStar Communications and UPS. Didn’t they get a good enough deal on the 1996 Telecom bill? I thought they did.
Some will say, and do say that the times are a changin’ in the wrong way and that we can never turn it back, and maybe that’s true in our brave new Corporate Democracy. But let us at least have the Democratic Party turn away from this distortion of our democracy. This is not a naïve request that the convention be completely pure, pristine; I suspect no one can ever completely sever the unfortunate connection between money and politics. Unfortunately, it is sometimes part of the rough and tumble of any political system, but can’t the Democratic Convention once again be a place where grassroots Americans can play at least an equal role with the well-to-do and the well-connected, and be allowed to be present and participate in all convention activities.
So tonight, I am simply asking for some restraint, for some thought as to the time, place, manner and scope of fund-raising. I’m asking for some respect for those of us, and it is most of us, who are not of great wealth, or connected to great economic power. We want to participate in a meaningful manner in our democratic society and in our political conventions.
Therefore, tonight, I call on the Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee to unilaterally prohibit soft money fund-raisers, fund-raising of that kind from our political conventions. I understand they probably won’t do it this week, for this convention. They should. They should. There’s still time. But if not, announce this week that it will never be done again by the Democratic Party of this country.
I ask the Democratic Party to begin the process of giving us our conventions back. We must take this step, to begin to free our system from the corrupting influence of corporate money. These conventions are playing host to what may well be the worst display of fund-raising and corruption in the political history of our nation. These conventions are serving as a symbol of the corruption and influence of money in our system that surely will not be lost on the American people. So with your tremendous help, and enthusiasm and commitment, let us take back for the people the process of selecting our political leaders.
Let us restore the party political conventions to their historic, legitimate role in a democratic system. Let’ s clean up our conventions, and then let’s go and clean up all of our elections, once and for all.
Russ Feingold is a senator from Wisconsin. He is probably the best of all Senators. The excellent ‘watchdogs’ at Taxpayers for Common Sense recently named Feingold their #1 Taxpayer Hero.
And thanks to www.tompaine.com for leading us to Feingold’s remarks.
What’s your opinion? Tell your views to The Progress Report!