Pete MacDowell is the director of the Democratic Reform Project,
a program of the Institute for Southern Studies in Chapel Hill,
North Carolina. He is also a coordinator of the North Carolina
Alliance for Democracy. Bob Hulteen interviewed him by telephone
Sojourners: Many people from varying political perspectives are talking about how the political system is not working. What do people mean when they say this?
Pete MacDowell: A couple of years ago, we began a series of focus groups. We started with the usual focus group question, "Is North Carolina on the right track or the wrong track?" Most of the people said it was on the wrong track, and they were particularly worried about three areas-youth and education; jobs and income, especially low-wage jobs in North Carolina; and the environment.
In the African-American groups, the collapse of health care and social services was another big concern.
Then we asked, "How did this come about? This is a democracy, so you can make the state and national governments respond to the public will." And the response was, "Yeah, right."
We then heard the anger directed toward politicians and the political process. The people have a visceral hatred of political ads. They are disgusted with blow-dried politicians that read the polls and say, "I am with you." They are very aware that they are not factors, and that vested interests and the elite are. It takes a couple of steps for people to focus beyond their gut dislike of politicians and of politics as it is now, to an analysis of what has gone wrong and who is in control if they are not.
The United States has really become an atomized pseudo-democracy. As we say, If there is not community, there cannot be democracy; if there is not democracy, there cannot be justice.
The Democratic Reform Project is trying, in an experimental way, to do community-building organizing. We have established a group in Chattham County, south of Chapel Hill, and are working on a second in Alamance County. People build their own sense of connection across pretty high barriers, like race.
Until we have people talking again, sharing their visions and feelings, having safe space to talk about and deal with difficult issues, we won't begin to have the possibilities of a community agenda. The notion of a community agenda right now is whatever the Chamber of Commerce comes up with, or whatever some planning committee puts together.
Underlying the political crisis is the fragmentation and alienation of folks from each other. There are many lonely, isolated people who have very little sense of commitment to others. This fosters a blame game that is driving the right-wing politics and the government-is-the-problem analysis.
Currently the right wing is framing the question. Their question is not how the political system has been taken over by a wealthy elite and vested interests. Rather, they say the problem is government.
We think it is enormously important to go back to the reality of communication and community across barriers so we can find power together again. This is an incredibly important part of the healing process.
Sojourners: What other programs is the Democratic Reform Project involved with?
MacDowell: We are involved primarily in two things. The Institute for Southern Studies has been a research and advocacy institution. We have studied and developed a database on campaign finance in this state. We've been able to uncover the economic interests of about 95 percent of the contributions over $100.
For the last eight years, we've monitored campaign finance at the state level. We've shown that the cost of winning a seat in the Statehouse has gone up 500 percent since 1976, adjusted for inflation. We now have $250,000 races for the state House or state Senate. Of course, the state legislature makes million-dollar decisions every week for one vested interest or another. It makes eminent sense for those vested interests to invest in the process. But public financing is a far, far cheaper route.
The second thing we have done, together with Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and some others, is form the North Carolina Alliance for Democracy. It's made up of a wide variety of people and groups who care about justice, low-income housing, and women, and realize they can't make progress with a political playing field that has this much of a slope to it. So we have banded together and been encouraging the legislature toward comprehensive campaign finance reform.
Sojourners: Do you see local solutions as the best way to deal with this, or is there a national solution?
MacDowell: We may be wrong-who knows?-and maybe the [Ross] Perot phenomenon will wake some people up within the federal government, but I have no hope that within the foreseeable future we'll have a real national campaign finance bill that means much. The Democrats postured about it as long as it couldn't pass. Now the PACs and corporate interests finally have politicians that are closer to their set of priorities than the Democrats were. The Republicans are not going to offer reforms easily. There's the McCann-Feingold bill, but I would be surprised if that got anywhere.
We have to build the movement at the states. Seventeen states have alliances of groups working on state-level campaign finance reform. We're going to have our first national meeting of state campaign finance reform in November in Baltimore. Most states will be represented.
At this point state governments are where the opportunities are. It is a much more accessible level of government, and until we build a massive grassroots constituency, we won't see national change.
Sojourners: You seem to see a direct link between your work and the civil rights movement.
MacDowell: Gwen Patton, a longtime civil rights activist from Montgomery, Alabama, puts it this way: Campaign finance reform is part of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. It doesn't help to win the right to vote if, in the end, we don't have anyone to vote for. The candidates are bought and paid for by someone else, and not accountable anymore. That is far too real right now.
Sojourners: How does racial politics play out in this effort?
MacDowell: We have to find much better ways to involve the grassroots black community and the black church. We must have transformation. The argument must change from an abstract good-government issue with complex formulas for reform to an issue that is about democracy and the way public resources and politicians respond to people and affect their environment, pocketbooks, schools, roads, safety, health, and quality of life. When that translation is made, a whole lot more people are going to be interested.
These are the fundamental issues this country is supposed to be about. Fighting to get our government back from the vested interests is a patriotic fight. It has fundamental meaning for who we are as a country and what our basic values are.
Sojourners: What is the tie between political and economic inequality?
MacDowell: Everything. The presidential candidates, including Bill Clinton, are seeming to ignore basic issues important to a large part of the electorate-job training, education, the stagnant wage level, the decreasing standard of living, foreign competition-because they are bought by campaign money to have predictable policies on these issues.
Sojourners: How do you maintain your optimism in the face of these realities?
MacDowell: The road to change will be long and hard, partly because of the total collapse of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party lost its populist base and as a result it sold out to vested interests. We've got a vacuum that has more Right thinking and Right energy than progressive energy and analysis. That can be a creative vacuum, but it will require a fundamental transformation of American politics to get money out of it and restore a functioning democracy.
Every tendency is against us right now: The centralizing of the corporations, the domination of the mass media, the atomization of our private lives, the tremendous resources available to manipulate campaigns. These factors are not going away soon.
On the other hand, we are beginning to organize and talk about how we can build something new. We want to bring back our democratic heritage, not just blame big government.