Building a Citizen Politics

Paul Wellstone

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Remembering Paul Wellstone
We mourn the passing of Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila. Americans have lost a principled voice that never shied away from speaking truth to power. Progressives have lost one of their finest national leaders. In These Times has lost a friend, a charter subscriber, and a constant supporter. Our thoughts are with his sons, David and Mark, as well as the friends and families of the others lost in this tragic accident. 
As a tribute, In These Times would like to share with our readers the following essay, which Paul Wellstone wrote for the magazine in June 1998.

Everywhere I go, I hear people say, We are concerned about how to earn a decent living and how to give our children the care we know they need and deserve.” If you think about all of the issues that we talk about-from welfare reform and reducing poverty, to stabilizing the middle class and how we perform in an international economy, to how we can do well in the next century-over and over again, we come back to a focus on a good education, good health care and a good job. Those are issues that are important to the vast majority of people in this country. 

I’ve said in Minnesota and around the country that I would take a citizen politics over money politics any day. We will build that citizen politics, and that is how we can win elections. It is one thing to focus on these economic issues, which are so important to people’s lives, but they just don’t hear, they just don’t see the conviction behind it, they just don’t know whether it’s for real. People don’t organize unless there’s something to organize for. The question is not to be better at communicating, it’s to have an agenda that’s worth communicating. 

There are a whole lot of people who know that we ought to have elections and not auctions. It’s an interesting coalition that believes you have to get money out of politics. I’ve been in people’s living rooms where you’ve got a woman who says, I’m here because the big corporations dominate politics.” And then in the same room, you’ve got a CEO who says, I’m here because I’m tired of being shaken down and getting 14 calls a day.” This interesting coalition forces progressives to talk to a lot of people with whom we don’t necessarily agree and to build coalitions. That’s really important. 

The policy work and the intellectual work and the ideas that people in Washington work on are important too, but we can’t just make the fight in Washington. We have to galvanize people around the country. We have to get people organized, speaking for themselves and advocating for themselves. We have to build that grassroots politics again. 

Pushing this economic agenda and this reform agenda forward is one thing. Beyond that, I’m saying to a lot of people in the country (not necessarily even middle-income people, just American citizens): You know what? You don’t like a special-interest politics? You think when it comes to concerns for yourself, your loved ones, your family, your community, that those concerns aren’t of concern in Washington? Well, you shouldn’t be surprised because, the truth of the matter is, the greatest ally of special-interest politics is not the parties and not Congress-it’s when people don’t register, don’t vote, don’t organize and when people don’t get involved in public affairs. 

You can’t check out when it comes to your citizenship. You have to be part of this. You have to speak up. We’re going to need you to move our country forward on an agenda of reform, opportunities, education, good jobs, decent wages, health care and building communities-making the United States of America all it can be going into the next century. That’s our politics, and we can win on it.

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