Mike Gravel is a former Democratic United States Senator from Alaska, who served two terms from 1969 to 1981, and a former candidate in the 2008 presidential election. He is chiefly known for his efforts in ending the draft following the Vietnam War and for putting the Pentagon Papers into the public record in 1971.
Born in 1930 to immigrant parents in Massachusetts, Gravel enlisted in the Army in 1951 and served in West Germany. A self-stated dyslexic, Gravel was educated at Columbia University%u2019s School of General Studies in New York, where he drove a taxi to support himself. Gravel's first steps into politics were in the Alaska House of Representatives, before he won his party's nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1968. During the 1980s, after Gravel lost his senate seat, he worked as a real estate developer, consultant and stockbroker.
Gravel is a strong supporter of direct democracy, and specifically, the National Initiative, which refers to proposals to allow for ballot initiatives at the federal level.
Question: What sets the American political system apart from that of other countries?
Mike Gravel: U.S. politics is no different than the politics of any other representative government in the world. You have to appreciate that all of what we call democracies in the world are all representative governments. They’re not democracies in the true sense of the world.
There is only one that approximates what we call democracy, and that’s of course Switzerland, where they have a partnership between their people, who have the power to make laws, and their elected officials. That’s the only one.
Now, we have other areas of the world where people, not at the national level, but at a state and local level, where the people can make laws by initiative, but with very imperfect procedures: in 24 states in the United States, in Germany, in Uruguay, and various other areas. This is a normal confusion about lawmaking. You hear it very often, initiative and referendum. Now bear in mind that any legislative body can refer a legislative decision to the people, and that’s called a referendum, or, in Europe, it’s very much plebiscite. However, the people, when something is referred to them, all they could do is vote yes or no. They don’t make the decision on the content of what is being referred to them. It’s a little bit like a school bond issue—all you can do is vote for yes or no.
With respect to an initiative, the people can initiate the content of the legislative proposal and thereby present it to the balance of the constituency for an affirmative or a negative vote. So it’s a very important distinction to make between the initiative process and the referendum process, but it’s very much of a confusion.
People always think in terms of referendum, when really what they are probably meaning to say is initiative process, and that confusion is perpetuated by, of course, the people in the government, because they want to keep people ignorant about the potential power of the initiative process.
People realize that, if they had the initiative process, they’ve got real serious power, because they could initiate legislation—which is a far cry from just waiting for the powers to be to place before the people a yes or no vote on legislation—which is rarely done.
In fact, in the United States, we have never been offered the opportunity to vote on a constitutional change, and we’ve had 27 amendments to our constitution—not once have the people voted on a change in our constitution.
Question: How can citizens push for change within the confines of America’s political system?
Mike Gravel: All I can do is just throw my hands up in the air and say, “There is an answer, but it’s not going to come about, because the powers that be in this country won’t let the American people, and the American people had been dragged into accepting the authority of the elite.”
The answer lies with the people. The people are smarter than their leaders, and the people don’t even know this, most of the people don’t accept this.
But then, when you go to a place like South Korea—that’s the reason I’m over there—and their constitution, and I’ll tell you this is as a patriotic American, is very much better than ours. Remember I was telling you a moment ago that we have never voted on an amendment to our constitution? They’ve had eight amendments to their constitution and people had voted on all of them.
You cannot amend the South Korean Constitution without the people making the amendment. You can’t. Isn’t that interesting information? And, a South Korean citizen is registered for life to vote. In the United States, you’re not registered for life. Move across the street from one district to the other and you got to re-register again. Most people don’t appreciate that our process is designed categorically to make it difficult for you to participate in government. Every politician is, “Oh, we want you to participate.” It’s a joke. That’s not the way it’s designed.
When I run for office, I want my people to turn out. I don’t want my opponent’s people to turn out. So when I have power, I sabotage the opponent’s process. This is the competition between the parties; it’s representative government. The answers will not be found within the context of representative government. They can only be found within the context of the people. There are two venues for change, the government—wherein the problem lies—and the people.
Question: Can you summarize the section in your book that describes the creation of the American Constitution?
Mike Gravel: Well, I’ve got several books out there. The one that’s a polemic is called Citizen Power and that’s self-published. You can get them on Amazon or you can write me at email@example.com and I’ll be happy to send you a book, 15, 17, 20 dollars whatever, and I will inscribe it for you.
It’s a polemic that deals with issues that I care about. But chapter two deals with the National Initiative for Democracy, which is really the most important thing that I think I’m putting forth.
Chapter 12, which is entitled “Who Stole the American Dream?”—that’s new scholarship where I developed what happened really in Philadelphia in 1787. Our framers, not the founders, the framers of the constitution wrote a constitution that was designed to recreate the government at the time the confederation was failing apart, and the people who were more damaged by that, of course, were the elites and the property owners.
So they wrote a constitution that essentially was an attempt to protect the interests of the elites, and the main interest of a good portion of those elites was slavery, so they had to device a methodology of getting it ratified not by the people—because they knew that the people will not buy into slavery, because they saw what happened in 1778, when the people of Massachusetts refused to ratify the constitutional message that included slavery. Then people did ratify it in 1780—the Constitution of Massachusetts—when it took out slavery.
So they knew that if they left it, which they did—they had slavery locked in to the constitution—they well knew that if they let the people directly ratify the constitution, that people will not accept our constitution as it was designed, because the people would not accept slavery, even in the Deep South. Keep in mind that slavery was for the minority, the planters of the Deep South, not the ordinary people in the South who actually were in competition to the slave economy.
So what they did is, and this is Madison’s artifice, he developed this idea of having the conventions of nine states. When they approved this, this article seven, which is two lines, that said when the conventions of nine states ratified this it will become the law of those nine states.
Well, who’s going to these conventions? The people that were in the convention in Philadelphia were the elites of these various states who were controlling the polity of those states, they are going to go to those conventions. So basically the ordinary people were not involved at all in the ratification process. And so those nine states ratified.
What’s the interesting phenomenon is that this was an illegal process at that time, because the confederation constitution said that you could only have changes if they were unanimously agreed to. But since they all recognized that the government was falling apart, the opposition just melted away and accepted this article nine ratification procedure.
So what happened was it became a self-actuating process where, because it was ratified, it made it legal. A very interesting legal procedure was put in motion, which I am now using as I am going forward in trying to get the ratification of the National Initiative for Democracy in the United States [www.ni4d.us], using the same procedure, the same precedent, for doing the same thing as South Korea.
Recorded on: July 1 2009.