Big Think Interview with Mike Gravel
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 reregister 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 the 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 the 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 9 states ratified thism it will become the law of those 9 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 9 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, using the same procedure, the same precedent, for doing the same thing as South Korea.
Question: What political party do you identify with?
Mike Gravel: If truth be told, I don’t wear political party partisanship very well. When I was in the Senate, I was a maverick.
The Democrats didn’t like me any more than Republicans like me. I left the Democratic Party. Well, let’s say, I think the Democrats pushed me out—they didn’t want me in the debates. And so it really was General Electric that pushed me out the debate in late September of ’07, five months before the first primary. That was a Democratic Party sanctioned debate, so literally the leadership of the Democratic party had to buy in to the decision.
Now, people say, “You know this was an MSNBC debate, now how dare you attack General Electric?” Well, it was an interesting thing that occurred. A friend of mine who was in New Delhi, India wrote an email to General Electric saying, “How dare you cut Senator Gravel out of the debate? He’d won a couple of debates.” Most people didn’t realize I was getting some traction, and a lot of people were saying, “Well, this guy is interesting. He’s telling the truth.” I was destabilizing the system of elites in our society, and so the PR person for General Electric—who should have sent the email to MSNBC—he sent an email back to New Delhi telling the guy, “Well, Senator Gravel does not meet our criteria.”
Now, isn’t it interesting that I did not meet the criteria of General Electric, one of the nation’s largest military industrial contractors. I did not meet their criteria, and of course the other networks wanted me out of the picture anyway, so they did it. From then forward, I was no longer part of mainstream media. I was made a nonperson.
What’s an interesting phenomenon is that the other candidates, all the other Democratic candidates—it’s a little bit like the politburo under [Joseph] Stalin. This politburo member disappears and at the next membership the politburo, nobody makes mention of the fact that this guy is gone. Nobody makes mention of the fact that Mike Gravel is no longer in the debates, like he didn’t exist. This is a very interesting process. I jumped all over Kucinich. I jumped all over [Joe] Biden. You’re going to be next. And of course they all dwindled down.
It says something about these people’s attitudes towards Democracy. Well, what are they afraid of? I was obviously challenging very aggressively what was going on in these debates. I was saying, “Why do we have to have a war on drugs? It makes no sense at all. There’s no evidence that this is working. Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol. It’s not working for drugs, and yet we continue to spend millions and millions of dollars,” at the Howard University debate, which is the one that I won.
How did I know? Because they took a poll at Howard University and I won it. I was trying to give some cover for Obama and others so they would feel a little free to take some positions.
What did Obama do the first thing he is president? He appoints a drug czar; so it continues this unbelievable tragedy that’s going on in the inner cities. Who’s damaged most by the drug war? It’s the blacks in the inner city that we load up in our prisons.
I can go on from there, but this is the tragedy of what went on in these debates. It was the same old, same old—and one of the things I kept saying in the course of these debates, “Follow the money and you’ll see the government you are going to get.” And that’s the government we’re getting. It’s what’s paid for the election process.
Question: Are you glad that Barack Obama was elected President?
Mike Gravel: I’m delighted. I was ecstatic when Barack Obama became president. Like anybody else, I was just proud that he became president.
I was very happy when Nancy Pelosi became speaker, but she’s no different than any other speaker we’ve had. She’s part of the military industrial complex, Barack Obama is part of the military industrial complex, part of American imperialism, part of American triumphalism. It’s very sad, he’s very bright, and I’ll point out to you that Barack Obama may go down in American history for his accomplishment of becoming president, not being president, because he hasn’t really demonstrated to me that he has done anything unusual as being president. If he keeps on, he is not going to do anything unusual being president. It’s going to be the same old, same old—only more gracefully, more velvety, more pleasingly packaged.
That’s not change, and fundamental change is not on the horizon within the context of Representative Government. If you want to begin to see and assess how it will come about, first off you must understand that the powers that be—the money that bought the campaign, the elites that control the government—not only control the executive, they control the Congress.
Barack Obama doesn’t understand: his problems aren’t abroad. His problems are in the Congress. So those who control the executive also control the Congress, and if they don’t like what he is doing, they’ll play the Congress off against him and vice versa.
Jack Kennedy had a great statement: when the people came up with a good idea, he’d say, “This is a great idea. I wish we could get the government to do it.” The government is very unwieldy.
Recorded on: July 1 2009.
A conversation with the former Alaskan senator.
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