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The Life Party

Nicholas Johnson

The New Republic

April 10, 1971, pp. 21-23



It is by now commonplace that virtually all American institutions are: under attack, in need of radical change, and slow to respond -- government, corporations, education, unions, media, medicine and so forth. Political parties are no exception. What is not so clear is precisely what's wrong with the political process, and what should be done about it. Because nobody knows, and because we're talking about the future of our country, the more talking we do the better.

In my judgment, what is wrong with government and politics in America is what is wrong with life in America. It's all owned by somebody. Time owns Life. Life ought to be free; free to take its time; free to be.

Now let me make clear that I am not opposed to private property. Free private enterprise and the profit motive -- when permitted to function -- often do a better job of "regulating in the public interest" than governmental agencies. I have spent most of my seven years as a public official trying to bring competitive free private enterprise to the subsidized merchant marine and shipyards, and the monopolized telephone and broadcasting industries. So I'm not about to advocate either universal nationalization or anarchy.

It's like the difference between a couple of strings of morning glories on the back porch, and letting them take over and choke out everything else in the garden. We've permitted corporations to take over too much of life in America. "They took all the trees/And put them in a tree museum/And charged all the people/A dollar and a half just to see them," sings Joni Mitchell. The same guys who are telling us which worthless breakfast cereals and junk automobiles to buy are editing our children's textbooks and censoring our television programs.

It used to be that people needed products to survive. Now products need people to survive. And radio and television -- which Professor Galbraith calls the "prime instruments for the manipulation of consumer demand" -- are doing a lot more for the products than for the people.

We are all working for the corporations -- and paying them to do it. We use ITT's communications equipment to call ahead for an ITT-Avis car to drive us to an ITT-Sheraton hotel to eat ITT-Continental Baking bread. We are all driving for the automobile industry; filling our wardrobes for the fashion industry; filling our stomachs for the chemical additives industry; and filling our heads for the television industry. We have become so used to plastic and glass buildings, aerosol cans, boring jobs, motel decor, muzak and hairsprayed women that we are too numb to notice.

But we do notice, subconsciously, and we rebel. When some of our finest young people started dropping out they were called hippies and freaks and told to bathe. Now that top corporation executives are doing the same, the Wall Street Journal has taken a second, and somewhat more sympathetic look.

Some have stayed in by increasing their consumption of alcohol and tranquilizers -- the accepted drugs. Others have turned to less acceptable chemicals.

Those who don't dig turning on with drugs are trying encounter groups, religion, psychiatry, sex -- everything from astrology to zen. People are looking at their lives and asking, in the words of the popular song, "Is that all there is?" There must be more to life than commuting to boring jobs, in junky automobiles, through polluted air, listening to radio commercials, at slower speeds than our great grandparents used to drive a carriage along dusty farm roads. But everywhere we start to dig we run into more of those damn morning-glory roots.

When we turn to the government for help we may or may not get a friendly ear and a sympathetic speech. But we are unlikely to get results. And ultimately we read some muckraker's account of the government's paying out millions of our tax dollars in subsidy to encourage the morning-glory root growers.

It's not just that the people don't like what their government's doing and want to change it. That's to be expected in a democracy. The dangerous thing is the extent to which people are turned off to government. The troublesome polls are not those that tell us half the American people think Nixon's doing a bad job as President. Nixon has brought us together -- in spite of Agnew. Hardhats, students and farmers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Des Moines recently -- protesting the President's policies. No, the alarming polls are those that report the growing number of Americans who believe themselves totally alienated from the mainstream of American society. Even those who support the two major parties have little enthusiasm for them -- as the 1970 elections demonstrated. There is, today, none of the spirit that a Roosevelt, Kennedy -- or even a human President like Truman -- could bring forth from the people.

The enthusiasm is for individuals; almost any individuals. There was a common thread through much of the support for Senator Barry Goldwater, Governor George Wallace, Senator Eugene McCarthy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. They were all individuals, courageous and outspoken -- and largely outside the system.

People know what's wrong. Listen to the taxidrivers, the waitresses, the filling station attendants, the factory workers. They can speak with considerable eloquence about corporate and other institutional pressures. They see through a politician whose solution to inflation is to slash away at appropriations for education -- the same week he urges billion-dollar weapon systems. They've tried to fish in the polluted streams. They've had to return the defective and over-priced goods.

I don't mean to detract from the age-old issues: we must stop the bloodbath in Southeast Asia. We must substantially increase spending for the obvious domestic needs -- poverty, employment, education, housing, environmental control, medical services, hunger and so forth. We must recognize the rights of all our "minority groups" -- the 104 million women, 20 million over 65, 20 million under five, blue-collar workers -- not just Blacks, Chicanos, and Indians. None of this can be accomplished without making corporations more responsive to all of us -- consumers, employees and shareholders. All of it would be aided by meaningful decentralization -- "participatory democracy."

But I think Americans are looking for much more. First, they want to be "turned on" to themselves; to attain more of the ultimate they possess to be fully human. That single goal pervades a great deal of the highly disparate kinds of searching we are witnessing today. They seek a moral purpose to life, a vision, idealism, truth, love, excitement. Second, they want a return to old values -- not of their parents, but of their grandparents. All about us -- in furniture, clothes, entertainment, the return to nature -- we see the nostalgic looking backward to a simpler life. They are rejecting the very corporate life style being sold by the major corporate contributors to both parties. And I think any party, or candidate, who fails to recognize this will have little political influence in the 1970s

One starting text that serves both these needs is the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson understood what many Americans -- young and old -- are saying today: "All men . . . are endowed . . . with certain unalienable Rights. . . . Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. . . ." That's pretty heavy. And pretty far from what government's all about today.

What's the government doing about life? About the babies who die in sufficient numbers to make us thirteenth in the world in infant mortality? About the declining life expectancy for adult males?

This government is not only oblivious to life, it is openly dealing death. To the extent ours is an "Economy of Death" (to borrow Dick Barnett's title) it is largely because the government makes it so. It has proudly killed 600,000 "enemy" Vietnamese since 1965 (at a cost of over $100,000 per kill) -- not to mention 45,000 Americans, and 200,000 "civilian" Vietnamese. College students have been shot by the National Guard on campuses. The President preaches "law and order," and the state moves with a vengeance to punish any black man who kills another. But he looks the other way when the three white men who run the nation's auto companies continue to design and sell automobiles that needlessly kill 60,000 Americans each year.

Liberty. What's the government doing to provide the people with the freedom to be -- the freedom that requires a guaranteed income, good health, food, quality education, and job opportunity with dignity?

The current bumper stickers tell the story: "Legalize Freedom"; "The Majority's Not Silent, The Government is Deaf." But this government is not only deaf to demands for freedom. The government is one of the principal threats to freedom when it discourages peaceful assembly, sends out the Army to spy on civilians, keeps computer files on the citizenry, engages in wiretapping and bugging, and uses the Internal Revenue Service to harrass public interest law firms engaged in self-help efforts to regain some lost freedoms.

And to think of today's government as something originally instituted to insure the people's pursuit of happiness is almost laughable. The American government does less to encourage and support the arts than almost any other civilized nation in the world. Of course, the government cannot create happiness. But it can at least stand out of the way. Vice President Agnew and the FCC are engaged in an all-out effort to censor the music!

The Declaration of Independence was founded on far fewer and less serious grievances than these. It concluded: "Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people . . . Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive . . . it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it . . .. The passage of 200 years has done nothing to lessen the logic of that appeal.

The American people may not be calling for revolution in the classic sense, but they are calling for some straight talk. They don't want the government overthrown, they just want it to stop tapping their telephone. They don't want to declare war on their government, they want it to stop waging undeclared wars on other governments. They don't mind paying taxes, they just don't like taxing the poor to fatten the rich.

The people want something useful to do. They don't want to have to use up their civic pride and energy preventing their government's ill-considered actions -- keeping the Supreme Court free of Carswells and the countryside free of ABMs.
How can the two major parties offer solutions? They are the problem. There is no way to raise millions of dollars from big corporations for a campaign, and elect officials who will represent the people who are manipulated, oppressed and employed by those corporations. There is no way to fashion honest speeches and legislation about pollution that strikes a compromise with the polluters. There is no way to "clear" with the industry appointments to regulatory commissions that will then regulate them.

Television has affected our lives in many ways. It babysits with our children -- in exchange for the right to mold their minds. It shapes our moral values and aesthetic taste, tells us what we should believe, and censors what it thinks we shouldn't know. It controls the time our candidates and officials need to talk over the issues with the electorate.

But the total corporate domination of television -- television entertainment, politics and commercial messages -- is producing a backlash. Every two-year-old child knows that television lies to him. In the course of selling products to America, as Mason Williams has observed, "Big Business has created an America that will no longer buy its products. Their how blew their what." Because politicians in the age of multi-milliondollar campaigns are Just another product, "brought to you by" the largest corporations, people don't believe the politicians either.

Twenty percent of the people who watched Nixon talk to the astronauts during their televised walk on the moon believe the astronauts were never there.

Some political television spots became campaign issues in 1970, and the backlash was measurable.

In short, whether 1972 is the year or not, the time is coming when the American people will no longer buy packaged politicians either.

We're shucking off the hucksters, the guys who put the garbage in the air and in our heads. We're searching for reality. We want human beings, not actors. We want honesty, not hypocrisy. Somebody's going to start telling it straight in this country. Somebody's going to bare his soul, and offer a human being to the American people. Somebody's going to do it at the corporations' expense -- not on their expense accounts. Somebody's going to recognize that politics alone is not enough, that the people want a whole life that includes religion and music as well -- a party of life. And when he does he's going to win.

Who's the somebody? She may be black. And unless there are some radical changes made soon, she's not going to be a Republican or a Democrat.