Frances Moore Lappé on Reclaiming Democracy
Described by Smithsonian as a “woman whose words have changed the world,” Frances Moore Lappé is the author or co-author of a total of 19 books about world hunger, living democracy and the environment, beginning with the three million copy Diet for a Small Planet published in 1971. Her latest book, released in fall 2017 with co-author Adam Eichen, is called Daring Democracy. Frances has won numerous awards for her work and is the co-founder of three organizations: Oakland-based think tank Food First, Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund, the latter two of which she founded with her daughter Anna Lappé, whom we’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing! (Listen to Anna’s recent episode here.)
Daring Democracy is an inter-generational book by virtue of the fact that 49 years separate its authors. “Adam and I realized how much we shared despite the gap in age,” says Frances, adding that the book probably would not exist at all if she and Adam had not become friends while marching with Democracy Spring in 2016. The pair quickly discovered that they both “wanted to share with people what [they] were learning about how much unity there is,”—unity among people here in America who have much more in common than they believe. Out of this desire Daring Democracy was born.
“Our market system has been ripped out of any democratic boundaries,” says Frances. She says the top three wealthiest Americans now control more wealth than the bottom half of Americans combined. Frances believes this is because we have accepted materialism, selfishness and competition as the defining characteristics of being human, and ignored our capacity for empathy and cooperation. She cites a study showing that “when humans cooperate, our brains react as if we’re eating chocolate—it’s that pleasurable,” as evidence to the contrary.
How’s that for an endorsement of the cooperative mission and ideal?
To hear more from Frances about reclaiming democracy and what that means for our environment and our society, listen at the link below, or on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and this is kind of a fun interview and one that I’m really looking forward to. And we’ve done this before, and it’s with, I’m sure many of our listeners know, Frances Moore Lappé, who is one of my favorite activists and, I have to say, inspiration as an activist. And Frances Moore Lappé has been described by the Smithsonian—and I love this—as “a woman whose words have changed the world.” And so it’s really quite an honor to have Frankie here today. So welcome, and it’s just so much fun to talk with you again.
FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well, thank you so much, Theresa. What a pleasure, what a great pleasure.
TM: And one of the things that have inspired me to wanting to interview you again is the lovely book that you and Adam Eichen have just published called Daring Democracy. So, a year ago we talked a lot about how food and democracy are together. And now we are looking at a book of Daring Democracy, Frankie, that you wrote with Adam Eichen, who is a millennial, correct?
FML: Yes, 49 years separates our births. So yes, it is an intergenerational book, to say the least.
TM: It is a very special book, and I wondered if you’d start telling our listeners, how’d that come about?
FML: Well, actually it probably would not have come about if it were not for Democracy Spring, because that’s when Adam and I became friends. When you march, you have a lot of time to talk. And unlike my expectations-—I thought, oh, people would have earbuds in and strolling along—no, no, no. Nobody zoned out, everybody talked with everybody. And it was intense because not only did we talk as we walked, but then in the evenings when we were pulling out our sleeping bags on church floors, we kept the talking going. So we learned a lot about each other. And Adam and I realized how much we shared despite the gap in age.
And we had really met first in Mexico City in September of 2015 at the airport in the rain, because we’d plopped into Mexico City. You know that line of Woody Allen, 90 percent of life is showing up? So we showed up at the first Global Conference on Money and Politics, said, “Okay, we’re going to go.” Well, it turns out we were almost the only Americans there, and everybody else was talking about how to improve their systems, but we didn’t have a system to keep money out. So it was challenging.
So we got to know each other there a little bit, but when we really became friends was marching over 100 miles together. And that’s when the book was born—the idea of the book really was born then.
TM: You know, this idea of revisiting why democracy is important, and both of you seem to have come to a conclusion that our democracy is under a deep threat and that there’s a kind of a depression and a lack of empowerment now in America. I know you must find this rather funny that we actually talked before the election last year. And I’d love for you to talk about how you and Adam feel about how democracy is threatened and what’s threatening it.
FML: Well, like so many of us, we were really shocked at the results. And that put us into a very different book mode, much more of a “this is an emergency.” And we actually wrote 60,000 words in three months to get this out as quickly as possible. And we really felt like the message, the two core pieces of the message about democracy that were missing that we had to, had to, had to share was, one, just a clear sense of how we got here. So Trump was no accident, and that there was this long-term, deeply held belief system—I can get back to describing that—that fed into the crisis, but also very deliberate strategies on the part of a few handfuls of billionaires that we hadn’t really understood until we dove into it. And very deliberately—and we are not conspiracy theorists at all—but this is a public record of very deliberate, what we call “Eight Strategies of Highly Effective Billionaires,” that began to infuse…we call it manipulating the mindset and rigging the rules.
So we really had to share that. But most of all, the book is about solutions. I think you referred to the sort of feeling of depression that people had, many people, after the election and were kind of just shocked but kind of deer-in-the-headlights feeling. And so we wanted to share with people what we were learning about how much unity there is. You hear “divided people, divided people,” but actually there’s a lot of unity about what’s broken and the solutions. And you see that unity manifest at some municipal level and state level. And that’s what we wanted to highlight, the way citizens are getting involved, and that portends so, so positively for our future, is people who have never been involved before are getting together on reforms closest to them. And I’d love to speak to a few examples of that.
TM: That is so fantastic. We want you to talk about it. But I’m just wanting to make sure that we kind of all understand the context of… We have this capitalist economy, and is it really our capitalism, our self-centeredness of all of us trying to make as much money as we can under whatever circumstances, that is eroding our democracy?
FML: Well, you just touched on two of the core aspects that we begin with, describing how so much, inherited over centuries, this idea that if you boil us down to our essence that we are just that: self-interested, competitive, acquisitive. And then that whole sense of self that’s been fed to us since Thomas Hobbes but all the way up through Milton Friedman, the economist, and Ronald Reagan, the president, who said government is the problem, meaning that we have to rely on the market, just our self-interest driving us in the marketplace—the supposed “free market.” And so that dim sense of self that distrusts, that leads us to believe there is such a thing as a magical free market, as Ronald Reagan offered to us. And that’s when, in the ’80s, things really began to shift, because that was as we moved toward what we call a “brutal capitalism,” meaning that it’s driven by one rule, essentially—that is, what brings highest return to existing wealth—so no wonder we had this extremely rapid accumulation of wealth at the top. So the last figure I heard is almost unbelievable: three Americans now control more wealth than the bottom half of us. Almost unbelievable.
TM: That’s chilling.
FML: So, what we use is the language of democracy: that our market system has been ripped out of any democratic boundaries, democratic grounding. And markets evolved over eons of time with cultural norms and traditions that kept the market embedded in some values, some shared values. But that’s all been done away with, and we’ve fallen for this nutty idea that human beings are simply material, selfish, competitive, when we argue in the book there’s a tremendous amount of science and anthropology showing that we are wired for cooperation, actually. And that we can be, yes, this caricature of the reductive, self-interested person, but we also have these deeply embedded needs which, of course, cooperatives embody.
I love to share this—I may have shared it last interview—but they’ve done studies with our brains when we’re cooperating and competing, with MRI scans, and the scientists find that when humans cooperate, that our brains react as if we’re eating chocolate. It’s so pleasurable!
But the point is that we are both. We know we are capable of incredible brutality to one another. I don’t have to mention the Holocaust even—we know that’s happening today. And yet we also know we have these incredibly positive qualities—a deep, deep commitment to fairness, a deep sensitivity to fairness, and as we just mentioned, cooperation, which involves empathy. So the question for us in the book and for democracy itself is: Are we creating together the rules and norms that bring out the best in us and keep the worst in us in check?
So that’s really the thesis, that we’ve fallen for this brutal, we’re trapped in this brutal form of capitalism that so concentrates wealth, and of course it’s going to dominate our political system. And we quote an American president in 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said, “The liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to the point that it is stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” So he nailed it, that if you have such concentrated power that it dominates your political system, then you have to use the “f” word. And I resist that except when I’m quoting an American president because it does sound very extreme. But I think when you define it that way, then you can’t avoid the conclusion.
So it’s that sense of the history that this is not inevitable, folks. We’ve fallen for this false idea of ourselves and what we’re capable of. And then we go on to how that has infected and destroys our political process and then sped the whole, what we call the spiral of powerlessness: that the more government then serves the few at the expense of the many, then the more distrustful we are of government and the more we diss government and the more we withdraw and stop voting. And then the spiral intensifies.
TM: You know, we’re talking about this concentrated wealth. And capitalism is, in the free market system, it seems that that’s what it has birthed, this concentration of wealth. And you ask this question and you try to answer, and that is: Is democracy possible?
FML: Well, that’s one of the theme songs of our organization. We actually have a painting by an intern on the wall that says, “It’s not possible to know what’s possible.” And so, our premise here at Small Planet is that we try to hold an ecological worldview, we call it EcoMind, where we understand that change is the only constant, that everything is connected, and therefore we’re all co-creators. And if you really live in the ecological worldview then you know that there are so many things changing moment to moment, and so many people making decisions. Even the decision not to act is contributing to the problem.
So it’s impossible to say with certainty that something is not possible. And so we argue that there is enough evidence around the world, when we give examples of other countries where there’s much fuller, legitimate democracy. For example, today we rank, I believe the last time I looked it was 55th in the world in terms of electoral integrity in their rankings of just honest elections. And yet we know that there are countries in Scandinavia, for example, who are very near the top, who have much more transparency, much less involvement of big money in their elections. And I love to point out that there are eight Eastern European countries, most of which were under the thumb of communism in my lifetime, and yet today they rank higher. They rank superior to us in electoral integrity.
So things can change, even in the darkest… The fact that these new democracies are emerging is incredibly encouraging to me, and how people deal with setbacks. For example—I’ll just give you one example about “it’s not possible to know what’s possible”: that Maine, the State of Maine, was the first in the country to pass what they call “Clean Elections,” meaning that you could run for office if you could get a sort of vote of confidence of 50 people who would give you five dollars, right? And you could then say, “Okay, I’m a candidate and I’m eligible to get some public funding to make my candidacy.” Well, guess what? The polling firms that they approached said, “You know, it wouldn’t be ethical for us to take your money to poll this because it’s not going to pass. It doesn’t have a chance of passing.” And guess what—it passed by 12 percent.
So it’s not possible to know what’s possible. And now two-thirds of the state legislators in Maine have run with public money, not private money. And to do so they’ve had to agree you can’t run unless you agree only to accept very small donations. And so they’ve been able to pass things that I think you and I would love, all of our listeners would love. For example, they passed a law which requires electronics companies—“they” meaning Maine—electronics companies to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products, to accept them back to be recycled instead of being dumped. And it passed after Clean Elections. And the first two years it kept the equivalent of one pound of lead for every citizen in Maine out of the Maine environment. And that sort of thing was resisted, of course, by the industry until the people who were voting—that is, the legislature—didn’t have to answer to corporate interest. So, big changes are possible.
TM: Well, you just gave me another reason to love Maine. So, just to keep thinking about what’s possible, it looks like one of the points that the two of you made was that we all think that we’re in this era now of separate camps here that are in conflict with each other. And you and Adam make a point that maybe that’s not true. Maybe the reason democracy is possible is that maybe we’re a little bit closer in the way we’re thinking about this election than we think. And I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about that.
FML: Yeah, that is so important. And we begin the book with pretty much the obvious, but it seems to get lost, and that is that most of the people who voted for Trump and voted against Trump were voting, really, expressing the same feeling, and that is anger that our system is so rigged by the influence of big money. And the reason we can say that is not just interviews with people that have been done in the media, but that 85 percent of Americans think that we need to really do a major remake of our political campaign funding system, and over 70 percent support the kind of public financing that Maine has already implemented. And a huge portion of us, I believe over 80 percent, believe that the wealthy have too much influence in Washington. So both on the problem and on the solutions, there is a lot of unity—it’s just that most people have no idea that it’s possible.
So we do definitely try to just diminish that sense that somehow there is this absolute wall, that we cannot agree on some basic fundamentals. So it’s very encouraging for me to be able to cite those numbers.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Frances Moore Lappé, and we are discussing a wonderful book that she has co-written with Adam Eichen, Daring Democracy, which is so appropriate for today.
Well, you know, you have very much a callout for creating solutions together. It’s one of your chapters, or your sections. So I’d love it if you could talk a little bit about what are some of the solutions that we have right now to try and get back on the democratic path and to actually expand everyone’s concern about trying to make democracy come alive again for America.
FML: Well, let me just say, just to get people off the despair route, last November when a lot of us were either weeping or just drinking our sorrows away, whatever we were doing, we might have missed something really important—many did: that that very same election that brought in this current administration also, in states across the country, there were, out of 15 democracy reforms, there were 13 that actually passed. And so these are the kinds of things that I’m going to be talking about here.
But one of the democracy reforms that just had a chance to show us what it could do is the city of Seattle in 2015 passed something that offers now to, in certain races, and this hopefully will expand, but offers citizens, each eligible voter gets four $25 vouchers that they then can allocate to whatever candidate they want to elect. And this last election was the first time that it was really tested. And they were delighted that people participated in those—these were citywide elections—in those races then which people could use their vouchers, there were three of them, that the participation by people was something like three times greater participation where they had these vouchers than in the races in which they didn’t; it was the usual bigger funders that weighed in, and a much smaller number of them.
And so you can say, well, that’s kind of a no-brainer because people weren’t using their own money—they were able to access these small contributions from the public purse. Yes, that’s true, but the point is people still had to have the will to get involved and choose who they wanted to support, and undoubtedly felt… If you’ve taken the time to allocate your four vouchers, it means that you’ve had to look a little bit at what people stand for and what are the issues coming up in my community. So I think the ripple effect of this bringing more people in as contributors is powerful—besides just the negative, you know what I’m saying? It’s not just that they’re not dependent on the big fellas. It means that the people who are allocating their vouchers have to use their judgment and therefore would feel more emotionally engaged and the sense that they are real participants in their democracy.
TM: Here in Wisconsin we have the worst voter suppression we’ve ever had. The lowest amount of people came out to vote. And I have personal stories of people who have showed up, they didn’t know about the changes, and didn’t vote.
FML: Yeah, we mention in our book that Wisconsin was one of the worst in the country. It was very distressing to me because I love the state so much!
TM: It is a wonderful state. What other examples do you see where we can bring back people into an engagement, rather than feeling hopeless?
FML: Well, one thing that I think is really underappreciated is felon disenfranchisement—that we are about alone on the global stage. In ten states in the U.S., people who have served their time, paid their debt, may still never get back the right to vote. And can you imagine the assault to one’s sense of self: “Am I really a full citizen? Wait, I paid my dues.” And so, in Virginia, one of the ten states is Virginia, and we tell the story of Terry McAuliffe, the governor there. A year and a half ago he tried to do an executive order to reinstate, to restore the right to people who have served their time. And he was blocked in that, and somehow personally he managed to restore the right to vote, one by one by one, to over 150,000 felons.
Now the state of Florida, citizens have stepped up. It’s called the Second Chance Campaign. And in Florida alone there are 1.6 million people—I’ve seen numbers between 1.5, 1.7, but let’s say 1.6 million people—who are felons, who’ve paid their time and they still cannot vote. So there is a campaign now to change the, I believe it’s to change the Constitution. You can check me on that, but it’s a signature campaign to get it on the ballot, and they have to collect 770,000 signatures. And you know what, Theresa? It looks like they’re going to make it. And this would be huge, because one quarter of all felons who are denied the right to vote are in Florida.
I read one story yesterday about one of these convicted felons, and I believe this one was in Virginia—19 years old when she stole diapers for her newborn son, and she could not vote until she was 53 and Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, gave the right to vote to her. So it’s real. So that’s one piece that we’re excited about.
And another is automatic voter registration. And that sounds kind of wonky, but automatic voter registration just means it just makes it easier for people. And guess who are most strapped for time? They’re poor people, right? And guess who’s more concentrated in the poor category? People of color. And so you are making it harder for people in a very certain demographic to vote. And so automatic voter registration relieves some of the time pressure because what it means is that if you have any interactions, say, with DMV or in some cases other government departments, automatically you are registered.
And when Oregon passed that reform—the first in the country—in 2015, for the first two or three months there was a tripling of registrations compared to earlier years. Oregon showed us the way. There are now ten states with automatic voter registration plus Washington, D.C. And Massachusetts, now my new home state, we are hoping to pass this year.
TM: Just a reminder to our listeners, Daring Democracy, by Frances Moore Lappé and Adam Eichen, who is a very young man. How can youth feel empowered and feel like there really is something for them to do here to create change?
FML: We begin our book saying that it is not the magnitude of a challenge that crushes the human spirit, because when we can feel useful, when we can feel that we can do something, we step up. In other words, it’s not the magnitude—it’s only feeling futile that really does in our spirit. So what is so beautiful now is young people are finding places, for example, finding ways. Like the youth were the leaders of Democracy Spring that Adam and I marched in for democracy reforms. And Adam came up through, in college, being a leader at Vassar of a group called Democracy Matters, which is a campus network now at about 45 campuses of students working for democracy reforms. The students choose what issues they want to work on, but they can get a small stipend to help give them a little time to do that.
And they said at their last annual gathering—they always ask, “How many of you young people,” from all these different campuses, “how many of you would consider running for office?” And often a smattering, they say, will raise their hand. But this last year, when they asked that question, half the young people raised their hand that they are interested in running for office, and that somebody even already filed papers. So, that is so encouraging.
And what I love, being an elder, is that the young people today don’t have the attitude that we did in the ’60s—you know, that attitude that we knew it all. And I’ve felt at every step, literal and figurative, that I’ve been partnerswith young people, not seen as, “Well, you guys had your time, now it’s our time.” No, we are in this together and we all need to be showing up arm-in-arm. That, I find so encouraging.
So I feel like something is really happening. And so that’s why we’re starting something online for people to find their place, find their excitement, find “the thrill of democracy,” we call it. It’s called Field Guide to the Democracy Movement, and it’s still a work in progress. We’re going to make it more and more exciting so you can actually find what’s happening locally. Right now, already, there’s a map there you can hover over and find what’s happening in your state. But to really, really make this the hub, the one place you can go and find out the most exciting campaigns and get friends together with you and participate. So that’s another thing that I think will be really helpful to young people right now—to have one place where they can go and find, what are the key things I need to know, and where’s the action happening, and what do they need from me?
TM: Something to look forward to: Field Guide to Democracy. It sounds like really needed. And once again, Daring Democracy is so full of examples of how we are and can build our democracy back again for America. So thank you so much.
FML: Thank you so much, Theresa, what a pleasure.
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