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Disability Rights and Democracy

Author: Matthew Rothschild

Matt Rothschild gave this talk at the Democracy and Citizen Engagement Conference, sponsored by the DD Network (a Partner in the global Citizen Network) in Madison June 20, 2017.

First of all, I’m honored to be with all of you who have done so much on the issue of disability rights for decades. And I’m honored to be on the same roster as Simon Duffy and Tom Kohler, whom I was delighted to meet yesterday afternoon.

I also want to thank Marcie Brost for inviting me here, for educating me on the issues, and for encouraging me and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to wrap our arms around the issue of disability and to see it as the democracy issue that it is.

And I want to thank Marcie for introducing me to John O’Brien when he was in town a year ago. He graciously spent more than an hour of his time laying out some of the issues that relate to the topic at hand. He was very informative, and very helpful, as you can imagine.

What I’d like to do in the time I’ve got is to:

  • Tell you a little bit about the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
  • Talk about the problem of money in politics in Wisconsin and around the country.
  • Put the disability rights issue into the larger context of the ideological assault that we’ve been facing on clean and open government, the common good, and democracy itself.
  • Tell you why the democracy movement needs to embrace the disability movement and why the disability movement needs to embrace the democracy movement.

So, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has been around for 22 years. We’re a watchdog on the issue of money in politics. We have a user-friendly public database on more than one million donations to candidates for state offices here, and to the spending by the special interest groups that are increasingly dominating our politics and splattering our screens with mud.

We also campaign at the grassroots and lobby at the state Capitol for campaign finance reform and for clean and open government, where everyone has an equal voice.

And so we’ve been helping to push the effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Citizens United Decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 that allows corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to endorse candidates they like and trash those they don’t like. But it’s not just the Citizens United decision that’s the problem. There’s a whole edifice of bad Supreme Court decisions going back to 1886 in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which introduced the bizarre concept that corporations are persons. And then in 1976, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that money equals speech. These two falsehoods are at the core of the problem.

Fortunately, in 105 communities across Wisconsin, people have voted by overwhelming margins that they want to see this amendment pass, an amendment that proclaims, finally, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech. The group behind this is called Wisconsin United to Amend, and Richard Russell is here from that group if you want more information about it.

We’re also pushing the effort to ban gerrymandering or what I like to call map rigging, and so we back the plaintiffs in the court case that is at the US Supreme Court right now, and we back the Iowa model of nonpartisan redistricting. For the past 35 years, the district maps in Iowa have been successfully drawn by career civil servants with specific criteria so they cannot be designed to favor either party. If they can do it in Iowa, we can do it here in Wisconsin.

And we’re also pushing to change the horrible rewriting of our campaign finance law in 2015, which, for the first time in 100 years allows corporations to donate to political parties and legislative campaign committees. It also doubles the amount that rich people can give to their favorite candidate. That limit, for governor, used to be $10,000 – and who among us has that kind of money? Now the limit is $20,000.

They’ve turned politics into a playground for the superrich and the corporations, and it’s virtually fenced off to the rest of us. As a consequence, the voices of average citizens are totally muffled. And the voices of small progressive nonprofits don’t matter, either.

I’ll give you an example.

Here in Wisconsin, the big insurance companies and the big health care companies throw their money around. For instance, from 2009-2015, UnitedHealthCare of Wisconsin’s PAC gave $21,000 to candidates, and in 2015 alone spent $124,000 on lobbying.

  • From 2011- 2014, Humana’s PAC and employees gave around $60,000 to candidates
  • Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield’s PAC and employees: $29,000
  • Managed Health Services: $29,000
  • Delta Dental: $14,000
  • Molina: $7,000

Is it any wonder, then, that managed care is prevailing? The health care companies are getting their way. They’ve bought their politicians and they’ve purchased their public policy. And they are fast turning citizens who have disabilities into mere consumers, who have no say about their care, much less no self-direction of that care.

The problem of money in politics is not just a Wisconsin problem. It’s a national problem.

As Jimmy Carter said:

 “We’ve become an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”

Do you know what the percentage of the U.S. population gives $200 or more to political candidates? That’s 0.5 percent.

Do you know the percentage that gives $2,700—which is the maximum you can give to your favorite candidate for President? That’s 0.08 percent.

By the way, isn’t it crazy that rich people can give $20,000 for governor in Wisconsin but $2,700 for President? That’s how out of whack things are in Wisconsin these days.

And I know some people might say there are rich liberals and there are rich conservatives. But democracy should not be a tug of war between a couple billionaire rightwingers on one side and a couple billionaire leftwingers on the other. In a democracy, we all should have an equal tug on the rope.

Obviously, we don’t. Nor do we have an equal say when it comes to the policies our government enacts.

Two years ago, two political science professors, one from Princeton and the other from Northwestern (Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page) studied 1,779 national policy issues between 1981 and 2002 and what they found was startling: 

“It makes very little difference what the general public thinks… They have little or no independent influence on policy at all. …In our findings, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”

In fact, the only time the vast majority of the public got what it wanted is when the top 1 percent and the business class also wanted the very same thing.

That should be a stunning or shocking conclusion since it goes against everything we’re taught in seventh grade civics class or high school social studies.

But there you have it. We don’t have a functioning democracy in America.

The billionaire class, as Bernie Sanders likes to say, is running the show.

How are they getting away with it?

One way is by spinning three dominant fallacies.

One of these fallacies is the motto that everything private is good, and everything public is bad.

Another fallacy, articulated by Ronald Reagan and regurgitated by Donald Trump, is that government is the problem, not the solution.

And the third fallacy is that of the rugged individual, and the assumption that we all should be out there on our own, and that if we can’t make it alone, it’s our fault.

In this parched worldview, there is no place for the common good, no sense of community, and no sense that we, as fellow citizens of a democracy, have any obligation whatsoever to each other.

And so today, we have a country run now by a President who makes fun of a person with a disability.

And so today, we have a Speaker of the House, a local boy, whose philosophical hero is Ayn Rand. Paul Ryan actually has had a practice of giving all his staff and interns copies of Atlas Shrugged. You should know that Ayn Rand, the high princess of libertarianism, despised persons with disabilities and called them “subnormal” and wanted no government assistance for them. I YouTubed a clip of her on the subject the other day: it’s chilling. If you want your stomach to turn, check it out yourself.

Taking a page from Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan now wants to cut $880 billion out of Medicaid over the next decade and put a cap on federal funding of Medicaid in the future instead of keeping its guarantee of 60 percent federal matching funds. Lest we forget, and I don’t need to tell you, people with disabilities receive 42 percent of Medicaid spending programs. Medicaid covers more than 3 in 10 non-elderly adults with disabilities. These brutal cuts to Medicaid will be borne disproportionately by people with disabilities.

Here in Wisconsin, 1.2 million people are on Medicaid, many of them people with disabilities. Other changes to the Affordable Care Act, such as not covering vital services and the loophole that will allow insurance companies to price out people with preexisting conditions, are all threats.

Speaking of libertarians, the Koch Brothers are some of the biggest players in the dark money business. Last election season, they vowed to spend almost $900 million. Not incidentally, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, and the platform of the Libertarian Party called for the elimination of Medicare and Medicaid.

If you want your stomach to turn over again, Google the Libertarian Party platform from 1980 and see how much of it has been adopted by the Republican Party.

We’re in the midst of a counter-revolution, here in Wisconsin and across the country, a counter-revolution that is profoundly anti-democratic.

We need our democracy to work for so many reasons—to prevent war, to protect our environment, to get paid a living wage, to have decent health care that can’t be taken away, to provide decent schools for our kids, and not least, so that we can make sure that persons with disabilities can lead a dignified life and live where they want to live, work where they can work, and participate as equal citizens.

In a Rawlsian democracy, that’s what we’d have.

But we’re far from it today.

On the most obvious level, at the level of voting, here in Wisconsin, the Voter ID law has had an adverse effect on persons with disabilities. We have a government that is actually making it harder, not easier, for people to vote here, and one of the groups most affected by this is the disability community.

That’s one way the disability issue and the democracy issue connects.

But it’s by no means the only one. I already mentioned the issue of Medicaid funding and health care. The private sector stands to benefit if it can impose caps or toss people off with preexisting conditions, but Americans of every stripe, including persons with disabilities, will suffer.

The issue of regulation is another. If the corporate sector succeeds in destroying government as a watchdog, who is going to be left to see that health care providers or nursing homes, for that matter, are doing their job and not ripping people off or providing substandard or horrendous care?

The issue of a living wage is yet another. Home health care providers, who care for our loved ones, are being paid a pittance these days. They deserve better, and if they’re paid more, there would be less turnover in this field. The turnover rate, by the way, is a stunning 60 percent a year.

At the fundamental level, being pro-democracy means being pro-human beings and pro-community. It means seeing every person as innately valuable, and it means defending the rights and worth of every person, and not seeing people as consumers, or mere factors of production, or mere users of social services.

Fundamentally, we share a worldview. And that’s why we need to work together.

So what do we need to do to do?

First, we need to refute the fallacies and challenge the worldview of those who are imposing these policies.

It is simply not true that everything public is bad, and everything private is good.

We like our public parks and our public libraries and our public accommodations and our national wildlife refuges. We like Yellowstone and Yosemite and Niagara Falls. And here in Wisconsin we like Wyalusing State Park and Peninsula State Park and Devil’s Lake and Horicon.

We like our public schools, and wish they’d be fully funded and not sucked dry by the private school voucher crowd.

It is simply not true that the government is the problem, not the solution. Government is what protects the public good. Government is what stands in the way of a corporation polluting the lakes here or poisoning us as consumers. We are supposed to believe in democracy in this country, and government is where democracy lives. It doesn’t live in the private sector. There people are working from 9 to 5 or 9 to 6 in virtual dictatorships. And here in Dane County, we’ve seen a model of how government can work to enrich the lives of people with disabilities and to involve them in self-directed care.

And it is simply not true, for most of us, that we can be that rugged individual and make it on our own, and we shouldn’t fault ourselves when we can’t.

The libertarian fallacy actually leaves the individual ever more at the not-so-tender mercy of the big corporation, with no leverage over your wage, no control over your working conditions, and no place to go when your land is trashed or your water supply is contaminated.

Fundamentally, the “Don’t tread on me” slogan—or in the modern vernacular, “Leave me the F alone” – offers a very pinched definition, and a totally negative definition, of what freedom means. Yes, freedom means being left alone to do as we choose when we want to be alone, so long as we’re not infringing on other people’s freedoms or rights.

But freedom also means a decent place to live. You are not free when you are homeless. You are not free when you’re forced out of your own home.

Freedom also means having enough money to eat. You are not free when you are hungry.

Freedom also means having a decent job that not only provides income but some sense of self-worth.

Freedom also means having decent health care. You are not free if you get ill and you can’t afford to get adequate treatment.

So we must clear the air of these fallacies.

But that’s only the first step.

We also must, constantly, engage in civic activism, together.

And not just for the rights of people with disabilities.

But also for clean and open government, for the common good, for democracy.

We in the pro-democracy, progressive nonprofit sector are increasingly working together across issues. I’m now the chairman of the board of Wisconsin Voices, an umbrella organization of three dozen progressive nonprofits.

We need to link up with you in the disability rights movement, and you, I dare say, need to link up with us. Because we are much stronger together than when we fight in an isolated way.

Here’s an unfortunate example, if I might, of a problem I encountered almost two years ago.

I was pulling together a joint press conference for National Voter Registration Day, and I emailed a prominent disability rights group to invite them to join with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the NAACP, the Urban League, and Centro Hispano.

But the disability group was nervous. Here’s the email I got back:

“Can you give more of a sense of the agenda and potential talking points/direction to any event speakers? …We would be concerned if there is any partisan messaging at the event.”

I tried to reassure the group, but to no avail.

And this was on the most vanilla of issues: voting rights, for god’s sake.

Forgive me if I’m being rude, but look: you’re not going to win this way. You’re not going to win by being super nice to those in power, or by tugging at their heartstrings.

Because they’re heartless!

Corporations, by definition, have no heart.

And the current crop of leaders, in this state and in this country, are really callous people.

These aren’t Bob Dole Republicans. They’re not Tommy Thompson Republicans.

As Bernie Sanders told us, the billionaire class, and the politicians they pay for, they want it all, and they’re grabbing it all right now as fast as they can.

No matter the cost to human beings.

No matter the cost to our environment.

No matter the cost to our democracy.

My friends, we need to come together, to see the commonalities of our issues, and to fight together for our vision of the better society.

Together, and only together, are we going to succeed in bringing about a more humane and a more democratic state and country.

Find out more about Matt's work with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign here


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Disability Rights and Democracy © Matthew Rothschild 2017.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.