How to Overthrow the Government by Arianna Huffington - Read Online
How to Overthrow the Government
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Editor’s Note

“An Impassioned Look...”This scathing takedown of the current political ecosystem by outspoken commentator & founder of the widely popular The Huffington Post is a must read for ordinary citizens & pundits alike.
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Powerful and enlightening. How to Overthrow the Government is an impassioned call to arms from one of America's sharpest and most independent commentators. In its pages Huffington breaks away from the party-line platitudes of Republicans and Democrats alike while challenging Amerians to rise up and take back their government. From the power of special interests to the ravages of the war on drugs, Huffington offers radical yet viable strategies for reclaiming our nation from the corporate and political powers that hold it hostage. For, as she argues, if We the People are to preserve and protect our more perfect union, we must stand up and fight for our country -- before it's too late.
Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061952166
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How to Overthrow the Government

Arianna Huffington

To my older daughter, Christina—whose energy and

optimism are an endless source of inspiration

Power never concedes anything without a demand; it never has and it never will.

—Frederick Douglass



A Note on the Paperback


1. A Tale of Two Nations

2. The Rising Tide of Discontent

3. Voting for Dollars

4. The Public Opinion Racket

5. Demolition Derby 2000

6. Two Parties As One

A Case Study in Corruption: The War on Drugs—and the Drug Industry’s War on Us

7. The Quest for Leaders

8. Our Body Politic, Ourselves: Restoring Civil Society

9. The Long March of Campaign Finance Reform

10. Waking Up the Media Watchdogs

11. New Voters’ Rights

12. The Machine to Beat the Machine

Coda: A Call to Action

Appendix A:

A State-by-State Road Map to Reform

Appendix B:

A Call to Action Directory


About the Author



About the Publisher


Between Election Day 2000 and the Supreme Court’s late-night fiat thirty-six days later, the American public was afforded a rare glimpse behind the curtain shrouding our democracy. It was a disquieting sight, revealing, as never before, just how deeply flawed our much vaunted system truly is. Not only was an outrageously large number of African-American votes nullified in Florida, but we learned that more than two million Americans are routinely disenfranchised in presidential elections—their votes, for one reason or another, discarded.

Suddenly the presumption that all is well in this best of all possible worlds was shattered. Far from well, all is not even adequate anymore. The result was to throw into sharp relief not just the voting problems but all the injustices, negligence, and corruption highlighted in this book—first published in the early months of 2000, when the phrase George W. Bush v. Al Gore, much like one man, one vote, still had a ring of innocence to it.

As I argue in these pages, our politics has become a zero-sum game of competing special interests. And when no special interest would benefit from fixing a problem—when fixing it is solely in the public interest, which has all but vanished from the pie chart—there is no organized constituency powerful enough to ensure that it is addressed.

Such turned out to be the case with the 2000 election. Every four years there is a hue and cry about flawed and incompetent voting procedures, and occasionally about the corrosive and largely unexamined problem of voter fraud. But the victors, and thus the press, always move on, while the losers—usually out of money, and suddenly yesterday’s news—retreat to lick their wounds in private. And the citizens who have been disenfranchised as a result of massive systemic negligence are left with no one to champion them.

This election was different because—and only because—the interests of those citizens suddenly coincided with the interests of powerful stakeholders. Team Gore’s efforts to have Florida’s votes counted ensured that Americans can no longer dismiss disenfranchisement as an inevitable imperfection in an otherwise perfect democracy. To be sure, Gore partisans wouldn’t have given it a second thought if Gore had won the Electoral College. But this highly self-interested championing of the public interest created the potential for attention, response, and reform. The consequences of a broken system could not be more clear.

The first chapter of this book is called A Tale of Two Nations. What happened in Florida—and no doubt around the country—was a stark reminder that we are, indeed, two Americas. And not just when it comes to education, health care, housing, and our vaunted prosperity, but even when it comes to voting.

In the precincts of the other America, there were longer lines, more unreliable voting machines, and less access to technology that instantly identified mismarked ballots and gave voters a second chance. So, even when it comes to this most egalitarian of acts, some are more equal than others.

The African-American turnout in Florida was an astounding 65 percent higher in 2000 than in 1996. Unfortunately, many of them needn’t have bothered. The problem was that when many of these freshly registered voters showed up at the polls, they were not on the rolls and thus were not allowed to vote. First-time voter Dedrana McCray was one of them. She arrived at her polling place in Opa-Locka with her valid voter registration card and ID in hand, but was turned away because she was not on the list, and phone lines to the county office that could verify her status were constantly busy.

Too bad McCray hadn’t had the foresight to live in one of the eighteen more affluent precincts in the county equipped by the election commission with laptop computers that allowed officials to tie into the main registration rolls. Even though the powers that be, from Governor Jeb Bush down, knew that the highest number of new registrants were in black districts, the laptops went disproportionately to white or Cuban-American districts. How many African-Americans were turned away for want of a PowerBook? But this kind of unequal protection didn’t seem to concern Justice Scalia too much.

Plunging the presidency into a crisis of legitimacy ended up exposing the illegitimacies that lurk beneath the surface of our orderly, prosperous best of times. And now that Pandora’s ballot box was opened, many other questions of legitimacy—which would have remained papered over if the election had produced an unambiguous winner—sprung forth.

What was stunning, though, was how quickly the entire political establishment, from left to right and right to left, has tried to slam shut this Pandora’s box. Once the white smoke wafted from the Supreme Court’s chimney, the air was quickly filled with hosannas for the strength of our system. Democrats and Republicans fell all over themselves competing to see who could throw out the most bipartisan buzzwords. You couldn’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without being hit with bogus conciliatory catchphrases like unity, wipe the slate clean, reach across party lines, and vital center.

How did we end up with such a tight election at the end of the dullest and least inspiring campaign in recent memory? Many of the answers can be found in the chapters that follow. A money-drenched system, no longer responsive to the people’s needs, left us with a primary process that anointed Bush and Gore as their parties’ standard-bearers before voters in more than thirty states had even had their say. The primary process is now simply a chance for a small minority of the people to ratify the decision that’s already been made by the money. It’s no wonder that three out of four Americans, according to the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard, reached the conclusion that party leaders and large contributors have a larger voice than the voters in the selection of the nominees. Even among those citizens who vote regularly, 60 percent believe that politics in America is pretty disgusting.

Can it really be just a coincidence that the people, given two such inadequate choices, ended up basically selecting neither?

Defining the winner of the presidential race required a recount, but when it comes to who controls Congress, all you need is a calculator to tally up the campaign contributions. In the vast majority of House (94.7 percent) and Senate (82.3 percent) races, the candidate with the biggest war chest won. Maybe we shouldn’t even hold elections—just fund-raising contests. It’s practically what we do anyway. And as we’ve seen, it’s easier to count money than votes.

How to Overthrow the Government documents the irrefutably decisive role that money plays in our politics. Campaign 2000 reached new lows as the money spent hit new highs—with $475 million in soft money and $1.92 billion in hard money doled out in federal races. It’s startling to note that less than one-fourth of 1 percent of Americans actually make a contribution of $200 or more to a candidate for federal office. So much for the vital center. Can elections decided by half the eligible voters—and funded by less than 1 percent of the population—still be considered legitimate?

That is the question this book asks, and answers with a resounding no. During the Florida interregnum we heard political leaders across the ideological spectrum wax lyrical about voting being the basic principle upon which our whole system of self-government is based. But none of them once mentioned the fact that 87 million Americans turned their backs on this basic principle by refusing to cast a ballot—undervoted, overvoted, dimpled, or otherwise—on November 7.

Gore became impassioned on the subject, calling a vote a human voice, a statement of human principle and adding, We must not let those voices be silenced. Never mind that our democracy is so polluted that half our eligible voters have chosen to silence themselves. And those who are not silent on Election Day get drowned out the day after anyway, as the new officeholder begins rewarding the people that got him there—the funders.

Yet the political class—from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee, Florida—blabbered on in denial. There is no voice more powerful than the vote of a citizen, declared Rep. Annie Betancourt—apparently with a straight face—during a session of the Florida legislature. But it’s clear that roughly half of our citizens don’t agree with her. Indeed, recent surveys show that most Americans believe there is no voice more powerful than the check of a big contributor. Money talks; millions of eligible voters have already walked.

While the post-election battle was still raging, our political leaders routinely and solemnly invoked the Constitution, democracy, and the judgment of history. The ironic—and tragic—part of this whole sorry spectacle is that the high-tension, alarmist rhetoric was actually justified: There really is a threat to the future of America’s faith in self-government. The integrity of the Constitution really is in question. But the danger lies not in butterfly ballots and dangling chads, but in a broken system that allows more than two million votes to be blithely discarded—and leaves 87 million potential voters so alienated that they don’t even bother to exercise their sacred right. Those are the real undervotes. It’s not just the vote-counting machines that need repair—it’s the idea that votes matter more than dollars when it comes to determining public policy. Gore desperately hunted for 537 votes when 87 million of them remained unclaimed.

In making the case that the people need to rise and—peacefully but urgently—overthrow a government that no longer serves them, this book addresses three major crises. Two were largely ignored in the campaign, while one was paid lavish—though ultimately empty—lip service. These three issues—poverty in the midst of prosperity, the failed war on drugs, and campaign finance corruption—were also the issues spotlighted last summer at the Shadow Conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

The post-election period shed revealing light on all three. On the issue of poverty and our nation’s growing inequality, a major story in the New York Times in November lamented the results of a survey by America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. There was an 18 percent increase in those needing emergency assistance last year, Second Harvest’s president, Deborah Leff, told me, and we had to turn away a million people. And that’s with a full-employment economy. Millions of Americans with jobs are still going hungry. So I can only shudder at what it’s going to be like when the economy plummets.

The biggest increase in hunger over the last ten years has been among the working poor. Of the 21 million people who sought emergency food assistance in 1999, nearly 40 percent lived in households with at least one working adult, while a stereotype-busting 70 percent of poor families with children included someone who works. In boom-time America, 8.6 million kids live in working-poor families—a one-third increase since 1990.

And, according to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a combination of low wages and increasing rents has made it next to impossible for working families all across the country to afford decent housing. So while our competing presidents-elect were scrounging every courthouse, canvassing board, and ballot for every possible vote, America’s working poor were scrounging to make ends meet. It’s not hard to divine their intent.

On the second issue—the failed war on drugs—the people spoke with an unambiguous voice at the ballot box: they want a ceasefire. On Election Day, voters in five states overwhelmingly passed drug policy reform initiatives, including Proposition 36 in California, which will shift the criminal justice system’s focus from incarceration to treatment. The measure garnered more than 60 percent of the popular vote—7 percent more than Al Gore received in the state, and 18 percent more than George W. Bush. Now that’s a mandate.

And with the margins of victory growing enviably higher on drug-reform initiatives, politicians are beginning to see the writing on the voting booth wall. When Proposition 36 passed despite being solidly opposed by the California political establishment, the response of Governor Gray Davis, who had campaigned against it, was: The people have spoken.

With its shift from high-cost imprisonment to low-cost, high-commonsense treatment, Proposition 36 is estimated to save taxpayers more than $200 million a year—and an additional half-billion dollars by eliminating the need for new prisons. As UC Berkeley professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore pointed out, California has spent more than $5 billion building and expanding more than twenty-three prisons in the past twenty years, while only one new university has been built from the ground up.

Voters in Utah and Oregon, meanwhile, passed by enormous margins—69 and 66 percent, respectively—initiatives designed to make it harder for police to seize the property of suspected drug offenders. Just as significantly, all proceeds from forfeited assets will now be used to fund drug treatment or public education programs instead of to fill the coffers of law enforcement agencies. Both measures were backed by people across the ideological spectrum, from those concerned with property rights to those who care about civil rights, and racial justice.

And in Nevada and Colorado, voters passed initiatives making marijuana legal for medical use—joining Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

In the wake of these results, post-election editorials in papers across the country reflected the public’s radical rethinking of the drug war. Newsweek even devoted its election week cover story to America’s Prison Generation, the 14 million mostly black or Latino Americans who will spend part of their lives behind bars—the huge increase being largely the result of drug war policies. There is a clear shift in the political wind. The only question is how quickly politicians will honor the will of the people.

The third issue, the corrupting influence of money, was also in the news—you just had to look a little harder to find it. Because while the rest of the nation was consumed with the chaos in Florida, back in Washington it was business as usual—with President Clinton signing a new law that gives away more than $60 billion in tax breaks to big-time campaign donors like Boeing and General Electric, each of which contributed $1.5 million in the 2000 election cycle alone. No wonder donations from special-interest groups have increased by 80 percent since 1996—the rate of return is to drool over. Investments in tech stocks may go up and down, but investments in politicians are much more reliable and pay big dividends.

Our post-election odyssey gave us a disturbing look into many of the inequities and disparities of our political system, and into the Lilliputian stature of our political leaders. But across the nation, a reform movement is building. Its leaders are determined to overthrow a system no longer connected with the people. They operate largely beneath the radar of the mainstream media, and they are our best hope if we are to counteract the corrosive forces eating away the foundations of our democracy.

But you can’t cook a meal without heat, and you can’t reform the status quo without the heat of an engaged—and impassioned—citizenry. At the forefront of the civil rights movement were young people who were no longer willing to tolerate a system riddled with injustice. And today, young people—both on college campuses and in our inner cities—are organizing against sweatshops, private prisons, and a two-tiered criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes young men of color. The challenge will be to take the heat generated by the outrages of Election 2000 and use it to fuel a movement that will reclaim for all of us a government of, by, and for the people.


It was a Washington dinner at the home of Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President Bush and a Beltway fixture. The guest list was a conservative who’s who, with Mr. and Mrs. Rush Limbaugh as the guests of honor. Why is she here? Mrs. Limbaugh asked our hosts as I walked in. Rush’s blushing Internet bride apparently was even angrier than her husband that I—who had dared question his compassion in a column—would be allowed to breathe the same air, eat the same food, and drink the same wine as the Brother Teresa of the airwaves. When I was informed of Mrs. Limbaugh’s protective rage, I decided simply to make sure we were not within dinner-roll throwing distance (about twenty-five feet, I estimated) of each other for the rest of the evening.

Is the conservative movement going to be defined by the social Darwinism and carping small-mindedness of Limbaugh, or by the generous civic-mindedness that was central to America’s founding? I had asked in the offending column. I guess the family Limbaugh—Rush, his wife, and his pettiness and vindictiveness (my, how you two have grown!)—was leaning toward the former.

The evening had only just begun, and Boyden’s dining room was already looking to me like trouble: a buffet of beefs, gripes, and grudges, hidden discreetly from sight but sure to be revealed as the evening continued. While keeping an eye on the Limbaughs and the exits—two forward, two aft, one over the library wing—I tried to mingle.

In one corner I spotted Dick and Susan Armey. Susan used to have a clothing store in Virginia, and my daughters and I would occasionally stop in on a Saturday. Susan would help my girls, then five and three, play dress-up—allowing their mother to, well, also play dress-up. Her warmth and humor, coupled with the fact that she and I are both over five feet ten and like the same midcalf skirts and long jackets, made me really like Susan Armey.

So there I was, face-to-face with the Armeys for the first time since writing in a column that the House majority leader’s ersatz, insipid and duplicitous style is only bringing him contempt. I had concluded by saying that the increasingly inescapable conclusion is that Gingrich and Armey, his presumptive heir apparent, need to go together. I didn’t say where exactly, but it was clear I didn’t mean Disneyland, or its new branch in Times Square. Of course, you couldn’t write a political column without having an opinion about the House leadership. And that was mine.

But the repercussions of the opinions I expressed twice weekly in my column—as well as regular verbal tirades against the malign neglect of millions of Americans living in poverty in the middle of our so-called age of prosperity—were playing themselves out in this room. What has happened to Arianna? my conservative friends were asking.

So here’s a little history to explain just what has happened to me.

For as long as I have been writing about politics—starting in my mid-twenties, while I was still living in London—there have been certain recurring themes in my work: the bankruptcy of political leaders, who work harder each year to refine and perfect the deceptions they perpetrate on the public; the death of idealism and the massive resistance to political reform; and the dangers of focusing on the blessings of prosperity while forgetting about those it leaves behind.

This largely theoretical understanding was given a human face and a new urgency in 1992. When my ex-husband was running for Congress in the idyllic county of Santa Barbara, I was exposed to another world—of homeless shelters, homes for abused children, and festering health problems in the middle of one of the richest communities in America.

I never considered concern for social justice to be the exclusive province of the Left, although many on the Right have abandoned that collective moral imperative in pursuit of a personal morality policed from above. But the closer I got to the workings of the American political system, especially through Michael’s 1994 campaign for the U.S. Senate, the more aghast I became. Modern campaigns, I discovered, are so thoroughly dominated by pollsters and consultants that there’s no oxygen left for ideas that might challenge the status quo.

Then came the Republican Revolution, that Gingrich-led moment when the whole scene changed overnight—or at least seemed to. My first contact with Gingrich had come right after the 1992 election. I had given a speech in Washington challenging conservatives to activate their social conscience and bring the Biblical admonition of caring for the least among us to the very heart of public policy.

Gingrich, who happened to catch the speech on C-SPAN, called me. He told me this was precisely the direction in which he wanted to move the party, and he invited me to speak at the Republican Congressional Retreat in Princeton.

So when, during his first speech as Speaker he said that the balanced budget…doesn’t, in my mind, have the moral urgency of coming to grips with what’s happening to the poorest Americans, I took him at his word. I assumed he meant that dealing with poverty and the breakdown in America’s neglected communities would be his priority.

I’ll confess, I was completely fooled. My disillusionment was gradual, and began to creep into my columns just months after Gingrich took over. Then I would hear him give a speech—as he did on the night of the Million Man March: I don’t think that any white conservative anywhere in America ought to look at Louis Farrakhan and just condemn him, without asking yourself where were you when the children died, where were you when the schools failed, where were you when they had no hope; and unless we’re prepared to roll up our sleeves, reach out and say, ‘I’ll give you an alternative…’. And if the pain is so great that he makes sense then we had better be a lot more daring and a lot bolder insisting on real solutions sooner. And I would come away from the speech thinking, Oh, well, maybe he’s on track again.

But by the end of 1995, his abandonment of these issues was sealed by his embracing for president Bob Dole—a backroom operator without a clear vision for the country.

So I started firing shots in my column. After all, in an earlier incarnation, when he was challenging party orthodoxies, Gingrich himself had said, We are committed to ideas, not to men or a man…. We’re with Reagan if he’s Teddy Roosevelt, against him if he’s William Howard Taft. But his attitude toward what he saw as my defection was Stalinist. In 1998 I published a column criticizing Gingrich, among others, for whining that Washington had lost the war on drugs. Conservatives who have been saying for years that the government in Washington can never win the war on poverty, I wrote, are now blaming insufficient government in Washington for losing the war on drugs. I got a handwritten note from him, which I have framed: Your column is strategically counterproductive. (Not wrong, you see, but counterproductive.) What good does it do to take on your friends two months before the election?

Some of my friends kept their feelings to themselves. Back at Boyden Gray’s dinner, Dick Armey, ever the politician, simply exchanged pleasantries with me, ignoring the fact that I had wished him out of a job. But Susan spoke her mind. Arianna, she said, how could you do that? How could you say those things about Dick? You were our friend. I mumbled some stock phrases about how it wasn’t personal, just a reflection of our different political views, but Susan was hurt rather than angry, and that’s always much harder to deal with.

Thankfully, that squirm-inducing moment was interrupted by our host urging us on to dinner. Four round tables with calligraphed place cards awaited us. I found my seat between Senator Bill Frist and columnist Tony Snow. I was already deep in conversation with the senator about the Washington school our kids attended when I noticed that Susan had just taken her seat across from me. The Limbaughs, mercifully, were seated at a different table, but I remained very aware of my unfinished conversation with Susan. So when I saw her get up from the table, I followed her. We stood in the hallway for twenty minutes, talking—me trying to explain why it’s no use even trying to write about politics if you censor yourself when it comes to your friends, Susan insisting that loyalty to one’s friends is a higher principle and that if you can’t say something nice…

We were completely engaged in our conversation, having missed dessert, when Dick, who despite his