June 6, 2005 -- AlterNet.org (US Web)
The Mugging of the American Dream
By Bill MoyersEditor's Note: This is an edited transcript of Bill Moyer's speech, delivered June 3  at the Take Back America conference in Washington, DC. The transcript of the speech as delivered can be found at ourfuture.org.
Washington is a divided city -- not between north and south as in Lincoln's time, but between those who can buy all the government they want and those who can't even afford a seat in the bleachers.
It's good to be with you again. Your passion for democracy is inspiring and your enthusiasm contagious. I can't imagine a more exuberant gathering today except possibly at the K Street branch of the Masters of the Universe where they are celebrating their coup at the Securities and Exchange Commission
I wish that I could have attended all your sessions, listened to all the speakers, and heard all the points of view that have been raised here. But thanks to C-Span I was able to catch enough of your proceedings to realize you covered so many subjects and touched on so many ideas that you've left me little to say. That's okay, because as Bob Borosage reminded us back in January, what matters most isn't what is said in Washington but what you do on the ground across the country to build an independent infrastructure, generate ideas, drive local campaigns, persuade the skeptic, organize your neighbors, and carry on the movement at the grassroots for social and economic justice.
Before you go home, however, Bob has asked me to talk about what's at stake in what you are doing. Given all that has already been said, I will take my cue from the late humorist Robert Benchley who arrived for his final exam in international law at Harvard to find that the test consisted of this one instruction: "Discuss the arbitration of the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries protocol and dragnet and procedure as it affects (a) the point of view of the United States and (b) the point of view of Great Britain." Benchley was desperate but he was also honest, and he wrote: "I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem, and nothing about the point of view of the United States. I shall therefore discuss the question from the point of view of the fish."
That's what I have done in much of my work in journalism. Thirty-five years ago almost to the day I set out on a three-month trip of over l0, 000 miles to write a book called "Listening to America." I completed the book but I've never finished the trip; never was able to come off the road; never could stop listening. My worldview has been a work in progress, molded largely by the stories I've heard from the people I've met. I want to tell you this morning about some of those people. They tell us what's at stake.
I begin with two families in Milwaukee. The breadwinners in both households lost their jobs in that great wave of downsizing in 1991 as corporations began moving jobs out of the city and out of the country. In a series of documentaries over the next decade my colleagues and I chronicled their efforts to cope with the wrenching changes in their lives and find a place for themselves in the new global economy. I grew up with people like them. They're the kind my mother called "the salt of the earth" (takes one to know one!) They love their children, care about their neighborhoods, go to church every Sunday, and work hard all week. But like millions of Americans, these two families in Milwaukee were playing by the rules and still losing. By the end of the decade they were running harder but slipping behind, and the gap between them and prosperous America had reached Grand Canyon proportions.
I want to show you a very brief excerpt from that first documentary. It aired on PBS in January 1992 with the title "Minimum Wages: The New Economy." You'll see the father of one family as he looks for work after losing his machinist's job at the big manufacturer, Briggs and Stratton. You'll meet his wife in their kitchen as they make a desperate call to the bank that is threatening to foreclose on their home after failing to meet their mortgage payments. During our filming the fathers in both families became seriously ill. One was hospitalized for two months, leaving the family $30,000 in debt. You'll hear the second family talk about what it's like when both parents lose their jobs, depriving them of health insurance and putting their children's education up for grabs. Take a look.[Video Segment]
Seeing those people again I thought of the interviews that the Campaign for America's Future conducted around the country on the eve of your conference. A woman in Columbus, Ohio, told one interviewer something that I've heard in different ways in my own reporting over the past few years. She said: "Everyday life pulls families apart." It takes a moment for the implications of that to hit home. Think about it: Our country, the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the race -- a place where "everyday life pulls families apart."
What turns these personal traumas into a political travesty is that the people we're talking about are deeply patriotic. They love America. But they no longer believe they matter to the people who run the country. When our film opens, they are watching the inauguration of Bill Clinton on television in 1992. By the end of the decade, when our final film in the series aired, they were paying little attention to politics; they simply didn't think their concerns would ever be addressed by our governing elites. They are not cynical -- their religious faith leaves them little capacity for cynicism -- but they know the system is rigged against them. As it is.
You know the story: For years now a relatively small fraction of American households have been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income as large economic and financial institutions obtained unprecedented levels of power over daily life. In 1960 the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20% and the bottom 20% was 30-fold. Four decades later it is more than 75 fold. (See Joshua Holland, AlterNet, posted 4/25/05
Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if everyone were benefiting proportionally. But that's not the case. Statistics tell the story. Yes, I know -- statistics can cause the eyes to glaze over, but as one of my mentors once reminded me, "It is the mark of a truly educated man [or woman] to be deeply moved by statistics."
Let's see if these statistics move you.
While we've witnessed several periods of immense growth in recent decades, the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers -- that's a heap of people -- fell by 7 percent between l973 and 2000.
During 2004 and the first couple of months this year, wages failed to keep pace with inflation for the first time since the l990 recession. They were up somewhat in April, but it still means that "working Americans effectively took an across-the-board pay cut at a time when the economy grew by a healthy four percent and corporate profits hit record highs as companies got more productivity out of workers while keeping pay raises down."
Believe it or not, the United States now ranks the highest among the highly developed countries in each of the seven measures of inequality tracked by the index. While we enjoy the second highest GDP in the world (excluding tiny Luxembourg), we rank dead last among the 20 most developed countries in fighting poverty and we're off the chart in terms of the number of Americans living on half the median income or less.
And the outlook is for more of the same. On the eve of George W. Bush's second inauguration The Economist
-- not exactly a Marxist rag -- produced a sobering analysis of what is happening to the old notion that any American can get to the top. With income inequality not seen since the first Gilded Age (and this is The Economist editors speaking, not me) -- with "an education system increasingly stratified with fewer resources than those of their richer contemporaries" and great universities "increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing these educational inequalities" -- with corporate employees finding it "harder...to start at the bottom and rise up the company hierarchy by dint of hard work and self-improvement" -- "with the yawning gap between incomes at the top and bottom" -- the editors of The Economist
-- all friends of business and advocates of capitalism and free markets -- concluded that "The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society."
Let me run that by you again: "The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society."
Or worse. The Wall Street Journal is no Marxist sheet, either, although its editorial page can be just as rigid and dogmatic as old Stalinists. The Journal's reporters, however, are among the best in the country. They're devoted to getting as close as possible to the verifiable truth and describing what they find with the varnish off. Two weeks ago a front-page leader in the Journal concluded that "As the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970, the odds that a child born in poverty will climb to wealth -- or that a rich child will fall into middle class -- remain stuck....Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. remains a more mobile society than Europe, economists and sociologists say that in recent decades the typical child starting out in poverty in continental Europe (or in Canada) has had a better chance at prosperity." (Wall Street Journal, page one, May 13, 2005.)
That knocks the American Dream flat on its back. But it should put fire in our bellies. Because what's at stake is what it means to be an American.
A few weeks ago my colleague Charlie Rose put a question to the new president of CNN, Jonathan Klein. He asked: Could there ever be a successful progressive version of Fox News Channel? Klein didn't think so. He said Fox appeals to "mostly angry white men" while liberals -- "you know, they don't get too worked up about anything."
Well, here's something to get worked up about:
Under a headline stretching six columns across the page, the New York Times
reported last year that tuition in the city's elite private schools, kindergarten as well as high school, would hit $26,000 for the coming school year. On the same page, under a two-column headline, the Times reported on a school in nearby Mount Vernon, just across the city line, with a student body that is 97% black. It is the poorest school in the town: Nine out of ten children qualify for free lunches; one out of ten lives in a homeless shelter. During black history month this past February a sixth-grader who wanted to write a report on the poet Langston Hughes could not find a single book about Hughes in the library -- not one. There is only one book in the library on Frederick Douglass. None on Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Leontyne Price, or other path breakers like them in the modern era. Except for a couple of Newbery Award books bought by the librarian with her own money, the books are largely from the l950s and l960s, when all the students were white. A child's primer on work begins with a youngster learning how to be a telegraph delivery boy. There's a l967 book about telephones with the instruction: "When you phone you usually dial the number. But on some new phones you can push buttons." The newest encyclopedia dates from l99l, with two volumes missing. And there is no card catalogue in this library. Something worth getting mad about.
How about this:
Caroline Payne's face and gums are distorted because her Medicaid-financed dentures don't fit. Her appearance has caused her to be continuously turned down for jobs. Caroline Payne is one of the people in David Shipler's recent book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America
. She was born poor; although she once owned her own home and earned a two-year college degree, Caroline Payne has bounced from one poverty-wage job to another all her life, equipped with the will to move up, but lacking the resources to deal with such unexpected and overlapping problems as a mentally handicapped daughter, a broken marriage, and a sudden layoff that forced her to sell her few assets, pull up roots, and move on. "In the house of the poor..." Shipler writes, "the walls are thin and fragile, and troubles seep into one another." If you believe the Declaration of Independence means what it says -- that all of us are endowed by the Creator with a love of life, a longing for liberty, and a passion for happiness -- and everyone includes Caroline Payne -- this is something to get worked up about.
Or this -- courtesy of the columnist, Mark Shields. It seems workers in the American territory of the Northern Mariana Islands were being forced to labor under sweatshop conditions producing garments for Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Gap and Liz Claiborne. The garments were then shipped tariff-free and quota-free to the American market where they were entitled to display the coveted "Made in the USA" label. When Republican Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska heard that these people were being paid barely half the U.S. minimum hourly wage and were forced to live behind barbed wire in squalid shacks without plumbing while working l2 hours a day, often seven days a week, with none of the legal protections U.S. workers are guaranteed, he became enraged. He got the Senate to pass a bill -- unanimously -- that would extend the protection of our laws to the U.S. territory of the Northern Marianas. But then the notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff moved into action with an SOS to his good friend, Tom DeLay. The records show they met at least two dozen times. DeLay traveled to the Marianas with his family and staff -- on a "scholarship" provided by Abramoff's clients -- where they played golf and went snorkeling not far the sweatshops (some scholarship!) Was Tom DeLay offended by what he saw? To the contrary. He told the Washington Post that the sweatshops were "a perfect petri dish of capitalism. ABC-TV News
recorded him praising Abramoff's clients by saying: "You are a shining light for what is happening to the Republican Party, and you represent everything that is good about what we are trying to do in America and leading the world in the free-market system." And Tom Delay -- the rightwing radicals' revisionist incarnation of Saint Francis of Assisi -- killed the Senate bill. (Mark Shields, CNN.com. 5/28/05.
If that doesn't get your dander up, maybe this will: The minimum wage hasn't been raised since l997. After the Republicans recently defeated an effort to increase it, Rick Wilson wrote for CommonDreams.org
about a single mother of two children working somewhere in his home state of West Virginia at $5.l5 an hour, 40 hours a week, or $5,378 below the federal poverty level of $l6,090 for a family that size. Put another way, "her earnings only reach two-thirds of the poverty level." Meanwhile, the base salary of the Members of Congress who voted down the wage increase is $l62, l00. That single mom would have to work about 3l, 476 hours to earn what those members of Congress get in a year. And remember -- the minimum wage she earns is actually worth less than it was 40 years ago (Rick Wilson, CommonDreams.org. 5/25/05.)
It wasn't supposed to be this way. America was not meant to be a country where the winner takes all. Through a system of checks and balances we were going to maintain a decent equilibrium in how democracy works so that it didn't just work for the powerful and privileged (If you don't believe me, I'll send you my copy of The Federalist Papers
). The economist Jeffrey Madrick put it well: Because equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of any democracy, Americans made primary schooling free to all. Because everyone deserves a second chance, debtors -- especially the relative poor -- were protected by state laws against their rich creditors. Charters to establish corporations were open to most if not all (white) comers, rather than held for elites. Government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land and even supported squatters' rights. The old hope for equal access to opportunity became a reality for millions. Including yours truly.
Ruby and Henry Moyers were knocked down and almost out when the system imploded into the Great Depression. They worked hard all their lives but never had much money -- my father's last paycheck before he retired was $96 and change, after taxes. We couldn't afford books at home but the public library gave me a card when I was eight years old. I went to good public schools. My brother made it to college on the GI bill. And in my freshman year I hitchhiked to college on public highways stopping to rest in public parks. Like millions of us, I was an heir to what used to be called the commonwealth -- the notion of America as a shared project. It's part of our DNA, remember: "We, the People...in order to create a more perfect union"
You're never more mindful of this than at the Lincoln Memorial. Like you, I've been there many times over the years. Back in l954, when I was a summer employee in the Senate, I took the same hike every Sunday. Starting at the Capitol I headed for the Washington Monument, briskly climbed its 898 steps, came down almost as briskly (I was only 20, remember), veered over to the Jefferson Memorial and then doubled back to the mall and down past the reflecting pool to where Lincoln gazes perpetually over this city -- a city that because of him is the capital of the United States of America and not just the Northern States of America.
Standing there last night, I sensed that temple of democracy where Lincoln broods to be as deeply steeped in melancholy as it was during the McCarthy reign of terror, the grief of Vietnam, or the crimes of Watergate. You stand there silently contemplating the words that gave voice to Lincoln's fierce determination to save the Union -- his resolve that "government of, by, and for the people shall not perish from the earth" -- and then you turn and look out, as he does, on a city where those words are daily mocked. This is no longer Lincoln's city. And those people from all walks of life making their way up the steps to pay their respects to this martyr for the Union -- it's not their city, either. This is an occupied city, a company town, a wholly owned subsidiary of the powerful and privileged whose have hired an influence racket to run it. The records are so poorly kept it's impossible to know how many lobbyists there really are in this town, but the Center for Public Integrity found that their ranks include 240 former members of Congress and heads of federal agencies and over 2000 senior officials who passed through the revolving door of government at warp speed. Lobbyists now spend $3 billion a year buying influence and access for their clients and, according to the New York Times, over the last six years spent more than twice the amount spent by candidates for federal office. Once again this is a divided city. Not between North and South as in Lincoln's time, but between those who pay to play -- those who can buy the government they want -- and those who can't even afford even a seat in the bleachers.
So it is that huge financial institutions like MBNA -- the credit card giant that is the biggest contributor to the President's two campaigns for the White House -- prevail in getting Congress and George W. Bush to curtail personal bankruptcies, making it harder for those families in Milwaukee to get a fresh start and a second chance.
So it is that Wal-Mart, with the third largest corporate political action committee in the country, and pharmaceutical giants with more lobbyists in town than there are Members of Congress, join with gun manufacturers and asbestos makers and the White House to restrict the right of aggrieved citizens to take corporations to court for malfeasance.
So it is that as Exxon Mobil accumulates more than $l billion a month from escalating oil prices -- more than $l billion a month even after allocating for dividends, share repurchases, and capital spending -- the oil and gas industry wrings huge tax breaks from a public already squeezed hard by high prices at the gas pumps.
And so it is that on the Sunday before President Bush's second inaugural, Nick Confessore, writing in the New York Times Magazine
, describes how the president's first round of tax cuts has brought the United States tax code closer to a system under which income from savings and investments would not be taxed at all and revenues for public services would be raised exclusively from taxes on working men and women. One of the most fervent right-wing class warriors in Washington is quoted as predicting: "No capital gains tax, no dividends tax. No estate tax, no tax on interest." It will be one of President Bush's enduring legacies to have replaced estate taxes on the wealthy with a sweat tax on their grave diggers.
Let me read you something:
When political interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it's ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price and most of them never see it coming. This is what happens if you don't contribute to their campaigns or spend generously on lobbying. You pick up a disproportionate share of America's tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying. You're compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them. You must pay debts that you incur while others do not. You're barred from writing off your tax returns some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of rules, while the government creates another set for your competitors. In contrast the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below market wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives its approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public, it gets killed.
Once again I'm not quoting Marx or Lenin or even The Nation, the American Prospect, the Washington Monthly, In These Times, The Progressive, or Mother Jones.
I'm quoting from.....Time. [magazine] From the heart of the Time-Warner empire comes the judgment that America now has "government for the few at the expense of the many."
You read this, and then you read the report by the American Political Science Association which finds that "increasing inequalities threaten the American ideal of equal citizenship and that progress toward real democracy may have stalled in this country and even reversed." You also read -- in that same report -- that a quarter of all whites in this country have no financial assets. Then you read on and learn that the median white household has 62% more income and twelve times as much wealth as the median black household and that 6l% of African-Americans in this country and half of all Latinos have no financial assets at all.
Then you open Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail
to find the Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar's description of an America where rich elites cocoon themselves "in gated communities, guarded by private security guards, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools." Gradually, they lose the motivation "to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security, and public schools." Any society where the elite insulate themselves from the consequences of their action, Diamond warns, contains a built-in blueprint for failure.
You read all this and realize you have been seeing it with your own eyes as a reporter in the field. You're seeing the mugging of the American Dream right before your eyes.
Go with me for a moment to a small town in Pennsylvania. Two years ago, for my weekly PBS
series Now With Bill Moyers
, one of our teams spent time there listening to regular people talk about what's happening in their lives. I want to share with you an excerpt so that you can eavesdrop on the hidden conversation of America that the ruling powers in Washington wants to stay hidden, as I'll explain in a moment. First look at this:[Video Segment]
Let me tell you something about these people ("the point of view of the fish," remember?)
They don't ask to get rich.
They want a job that pays a living wage.
They want social security to be there in their old age, for their own sake and so their kids won't be burdened with their care.
They want a simple, comprehensive health care system.
They want their livelihoods and the fate of their communities to be taken into account as the elites in government and corporations measure profits, economic growth and the GDP.
And they would like to see the political system cleaned up, so the playing field is more level and their voices not wholly drowned out by the deep-pocket predators from the Business Roundtable
These are not radical views. These are not even "liberal" views. They are just plain American values. Any reporter who spends any time in the field can see that. You just have to get out of the Washington and New York studios, throw away the talking points sent you by the Republican National Committee, stop yakking and start listening, leave the winners to their champagne and buy the losers a beer, and you'll discover that the actual experience of regular people is the missing link in a nation wired for everything but the truth.
And let me tell you: These plain American values -- the truth from an America that is barely holding on -- scare the hell out of the powers that be.
Case in point: When that broadcast aired in November of '03, Kenneth Tomlinson was watching. As most of you know by now, Mr. Tomlinson is chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an ally of Karl Rove, and the rightwing monopoly's point man to keep tabs on public broadcasting. You've heard no doubt that he and I have been, shall we say, somewhat at odds of late. I didn't know exactly what started the trouble until just a few days ago, when the Washington Post carried a story reporting that when Mr. Tomlinson watched that documentary from Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, it was too much for him. Reaching into the well-worn book of mindless rightwing clichés, he called it "liberal advocacy journalism" and decided right then and there "to bring some 'balance' to the public TV and radio airwaves."
So what did he do? Well, apparently the saintly Tom DeLay was too busy snorkeling with lobbyists to take on his own show informing the folks in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, that they are the "Petri dish of capitalism." But Mr. Tomlinson found kindred spirits at the rightwing editorial board of the Wall Street Journal where the "animal spirits of business" are routinely celebrated with nary a negative note about the casualties of their voracious appetites. Now you can get on public television every week, in The Wall Street Editorial Report, an alternative view of reality to life as it is lived in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania and communities like it all across this country.
Here's the point: The last thing ideologues want is reporting about the facts on the ground. Facts on the ground subvert the party line. That's why if you live where rightwing talk radio and media monopolies dominate the public discourse, you are told a hundred different ways every day why unregulated markets work better than democracy. It's a lie, but it works, because you are never told the other side of the story. But here, on PBS
one Friday evening, was the other side of the story. Here were ordinary people who are in pain for reasons not of their own making. And it was more than a rightwing apparatchik could take. Because too much of the truth might set those people free. Might take them to the voting booths -- or even to the streets -- to declare: We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!"
This is a good place to pause and call on that old journalistic warhorse, Hal Crowther, who was at Time
and the Buffalo News
before going his own way with an independent column. Just this week he writes that "The first thing every reporter was taught, back when reporters were taught things, is that the best way to find the truth is to follow the money....If the media still hunted with live ammunition, Enron, Halliburton and the energy industry's pornographic profits since 9/11 would be enough to force this oil-soaked, sheik-beholden government to resign. In disgrace -- remember disgrace?" And he goes on: "Worse still than handouts to the wealthy is the reprehensible new legislation that blocks working Americans from climbing the hill where the money flows -- laws like boulders rolled downhill to crush the scrambling underclass, the millions of Americans unable to pay their bills. Think about what it means to limit personal bankruptcies, inhibit class action suits against toxic employers, protect chemical polluters (usually oil companies) from liability lawsuits and cap settlements in personal injury cases. It means trying to eliminate what little protection ordinary citizens retain against corporate leviathans that cheat, exploit, injure and poison them, trap them in hopeless jobs, renege on their healthcare and default on their pensions. It means striping leverage from the people who have no leverage to spare."
Hal Crowther is one of those journalists who goes hunting with live ammunition. But if Kenneth Tomlinson and Karl Rove have their way, public broadcasting journalists will be firing blanks.
What's important in this story is not only that journalism still matters -- that reporting from the ground up can strike a nerve in the heart of the imperium. What's important is that you see what as citizens you are up against. These guys play for keep. They mean to control the story. And if they can they will silence or discredit anyone who dissents from the official view of reality.
A profound transformation is occurring in America and those responsible for it don't want you to connect the dots. We are experiencing what has been described as a "fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public responsibility for social harms arising from the excesses of private power." From public land to water and other natural resources, from media with their broadcast and digital spectrums to scientific discoveries and medical breakthroughs, a broad range of America's public resources is being shifted to the control of elites and the benefit of the privileged. It all seems so clear now that we wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs at the time. Back in the early l970s President Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, predicted that "this country is going to go so far to the right that you won't recognize it." A wealthy right-winger of the time, William Simon, President Nixon's Secretary of the Treasury, wrote a polemic declaring that "funds generated by business...must rush by the multimillions" to conservative causes. Said Business Week
, bluntly: "Some people will obviously have to do with less...It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more."
We've seen the strategy play out for years now: to cut workforces and wages, scour the globe in search of cheap labor, trash the social contract and the safety net meant to protect people from hardships beyond their control, make it hard for ordinary citizens to gain redress for the malfeasance and malpractice of corporations, and diminish the ability of government to check and balance "the animal spirits" of economic warfare where the winner takes all. Streams of money flowed into think tanks to shape the agenda, media to promote it, and a political machine to achieve it. What has happened to working Americans is not the result of Adam Smith's benign and invisible hand but the direct consequence of corporate money, ideological propaganda, a partisan political religion, and a string of political decisions favoring the interests of wealthy elites who bought the political system right out from under us.
It's an old story in America. We shouldn't be surprised by it any more. Hold up a mirror to this moment and you will see reflected back to you the first Gilded Age in the last part of the l9th century. Then, as now, the great captains of industry and finance could say, with Frederick Townsend Martin, "We are rich. We own America. We got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it."
They were deadly serious. Go for the evidence to such magisterial studies of American history as Growth of the American Republic ( Morison, Commager, and Leuchtenberg), and you'll read how they did it: They gained control of newspapers and magazines. They subsidized candidates. They bought legislation and even judicial decisions. To justify their greed and power they drew on history, law, economics, and religion to concoct a philosophy that would come to be known as Social Darwinism -- "backed up by the quasi religious principle that the acquisition of wealth was a mark of divine favor." One of their favorite apologists, Professor William Graham Sumner of Yale, said: "If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one possible alternative, and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of anti-civilization.
I'm not making this up. It's right there in the record. The historians tell us that a boundless continent lay open and ready for their exploitation and "all the bounties of nature were allowed to fall into the hands of strong men and powerful corporations." Clever lawyers came up with new devices for the legal aggrandizement of private fortunes (shades of today's Federalist Society!) No labor laws or workingmen's compensation nets interfered with their profits (shades of DeLay's "Petri dish of capitalism! ") No public opinion penetrated the walls of their conceit (shades of "The Great Republican Noise Machine.")
They're back, my friends. They're back in full force and their goal is to take America back -- to their private Garden of Eden in that first Gilded Age when "the strong take what they wanted and the weak suffer what they must." Look no further than today's news: William Donaldson, who made a decent stab at enforcing post-Enron reform on Wall Street, is out as Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; according to USA Today
, the President's big donors -- the captains of finance -- cashed in their IOUs and came away from the White House with his head on a platter. In his place: A rightwing congressman who takes a dim view of shareholder suits and favors eliminating the estate tax, the dividend tax, the -- well, there's no tax on wealth he doesn't want to eliminate. Once again the chicken coop is sold to the fox.
Back in the first Gilded Age it was the progressives who took them on, throwing themselves at the juggernaut to try and keep it from rolling over the last vestiges of democracy. They lost the first rounds and only because they kept fighting for many long years did in time America begin to balance the power of concentrated wealth with the claims and needs of ordinary people. Nowadays it's you who stand between that regenerated juggernaut and those families in Milwaukee, those folks in Tamaqua, and the millions like them around the country. You must be like the Irishman coming upon a street brawl who yells in a loud voice: "Is this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?" Not waiting, he wades in.
Wade in! Go home and tell the truth to your neighbors and fight the corruption of the system. But it's not enough just to say how bad the others are. You owe your opponents the compliment of a good argument. Come up with fresh ideas to make capitalism work for all. Ask entrepreneurs to join you -- they know how to make things happen. Show us a new vision of globalization with a conscience. Stand up for working people and people in the middle and people who can't stand on their own. Be not cowed, intimidated, or frightened -- you may be on the losing side of the moment, as the early progressives were, but you're on the winning side of history. And have some fun when you fight -- Americans are more likely to join the party that enjoys a party . Come to think of it, go out and argue that working people should have more time off from the endless hours of tedious work that devours the soul and the long commutes that devastate families and communities.
Above all, know what you believe and why. So I have some homework for you. Here's your summer reading: Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, by Harvey Kaye, soon at your bookstores (along, I might add, with a revised and updated paperback version of Moyers on America.) Thomas Paine was the foremost journalist of the American Revolution who called forth the better angels of our nature, imbued us with our democratic impulse, and articulated our American Identity with its exceptional purpose and promise. It was Paine who argued that America would afford "an asylum for mankind," provide a model to the world, and support the global advance of republican democracy. In these pages is tonic for flagging spirits facing great odds -- because it was Thomas Paine who insisted that "it is too soon to write the history of the Revolution." And writing the history of the Revolution is now up to you. That's what truly is at stake.Good luck!