Thank you for this award and for this occasion. I don't
deserve either, but as George Burns said, I have arthritis and I don't deserve
Tomorrow is my 69th birthday and I cannot imagine a better
present than this award or a better party than your company
Fifty three years ago tomorrow, on my 16th birthday, I
went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I
grew up. It was a good place to be a cub reporter - small enough to navigate
but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day. I soon had
a stroke of luck. Some of the old timers were on vacation or out sick and
I got assigned to cover what came to be known as the Housewives' Rebellion.
Fifteen women in my home town decided not to pay the social security withholding
tax for their domestic workers. They argued that social security was unconstitutional,
that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that - here's my
favorite part - "requiring us to collect (the tax) is no different from requiring
us to collect the garbage." They hired themselves a lawyer - none other than
Martin Dies, the former congressman best known, or worst known, for his work
as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 30s and 40s.
He was no more effective at defending rebellious women than he had been protecting
against communist subversives, and eventually the women wound up holding their
noses and paying the tax.
The stories I wrote for my local paper were picked up and
moved on the Associated Press wire. One day, the managing editor called me
over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk. Moving across the wire
was a notice citing one Bill Moyers and the paper for the reporting we had
done on the "Rebellion."
That hooked me, and in one way or another - after a detour
through seminary and then into politics and government for a spell - I've
been covering the class war ever since. Those women in Marshall, Texas were
its advance guard. They were not bad people. They were regulars at church,
their children were my friends, many of them were active in community affairs,
their husbands were pillars of the business and professional class in town.
They were respectable and upstanding citizens all. So it took me awhile to
figure out what had brought on that spasm of reactionary rebellion. It came
to me one day, much later. They simply couldn't see beyond their own prerogatives.
Fiercely loyal to their families, to their clubs, charities and congregations
- fiercely loyal, in other words, to their own kind - they narrowly defined
membership in democracy to include only people like them. The women who washed
and ironed their laundry, wiped their children's bottoms, made their husband's
beds, and cooked their family meals - these women, too, would grow old and
frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time
alone, with nothing to show from their years of labor but the crease in their
brow and the knots on their knuckles; so be it; even on the distaff side of
laissez faire, security was personal, not social, and what injustice existed
this side of heaven would no doubt be redeemed beyond the Pearly Gates. God
would surely be just to the poor once they got past Judgment Day.
In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America:
the struggle to determine whether "we, the people" is a spiritual idea embedded
in a political reality - one nation, indivisible - or merely a charade masquerading
as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own
way of life at the expense of others.
Let me make it clear that I don't harbor any idealized
notion of politics and democracy; I worked for Lyndon Johnson, remember? Nor
do I romanticize "the people." You should read my mail - or listen to the
vitriol virtually spat at my answering machine. I understand what the politician
meant who said of the Texas House of Representatives, "If you think these
guys are bad, you should see their constituents."
But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference
between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one
whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud. That difference
can be the difference between democracy and oligarchy.
Look at our history. All of us know that the American Revolution
ushered in what one historian called "The Age of Democratic Revolutions."
For the Great Seal of the United States the new Congress went all the way
back to the Roman poet Virgil: Novus Ordo Seclorum" - "a new age now begins."
Page Smith reminds us that "their ambition was not merely to free themselves
from dependence and subordination to the Crown but to inspire people everywhere
to create agencies of government and forms of common social life that would
offer greater dignity and hope to the exploited and suppressed" - to those,
in other words, who had been the losers. Not surprisingly, the winners often
resisted. In the early years of constitution-making in the states and emerging
nation, aristocrats wanted a government of propertied "gentlemen" to keep
the scales tilted in their favor. Battling on the other side were moderates
and even those radicals harboring the extraordinary idea of letting all white
males have the vote. Luckily, the weapons were words and ideas, not bullets.
Through compromise and conciliation the draftsmen achieved a Constitution
of checks and balances that is now the oldest in the world, even as the revolution
of democracy that inspired it remains a tempestuous adolescent whose destiny
is still up for grabs. For all the rhetoric about "life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness," it took a civil war to free the slaves and another
hundred years to invest their freedom with meaning. Women only gained the
right to vote in my mother's time. New ages don't arrive overnight, or without
"blood, sweat, and tears."
You know this. You are the heirs of one of the country's
great traditions - the progressive movement that started late in the l9th
century and remade the American experience piece by piece until it peaked
in the last third of the 20th century. I call it the progressive movement
for lack of a more precise term. Its aim was to keep blood pumping through
the veins of democracy when others were ready to call in the mortician. Progressives
exalted and extended the original American revolution. They spelled out new
terms of partnership between the people and their rulers. And they kindled
a flame that lit some of the most prosperous decades in modern history, not
only here but in aspiring democracies everywhere, especially those of western
Step back with me to the curtain-raiser, the founding convention
of the People's Party - better known as the Populists - in 1892. The members
were mainly cotton and wheat farmers from the recently reconstructed South
and the newly settled Great Plains, and they had come on hard, hard times,
driven to the wall by falling prices for their crops on one hand and racking
interest rates, freight charges and supply costs on the other. This in the
midst of a booming and growing industrial America. They were angry, and their
platform - issued deliberately on the 4th of July - pulled no punches. "We
meet," it said, "in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political
and material ruin....Corruption dominates the ballot box, the [state] legislatures
and the Congress and touches even the bench.....The newspapers are largely
subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced....The fruits of the toil of
millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few."
Furious words from rural men and women who were traditionally
conservative and whose memories of taming the frontier were fresh and personal.
But in their fury they invoked an American tradition as powerful as frontier
individualism - the war on inequality and especially on the role that government
played in promoting and preserving inequality by favoring the rich. The Founding
Fathers turned their backs on the idea of property qualifications for holding
office under the Constitution because they wanted no part of a 'veneration
for wealth" in the document. Thomas Jefferson, while claiming no interest
in politics, built up a Republican Party - no relation to the present one
- to take the government back from the speculators and "stock-jobbers," as
he called them, who were in the saddle in 1800. Andrew Jackson slew the monster
Second Bank of the United States, the 600-pound gorilla of the credit system
in the 1830s, in the name of the people versus the aristocrats who sat on
the bank's governing board.
All these leaders were on record in favor of small government
- but their opposition wasn't simply to government as such. It was to government's
power to confer privilege on insiders; on the rich who were democracy's equivalent
of the royal favorites of monarchist days. (It's what the FCC does today.)
The Populists knew it was the government that granted millions of acres of
public land to the railroad builders. It was the government that gave the
manufacturers of farm machinery a monopoly of the domestic market by a protective
tariff that was no longer necessary to shelter "infant industries." It was
the government that contracted the national currency and sparked a deflationary
cycle that crushed debtors and fattened the wallets of creditors. And those
who made the great fortunes used them to buy the legislative and judicial
favors that kept them on top. So the Populists recognized one great principle:
the job of preserving equality of opportunity and democracy demanded the end
of any unholy alliance between government and wealth. It was, to quote that
platform again, "from the same womb of governmental injustice" that tramps
and millionaires were bred.
But how? How was the democratic revolution to be revived?
The promise of the Declaration reclaimed? How were Americans to restore government
to its job of promoting the general welfare? And here, the Populists made
a breakthrough to another principle. In a modern, large-scale, industrial
and nationalized economy it wasn't enough simply to curb the government's
outreach. That would simply leave power in the hands of the great corporations
whose existence was inseparable from growth and progress. The answer was to
turn government into an active player in the economy at the very least enforcing
fair play, and when necessary being the friend, the helper and the agent of
the people at large in the contest against entrenched power. So the Populist
platform called for government loans to farmers about to lose their mortgaged
homesteads - for government granaries to grade and store their crops fairly
- for governmental inflation of the currency, which was a classical plea of
debtors - and for some decidedly non-classical actions like government ownership
of the railroad, telephone and telegraph systems and a graduated - i.e., progressive
tax on incomes and a flat ban on subsidies to "any private corporation." And
to make sure the government stayed on the side of the people, the 'Pops' called
for the initiative and referendum and the direct election of Senators.
Predictably, the Populists were denounced, feared and mocked
as fanatical hayseeds ignorantly playing with socialist fire. They got twenty-two
electoral votes for their candidate in '92, plus some Congressional seats
and state houses, but it was downhill from there for many reasons. America
wasn't - and probably still isn't - ready for a new major party. The People's
Party was a spent rocket by 1904. But if political organizations perish, their
key ideas don't - keep that in mind, because it give prospective to your cause
today. Much of the Populist agenda would become law within a few years of
the party's extinction. And that was because it was generally shared by a
rising generation of young Republicans and Democrats who, justly or not, were
seen as less outrageously outdated than the embattled farmers. These were
the progressives, your intellectual forebears and mine.
One of my heroes in all of this is William Allen White,
a Kansas country editor - a Republican - who was one of them. He described
his fellow progressives this way: "What the people felt about the vast injustice
that had come with the settlement of a continent, we, their servants - teachers,
city councilors, legislators, governors, publishers, editors, writers, representatives
in Congress and Senators - all made a part of our creed. Some way, into the
hearts of the dominant middle class of this country, had come a sense that
their civilization needed recasting, that their government had fallen into
the hands of self-seekers, that a new relationship should be established between
the haves and the have-nots."
They were a diverse lot, held together by a common admiration
of progress - hence the name - and a shared dismay at the paradox of poverty
stubbornly persisting in the midst of progress like an unwanted guest at a
wedding. Of course they welcomed, just as we do, the new marvels in the gift-bag
of technology - the telephones, the autos, the electrically-powered urban
transport and lighting systems, the indoor heating and plumbing, the processed
foods and home appliances and machine-made clothing that reduced the sweat
and drudgery of home-making and were affordable to an ever-swelling number
of people. But they saw the underside, too - the slums lurking in the shadows
of the glittering cities, the exploited and unprotected workers whose low-paid
labor filled the horn of plenty for others, the misery of those whom age,
sickness, accident or hard times condemned to servitude and poverty with no
hope of comfort or security.
This is what's hard to believe - hardly a century had passed
since 1776 before the still-young revolution was being strangled in the hard
grip of a merciless ruling class. The large corporations that were called
into being by modern industrialism after 1865 - the end of the Civil War -
had combined into trusts capable of making minions of both politics and government.
What Henry George called "an immense wedge" was being forced through American
society by "the maldistribution of wealth, status, and opportunity." We should
pause here to consider that this is Karl Rove's cherished period of American
history; it was, as I read him, the seminal influence on the man who is said
to be George W.'s brain. From his own public comments and my reading of the
record, it is apparent that Karl Rove has modeled the Bush presidency on that
of William McKinley, who was in the White House from 1897 to 1901, and modeled
himself on Mark Hanna, the man who virtually manufactured McKinley. Hanna
had one consummate passion - to serve corporate and imperial power. It was
said that he believed "without compunction, that the state of Ohio existed
for property. It had no other function...Great wealth was to be gained through
monopoly, through using the State for private ends; it was axiomatic therefore
that businessmen should run the government and run it for personal profit."
Mark Hanna - Karl Rove's hero - made William McKinley governor
of Ohio by shaking down the corporate interests of the day. Fortunately, McKinley
had the invaluable gift of emitting sonorous platitudes as though they were
recently discovered truth. Behind his benign gaze the wily intrigues of Mark
Hanna saw to it that first Ohio and then Washington were "ruled by business...by
bankers, railroads and public utility corporations." Any who opposed the oligarchy
were smeared as disturbers of the peace, socialists, anarchists, "or worse."
Back then they didn't bother with hollow euphemisms like "compassionate conservatism"
to disguise the raw reactionary politics that produced government "of, by,
and for" the ruling corporate class. They just saw the loot and went for it.
The historian Clinton Rossiter describes this as the period
of "the great train robbery of American intellectual history." Conservatives
- or better, pro-corporate apologists - hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian
liberalism and turned words like "progress", "opportunity", and "individualism"
into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right. Charles
Darwin's theory of evolution was hijacked, too, so that conservative politicians,
judges, and publicists promoted, as if it were, the natural order of things,
the notion that progress resulted from the elimination of the weak and the
"survival of the fittest."
This "degenerate and unlovely age," as one historian calls
it, exists in the mind of Karl Rove - the reputed brain of George W. Bush
- as the seminal age of inspiration for the politics and governance of America
No wonder that what troubled our progressive forebears
was not only the miasma of poverty in their nostrils, but the sour stink of
a political system for sale. The United States Senate was a "millionaire's
club." Money given to the political machines that controlled nominations could
buy controlling influence in city halls, state houses and even courtrooms.
Reforms and improvements ran into the immovable resistance of the almighty
dollar. What, progressives wondered, would this do to the principles of popular
government? Because all of them, whatever party they subscribed to, were inspired
by the gospel of democracy. Inevitably, this swept them into the currents
of politics, whether as active officeholders or persistent advocates.
Here's a small, but representative sampling of their ranks.
Jane Addams forsook the comforts of a middle-class college graduate's life
to live in Hull House in the midst of a disease-ridden and crowded Chicago
immigrant neighborhood, determined to make it an educational and social center
that would bring pride, health and beauty into the lives of her poor neighbors.
She was inspired by "an almost passionate devotion to the ideals of democracy,"
to combating the prevailing notion "that the well being of a privileged few
might justly be built upon the ignorance and sacrifice of the many." Community
and fellowship were the lessons she drew from her teachers, Jesus and Abraham
Lincoln. But people simply helping one another couldn't move mountains of
disadvantage. She came to see that "private beneficence" wasn't enough. But
to bring justice to the poor would take more than soup kitchens and fundraising
prayer meetings. "Social arrangements," she wrote, "can be transformed through
man's conscious and deliberate effort." Take note - not individual regeneration
or the magic of the market, but conscious, cooperative effort.
Meet a couple of muckraking journalists. Jacob Riis lugged
his heavy camera up and down the staircases of New York's disease-ridden,
firetrap tenements to photograph the unspeakable crowding, the inadequate
toilets, the starved and hollow-eyed children and the filth on the walls so
thick that his crude flash equipment sometimes set it afire. Bound between
hard covers, with Riis's commentary, they showed comfortable New Yorkers "How
the Other Half Lives." They were powerful ammunition for reformers who eventually
brought an end to tenement housing by state legislation. And Lincoln Steffens,
college and graduate-school educated, left his books to learn life from the
bottom up as a police-beat reporter on New York's streets. Then, as a magazine
writer, he exposed the links between city bosses and businessmen that made
it possible for builders and factory owners to ignore safety codes and get
away with it. But the villain was neither the boodler nor the businessman.
It was the indifference of a public that "deplore[d] our politics and laud[ed]
our business; that transformed law, medicine, literature and religion into
simply business. Steffens was out to slay the dragon of exalting "the commercial
spirit" over the goals of patriotism and national prosperity. "I am not a
scientist," he said. "I am a journalist. I did not gather the facts and arrange
them patiently for permanent preservation and laboratory analysis....My purpose
was. ...to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, would
not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride."
If corrupt politics bred diseases that could be fatal to
democracy, then good politics was the antidote. That was the discovery of
Ray Stannard Baker, another journalistic progressive who started out with
a detest for election-time catchwords and slogans. But he came to see that
"Politics could not be abolished or even adjourned...it was in its essence
the method by which communities worked out their common problems. It was one
of the principle arts of living peacefully in a crowded world," he said [Compare
that to Grover Norquist's latest declaration of war on the body politic. "We
are trying to change the tones in the state capitals - and turn them toward
bitter nastiness and partisanship." He went on to say that bi-partisanship
is another name for date rape."]
There are more, too many more to call to the witness stand
here, but I want you to hear some of the things they had to say. There were
educators like the economist John R. Commons or the sociologist Edward A.
Ross who believed that the function of "social science" wasn't simply to dissect
society for non-judgmental analysis and academic promotion, but to help in
finding solutions to social problems. It was Ross who pointed out that morality
in a modern world had a social dimension. In "Sin and Society," written in
1907, he told readers that the sins "blackening the face of our time" were
of a new variety, and not yet recognized as such. "The man who picks pockets
with a railway rebate, murders with an adulterant instead of a bludgeon, burglarizes
with a 'rake-off' instead of a jimmy, cheats with a company instead of a deck
of cards, or scuttles his town instead of his ship, does not feel on his brow
the brand of a malefactor." In other words upstanding individuals could plot
corporate crimes and sleep the sleep of the just without the sting of social
stigma or the pangs of conscience. Like Kenneth Lay, they could even be invited
into the White House to write their own regulations.
And here are just two final bits of testimony from actual
politicians - first, Brand Whitlock, Mayor of Toledo. He is one of my heroes
because he first learned his politics as a beat reporter in Chicago, confirming
my own experience that there's nothing better than journalism to turn life
into a continuing course in adult education. One of his lessons was that "the
alliance between the lobbyists and the lawyers of the great corporation interests
on the one hand, and the managers of both the great political parties on the
other, was a fact, the worst feature of which was that no one seemed to care."
And then there is Tom Johnson, the progressive mayor of
Cleveland in the early nineteen hundreds - a businessman converted to social
activism. His major battles were to impose regulation, or even municipal takeover,
on the private companies that were meant to provide affordable public transportation
and utilities but in fact crushed competitors, overcharged customers, secured
franchises and licenses for a song, and paid virtually nothing in taxes -
all through their pocketbook control of lawmakers and judges. Johnson's argument
for public ownership was simple: "If you don't own them, they will own you.
It's why advocates of Clean Elections today argue that if anybody's going
to buy Congress, it should be the people." When advised that businessmen got
their way in Washington because they had lobbies and consumers had none, Tom
Johnson responded: "If Congress were true to the principles of democracy it
would be the people's lobby." What a radical contrast to the House of Representatives
Our political, moral, and intellectual forbearance occupy
a long and honorable roster. They include wonderful characters like Dr. Alice
Hamilton, a pioneer in industrially-caused diseases, who spent long years
clambering up and down ladders in factories and mineshafts - in long skirts!
- tracking down the unsafe toxic substances that sickened the workers whom
she would track right into their sickbeds to get leads and tip-offs on where
to hunt. Or Harvey Wiley, the chemist from Indiana who, from a bureaucrat's
desk in the Department of Agriculture, relentlessly warred on foods laden
with risky preservatives and adulterants with the help of his "poison squad"
of young assistants who volunteered as guinea pigs. Or lawyers like the brilliant
Harvard graduate Louis Brandeis, who took on corporate attorneys defending
child labor or long and harsh conditions for female workers. Brandeis argued
that the state had a duty to protect the health of working women and children.
To be sure, these progressives weren't all saints. Their
glory years coincided with the heyday of lynching and segregation, of empire
and the Big Stick and the bold theft of the Panama Canal, of immigration restriction
and ethnic stereotypes. Some were themselves businessmen only hoping to control
an unruly marketplace by regulation. But by and large they were conservative
reformers. They aimed to preserve the existing balance between wealth and
commonwealth. Their common enemy was unchecked privilege, their common hope
was a better democracy, and their common weapon was informed public opinion.
In a few short years the progressive spirit made possible
the election not only of reform mayors and governors but of national figures
like Senator George Norris of Nebraska, Senator Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin,
and even that hard-to-classify political genius, Theodore Roosevelt. All three
of them Republicans. Here is the simplest laundry-list of what was accomplished
at state and Federal levels: Publicly regulated or owned transportation, sanitation
and utilities systems. The partial restoration of competition in the marketplace
through improved antitrust laws. Increased fairness in taxation. Expansion
of the public education and juvenile justice systems. Safer workplaces and
guarantees of compensation to workers injured on the job. Oversight of the
purity of water, medicines and foods. Conservation of the national wilderness
heritage against overdevelopment, and honest bidding on any public mining,
lumbering and ranching. We take these for granted today - or we did until
recently. All were provided not by the automatic workings of free enterprise
but by implementing the idea in the Declaration of Independence that the people
had a right to governments that best promoted their "safety and happiness."
The mighty progressive wave peaked in 1912. But the ideas
leashed by it forged the politics of the 20th century. Like his cousin Theodore,
Franklin Roosevelt argued that the real enemy of enlightened capitalism was
"the malefactors of great wealth" - the "economic royalists" - from whom capitalism
would have to be saved by reform and regulation. Progressive government became
an embedded tradition of Democrats - the heart of FDR's New Deal and Harry
Truman's Fair Deal, and honored even by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who didn't want
to tear down the house progressive ideas had built - only to put it under
different managers. The progressive impulse had its final fling in the landslide
of 1969 when LBJ, who was a son of the West Texas hill country, where the
Populist rebellion had been nurtured in the 1890s, won the public endorsement
for what he meant to be the capstone in the arch of the New Deal.
I had a modest role in that era. I shared in its exhilaration
and its failures. We went too far too fast, overreached at home and in Vietnam,
failed to examine some assumptions, and misjudged the rising discontents and
fierce backlash engendered by war, race, civil disturbance, violence and crime.
Democrats grew so proprietary in this town that a fat, complacent political
establishment couldn't recognize its own intellectual bankruptcy or the beltway
that was growing around it and beginning to separate it from the rest of the
country. The failure of democratic politicians and public thinkers to respond
to popular discontents - to the daily lives of workers, consumers, parents,
and ordinary taxpayers - allowed a resurgent conservatism to convert public
concern and hostility into a crusade to resurrect social Darwinism as a moral
philosophy, multinational corporations as a governing class, and the theology
of markets as a transcendental belief system. As a citizen I don't like the
consequences of this crusade, but you have to respect the conservatives for
their successful strategy in gaining control of the national agenda. Their
stated and open aim is to change how America is governed - to strip from government
all its functions except those that reward their rich and privileged benefactors.
They are quite candid about it, even acknowledging their mean spirit in accomplishing
it. Their leading strategist in Washington - the same Grover Norquist - has
famously said he wants to shrink the government down to the size that it could
be drowned in a bathtub. More recently, in commenting on the fiscal crisis
in the states and its affect on schools and poor people, Norquist said, "I
hope one of them" - one of the states - "goes bankrupt." So much for compassionate
conservatism. But at least Norquist says what he means and means what he says.
The White House pursues the same homicidal dream without saying so. Instead
of shrinking down the government, they're filling the bathtub with so much
debt that it floods the house, water-logs the economy, and washes away services
for decades that have lifted millions of Americans out of destitution and
into the middle-class. And what happens once the public's property has been
flooded? Privatize it. Sell it at a discounted rate to the corporations.
It is the most radical assault on the notion of one nation,
indivisible, that has occurred in our lifetime. I'll be frank with you: I
simply don't understand it - or the malice in which it is steeped. Many people
are nostalgic for a golden age. These people seem to long for the Gilded Age.
That I can grasp. They measure America only by their place on the material
spectrum and they bask in the company of the new corporate aristocracy, as
privileged a class as we have seen since the plantation owners of antebellum
America and the court of Louis IV. What I can't explain is the rage of the
counter-revolutionaries to dismantle every last brick of the social contract.
At this advanced age I simply have to accept the fact that the tension between
haves and have-nots is built into human psychology and society itself - it's
ever with us. However, I'm just as puzzled as to why, with right wing wrecking
crews blasting away at social benefits once considered invulnerable, Democrats
are fearful of being branded "class warriors" in a war the other side started
and is determined to win. I don't get why conceding your opponent's premises
and fighting on his turf isn't the sure-fire prescription for irrelevance
and ultimately obsolescence. But I confess as well that I don't know how to
resolve the social issues that have driven wedges into your ranks. And I don't
know how to reconfigure democratic politics to fit into an age of soundbites
and polling dominated by a media oligarchy whose corporate journalists are
neutered and whose right-wing publicists have no shame.
What I do know is this: While the social dislocations and
meanness that galvanized progressives in the 19th century are resurgent so
is the vision of justice, fairness, and equality. That's a powerful combination
if only there are people around to fight for it. The battle to renew democracy
has enormous resources to call upon - and great precedents for inspiration.
Consider the experience of James Bryce, who published "The Great Commonwealth"
back in 1895 at the height of the First Gilded Age. Americans, Bryce said,
"were hopeful and philanthropic." He saw first-hand the ills of that "dark
and unlovely age," but he went on to say: " A hundred times I have been disheartened
by the facts I was stating: a hundred times has the recollection of the abounding
strength and vitality of the nation chased away those tremors."
What will it take to get back in the fight? Understanding
the real interests and deep opinions of the American people is the first thing.
And what are those? That a Social Security card is not a private portfolio
statement but a membership ticket in a society where we all contribute to
a common treasury so that none need face the indignities of poverty in old
age without that help. That tax evasion is not a form of conserving investment
capital but a brazen abandonment of responsibility to the country. That income
inequality is not a sign of freedom-of-opportunity at work, because if it
persists and grows, then unless you believe that some people are naturally
born to ride and some to wear saddles, it's a sign that opportunity is less
than equal. That self-interest is a great motivator for production and progress,
but is amoral unless contained within the framework of community. That the
rich have the right to buy more cars than anyone else, more homes, vacations,
gadgets and gizmos, but they do not have the right to buy more democracy than
anyone else. That public services, when privatized, serve only those who can
afford them and weaken the sense that we all rise and fall together as "one
nation, indivisible." That concentration in the production of goods may sometimes
be useful and efficient, but monopoly over the dissemination of ideas is evil.
That prosperity requires good wages and benefits for workers. And that our
nation can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy than it could
survive "half slave and half free" - and that keeping it from becoming all
oligarchy is steady work - our work.
Ideas have power - as long as they are not frozen in doctrine.
But ideas need legs. The eight-hour day, the minimum wage, the conservation
of natural resources and the protection of our air, water, and land, women's
rights and civil rights, free trade unions, Social Security and a civil service
based on merit - all these were launched as citizen's movements and won the
endorsement of the political class only after long struggles and in the face
of bitter opposition and sneering attacks. It's just a fact: Democracy doesn't
work without citizen activism and participation, starting at the community.
Trickle down politics doesn't work much better than trickle down economics.
It's also a fact that civilization happens because we don't leave things to
other people. What's right and good doesn't come naturally. You have to stand
up and fight for it - as if the cause depends on you, because it does. Allow
yourself that conceit - to believe that the flame of democracy will never
go out as long as there's one candle in your hand. So go for it. Never mind
the odds. Remember what the progressives faced. Karl Rove isn't tougher than
Mark Hanna was in his time and a hundred years from now some historian will
be wondering how it was that Norquist and Company got away with it as long
as they did - how they waged war almost unopposed on the infrastructure of
social justice, on the arrangements that make life fair, on the mutual rights
and responsibilities that offer opportunity, civil liberties, and a decent
standard of living to the least among us.
"Democracy is not a lie" - I first learned that from Henry
Demarest Lloyd, the progressive journalist whose book, "Wealth against Commonwealth,"
laid open the Standard trust a century ago. Lloyd came to the conclusion to
"Regenerate the individual is a half truth. The reorganization of the society
which he makes and which makes him is the other part. The love of liberty
became liberty in America by clothing itself in the complicated group of strengths
known as the government of the United States." And it was then he said: "Democracy
is not a lie. There live in the body of the commonality unexhausted virtue
and the ever-refreshed strength which can rise equal to any problems of progress.
In the hope of tapping some reserve of their power of self-help," he said,
"this story is told to the people."
This is your story - the progressive story of America.
Pass it on.