Bill Moyers for President?

He’s not running, but maybe he should be. Email from a local activist alerted me to an article in The Nation about the recent Take Back America conference. Not surprisingly, the conference attracted a number of Democratic presidential wannabes. But, according to The Nation‘s John Nichols, “it was a non-candidate (Moyers) who won the hearts and minds of the crowd with a ‘Cross of Gold’ speech for the 21st century”, in his acceptance of the America’s Future Lifetime Leadership Award. The article provides a link to Moyers’ speech in PDF format, but since I hate messing with PDF downloads, and since Moyers said to “pass it on”, I don’t think anybody will object if I include the text that Richard thoughtfully mailed.

Moyers was a tough act for the candidates to follow, although Nichols says that some tried bravely with varying success. As a note of personal interest to me, he says that “only the Rev. Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich came close to matching the fury and the passion of the crowd.” I’ve been on the Kucinich bandwagon for a while now, and was inspired by this news (and another appeal from his campaign) to donate again today. Since Bill Moyers isn’t running, Kucinich seems like the next best choice (even I can’t take Al Sharpton seriously).

I’m puzzled by Kucinich’s lack of popular success. I know that candidates with strong progressive views usually have a problem attracting the money they need to run a serious campaign. But with somebody like him in the race, I don’t see how anybody can get excited about the more “mainstream” candidates like Lieberman and Daschle, who are almost indistinguishable from Republicans (I didn’t even see any mention of whether they attended the conference). I sometimes get a slightly rose-colored perception of reality, as frequent messages from the Kucinich campaign and other progressive sources lull me into a feeling that the rest of the world is getting the message. But then I’m faced with the reality that he’s not getting that kind of favorable publicity in more popular media outlets. (The most recent mention of him I’ve seen in a major news source was Maureen Dowd’s NY Times op-ed about shopping, in which she states “The impulse to shop for new clothes occurs to most of the men I know only when their cuffs are so frayed that they are trailing tentacles and their seven-year old crew necks have more hole than sweater. It seemed perfectly natural when Dennis Kucinich had a dark brown stain on his light blue tie at a recent presidential candidates’ forum.”) I just don’t understand exactly why the candidates that arouse the most passion get the least attention.

Oh well, enough of my babbling. I promised you Bill Moyer’s speech. As Richard said, “It is a bit long, but Wow!” Enjoy. And, as Moyers says, pass it on.

This is Your Story – The Progressive Story of America.
Pass It On.

by Bill Moyers

Text of speech to the ‘Take Back America’ Conference
June 4, 2003
Washington, DC

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 that, either.

Tomorrow is my 69th birthday and I cannot imagine a
better present than this award or a better party than your

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

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 Europe.

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

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 no
t 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

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 today!

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

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

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(s) 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.

This is me again .. congratulations for making it all the way through! I just had to add a couple of comments about Moyers’ mention of

“Tom Johnson, the progressive mayor of Cleveland in the early nineteen hundreds … 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 …. Johnson’s argument for public ownership was simple: “If you don’t own them, they will own you.

Local readers will of course see the parallel with the ongoing battle here over the ownership of Kentucky-American water company. And Johnson’s story brings to mind a more recent progressive former mayor of Cleveland, whose tenure in the late 1970s was most known for keeping his campaign pledge not to sell the municipal electric utility to private interests. His opponents accused him of bankrupting the city, although history has proven him right. He can now claim to have confronted the Enron of his day, and received a commendation from the Cleveland City Council in 1998 for his foresight 20 years earlier. His name is Dennis Kucinich.

One Reply to “Bill Moyers for President?”

  1. Matt,
    Thanks for sharing that great piece of writing. It definitely did get the juices flowing. Funny how we (mostly myself) can take our \"eye off the ball\" (stupid corporate saying but worked here) during everyday events and lose sight of the REAL people that make this nation what it is every single day. Too bad we only see and hear what the media want us to. (which is usually whomever or whatever has the most $$) I have no problems with making money and making as much as you can but people with money are still just PEOPLE. There is a lot more to \"really living\" than just money and many of the real quality life experiences don\’t occur in \"country clubs\".

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