This article is adapted from a speech Bill Moyers gave in October at Public Citizen’s fortieth-anniversary gala.
During the prairie revolt that swept the Great Plains in 1890, populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease exclaimed, “Wall Street owns the country…. Money rules…. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us.”
She should see us now. John Boehner calls on the bankers, holds out his cup and offers them total obeisance from the House majority if only they fill it. Barack Obama criticizes bankers as “fat cats,” then invites them to dine at a pricey New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 a person.
That’s now the norm, and they get away with it. The president has raised more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and private equity managers than any Republican candidate, including Mitt Romney. Inch by inch he has conceded ground to them while espousing populist rhetoric that his very actions betray.
Let’s name this for what it is: hypocrisy made worse, the further perversion of democracy. Our politicians are little more than money launderers in the trafficking of power and policy—fewer than six degrees of separation from the spirit and tactics of Tony Soprano.
Why New York’s Zuccotti Park is filled with people is no mystery. Reporters keep scratching their heads and asking, “Why are you here?” But it’s clear they are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied the country. And that’s why in public places across the nation workaday Americans are standing up in solidarity. Did you see the sign a woman was carrying at a fraternal march in Iowa the other day? It read, I Can’t Afford to Buy a Politician So I Bought This Sign. Americans have learned the hard way that when rich organizations and wealthy individuals shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they get what they want.
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood says that our nation discovered its greatness “by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and pecuniary pursuits of happiness.” This democracy, he said, changed the lives of “hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people.”
Those words moved me when I read them. They moved me because Henry and Ruby Moyers were “common laboring people.” My father dropped out of the fourth grade and never returned to school because his family needed him to pick cotton to help make ends meet. Mother managed to finish the eighth grade before she followed him into the fields. They were tenant farmers when the Great Depression knocked them down and almost out. The year I was born my father was making $2 a day working on the highway to Oklahoma City. He never took home more than $100 a week in his working life, and he made that only when he joined the union in the last job he held. I was one of the poorest white kids in town, but in many respects I was the equal of my friend who was the daughter of the richest man in town. I went to good public schools, had the use of a good public library, played sandlot baseball in a good public park and traveled far on good public roads with good public facilities to a good public university. Because these public goods were there for us, I never thought of myself as poor. When I began to piece the story together years later, I came to realize that people like the Moyerses had been included in the American deal. “We, the People” included us.