Born in the year of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s greatest electoral triumph, William Greider was in so many senses the last New Dealer. His death on Christmas Day, at age 83, represents a stark loss for American journalism. His honest diagnosis of our political crisis distinguished him from his contemporaries as he covered politics across six long decades. Now, it forms a legacy that is essential to understanding a 2020 election campaign that could finally see the emergence of the more humane and progressive electoral project that he identified as necessary—and possible.
I knew Bill as a quick-witted comrade in the press corps of too many campaigns to count, a generous mentor, an ideological compatriot, and an occasional co-conspirator. He taught me to see politics not as the game that TV pundits discuss but as a high-stakes struggle for power in which the Democrats foolishly, and then dangerously, yielded far too much ground to increasingly right-wing Republicans.
This son of the Depression era bemoaned the failure of the Democratic Party to make a New Deal–style response to the financial meltdown of 2008, explaining after the devastating Republican victories of 2010, “When the party of activist government, faced with an epic crisis, will not use government’s extensive powers to reverse the economic disorders and heal deepening social deterioration, then it must be the end of the line for the governing ideology inherited from Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson.”
And, anticipating the rise of Donald Trump, he counseled that the void left by Democrats who pulled their punches would be filled by Republicans who would not hesitate to practice the crudest divide-and-conquer politics.
Bill’s frustration with what he referred to as “the rightward-drifting Democrats” ran deep. While his books often explored economic themes—with particular brilliance in One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (1997) and Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country (1987)—he was at his finest when he wrote about the awful intersection of money and politics, in books such as Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (1992).
Bill believed Wall Street money was corrupting American politics in general, and the Democratic Party in particular. Decades ago, during the Reagan interregnum, he warned that if the Democrats did not renew the robust commitment to economic justice that characterized FDR’s tenure at its best, then surely right-wing populists would seize the opening. As always, whether he was writing for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone or The Nation (where he served as the ablest of all national affairs correspondents), Bill was right.
More than 30 years ago, he recognized that “the two-party rivalry is not nearly as significant as it’s made to appear” and counseled that
The power arrangement resembles a shared monopoly, in which two companies have tacitly ceded territories to each other to avoid costly competition.
Furthermore, the permanent hierarchy of both parties is dominated at the top by a network of pricey Washington lawyers and lobbyists who represent business interests and collaborate with one another on lobbying the government—while pretending to be opponents. These inside players channel their corporate clients’ money to the elected politicians. In effect, everyone is on the same side.
The parties have begun to delineate themselves a bit more in recent years. But not sufficiently, as Bill explained in scorchingly honest articles for The Nation. He spoke inconvenient truths about the roots of our current politics, especially when he explained that “the Democratic Party’s crude betrayal of the working class was carried out by Bill Clinton and Al Gore when those ‘New Democrats’ won power in 1992. The Clinton-Gore administration swiftly enacted NAFTA, with Republican votes, sealing the deal with Republican policy-makers and selling out the remnants of organized labor.” Bill recognized the necessity of understanding this history in order to explain the rise of Trump and Trumpism.
Above all, Bill argued that for Democrats to seize the high ground, morally and electorally, they had to stop being a “managerial party” and reacquaint themselves with the message FDR delivered during an epically successful 1936 reelection run. That was the year when Roosevelt declared that
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
I don’t know if Bill had that FDR speech memorized. But he carried its spirit in his heart and soul. And he taught the rest of us to do the same. He appreciated the history, as all great journalists do. But there was a point to its recollection. He wanted people to think about how a genuine two-party system might work in the 21st century.
The better part of two decades ago, Bill pointed to the way out when he wrote, for The Nation, on Republican scheming to roll back the economic and social advances initiated by progressives during the 20th century. It was sound advice then. It is sounder advice now, as a great wrestling for the soul of the Democratic Party plays out in the fight for the 2020 nomination to take on Trump.
“Most elected Democrats, I think, now see their role as managerial rather than big reform, and fear that even talking about ideology will stick them with the right’s demon label: ‘liberal,’” he suggested. But, he continued,
If a new understanding of progressive purpose does get formed, one that connects to social reality and describes a more promising future, the vision will not originate in Washington but among those who see realities up close and are struggling now to change things on the ground. We are a very wealthy (and brutally powerful) nation, so why do people experience so much stress and confinement in their lives, a sense of loss and failure? The answers, I suggest, will lead to a new formulation of what progressives want.
The first place to inquire is not the failures of government but the malformed power relationships of American capitalism—the terms of employment that reduce many workers to powerless digits, the closely held decisions of finance capital that shape our society, the waste and destruction embedded in our system of mass consumption and production. The goal is, like the right’s, to create greater self-fulfillment but as broadly as possible. Self-reliance and individualism can be made meaningful for all only by first reviving the power of collective action.
My own conviction is that a lot of Americans are ready to take up these questions and many others. Some are actually old questions—issues of power that were not resolved in the great reform eras of the past. They await a new generation bold enough to ask if our prosperous society is really as free and satisfied as it claims to be. When conscientious people find ideas and remedies that resonate with the real experiences of Americans, then they will have their vision, and perhaps the true answer to the right wing.
This was how Bill Greider told the people of the politics that must be. He wrote truthfully, boldly, consistently, without fear or favor, and without the empty partisanships of these awkward times. He was our North Star.