Bill Moyers delivered a stirring keynote on the capture of our political system by the ultra-rich last night in Washington, at a gala honoring the fortieth anniversary of Ralph Nader’s advocacy group Public Citizen. Moyers urged people to have clarity about what has happened to American politics, and to engage in dedicated citizen action to combat it. His remarks are worth quoting at length:

During the great prairie revolt that swept the plains a century after the Constitution was ratified, the populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease explained “Wall Street owns the country. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The parties lie to us, and the political speakers mislead us,” because, she said, “money rules.”

That was 1890. And those agrarian populists were boiling over with anger that the corporations, banks and government were conniving to deprive everyday people of their livelihood. They 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 will fill it. That’s now the norm, and they get away with it.

Barack Obama criticizes bankers as fat cats, then invites them to dine at a pricy New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 a person. And that’s the norm. And they get away with it.

As we speak, the president has raised more money from banks, hedge funds, and private equity managers than any Republican candidate, including Mitt Romney. Let’s name it for what it is: democratic decency defined downward. Politics today—and there are honorable men and women in it—but politics today is little more than money laundering and 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 occupied is no mystery—reporters keep scratching their heads and asking, “Why are you here?” But it’s as clear as the crash of 2008: they are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied America.

Moyers continued:

So it’s no wonder to me as a journalist or a citizen that so many Americans have felt that sense of political impotence that Lawrence Goodwyn described as the mass resignation of people who believe in the dogma of democracy at the superficial level, but whose hearts no longer burn with the conviction that they are part of the deal.

And I will tell you that against such odds, discouragement comes easily. But if the generations before us had given up, slaves would still be waiting on these tables, women would still be turned away from the voting booths on election days, and workers would still be committing a crime if they organize.

So, don’t ever, as Ralph said, don’t ever count the people out.

Moyers appeared along with Nader and other key advocates from Public Citizen, like Joan Claybrook, Alan Morrison and Dr. Sidney Alan Wolfe. The group has rather stunning record of success combatting corporate power in Washington, from the famous battles over auto safety to later fights against nuclear power, dangerous pharmaceutical products and other excesses.