Bill Moyers: The Great American Class War, Plutocracy Versus Democracy

By Bill Moyers, host of the weekly public television series Moyers & Company and winner of numerous awards over his 40 years in broadcast journalism. He delivered these remarks (slightly adapted here) at the annual Legacy Awards dinner of the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy institute in New York City that focuses on voting rights, money in politics, equal justice, and other seminal issues of democracy. Originally published at TomDispatch

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document.  By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and — in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular — the defense of a free press.

Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the country.  He claimed that he never took personally the resentment and anger directed at him.  He did, however, subsequently reveal that his own mother told him she had always liked his opinions when he was on the New Jersey court, but wondered now that he was on the Supreme Court, “Why can’t you do it the same way?” His answer: “We have to discharge our responsibility to enforce the rights in favor of minorities, whatever the majority reaction may be.”  

Although a liberal, he worried about the looming size of government. When he mentioned that modern science might be creating “a Frankenstein,” I asked, “How so?”  He looked around his chambers and replied, “The very conversation we’re now having can be overheard. Science has done things that, as I understand it, makes it possible through these drapes and those windows to get something in here that takes down what we’re talking about.” 

That was long before the era of cyberspace and the maximum surveillance state that grows topsy-turvy with every administration.  How I wish he were here now — and still on the Court!

My interview with him was one of 12 episodes in that series on the Constitution.  Another concerned a case he had heard back in 1967.  It involved a teacher named Harry Keyishian who had been fired because he would not sign a New York State loyalty oath.  Justice Brennan ruled that the loyalty oath and other anti-subversive state statutes of that era violated First Amendment protections of academic freedom. 

I tracked Keyishian down and interviewed him.  Justice Brennan watched that program and was fascinated to see the actual person behind the name on his decision.  The journalist Nat Hentoff, who followed Brennan’s work closely, wrote, “He may have seen hardly any of the litigants before him, but he searched for a sense of them in the cases that reached him.”  Watching the interview with Keyishian, he said, “It was the first time I had seen him.  Until then, I had no idea that he and the other teachers would have lost everything if the case had gone the other way.” 

Toward the end of his tenure, when he was writing an increasing number of dissents on the Rehnquist Court, Brennan was asked if he was getting discouraged. He smiled and said, “Look, pal, we’ve always known — the Framers knew — that liberty is a fragile thing.  You can’t give up.”  And he didn’t.

The Donor Class and Streams of Dark Money

The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate.  “The abuse of buying and selling votes,” he wrote of Rome, “crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections.  Later on, this process of corruption spread in the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.”

We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have the Roberts Court that consistently privileges the donor class.  

We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have a Senate in which, as a study by the political scientist Larry Bartels reveals, “Senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.”

We don’t have emperors yet, but we have a House of Representatives controlled by the far right that is now nourished by streams of “dark money” unleashed thanks to the gift bestowed on the rich by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. 

We don’t have emperors yet, but one of our two major parties is now dominated by radicals engaged in a crusade of voter suppression aimed at the elderly, the young, minorities, and the poor; while the other party, once the champion of everyday working people, has been so enfeebled by its own collaboration with the donor class that it offers only token resistance to the forces that have demoralized everyday Americans.

Writing in the Guardian recently, the social critic George Monbiot commented,

“So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics… When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians [of the main parties] stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?”

Why are record numbers of Americans on food stamps? Because record numbers of Americans are in poverty. Why are people falling through the cracks? Because there are cracks to fall through. It is simply astonishing that in this rich nation more than 21 million Americans are still in need of full-time work, many of them running out of jobless benefits, while our financial class pockets record profits, spends lavishly on campaigns to secure a political order that serves its own interests, and demands that our political class push for further austerity. Meanwhile, roughly 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty line and, with the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percent of kids in poverty than we do.  Yet a study by scholars at Northwestern University and Vanderbilt finds little support among the wealthiest Americans for policy reforms to reduce income inequality.

Class Prerogatives

Listen!  That sound you hear is the shredding of the social contract.

Ten years ago the Economist magazine — no friend of Marxism — warned: “The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”  And as a recent headline in the Columbia Journalism Review put it: “The line between democracy and a darker social order is thinner than you think.”

We are this close — this close! — to losing our democracy to the mercenary class. So close it’s as if we’re leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon waiting for a swift kick in the pants.

When Justice Brennan and I talked privately in his chambers before that interview almost 20 years ago, I asked him how he had come to his liberal sentiments.  “It was my neighborhood,” he said.  Born to Irish immigrants in 1906, as the harsh indignities of the Gilded Age brought hardship and deprivation to his kinfolk and neighbors, he saw “all kinds of suffering — people had to struggle.”  He never forgot those people or their struggles, and he believed it to be our collective responsibility to create a country where they would have a fair chance to a decent life.  “If you doubt it,” he said, “read the Preamble [to the Constitution].”

He then asked me how I had come to my philosophy about government (knowing that I had been in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations).  I don’t remember my exact words, but I reminded him that I had been born in the midst of the Great Depression to parents, one of whom had to drop out of school in the fourth grade, the other in the eighth, because they were needed in the fields to pick cotton to help support their families. 

Franklin Roosevelt, I recalled, had been president during the first 11 years of my life.  My father had listened to his radio “fireside chats” as if they were gospel; my brother went to college on the G.I. Bill; and I had been the beneficiary of public schools, public libraries, public parks, public roads, and two public universities.  How could I not think that what had been so good for me would be good for others, too? 

That was the essence of what I told Justice Brennan.  Now, I wish that I could talk to him again, because I failed to mention perhaps the most important lesson about democracy I ever learned. 

On my 16th birthday in 1950, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I grew up.  It was a racially divided town — about 20,000 people, half of them white, half of them black — a place where you could grow up well-loved, well-taught, and well-churched, and still be unaware of the lives of others merely blocks away.  It was nonetheless a good place to be a cub reporter: small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something new every day.  I soon had a stroke of luck.  Some of the old-timers in the newsroom were on vacation or out sick, and I got assigned to report on what came to be known as the “Housewives’ Rebellion.”  Fifteen women in town (all white) decided not to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers (all black). 

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, Jr., the former congressman best known, or worst known, for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the witch-hunting days of the 1930s and 1940s.  They went to court — and lost.  Social Security was constitutional, after all.  They held their noses and paid the tax.

The stories I helped report were picked up by the Associated Press and circulated nationwide.  One day, the managing editor, Spencer Jones, called me over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk.  Moving across the wire was a notice citing the reporters on our paper for the reporting we had done on the “rebellion.”  I spotted my name and was hooked.  In one way or another, after a detour through seminary and then into politics and government, I’ve been covering the class war ever since.

Those women in Marshall, Texas, were among its advance guard.  Not bad people, they were regulars at church, their children were my classmates, many of them were active in community affairs, and their husbands were pillars of the business and professional class in town.  They were respectable and upstanding citizens all, so it took me a while to figure out what had brought on that spasm of reactionary defiance.  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 themselves.  The black women who washed and ironed their laundry, cooked their families’ meals,  cleaned their bathrooms, wiped their children’s bottoms, and made their husbands’ beds, 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 for their years of labor but the creases on their brows and the knots on their knuckles.  There would be nothing for them to live on but the modest return on their toil secured by the collaborative guarantee of a safety net.

The Unfinished Work of America

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embedded in a political contract 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.

I should make it clear that I don’t harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy.  Remember, I worked for Lyndon Johnson.  Nor do I romanticize “the people.” You should read my mail and posts on right-wing websites.  I understand the politician in Texas who said of the state legislature, “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 (something otherwise known as social justice) and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud.  That can be the difference between democracy and plutocracy.

Toward the end of Justice Brennan’s tenure on the Supreme Court, he made a speech that went to the heart of the matter.  He said:

“We do not yet have justice, equal and practical, for the poor, for the members of minority groups, for the criminally accused, for the displaced persons of the technological revolution, for alienated youth, for the urban masses… Ugly inequities continue to mar the face of the nation. We are surely nearer the beginning than the end of the struggle.”

And so we are. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood on the blood-soaked battlefield of Gettysburg and called Americans to “the great task remaining.”  That “unfinished work,” as he named it, remained the same then as it was when America’s founding generation began it. And it remains the same today: to breathe new life into the promise of the Declaration of Independence and to assure that the Union so many have sacrificed to save is a union worth saving.

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24 comments

  1. Dan Kervick

    The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate. “The abuse of buying and selling votes,” he wrote of Rome, “crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, this process of corruption spread in the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.”

    Plutarch was wise.

    1. gepay

      “For in every city these two opposite parties [people vs aristocracy] are to be found, arising from the desire of the populace to avoid oppression of the great, and the desire of the great to command and oppress the people….Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. IX
      This has been going on for a long time but where in the US is the party of the people?

  2. Arnold Lockshin

    “In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embedded in a political contract 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.”
    Baby, it’s always been the latter. Hopes for “democracy” under the present system are vain and misleading. The entire garbage can has to be replaced by something human.
    Arnold Lockshin, political exile forced out of the US and now living in Moscow, Russia

  3. another

    We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have an Executive who arrogates to himself the power to rain death on anyone who sufficiently displeases him, as well as on anyone who happens to be in the way. Man, woman or child. Citizen or not. We are all subject to this. We also know now that we’re all being watched.

    With presidents like these, who needs emperors?

  4. Carla

    Many thanks to Yves for posting this excellent speech.

    Dismaying sign of the times: the ad inserted in the middle of the text. The continuing proliferation of ads is making it harder and harder to actually read Naked Capitalism, my favorite blog of all time. I wonder how much of fundraiser it might take to at least get ads out of the posts (where it seems to me they have just recently appeared).

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to beat up on you, but I’m not a fan of criticism of ads. I have fundraisers and I still have ads. That should tell you that the fundraiser alone does not raise enough to support the site. Unless you are prepared to write a significant five or better yet, six figure check, you have no business complaining. It is tantamount to asking others to solve your problem (that the presence of ads annoys you). It’s like asking for a pony.

      And media outfits rely on subscriptions (their answer to our fundraiser) plus ads. The ones like ProPublica have foundations, which means big donors, which means vulnerability to political pressure (Google “Jane Hamsher” + “veal pen” for details).

      In other words, ads make this site more independent than other models. Specialization of diet leads to extinction.

      Finally, your criticism is REALLY off base here. That ad is carried over from TomDispatch, the source of this post, as a courtesy to them. We don’t get any revenues from that in-text ad. They do.

  5. DakotabornKansan

    It’s hard to be optimistic nowadays. “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” – Oscar Wilde

    “Justified pessimism is not, in fact, pessimism. It is realism.” Ian Welsh once wrote.

    http://www.ianwelsh.net/justified-pessimism/

    “Empires are synonymous with centralized—if occasionally schismatized—hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through—usually—a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of both the society’s information dissemination systems and its lesser—as a rule nominally independent—power systems. In short, it’s all about dominance.” – Ian Banks, The Player of Games

    “Everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” Juvenal, circa A.D. 100

    Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man warned of the risks of being oblivious to threats of the transformative power of new communication technologies: “The electric technology is within the gates and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was founded.”

    In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey dark prophecy, the supercomputer HAL responds with human-like despair as the robot-like astronaut removes the memory circuits that control HAL’s artificial brain.

    E.M. Forster wrote a short story, ‘The Machine Stops,’ about a world of the future, where everyone is removed from any authentic, real experience. Human beings live underground. Each person has his or her own pod where they live alone. There only contact with other people is by The Machine.

    http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

    Forster’s story was published in 1909 more than twenty years before Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

    “…most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution…Two thousand pharmacologists and biochemists were subsidized in A.F. 178…Six years later it was being produced commercially. The perfect drug…Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant…All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects…Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology…Stability was practically assured.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

    [A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.]

    “There are times when what journalists see and intend to write about dispassionately sends a shiver down the spine, shaking us from our neutrality. This has been happening to me frequently of late as one story after another drives home the fact that the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power.” – Bill Moyers, Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times

    [living in the same tent as clowns and freaks; the unhealthy habit of daily wallowing in the troubles and sins of celebrities]

    “And always, everywhere, there would be the yelling or quietly authoritative hypnotists; and in the train of the ruling suggestion givers, always everywhere, the tribes of buffoons and hucksters, the professional liars, the purveyors of entertaining irrelevances. Conditioned from the cradle, unceasingly distracted, mesmerized systematically, their uniformed victims would go on obediently marching and countermarching, go on, always and everywhere, killing and dying with the perfect docility of trained poodles.” – Aldous Huxley, Island

    Still, “I’d rather be an optimist and a fool than a pessimist and right.” – Albert Einstein

    1. Banger

      Great quotes!

      Here is a quote from Jacques Ellul:

      “First of all, modern propaganda is based on scientific analyses of psychology and sociology. Step by step, the propagandist builds his techniques on the basis of his knowledge of man, his tendencies, his desires, his needs, his psychic mechanisms, his conditioning — and as much on social psychology as on depth psychology. He shapes his procedures on the basis of our knowledge of groups and their laws of formation and dissolution, of mass influences, and of environmental limitations. Without the scientific research of modern psychology and sociology there would be no propaganda, or rather we still would be in the primitive stages of propaganda that existed in the time of Pericles or Augustus.”

      Ellul maintained that all modern societies are totalitarian and are maintained through propaganda and, ultimately, violence.

      1. EmilianoZ

        I dont know how practical that really is. How would that work? Do you mean that every single every journalist at the NYT, Wapo and all the rest has been schooled in social psychology as on depth psychology? They probably dont even realize they’re instruments of propaganda.

  6. Banger

    This is a lovely bit of writing as usual from Moyers. His eye is always compassionate for all sides of a struggle. His is a profoundly Christian viewpoint and he does that POV proud.

    We don’t have an Emperor but we have an Empire and a virtual Emperor, a kind of mechanical Golem as an emergent structure–unlike Augustus and some subsequent Emperors the Golem has no compassion nor any sense of preserving society as a whole (Augustus was obsessed with maintaining public morality). As a result our own Imperial arrangements are unlikely to last long–the Establishment that once guided the waning days of the Republic is now part of an international ruling elite without much allegiance to any nation state or the society that the nation state rules.

    As I’ve said many times before, the citizens of this country have tacitly approved this situation. Great numbers of people oppose social-democracy of any kind and have come to believe the mores broadcast to them 24/7, which are, that selfishness and egotism are virtues and the old virtues like courage and compassion are, increasingly, considered foolish.

    1. Anarcissie

      Social democracy is a form of the capitalist state which was developed and exhibited when this state and its political philosophy came under serious attack from socialists and others. It was still a capitalist state, however; that is, its ruling class were the bigger capitalists or their servants. Hence it was always plutocratic. Now that threats to it seem to have receded, the social democracy is being rescinded or allowed to deteriorate. It seems odd to me to look back on the former deceptive era with much affection, although it certainly had some practical benefits.

      But, in spite of everything, social democracy still seems rather popular among the people, at least to the extent they are or may be the beneficiaries of it. There seems to be a fond hope among them that even absent any major threat, and after all else that has happened, their masters will still unaccountably turn nice. But why should they?

      1. Banger

        I think you are right. Social democracy resulted from pressures from the radical left and, to a lesser extent the radical right. Some of us who came from the anarchist POV believed that only SD could provide the incubator for a new set of political arrangement in harmony with essential anarchist ideals. What should have happened in the eighties or at least the nineties was strong pressure from the left against almost cartoonish villainy of the oligarchs in dismantling the FDR reforms.

        The underlying failure of the left started in late sixties as I saw with my own eyes the peeling off of layer after layer of the left. First it was the black nationalists who gave the finger to those who a few years previously risked their lives to desegregate the South, then the feminists burned their bras (I actually was part of a collective that was broken up by one of the original Atlantic City feminists who created the overblown bra-burning event. Same was true of AIM, the Chicano movement, gays and so on. And, of course there was the Jihad the government security services waged against that full of threats, shooting, false-flag, agents provocateurs. Still all these thing could have held us together in a common united front–instead we have a left full of fist shakers and single-issue politics.

        Today the oligarchs are, as practical matter, opposed, except for some sections of the libertarian right, by no leftist threat of any consequence.

      2. Banger

        I think you are right. Social democracy resulted from pressures from the radical left and, to a lesser extent the radical right. Some of us who came from the anarchist POV believed that only SD could provide the incubator for a new set of political arrangement in harmony with essential anarchist ideals. What should have happened in the eighties or at least the nineties was strong pressure from the left against almost cartoonish villainy of the oligarchs in dismantling the FDR reforms.

        The underlying failure of the left started in late sixties as I saw with my own eyes the peeling off of layer after layer of the left. First it was the black nationalists who gave the finger to those who a few years previously risked their lives to desegregate the South, then the feminists burned their bras (I actually was part of a collective that was broken up by one of the original Atlantic City feminists who created the overblown bra-burning event. Same was true of AIM, the Chicano movement, gays and so on. And, of course there was the Jihad the government security services waged against us full of threats, shootings, false-flag, agents provocateurs. Still all these thing could have held us together in a common united front–instead we have a left full of fist shakers and single-issue politics.

        Today the oligarchs are, as practical matter, opposed, except for some sections of the libertarian right, by no leftist threat of any consequence.

      3. Ulysses

        “There seems to be a fond hope among them that even absent any major threat, and after all else that has happened, their masters will still unaccountably turn nice.”

        The best thing we can do is not to disparage the meek and hopeful downtrodden, dismissing them as “sheeple.” Rather we need to stand up to abusive power ourselves, providing an example of how to resist bullies. Wildcat strikes, student sit-ins, chaining ourselves to bulldozers, etc. I don’t regret at all the nights I’ve spent in jail or the two fractured ribs (from NYPD batons) I’ve endured. We are many, they are few. Hang on to that thought and don’t lose hope!!

        Banger is definitely on to something when he suggests that identity politics often serves to divide us and make us weak in confronting the kleptocrats. Nonetheless, I am happy to struggle with an ally committed to the single issue of preventing fracking, even if she wouldn’t be caught dead singing with Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel choir in a Chase bank.

    2. Andrew Watts

      We can choose to live and work towards a harmonious society where we’re all in the same predicament. The alternative is a society where the powerful oppress the weak and the rich exploit the poor. The latter society does not have a future. As Teddy Roosevelt said, the tyranny of money is the most offensive out of them all.

      As with the Great Depression this moment might be the twilight of our national downfall. When the visionary nineteenth and twentieth century leaders of the United States conceived the Americanization project and the American dream it yielded a sense of unity to a diverse nation. In the absence of this unity the possibility exists that national dissolution is in our future.

    1. Banger

      When our hearts open to love and the feelings of connection that are essential for human happiness. The political revolution starts when enough people blossom.

      1. Synopticist

        What makes you so confident it will come from the left, if it comes at all?

        I see a greater danger to the present, imperfect order from the oligarchic right, a revolution from above,

    2. Ulysses

      Next Thursday at 10:45 A.M., EST, LOL.
      A good serious attempt to answer that question is made here by Chris Hedges:

      “Revolution usually erupts over events that would, in normal circumstances, be considered meaningless or minor acts of injustice by the state. But once the tinder of revolt has piled up, as it has in the United States, an insignificant spark easily ignites popular rebellion. No person or movement can ignite this tinder. No one knows where or when the eruption will take place. No one knows the form it will take. But it is certain now that a popular revolt is coming. The refusal by the corporate state to address even the minimal grievances of the citizenry, along with the abject failure to remedy the mounting state repression, the chronic unemployment and underemployment, the massive debt peonage that is crippling more than half of Americans, and the loss of hope and widespread despair, means that blowback is inevitable.”

      Anecdotally, you know it’s not too far off when even my conservative cowboy cousins, in Wyoming, are openly mocking Mitch McConnell and suggesting that “them rich Wall Street assholes oughta remember what happened to Marie Antoinette!!” The 2nd American revolution won’t be leftist or rightist, it will be straight up populist.

    3. Anarcissie

      There are people out now trying to form and cultivate cooperatives, communes, and other temporary and maybe not-so-temporary autonomous zones. That’s the mycelium of the revolution.

      1. sufferinsuccotash, stupor mundi

        That sounds like something straight out of 1969, hippie communes n’ all.
        Trouble is, sooner or later one has to confront the state, which most emphatically is not going to let the new society grow up within the shell of the old, as well as the interests which the state serves.

  7. ciwood

    It starts when we all agree to vote against every incumbent all the time. When politicians know they will only serve one term, maybe idealism will take hold over short term personal gains.

  8. JTFaraday

    The New Deal, and SS in particular, always was and still is social and economic inequality codified. If the “left” bounds of permissible discourse amounts to a defense of the New Deal, then the only possible outcome was that the so-called “left” in the US would fall apart.

    But keep whining.

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