Comments Prepared for Delivery
Public Citizen 40th Gala
I am honored to share this occasion with
No one beyond your collegial inner circle
appreciates more than I do what you have stood for over these 40 years,
or is more aware of the battles you have fought, the victories you have
won, and the passion for democracy that still courses through your
The great progressive of a century ago,
Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin - a Republican, by the way - believed
that “Democracy is a life; and involves constant struggle.” Democracy
has been your life for four decades now, and would have been even more
imperiled today if you had not stayed the course.
I began my public journalism the same year you began your public
advocacy, in 1971.
Our paths often paralleled and sometimes
crossed. Over these 40 years journalism for me has been a continuing
course in adult education, and I came early on to consider the work you
do as part of the curriculum - an open seminar on how government works -
and for whom.
Your muckraking investigations - into money
and politics, corporate behavior, lobbying, regulatory oversight, public
health and safety, openness in government, and consumer protection,
among others - are models of accuracy and integrity. They drive home to
journalists that while it is important to cover the news, it is more
important to uncover the news.
As one of my mentors said,
“News is what people want to keep
hidden; everything else is publicity.”
And when a student asked the journalist and
historian Richard Reeves for his definition of “real news”, he
“The news you and I need to keep our
You keep reminding us how crucial that news
is to democracy. And when the watchdogs of the press have fallen silent,
your vigilant growls have told us something’s up.
So I’m here as both citizen and journalist to thank you for all you have
done, to salute you for keeping the faith, and to implore you to fight
on during the crisis of hope that now grips our country.
The great American experience in creating a
different future together - this “voluntary union for the common good” -
has been flummoxed by a growing sense of political impotence - what the
historian Lawrence Goodwyn has described as a mass resignation of
people who believe “the dogma of democracy” on a superficial public
level but who no longer believe it privately.
There has been, he says, a decline in what
people think they have a political right to aspire to - a decline of
individual self-respect on the part of millions of Americans.
You can understand why.
We hold elections, knowing they are unlikely
to produce the policies favored by the majority of Americans. We speak,
we write, we advocate - and those in power turn deaf ears and blind eyes
to our deepest aspirations. We petition, plead, and even pray - yet the
earth that is our commons, which should be passed on in good condition
to coming generations, continues to be despoiled.
We invoke the strain in our national DNA
that attests to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the
produce of political equality - yet private wealth multiplies as public
goods are beggared. And the property qualifications for federal office
that the framers of the Constitution expressly feared as an unseemly
“veneration for wealth” are now openly in force; the common denominator
of public office, even for our judges, is a common deference to cash.
So if belief in the “the dogma of democracy” seems only skin deep, there
are reasons for it.
During the prairie revolt that swept the
Great Plains a century after the Constitution was ratified, the populist
orator Mary Elizabeth Lease exclaimed:
“Wall Street owns the country… 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… Money rules.”
That was 1890. Those agrarian populists
boiled over with anger that corporations, banks, and government were
ganging up to deprive every day people of their livelihood.
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.
That’s now the norm, and they get away with it. GOP once again means
Guardians of Privilege.
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 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
Let’s name this for what it is: hypocrisy made worse, the further
perversion of democracy.
Democratic deviancy defined further downward. 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
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 country workaday Americans are standing up
Did you see the sign a woman was carrying at
a fraternal march in Iowa the other day?
“I can’t afford to buy a politician so I
bought this sign.”
We know what all this money buys.
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.
They know that if you don’t contribute to
their campaigns or spend generously on lobbying,
…you pick up a disproportionate share of
America’s tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of
products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in
a similar situation have been excused from paying. You’re compelled
to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them.
You must pay debts that you incur while
others do not. You’re barred from writing off on your tax returns
some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost
of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of
rules, while the government creates another set for your
In contrast the fortunate few who
contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists
enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business
deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at
below market wages, the government provides the means to do so.
If they want more time to pay their
debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity
from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore
rules their competition must comply with, the government gives it
If they want to kill legislation that is
intended for the public, it gets killed.
I didn’t crib that litany from Public
Citizen’s muckraking investigations over the years, although I could
have. Nor did I lift it from Das Kapital by Karl Marx or Mao Tse-tung’s
Little Red Book.
No, I was literally quoting Time Magazine,
long a tribune of America’s establishment media. From the bosom of
mainstream media comes the bald, spare, and damning conclusion:
We now have “government for the few at
the expense of the many.”
But let me call another witness from the
pro-business and capitalist- friendly press. In the middle of the last
decade - four years before the Great Collapse of 2008 - the editors of
The Economist warned:
A growing body of evidence suggests that
the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality
is growing to levels not seen since the (first) Gilded Age. But
social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace…
Everywhere you look in modern America -
in the Hollywood Hills or the canyons of Wall Street, in the
Nashville recording studios or the clapboard houses of Cambridge,
Massachusetts - you see elites mastering the art of perpetuating
America is increasingly looking like
imperial Britain, with dynastic ties proliferating, social circles
interlocking, mechanisms of social exclusion strengthening, and a
gap widening between the people who make decisions and shape the
culture and the vast majority of working stiffs.
Hear the editors of The Economist: “The
United States is on its way to becoming a European-style class-based
Can you imagine what would happen if I had said that on PBS? Mitch
McConnell and John Boehner would put Elmo and Big Bird under house
arrest. Come to think of it, I did say it on PBS back when Karl Rove was
president, and there was indeed hell to pay.
You would have thought Che Guevara had run
his motorcycle across the White House lawn. But I wasn’t quoting from a
radical or even liberal manifesto. I was quoting - to repeat - one of
the business world’s most respected journals.
It is the editors of the The Economist who
are warning us that,
“The United States is on its way to
becoming a European-style class-based society.”
And that was well before our financiers,
drunk with greed and high on the illusions and conceits of laissez faire
(“leave us alone”) fundamentalism, and humored by rented politicians who
do their bidding, brought America to the edge of the abyss and our
middle class to its knees.
How could it be? How could this happen in the country whose framers
spoke of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the same
breath as political equality?
Democracy wasn’t meant to produce a
class-ridden society. When that son of French aristocracy Alexander de
Tocqueville traveled through the bustling young America of the 1830s,
nothing struck him with greater force than “the equality of conditions.”
Tocqueville knew first-hand the vast
divisions between the wealth and poverty of Europe, where kings and
feudal lords took what they wanted and left peasants the crumbs.
But Americans, he wrote,
“seemed to be remarkably equal
“Some were richer, some were poorer, but
within a comparative narrow band. Moreover, individuals had
opportunities to better their economic circumstances over the course
of a lifetime, and just about everyone [except of course slaves and
Indians] seemed to be striving for that goal.”
Tocqueville looked closely, and said:
“I easily perceive the enormous
influence that this primary fact exercises on the workings of the
And so it does. Evidence abounds that large
inequalities undermine community life, reduces trust among citizens, and
In one major study from data collected over
30 years [by the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate
Pickett in their book:
The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes
Societies Stronger] the most consistent predictor of mental
illness, infant mortality, educational achievements, teenage births,
homicides, and incarceration, is economic inequality.
And as Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow
“Vast inequalities of income weakens a
society’s sense of mutual concern…The sense that we are all members
of the social order is vital to the meaning of civilization.”
The historian Gordon Wood won the Pulitzer
Prize for his book on The Radicalism of the American Revolution:
If you haven’t read it, now’s the time.
Wood says that our nation discovered its greatness“ by creating a
prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their
workaday concerns and their 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 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 use of a good
public library, played sand-lot baseball in a good public park, and
traveled far on good public roads with good public facilities to a good
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 Moyers had been
included in the American deal:
“We, the People” included us.
It’s heartbreaking to see what has become of
that bargain. These days it’s every man for himself; may be the richest
and most ruthless predators win!
How did this happen?
You know the story, because it begins the very same year that you began
your public advocacy and I began my public journalism. 1971 was a
On March 29 of that year, Ralph Nader bought ads in 13 publications and
sent out letters asking people if they would invest their talents,
skills, and yes, their lives, in working for the public interest.
The seed sprouted swiftly that spring:
By the end of May over 60,000 Americans
responded, and Public Citizen was born.
But something else was also happening.
Five months later, on August 23, 1971, a
corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell - a board member of the
death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future Justice of the
United States Supreme Court - sent a confidential memorandum to his
friends at the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. We look back on it now as a
call to arms for class war waged from the top down.
Let’s recall the context: Big Business was being forced to clean up its
act. It was bad enough to corporate interests that Franklin Roosevelt’s
New Deal had sustained its momentum through Harry Truman, Dwight
Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.
Suddenly this young lawyer named Ralph
Nader arrived on the scene, arousing consumers with articles,
speeches, and above all, an expose of the automobile industry, Unsafe at
Any Speed. Young activists flocked to work with him on health,
environmental, and economic concerns. Congress was moved to act.
Even Republicans signed on. In l970
President Richard Nixon put his signature on the National Environmental
Policy Act and named a White House Council to promote environmental
quality. A few months later millions of Americans turned out for Earth
Day. Nixon then agreed to the creation of the Environmental
Protection Agency. Congress acted swiftly to pass tough new
amendments to the Clean Air Act and
the EPA announced the first air
There were new regulations directed at lead
paint and pesticides. Corporations were no longer getting away with
And Lewis Powell was shocked - shocked! - at what he called,
“an attack on the American free
Not just from a few “extremists of the
left,” he said, but also from “perfectly respectable elements of
society,” including the media, politicians, and leading intellectuals.
Fight back, and fight back hard, he urged his compatriots.
Build a movement. Set speakers loose across
the country. Take on prominent institutions of public opinion -
especially the universities, the media, and the courts. Keep television
programs under “constant surveillance.”
And above all, recognize that political
power must be,
“assiduously (sic) cultivated; and that
when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination”
and “without embarrassment.”
Powell imagined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
as a council of war.
Since business executives had “little
stomach for hard-nose contest with their critics” and “little skill in
effective intellectual and philosophical debate,” they should create new
think tanks, legal foundations, and front groups of every stripe.
It would take years, but these groups could,
he said, be aligned into a united front (that) would only come about
“careful long-range planning and
implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period
of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint
effort, and in the political power available only through united
action and united organizations.”
You have to admit it was a brilliant
Although Powell may not have seen it at the
time, he was pointing America toward plutocracy, where political power
is derived from the wealthy and controlled by the wealthy to protect
their wealth. As the only countervailing power to private greed and
power, democracy could no longer be tolerated.
While Nader’s recruitment of citizens to champion democracy was open for
all to see - depended, in fact, on public participation - Powell’s memo
was for certain eyes only, those with the means and will to answer his
call to arms. The public wouldn’t learn of the memo until after Nixon
appointed Powell to the Supreme Court and the enterprising reporter
Jack Anderson obtained a copy, writing that it may have been the
reason for Powell’s appointment.
By then his document had circulated widely in corporate suites. Within
two years the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed a task force
of 40 business executives - from U.S. Steel, GE, GM, Phillips Petroleum,
3M, Amway, and ABC and CBS (two media companies, we should note).
Their assignment was to coordinate the
crusade, put Powell’s recommendations into effect, and push the
corporate agenda. Powell had set in motion a revolt of the rich.
As the historian Kim Phillips-Fein
“Many who read the memo cited it
afterward as inspiration for their political choices.”
Those choices came soon.
The National Association of Manufacturers
announced it was moving its main offices from New York to Washington.
In 1971, only 175 firms had registered
lobbyists in the capital; by 1982, nearly twenty-five hundred did.
Corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over twelve hundred
by the middle of the l980s.
From Powell’s impetus came the Business
Roundtable, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the
Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute,
Citizens for a Sound Economy (precursor to what we now know as Americans
for Prosperity) and other organizations united in pushing back against
political equality and shared prosperity.*
* Thanks to Charlie Cray for a
succinct analysis of the Powell memo and to Jim Hoggan for
calling attention to it more recently.
They triggered an economic transformation
that would in time touch every aspect of our lives.
Powell’s memo was delivered to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at its
headquarters across from the White House on land that was formerly the
home of Daniel Webster. That couldn’t have been more appropriate.
History was coming full circle at 1615 H Street. Webster is remembered
largely as the most eloquent orator in America during his years as
Senator from Massachusetts and Secretary of State under three presidents
in the years leading up to the Civil War.
He was also the leading spokesman for
banking and industry nabobs who funded his extravagant tastes in wine,
boats, and mistresses.
Some of them came to his relief when he
couldn’t cover his debts wholly from bribes or the sale of diplomatic
posts for personal gain. Webster apparently regarded the merchants and
bankers of Boston’s State Street Corporation - one of the country’s
first financial holding companies - very much as
George W. Bush regarded the high
rollers he called “my base.”
The great orator even sent a famous letter
to financiers requesting retainers from them that he might better serve
The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
wondered how the American people could follow Webster,
“through hell or high water when he
would not lead unless someone made up a purse for him.”
No wonder the U.S. Chamber of Commerce feels
right as home with the landmark designation of its headquarters.
1615 H Street now masterminds the laundering
of multi-millions of dollars raised from captains of industry and
private wealth to finance - secretly - the political mercenaries who
fight the class war in their behalf.
Even as the Chamber was doubling its membership and tripling its budget
in response to Lewis Powell’s manifesto, the coalition got another
powerful jolt of adrenalin from the wealthy right-winger who had served
as Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, William Simon.
His polemic entitled A Time for Truth argued
that “funds generated by business” must “rush by multimillions” into
conservative causes to uproot the institutions and “the heretical
strategy” [his term] of the New Deal.
He called on “men of action in the
capitalist world” to mount “a veritable crusade” against progressive
Business Week magazine somberly explained
“…it will be a bitter pill for many
Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big
business can have more.”
I’m not making this up.
And so it came to pass; came to pass despite your heroic efforts and
those of other kindred citizens; came to pass because those “men of
action in the capitalist world” were not content with their wealth just
to buy more homes, more cars, more planes, more vacations and more
gizmos than anyone else.
They were determined to buy more democracy
than anyone else. And they succeeded beyond their own expectations.
After their 40-year “veritable crusade” against our institutions, laws
and regulations - against the ideas, norms and beliefs that helped to
create America’s iconic middle class - the Gilded Age is back with a
You know these things, of course, because you’ve been up against that
“veritable crusade” all these years. But if you want to see the story
pulled together in one compelling narrative, read this - perhaps the
best book on politics of the last two years: Winner Take All Politics:
How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle
Two accomplished political scientists wrote
it - Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson - the Sherlock
Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science, who wanted to know how
America had turned into a society starkly divided into winners and
mystified by what happened to the
notion of “shared prosperity” that marked the years after World
puzzled that over the last
generation more and more wealth has gone to the rich and
superrich, while middle-class and working people are left barely
vexed that hedge-fund managers
pulling down billions can pay a lower tax rate than their
pedicurists, manicurists, cleaning ladies and chauffeurs
curious as to why politicians keep
slashing taxes on the very rich even as they grow richer, and
how corporations keep being handed huge tax breaks and subsidies
even as they fire hundreds of thousands of workers
troubled that the heart of the
American Dream - upward mobility - seems to have stopped beating
astounded that the United States now
leads in the competition for the gold medal for inequality
dumbfounded that all this could
happen in a democracy whose politicians are supposed to serve
the greatest good for the greatest number, and must regularly
face the judgment of citizens at the polls if they haven’t done
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wanted to find
“how our economy stopped working to
provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.”
They wanted to know:
They found the culprit:
“It’s the politics, stupid!”
Tracing the clues back to that “unseen
revolution” of the 1970s - the revolt triggered by Lewis Powell, fired
up by William Simon, and fueled by rich corporations and wealthy
individuals - they found that,
"Step by step and debate by debate
America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American
politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the
few at the expense of the many.”
There you have it: they bought off the
gatekeepers, got inside, and gamed the system.
And when the fix was in, they let loose the
animal spirits, turning our economy into a feast for predators.
And they won - as the rich and powerful got
richer and more powerful - they not only bought the government, they,
“saddled Americans with greater debt,
tore new holes in the safety net, and imposed broad financial risks
on workers, investors, and taxpayers.”
Until - write Hacker and Pierson,
“The United States is looking more
and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and
Russia where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the
bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely
The revolt of the plutocrats has now been
ratified by the Supreme Court in its notorious Citizens United decision
Rarely have so few imposed such damage on so
many. When five pro-corporate conservative justices gave “artificial
entities” the same rights of “free speech” as living, breathing human
beings, they told our corporate sovereigns “the sky’s the limit” when it
comes to their pouring money into political campaigns.
The Roberts Court embodies the legacy of
pro-corporate bias in justices determined to prevent democracy from
acting as a brake on excessive greed and power in the private sector.
Wealth acquired under capitalism is in and of itself no enemy of
democracy, but wealth armed with political power - power to shake off
opportunities for others to rise - is a proven danger.
Thomas Jefferson had hoped that,
“we shall crush in its birth the
aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to
challenge our government to a trial of strength and [to] bid
defiance to the laws of our country.”
James Madison feared that the,
“spirit of speculation” would lead to “a
government operating by corrupt influence, substituting the motive
of private interest in place of public duty.”
Jefferson and Madison didn’t live to see
reactionary justices fulfill their worst fears.
In 1886 a conservative court conferred the
divine gift of life on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Never mind that
the Fourteenth Amendment declaring that no person should be deprived of
“life, liberty or property without due process of law” was enacted to
protect the rights of freed slaves. The Court decided to give the same
rights of “personhood” to corporations that possessed neither a body to
be kicked nor a soul to be damned.
For over half a century the Court acted to
protect the privileged. It gutted the
Sherman Antitrust Act by finding a
loophole for a sugar trust.
It killed a New York state law limiting
working hours. Likewise a ban against child labor. It wiped out a law
that set minimum wages for women.
And so on:
"one decision after another aimed at
laws promoting the general welfare.”
The Roberts Court has picked up the
mantle: Moneyed interests first, the public interest second, if at all.
The ink was hardly dry on the Citizens United decision when the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce organized a covertly funded front and rained drones
packed with cash into the 2010 campaigns. According to the Sunlight
Foundation, corporate front groups spent $126 million in the fall of
2010 while hiding the identities of the donors.
Another corporate cover group - the American
Action Network - spent over $26 million of undisclosed corporate money
in just six Senate races and 26 House elections.
And Karl Rove’s groups - American
Crossroads/Crossroads GPS - seized on Citizens United to raise and spend
at least $38 million that NBC News said came from “a small circle of
extremely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund and private equity moguls” -
all determined to water down financial reforms designed to prevent
another collapse of the financial system.
Jim Hightower has said it well:
Today’s proponents of corporate plutocracy,
“have simply elevated money itself above
votes, establishing cold, hard cash as the real coin of political
No wonder so many Americans have felt that
sense of political impotence that the historian Lawrence Goodwyn
described as “the mass resignation” of people who believe in the “dogma
of democracy” on a superficial public level but whose hearts no longer
burn with the conviction that they are part of the deal.
Against such odds, discouragement comes
But if the generations before us had given up, slaves would still be
waiting on these tables, on Election Day women would still be turned
away from the voting booths, and workers would still be committing a
crime if they organized.
So once again: Take heart from the past and don’t ever count the people
out. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the industrial
revolution created extraordinary wealth at the top and excruciating
misery at the bottom. Embattled citizens rose up.
Into their hearts, wrote the progressive
Kansas journalist William Allen White,
“had come a sense that their
civilization needed recasting, that their government had fallen into
the hands of self-seekers, that a new relation should be established
between the haves and have-nots.”
Not content to wring their hands and cry
“Woe is us” everyday citizens researched the issues, organized to
educate their neighbors, held rallies, made speeches, petitioned and
canvassed, marched and marched again.
They ploughed the fields and planted the
seeds - sometimes in bloody soil - that twentieth century leaders used
to restore “the general welfare” as a pillar of American democracy. They
laid down the now-endangered markers of a civilized society: legally
ordained minimum wages, child labor laws, workmen’s safety and
compensation laws, pure foods and safe drugs, Social Security, Medicare,
and rules that promote competitive markets over monopolies and cartels.
Remember: Democracy doesn’t begin at the
top; it begins at the bottom, when flesh-and-blood human beings
fight to rekindle the patriot’s dream.
The Patriot’s Dream?
Arlo Guthrie, remember? He wrote
could be the
unofficial anthem of Zuccotti Park.
Living now here but for fortune
Placed by fate's mysterious schemes
Who'd believe that we're the ones asked
To try to rekindle the patriot's dreams
Arise sweet destiny, time runs short
All of your patience has heard their retort
Hear us now for alone we can't seem
To try to rekindle the patriot's dreams
Can you hear the words being whispered
All along the American stream
Tyrants freed the just are imprisoned
Try to rekindle the patriot's dreams
Ah but perhaps too much is being asked of too few
You and your children with nothing to do
Hear us now for alone we can't seem
To try to rekindle the patriot's dreams
Who, in these cynical times, when democracy
is on the ropes and the blows of great wealth pound and pound and pound
again against America’s body politic - who would dream such a radical