Even in 2004, Moyers comments seem more timely than ever. Read this speech that former Deputy Peace Corps Director Bill Moyers gave at the Campaign for America’s Future on the progressive movement in America's history. ..
Former Deputy Peace Corps Director Bill Moyers talks about America’s Future
Text of speech to the Take Back America conference sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future. June 5, 2003
Thank you for this award and for this occasion. I don't deserve either, but as George Burns said, I have arthritis and I don't deserve that, either.
Tomorrow is my 69th birthday and I cannot imagine a better present than this award or a better party than your company.
Fifty three years ago tomorrow, on my 16th birthday, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I grew up. It was a good place to be a cub reporter – small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day. I soon had a stroke of luck. Some of the old timers were on vacation or out sick and I got assigned to cover what came to be known as the Housewives' Rebellion. Fifteen women in my home town decided not to pay the social security withholding tax for their domestic workers. 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, the former congressman best known, or worst known, for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 30s and 40s. He was no more effective at defending rebellious women than he had been protecting against communist subversives, and eventually the women wound up holding their noses and paying the tax.
The stories I wrote for my local paper were picked up and moved on the Associated Press wire. One day, the managing editor called me over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing one Bill Moyers and the paper for the reporting we had done on the "Rebellion."
That hooked me, and in one
way or another – after a detour through seminary and then into politics
and government for a spell – I've been covering the class war ever
since. Those women in Marshall, Texas were its advance guard. They were
not bad people. They were regulars at church, their children were my friends,
many of them were active in community affairs, their husbands were pillars
of the business and professional class in town. They were respectable
and upstanding citizens all. So it took me awhile to figure out what had
brought on that spasm of reactionary rebellion. 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 them. The
women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children's bottoms,
made their husband's beds, and cooked their family meals – 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 from their years
of labor but the crease in their brow and the knots on their knuckles;
so be it; even on the distaff side of laissez faire, security was personal,
not social, and what injustice existed this side of heaven would no doubt
be redeemed beyond the Pearly Gates. God would surely be just to the poor
once they got past Judgment Day.
Let me make it clear that I
don't harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy; I worked
for Lyndon Johnson, remember? Nor do I romanticize "the people."
You should read my mail – or listen to the vitriol virtually spat
at my answering machine. I understand what the politician meant who said
of the Texas House of Representatives, "If you think these guys are
bad, you should see their constituents."
Look at our history. All of us know that the American Revolution ushered in what one historian called "The Age of Democratic Revolutions." For the Great Seal of the United States the new Congress went all the way back to the Roman poet Virgil: Novus Ordo Seclorum" – "a new age now begins." Page Smith reminds us that "their ambition was not merely to free themselves from dependence and subordination to the Crown but to inspire people everywhere to create agencies of government and forms of common social life that would offer greater dignity and hope to the exploited and suppressed" – to those, in other words, who had been the losers. Not surprisingly, the winners often resisted. In the early years of constitution-making in the states and emerging nation, aristocrats wanted a government of propertied "gentlemen" to keep the scales tilted in their favor. Battling on the other side were moderates and even those radicals harboring the extraordinary idea of letting all white males have the vote. Luckily, the weapons were words and ideas, not bullets. Through compromise and conciliation the draftsmen achieved a Constitution of checks and balances that is now the oldest in the world, even as the revolution of democracy that inspired it remains a tempestuous adolescent whose destiny is still up for grabs. For all the rhetoric about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," it took a civil war to free the slaves and another hundred years to invest their freedom with meaning. Women only gained the right to vote in my mother's time. New ages don't arrive overnight, or without "blood, sweat, and tears."
You know this. You are the
heirs of one of the country's great traditions – the progressive
movement that started late in the l9th century and remade the American
experience piece by piece until it peaked in the last third of the 20th
century. I call it the progressive movement for lack of a more precise
term. Its aim was to keep blood pumping through the veins of democracy
when others were ready to call in the mortician. Progressives exalted
and extended the original American revolution. They spelled out new terms
of partnership between the people and their rulers. And they kindled a
flame that lit some of the most prosperous decades in modern history,
not only here but in aspiring democracies everywhere, especially those
of western Europe.
Furious words from rural men and women who were traditionally conservative and whose memories of taming the frontier were fresh and personal. But in their fury they invoked an American tradition as powerful as frontier individualism – the war on inequality and especially on the role that government played in promoting and preserving inequality by favoring the rich. The Founding Fathers turned their backs on the idea of property qualifications for holding office under the Constitution because they wanted no part of a 'veneration for wealth" in the document. Thomas Jefferson, while claiming no interest in politics, built up a Republican Party – no relation to the present one – to take the government back from the speculators and "stock-jobbers," as he called them, who were in the saddle in 1800. Andrew Jackson slew the monster Second Bank of the United States, the 600-pound gorilla of the credit system in the 1830s, in the name of the people versus the aristocrats who sat on the bank's governing board.
All these leaders were on record in favor of small government – but their opposition wasn't simply to government as such. It was to government's power to confer privilege on insiders; on the rich who were democracy's equivalent of the royal favorites of monarchist days. (It's what the FCC does today.) The Populists knew it was the government that granted millions of acres of public land to the railroad builders. It was the government that gave the manufacturers of farm machinery a monopoly of the domestic market by a protective tariff that was no longer necessary to shelter "infant industries." It was the government that contracted the national currency and sparked a deflationary cycle that crushed debtors and fattened the wallets of creditors. And those who made the great fortunes used them to buy the legislative and judicial favors that kept them on top. So the Populists recognized one great principle: the job of preserving equality of opportunity and democracy demanded the end of any unholy alliance between government and wealth. It was, to quote that platform again, "from the same womb of governmental injustice" that tramps and millionaires were bred.
But how? How was the democratic revolution to be revived? The promise of the Declaration reclaimed? How were Americans to restore government to its job of promoting the general welfare? And here, the Populists made a breakthrough to another principle. In a modern, large-scale, industrial and nationalized economy it wasn't enough simply to curb the government's outreach. That would simply leave power in the hands of the great corporations whose existence was inseparable from growth and progress. The answer was to turn government into an active player in the economy at the very least enforcing fair play, and when necessary being the friend, the helper and the agent of the people at large in the contest against entrenched power. So the Populist platform called for government loans to farmers about to lose their mortgaged homesteads – for government granaries to grade and store their crops fairly – for governmental inflation of the currency, which was a classical plea of debtors – and for some decidedly non-classical actions like government ownership of the railroad, telephone and telegraph systems and a graduated – i.e., progressive tax on incomes and a flat ban on subsidies to "any private corporation." And to make sure the government stayed on the side of the people, the 'Pops' called for the initiative and referendum and the direct election of Senators.
Predictably, the Populists
were denounced, feared and mocked as fanatical hayseeds ignorantly playing
with socialist fire. They got twenty-two electoral votes for their candidate
in '92, plus some Congressional seats and state houses, but it was downhill
from there for many reasons. America wasn't – and probably still
isn't – ready for a new major party. The People's Party was a spent
rocket by 1904. But if political organizations perish, their key ideas
don't - keep that in mind, because it give prospective to your cause today.
Much of the Populist agenda would become law within a few years of the
party's extinction. And that was because it was generally shared by a
rising generation of young Republicans and Democrats who, justly or not,
were seen as less outrageously outdated than the embattled farmers. These
were the progressives, your intellectual forebears and mine...
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Read and comment on this speech that former Deputy Peace Corps Director Bill Moyers gave at the Campaign for America’s Future on the progressive movement in America's history.