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Tomgram: Bill Moyers, Money and Power in America

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: It's an honor to have a remarkable piece about our fraying American world by Bill Moyers today. I hope it will be a reminder to TD readers that this is a site worth supporting. If you're in the mood, check out our donation page. For a contribution of $100 ($125, if you live outside the U.S.), you can get signed, personalized copies of quite a range of books for our moment, the most recent being Arlie Hochschild's vivid account of Tea Partiers in Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Tom]

Hope: it's in short supply in America this year. I was reminded of that recently when I spoke at a kick-off event for the school year hosted by the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. The Institute's namesake is, of course, Bob Dole, the war hero turned Republican congressman, senator, minority and then majority leader, and finally presidential nominee in 1996. On a beautiful summer evening, on the front lawn of the Institute, my host, a KU senior named Cody, and I discussed -- what else is there to talk about this year? -- The Donald, Hillary, and Bernie. Then we plunged into the perilous topic of the media and its curious future and the life of a journalist (me) covering the gravity-defying spectacle commonly known as election 2016. More than 100 students showed up -- nothing to do, I'm sure, with the free burgers and soda -- and when it came time for the Q-and-A portion of the event, I couldn't help but be struck by the acuity and thoughtfulness of their questions.

Afterward, I met a smaller group of them at a nearby basement bar. During my five years as an undergraduate, I can't recall having a conversation as substantive as that evening's. Kansas's state government, led by its governor, Sam Brownback, has plunged into a radical experiment in "conservative" governing, and it was on their minds. We talked about a variety of depressing topics, including the devastating effects of the legislature's repeated budget cuts to higher education and another grim signature legislative issue: the open carry of guns on campus. "No gun" signs were ubiquitous there, but everyone wondered: For how long? The students spoke eloquently and knowledgeably. More than that, they spoke with passion and in detail about how such problems might be dealt with and even fixed, and they did so with the Dole Institute's bipartisan ethos in mind. Some of it may have been the youthful idealism of the undergraduate but, believe me, it was refreshing.

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I say all this because, as a journalist in this crazy year of our lord 2016, on a good day the temptation is to tilt toward cynicism. It's our job to rake the muck and expose the trolls, to cast light on the wrongdoing and the failings in our society, but it's up to others to set them right. Today, at this site, Bill Moyers writes about the greatest failing, the true disaster, of our time: the scourge of growing inequality, economic and political. He describes it as "a despicable blot on American politics," as the very wealthy convert their financial might into political power to guard that wealth while exacerbating inequality further. The statistics Moyers deploys are chilling. Consume enough of them and you're liable to feel a bit gloomy. But like those undergraduates, Moyers (very distinctly a post-graduate of our difficult political world) holds onto the hope, as today's piece suggests, that Americans can still fix our world, make it a better place.

Those students I met gave me hope and Moyers does the same -- hope for a more equitable future brought on by the hard work of Americans, whether as journalists, legislators, or activists, as lawyers, doctors, engineers, or teachers. These are strange, often grim, times, and such bursts of hope are what keep us going. Andy Kroll

We, the Plutocrats vs. We, the People
Saving the Soul of Democracy
By Bill Moyers

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Sixty-six years ago this summer, on my 16th birthday, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town of Marshall 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 paper's old hands were on vacation or out sick and I was assigned to help cover what came to be known across the country as "the housewives' rebellion."

Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the social security withholding tax for their domestic workers. Those housewives were white, their housekeepers black. Almost half of all employed black women in the country then were in domestic service. Because they tended to earn lower wages, accumulate less savings, and be stuck in those jobs all their lives, social security was their only insurance against poverty in old age. Yet their plight did not move their employers.

The housewives argued that social security was unconstitutional and imposing it was taxation without representation. They even equated it with slavery. They also claimed that "requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage." So they hired a high-powered lawyer -- a notorious former congressman from Texas who had once chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee -- and took their case to court. They lost, and eventually wound up holding their noses and paying the tax, but not before their rebellion had become national news.

The stories I helped report for the local paper were picked up and carried across the country by the Associated Press. One day, the managing editor called me over and pointed to the AP Teletype machine beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing our paper and its reporters for our coverage of the housewives' rebellion.

I was hooked, and in one way or another I've continued to engage the issues of money and power, equality and democracy over a lifetime spent at the intersection between politics and journalism. It took me awhile to put the housewives' rebellion into perspective. Race played a role, of course. Marshall was a segregated, antebellum town of 20,000, half of whom were white, the other half black. White ruled, but more than race was at work. Those 15 housewives were respectable townsfolk, good neighbors, regulars at church (some of them at my church). Their children were my friends; many of them were active in community affairs; and their husbands were pillars of the town's business and professional class.

So what brought on that spasm of rebellion? They simply couldn't see beyond their own prerogatives . Fiercely loyal to their families, their clubs, their charities, and their congregations -- fiercely loyal, that is, to their own kind -- they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves. They expected to be comfortable and secure in their old age, but the women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children's bottoms, made their husbands' beds, and cooked their family's meals would also 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.

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In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country's history: the struggle to determine whether "we, the people" is a metaphysical reality -- one nation, indivisible -- 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 Contain Multitudes"

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only. I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be. It's spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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