This is Your Story, Pass it On

An excerpt from 'Moyers on America: A Journalist and His Times

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

On my sixteenth birthday in 1950 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 hometown 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 Jr., the former congressman best known, or worst known, for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1930s and 1940s. He was no more effective at defending rebellious women than he had been protecting against communist subversives, and eventually the housewives wound up holding their noses and paying the tax.

The stories I wrote for my local paper were picked up by 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. Not bad people, they were regulars at church; their children were my friends, 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 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 families’ 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 creases 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 Judgement Day.

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a spiritual idea embedded in a political 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 should make it clear that I don’t harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy; after all, I worked for Lyndon Johnson. 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.”

But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud. That difference can be the difference between democracy and oligarchy.

Look at our history. 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 gained the right to vote only in my mother’s time. New ages don’t arrive overnight, or without blood, sweat, and tears.

In this regard we are heirs of a great movement, the Progressive movement, which began late in the nineteenth century and remade the American experience piece by piece until it peaked in the last third of the twentieth 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 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.

Step back with me to the curtain-raiser, the founding convention of the People’s Party—better known as the Populists—in 1892. Mainly cotton and wheat farmers from the recently reconstructed South and the newly settled Great Plains, they had come on hard, hard times, driven to the wall by falling prices for their crops on one hand and by racking interest rates, freight charges, and supply costs, on the other: all this in the midst of a booming and growing industrial America. They were angry, and their platform—issued deliberately on the Fourth of July—pulled no punches. “We meet,” it said, “in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin…. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the [state] legislatures and the Congress and touches even the bench…. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced…. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.”

Furious words indeed from rural men and women who were traditionally conservative and whose memories of taming the frontier were fresh and personal, but who in their fury invoked an American tradition as powerful as frontier individualism, namely, the war on inequality—especially government’s role 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 absolutely no “veneration for wealth” in the document. Thomas Jefferson, while claiming no interest in politics, built up a Democratic-Republican party to take the government back from the speculators and “stock-jobbers” who were in the saddle in 1800. Andrew Jackson slew the monster Second Bank of the United States, the six-hundred-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. They objected to government’s power to confer privilege on the democracy’s equivalent of the royal favorites of monarchist days: on the rich, on the insiders, on what today we know as the crony capitalists. 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 (emphasis added).

The question remained, however: 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. Such a policy 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 a contest against entrenched power. As a result, 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 (a classical plea of debtors), and for some decidedly nonclassical actions: government ownership of the railroad, telephone, and telegraph systems; a graduated (i.e., progressive) tax on incomes; a flat ban on subsidies to “any private corporation.” Moreover, in order to ensure that the government stayed on the side of the people, the party called for two electoral reforms, 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 received twenty-two electoral votes for their 1892 candidate, plus some congressional seats and state houses, but this would prove to be the party’s peak. America wasn’t—and probably still isn’t—ready for a new major party. The People’s Party was a spent rocket by 1904. At the same time, when political organizations perish, their key ideas endure, and this is a perspective of great importance to today’s progressives. Much of the Populist agenda would become law within a few years of the party’s extinction because their goals were 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, the intellectual forebears of those of us who today call ourselves by the same name.

They were a diverse lot, held together by a common admiration of progress—hence the name—and a shared dismay at the paradox of poverty stubbornly persisting in the midst of progress like an unwanted guest at a wedding. Of course they welcomed, just as we do, the new marvels in the gift bag of technology—the telephones, the automobiles, the electrically powered urban transport and lighting systems, the indoor heating and plumbing, the processed foods and home appliances and machine-made clothing that reduced the sweat and drudgery of homemaking and were affordable to an ever-swelling number of people. At the same time, however, they saw the underside: the slums lurking in the shadows of the glittering cities; the exploited and unprotected workers whose low-paid labor filled the horn of plenty for others; the misery of those whom age, sickness, accident, or hard times condemned to servitude and poverty with no hope of comfort or security.

Incredibly, in little more than a century, the still-young revolution of 1776 was being strangled by the hard grip of a merciless ruling class. The large corporations that were called into being by modern industrialism after 1865—the end of the Civil War—had combined into trusts capable of making minions of both politics and government. What Henry George called “an immense wedge” was being forced through American society by “the maldistribution of wealth, status, and opportunity.”

We should pause here to consider that this is Karl Rove’s cherished period of American history; it was, as I read him, the seminal influence on the man who is said to be the mastermind of George W. Bush’s success. From his own public comments and my reading of the record, it is apparent that Karl Rove has modeled the Bush presidency on that of William McKinley, who was in the White House from 1897 to 1901, and modeled himself on Mark Hanna, the man who virtually manufactured McKinley. Hanna had one consummate passion: to serve corporate and imperial power. He believed without compunction, according to a critic, that “the state of Ohio existed for property. It had no other function…. Great wealth was to be gained through monopoly, through using the State for private ends; it was axiomatic therefore that businessmen should run the government and run it for personal profit.”

Mark Hanna made William McKinley governor of Ohio by shaking down the corporate interests of the day. Fortunately, it was said, McKinley had the invaluable gift of emitting sonorous platitudes as though they were recently discovered truth. Behind his benign gaze the wily intrigues of Mark Hanna saw to it that first Ohio and then Washington were, in his words, “ruled by business … by bankers, railroads, and public utility corporations.” Any who opposed the oligarchy were smeared as disturbers of the peace, socialists, anarchists, or worse. Back then they didn’t bother with hollow euphemisms such as “compassionate conservatism” to disguise the raw reactionary politics that produced government of, by, and for the ruling corporate class. They just saw the loot and went for it.

The historian Clinton Rossiter describes this as the period of “the great train robbery of American intellectual history.” Conservatives—or, better, pro-corporate apologists—hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian liberalism and turned words such as progress, opportunity, and individualism into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right. This “degenerate and unlovely age,” as one historian calls it, seemingly exists in the mind of Karl Rove as the age of inspiration for the politics and governance of America today.

It is no wonder, then, that what troubled our Progressive forebears was not only the miasma of poverty in their nostrils but also the sour stink of a political system for sale. The United States Senate was a millionaires’ club. Money given to the political machines that controlled nominations could buy controlling influence in city halls, statehouses, and even courtrooms. Reforms and improvements ran into the immovable resistance of the almighty dollar. What, Progressives wondered, would this do to the principles of popular government? All of them, whatever their political party, were inspired by the gospel of democracy. Inevitably, this swept them into the currents of politics, whether as active officeholders or persistent advocates.

Here is a small but representative sampling of their ranks. Jane Addams forsook the comforts of a well-to-do college graduate’s life to live in Hull House in the midst of a disease-ridden and crowded Chicago immigrant neighborhood, determined to make it an educational and social center that would bring pride, health, and beauty into the lives of her poor neighbors. In her words, “an almost passionate devotion to the ideals of democracy” inspired Addams to combat the prevailing notion “that the well-being of a privileged few might justly be built upon the ignorance and sacrifice of the many.” Community and fellowship were the lessons she drew from her teachers, Jesus and Abraham Lincoln, but people simply helping one another couldn’t move mountains of disadvantage. She came to see that “private beneficence” was not enough. To bring justice to the poor would take more then just soup kitchens and fund-raising prayer meetings. “Social arrangements,” she wrote, “can be transformed through man’s conscious and deliberate effort.” Take note: she spoke not of individual regeneration or the magic of the market but of conscious, cooperative effort.

Meet a couple of muckraking journalists. Jacob Riis lugged his heavy camera up and down the staircases of New York’s disease-ridden, firetrap tenements to photograph the unspeakable crowding, the inadequate toilets, the starved and hollow-eyed children, and the filth on the walls so thick that his crude flash equipment sometimes set it afire. Bound between hard covers, with Riis’s commentary, these images showed comfortable New Yorkers “how the other half lives.” They were powerful ammunition for reformers who eventually brought an end to tenement housing by state legislation. For his part, Lincoln Steffens, college- and graduate-school-educated, left his books to learn life from the bottom up as a police-beat reporter on New York’s streets. Then, as a magazine writer, he exposed the links between city bosses and businessmen that made it possible for builders and factory owners to ignore safety codes and get away with it. But the villain was neither the boodler nor the businessman. It was the indifference of a public that “deplore[d] our politics and laud[ed] our business; that transformed law, medicine, literature and religion into simply business.” Steffens was out to slay the dragon of exalting “the commercial spirit” over the goals of patriotism and national prosperity. “I am not a scientist,” he said. “I am a journalist. I did not gather the facts and arrange them patiently for permanent preservation and laboratory analysis….My purpose was … to see if the shameful facts, spread out in all their shame, would not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.”

If corrupt politics bred diseases that could be fatal to democracy, then good politics was the antidote. That was the discovery of Ray Stannard Baker, another journalistic Progressive. He started out detesting election-time catchwords and slogans, but he came to see that “politics could not be abolished or even adjourned … it was in its essence the method by which communities worked out their common problems. It was one of the principle arts of living peacefully in a crowded world.” (Compare that to Grover Norquist’s latest declaration of war on the body politic: “We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals—and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.” He went on to say that bipartisanship “is another name for date rape.”)

There are more, too many more to call to the witness stand here, but at the very least let us examine in brief some of the things they had to say. There were educators such as economist John R. Commons or the sociologist Edward A. Ross, who believed that the function of social science was not simply to dissect society for nonjudgmental analysis and academic promotion but to help in finding solutions to social problems. It was Ross who pointed out that morality in a modern world had a social dimension. In Sin and Society (1907) he told readers that the sins “blackening the face of our time” were of a new variety, and not yet recognized as such. “The man who picks pockets with a railway rebate, murders with an adulterant instead of a bludgeon, burglarizes with a ‘rake-off’ instead of a jimmy, cheats with a company instead of a deck of cards, or scuttles his town instead of his ship, does not feel on his brow the brand of a malefactor.” In other words, upstanding individuals could plot corporate crimes and sleep the sleep of the just without the sting of social stigma or the pangs of conscience. Like Kenneth Lay, they could even be invited into the White House to write their own regulations.

Here are just two final bits of testimony from actual politicians: first, Brand Whitlock, mayor of Toledo. He first learned his politics as a beat reporter in Chicago. One of his lessons was that “the alliance between the lobbyists and the lawyers of the great corporation interests on the one hand, and the managers of both the great political parties on the other, was a fact, the worst feature of which was that no one seemed to care.” Then there is Tom Johnson, the Progressive mayor of Cleveland in the early 1900s—a businessman converted to social activism. His major battles were to impose regulation, or even municipal takeover, on the private companies that were meant to provide affordable public transportation and utilities but in fact crushed competitors, overcharged customers, secured franchises and licenses for a song, and paid virtually nothing in taxes—all through their pocketbook control of lawmakers and judges. Johnson’s argument for public ownership was simple: “If you don’t own them, they will own you.” It’s why advocates of clean elections today argue that if anybody’s going to buy Congress, it should be the people. When advised that businessmen got their way in Washington because they had lobbies and consumers had none, Tom Johnson responded: “If Congress were true to the principles of democracy it would be the people’s lobby.” What a radical contrast to the House of Representatives today!

Our political, moral, and intellectual forebears occupy a long and honorable roster. They include wonderful characters such as Dr. Alice Hamilton, a pioneer in industrially caused diseases, who spent long years clambering up and down ladders in factories and mineshafts—in long skirts—ferreting out the toxic substances that sickened workers, whom she would track right into their sickbeds to get leads and tip-offs for further investigations. There’s Harvey Wiley, the chemist from Indiana who, from a bureaucrat’s desk in the Department of Agriculture, relentlessly warred on foods laden with risky preservatives and adulterants with the help of his “poison squad” of young assistants who volunteered as guinea pigs. Or lawyers such as the brilliant Harvard graduate Louis Brandeis, who took on corporate attorneys defending child labor or long and harsh conditions for female workers. Brandeis argued that the state had a duty to protect the health of working women and children. Imagine that!

To be sure, these Progressives weren’t saintly. Their glory years coincided with the heyday of lynching and segregation, of empire and the Big Stick and the bold theft of the Panama Canal, of immigration restriction and ethnic stereotypes. Some were themselves businessmen only hoping to control an unruly marketplace by regulation. By and large, however, they were conservative reformers. They aimed to preserve the existing balance between wealth and commonwealth. Their common enemy was unchecked privilege, their common hope was a better democracy, and their common weapon was informed public opinion.

In a few short years the Progressive spirit made possible the election not only of mayors and governors but of national figures such as Senator George Norris of Nebraska, Senator Robert M. La Follete of Wisconsin, and even that hard-to-classify political genius, Theodore Roosevelt, all three of them Republicans.

Here is the simplest laundry list of what was accomplished at the state and federal levels: publicly regulated or owned transportation, sanitation, and utilities system; the partial restoration of competition in the marketplace through improved antitrust laws; increased fairness in taxation; expansion of the public education and juvenile justice systems; safer workplaces and guarantees of compensation to workers injured on the job; oversight of the purity of water, medicines, and foods; conservation of the national wilderness heritage against overdevelopment; honest bidding on any public mining, lumbering, and ranching. All those safeguards were provided not by the automatic workings of free enterprise but by implementing the idea in the Declaration of Independence that the people had a right to governments that best promoted their “safety and happiness.”

The mighty Progressive wave peaked in 1912, but the ideas unleashed by it forged the politics of the twentieth century. Like his cousin Theodore, Franklin Roosevelt argued that the real enemies of enlightened capitalism were “the malefactors of great wealth”—the “economic royalists”—from whom capitalism would have to be saved by reform and regulation. Progressive government became an embedded tradition of Democrats—the heart of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower honored this tradition; he did not want to tear down the house Progressive’s ideas had built, only put it under different managers. The Progressive impulse had its final fling in the landslide of 1964, when Lyndon Johnson—a son of the west Texas hill country, where the Populist rebellion had been nurtured in the 1890s—won the public endorsement for what he meant to be the capstone in the arch of the New Deal.

I had a modest role in that era. I shared in its exhilaration and its failures. We went too far too fast, overreached at home and in Vietnam, failed to examine some assumptions, and misjudged the rising discontents and fierce backlash engendered by the passions of the time. Democrats grew so proprietary in Washington D.C., that a corpulent, complacent political establishment couldn’t recognize its own intellectual bankruptcy or see the Beltway encircling it and beginning to separate it from the working people of America. The failure of Democratic politicians and public thinkers to respond to popular discontents—to the daily lives of workers, consumers, parents, and ordinary taxpayers—allowed a resurgent conservatism to convert public concern and hostility into a crusade that masked the resurrection of social Darwinism as a moral philosophy, multinational corporations as a governing class, and the theology of markets as a transcendental belief system.

As a citizen, I don’t like the consequences of this crusade, but I respect the conservatives for their successful strategy in gaining control of the national agenda. Their stated and open aim is to strip from government all its functions except those that reward their rich and privileged benefactors. They are quite candid about it, even acknowledging proudly the mean spirit invoked to accomplish their ambitions. Their leading strategist in Washington, Grover Norquist, in commenting on the fiscal crisis in the states and its effect on schools and poor people, said, “I hope one of them”—one of the states—”goes bankrupt.” So much for compassionate conservatism. But at least Norquist says what he means and means what he says. The White House pursues the same homicidal dream without saying so. Instead of shrinking the government, they’re filling the bathtub with so much debt that it floods the house, waterlogs the economy, and washes away services that for decades have lifted millions of Americans out of destitution and into the middle class. And what happens once the public’s property has been flooded? Privatize it. Sell it at a discounted rate to their corporate cronies.

It is the most radical assault on the notion of one nation, indivisible, that has occurred in our lifetime. I simply don’t understand it—or the malice in which it is steeped. Many people are nostalgic for a golden age; these people seem to long for the Gilded Age. That I can grasp. They measure America only by how it serves their own kind, like Marshall housewives, and they bask in the company of the new corporate aristocracy, as privileged a class as we have seen since the plantation owners of antebellum America and the court of Louis XIV. What I can’t explain is the rage of these counterrevolutionaries to dismantle every last brick of the social contract. At this advanced age I accept the fact that the tension between haves and have-nots is built into human psychology and society itself—it’s ever with us. However, I’m just as puzzled as to why, with right-wing wrecking crews blasting away at social benefits once considered invulnerable, Democrats are fearful of being branded “class warriors” in a war the other side started and is determined to win. I don’t get why conceding your opponent’s premises and fighting on his turf isn’t a surefire prescription for irrelevance and ultimately obsolescence. But I confess as well that I don’t know how to resolve the social issues that have driven wedges into the ranks of the working- and lower-middle-classes and divided them from the more affluent, upper-middle-class professionals and highly educated who were once their allies. Nor do I know how to reconfigure Progressive politics to fit into an age of sound bites and polling dominated by a media oligarchy whose corporate journalist are neutered and whose right-wing publicists have no shame.

What I do know is this: while the social dislocations and meanness that galvanized Progressives in the nineteenth century are resurgent, so is the vision of justice, fairness, and equality. No challenge to America is greater than to open suffrage and the marketplace to new and marginal people—and this is the Progressive vision. It’s a powerful vision if only there are people around to fight for it. The battle to renew democracy has enormous resources to call upon—and great precedents for inspiration. Consider the experience of James Bryce, who published the Great Commonwealth back in 1895, at a height of the first Gilded Age. Americans, Bryce said, “were hopeful and philanthropic.” He saw firsthand the ills of that “dark and unlovely age,” but he went on to say, “a hundred times I have been disheartened by the facts I was stating: a hundred times has the recollection of the abounding strength and vitality of the nation chased away those tremors.”

What will it take to get back in the fight? The first order of business is to understand the real interests and deep opinions of the American people. What are these?

That a Social Security card is not a private portfolio statement but a membership ticket in a society where we all contribute to a common treasury so that none need face the indignities of poverty in old age That tax evasion is not a form of conserving investment capital but a brazen abandonment of responsibility to the country That income inequality is not a sign of freedom of opportunity at work, because if it persists and grows, then unless you believe that some people are naturally born to ride and some to wear saddles, it’s a sign that opportunity is less than equal That self-interest is a great motivator for production and progress but is amoral unless contained within the framework of social justice That the rich have the right to buy more cars than anyone, more homes, vacations, gadgets, and gizmos, but they do not have the right to buy more democracy than anyone else That public services, when privatized, serve only those who can afford them and weaken the sense that we all rise and fall together as “one nation, indivisible” That concentration in the production of goods may sometimes be useful and efficient, but monopoly over the dissemination of ideas is tyranny That prosperity requires good wages and benefits for workers That our nation can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy, than it could survive as half slave and half free, and that keeping it from becoming all oligarchy is steady work—our work

Ideas have power—as long as they are not frozen in doctrine—but they need legs. The eight-hour day; the minimum wage; the conservation of natural resources and the protection of our air, water, and land; women’s rights and civil rights; free trade unions; Social Security; a civil service based on merit—all these were launched as citizen’s movements and won the endorsement of the political class only after long struggles and in the face of bitter opposition and sneering attacks.

Democracy doesn’t work without citizen activism and participation. Trickle-down politics is no more effective than trickle-down economics. Moreover, civilization happens because we don’t leave things to other people. What’s right and good doesn’t come naturally. You have to stand up and fight as if the cause depends on you. Allow yourself that conceit—to believe that the flame of democracy will never go out as long as there’s one candle in one citizen’s hand.

“Democracy is not a lie,” wrote Henry Demarest Lloyd, the Progressive journalist whose book Wealth Against Commonwealth laid open the Standard Oil trust a century ago. Lloyd came to the conclusion that to

regenerate the individual is a half truth. The reorganization of the society which he makes and which makes him is the other part. The love of liberty became liberty in America by clothing itself in the complicated group of strengths known as the government of the United States. Democracy is not a lie. There live[s] in the body of the commonality unexhausted virtue and the ever-refreshed strength which can rise equal to any problems of progress. In the hope of tapping some reserve of their power of self-help, this story is told to the people.

This is our story, the Progressive story of America. Pass it on.

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