by Bill Moyers
The following is a transcript of a speech given on February 7, 2007 at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
I am grateful to you for this opportunity and to President Prager for the hospitality of this evening, to Diana Akiyama, Director of the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life, whose idea it was to invite me and with whom you can have an accounting after I’ve left. And to the Lilly Endowment for funding the Values and Vocations project to encourage students at Occidental to explore how their beliefs and values shape their choices in life, how to make choices for meaningful work and how to make a contribution to the common good. It’s a recognition of a unique venture: to demonstrate that the life of the mind and the longing of the spirit are mirror images of the human organism. I’m grateful to be here under their auspices.
I have come across the continent to talk to you about two subjects close to my heart. I care about them as a journalist, a citizen and a grandfather who looks at the pictures next to my computer of my five young grandchildren who do not have a vote, a lobbyist in Washington, or the means to contribute to a presidential candidate. If I don’t act in their behalf, who will?
One of my obsessions is democracy, and there is no campus in the country more attuned than Occidental to what it will take to save democracy. Because of your record of activism for social justice, I know we agree that democracy is more than what we were taught in high school civics – more than the two-party system, the checks-and-balances, the debate over whether the Electoral College is a good idea. Those are important matters that warrant our attention, but democracy involves something more fundamental. I want to talk about what democracy bestows on us?the revolutionary idea that democracy is not just about the means of governance but the means of dignifying people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency. “I believe in democracy because it releases the energies of every human being” – those are the words of our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson.
I’ve been spending time with Woodrow Wilson and others of his era because my colleagues and I are producing a documentary series on the momentous struggles that gripped America a century or so years ago at the birth of modern politics. Woodrow Wilson clearly understood the nature of power. In his now-forgotten political testament called The New Freedom, Wilson described his reformism in plain English no one could fail to understand: “The laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the week.” He wrote: “Don’t deceive yourselves for a moment as to the power of great interests which now dominate our development… There are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States. They are going to own it if they can.” And he warned: “There is no salvation in the pitiful condescensions of industrial masters… prosperity guaranteed by trustees has no prospect of endurance.”
Now Wilson took his stand at the center of power – the presidency itself – and from his stand came progressive income taxation, the federal estate tax, tariff reform, the challenge to great monopolies and trusts, and, most important, a resolute spirit “to deal with the new and subtle tyrannies according to their deserts.”
How we need that spirit today! When Woodrow Wilson spoke of democracy releasing the energies of every human being, he was declaring that we cannot leave our destiny to politicians, elites, and experts; either we take democracy into our own hands, or others will take democracy from us.
We do not have much time. Our political system is melting down, right here where you live.
A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 20% of voters last November believe your state will be a better place to live in the year 2025; 51% say it will be worse. Another poll by the New American Foundation – summed up in an article by Steven Hill in the January 28th San Francisco Chronicle – found that for the first time in modern California history, a majority of adults are not registered with either of the two major parties. Furthermore, writes Hill, “There is a widening breach between most of the 39 million people residing in California and the fewer than 9 million who actually vote.” Here we are getting to the heart of the crisis today – the great divide that has opened in American life.
According to that New American Foundation study, frequent voters [in California] tend to be 45 and older, have household incomes of $60,000 or more, are homeowners, and have college degrees. In contrast, the 12 million nonvoters (7 million of whom are eligible to vote but are not registered) tend to be younger than 45, rent instead of own, have not been to College, and have incomes less than $60,000.
In other words, “Considering that California often has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation – in some elections only a little more that 1/3 of eligible voters participate – a small group of frequent voters, who are richer, whiter, and older than their nonvoting neighbors, form the majority that decides which candidates win and which ballot measures pass.” The author of that report (Mark Baldassare) concludes: “Only about 15% of adult people make the decisions and that 15% doesn’t look much life California overall.”
We should not be surprised by the consequences: “Two Californias have emerged. One that votes and one that does not. Both sides inhabit the same state and must share the same resources, but only one side is electing the political leaders who divide up the pie.”
You’ve got a big problem here. But don’t feel alone. Across the country our 18th political system is failing to deal with basic realities. Despite Thomas Jefferson’s counsel that we would need a revolution every 25 years to enable our governance to serve new generations, our structure – practically deified for 225 years – has essentially stayed the same while science and technology have raced ahead. A young writer I know, named Jan Frel, one of the most thoughtful practitioners of the emerging world of Web journalism, wrote me the other day to say: “We’ve gone way past ourselves. I see the unfathomable numbers in the national debt and deficit, and the way that the Federal government was physically unable to respond to Hurricane Katrina. I look at Iraq; where 50% of the question is how to get out, and the other 50% is how did so few people have the power to start the invasion in the first place. If the Republic were functioning, they would have never had that power.”
Yet the inertia of the political process seems virtually unstoppable. Frel reminds me that the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee can shepherd a $2.8 trillion dollar budget through the Senate and then admit: “It’s hard to understand what a trillion is. I don’t know what it is.” Is it fair to expect anyone to understand what a trillion is, my young friend asks, or how to behave with it in any democratic fashion?” He goes on: “But the political system and culture are forcing 535 members of Congress and a President who are often thousands of miles away from their 300 million constituents to do so. It is frightening to watch the American media culture from progressive to hard right being totally sold on the idea of one President for 300 million people, as though the Presidency is still fit to human scale. I’m at a point where the idea of a political savior in the guise of a Presidential candidate or congressional majority sounds downright scary, and at the same time, with very few exceptions, the writers and journalists across the slate are completely sold on it.”