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The Great American Class War

In his speech at the Brennan Center’s 2013 Legacy Awards Dinner, award-winning journalist Bill Moyers outlines the “unfinished work” that remains to be done in America’s systems of democracy and justice.

Published: December 12, 2013


Cross­pos­ted on TomDis­patch.

Award-winning journ­al­ist Bill Moyers delivered a version of this speech at the Bren­nan Center’s 2013 Legacy Awards Dinner. A portion of it also appeared as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.


Thank you for that gener­ous intro­duc­tion, Michael; thanks to all of you for your pres­ence tonight and your warm welcome; and thanks to the Bren­nan Center for honor­ing the legacy of Justice William Bren­nan by bear­ing witness to demo­cracy as a way of life, requir­ing daily vigil­ance and commit­ment.

I met Justice Bren­nan in 1987 when I was creat­ing a series for public tele­vi­sion called In Search of the Consti­tu­tion, celeb­rat­ing the bicen­ten­nial of our found­ing docu­ment.

By then he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had writ­ten close to 500 major­ity opin­ions, many of them address­ing funda­mental ques­tions of equal­ity, voting rights, school segreg­a­tion, and, in New York Times v. Sulli­van in partic­u­lar, the defense of a free press.

Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the coun­try. Although he said he never took person­ally the resent­ment and anger direc­ted at him, he did subsequently reveal that his own mother had told him she always liked his opin­ions when he was on the New Jersey court but wondered, now that he was on the Supreme Court, “Why can’t you do it the same way?” His answer: “We have to discharge our respons­ib­il­ity to enforce the rights in favor of minor­it­ies, whatever the major­ity reac­tion may be.”

Although a liberal, he worried about the loom­ing size of govern­ment. When he mentioned that modern science may be creat­ing “a Franken­stein,” I asked, “How so?” He looked around the cham­ber and replied: “The very conver­sa­tion we’re now having can be over­heard. Science has done things that, as I under­stand it, make it possible through these drapes and those windows to get some­thing in here that takes down what we’re talk­ing about.”

That was 1987 — before the era of cyber­space and the maximum surveil­lance state that grows topsy-turvy with every admin­is­tra­tion. How I wish he were here now — and still on the Court!

My inter­view with him was one of 12 epis­odes in that series on the Consti­tu­tion. Another concerned a case he had heard back in 1967 involving a teacher named Harry Keyishian, who had been fired because he would not sign a New York State loyalty oath. Justice Bren­nan ruled that the loyalty oath and other anti-subvers­ive state stat­utes viol­ated First Amend­ment protec­tions of academic free­dom. I tracked Keyishian down and inter­viewed him. Justice Bren­nan watched that program and was fascin­ated to see the actual person behind the name on his decisions. The journ­al­ist Nat Hentoff, who followed Bren­nan’s work closely, wrote that “He may have seen hardly any of the litig­ants before him, but he searched for a sense of them in the cases that reached him.” Now, watch­ing the inter­view with Keyishian, he said: “It was the first time I had seen him. Until then, I had no idea that he and the other teach­ers would have lost everything if the case had gone the other way.”

Toward the end of his tenure, when he was writ­ing an increas­ing number of dissents on the Rehnquist Court, Bren­nan was asked if he was getting discour­aged. He smiled and said, “Look, pal, we’ve always known — the Framers knew — that liberty is a fragile thing. You can’t give up.”

He didn’t, and you haven’t. And in Michael Wald­man you have a leader who embod­ies William Bren­nan’s ethos — that the integ­rity of the demo­cratic process is as crit­ical to the health of our coun­try as the ends it seeks. That convic­tion is imprin­ted on this Center’s agenda — from the protec­tion of voting rights to advocacy for trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity in govern­ment, from elec­tion reform to your campaign to reverse Citizens United. Michael’s voice has been one of the strongest call­ing for taming the power of money in polit­ics.

The histor­ian Plut­arch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the elect­or­ate. He wrote: “The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an import­ant part in determ­in­ing elec­tions. Later on, this process of corrup­tion spread to the law courts and to the army, and finally, when the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the Repub­lican was subjec­ted to the rule of emper­ors.”

We don’t have emper­ors yet, but we do have the Roberts Court that consist­ently priv­ileges the donor class.

No emper­ors yet, but we do have a Senate in which, as a study by the polit­ical scient­ist Larry Bartels reveals, “Senat­ors appear to be consid­er­ably more respons­ive to the opin­ions of afflu­ent constitu­ents than to those of middle-class constitu­ents, while the opin­ions of constitu­ents in the bottom third of the income distri­bu­tion have no appar­ent stat­ist­ical effect on their Senat­ors’ roll call votes.”

No emper­ors yet, but we have a House of Repres­ent­at­ives controlled by the far right of the polit­ical spec­trum that is now nour­ished by streams of “dark money” unleashed by the gift bestowed on the rich by Citizens United.

No emper­ors yet, but one of our two major parties is now domin­ated by radic­als engaged in a crusade of voter suppres­sion aimed at the elderly, the young, minor­it­ies and the poor while the other party, once the cham­pion of every­day work­ing people, has been so enfeebled by its own collab­or­a­tion with the donor class that it offers only token resist­ance to the forces that have demor­al­ized every­day Amer­ic­ans.

Writ­ing in The Guard­ian recently, the social critic George Monbiot said: “I don’t blame people for giving up on polit­ics. When a state-corpor­ate nexus of power has bypassed demo­cracy and made a mock­ery of the voting process; when an unre­formed polit­ical system ensures that parties can be bought and sold; when politi­cians [of the main parties] stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privat­eers, what is left of the system that inspires us to parti­cip­ate?”

Why are record numbers of Amer­ic­ans on food stamps? Because record numbers of Amer­ic­ans are in poverty. Why are people fall­ing through the cracks? Because there are cracks. It is simply aston­ish­ing that in this rich nation more than 21 million Amer­ic­ans are still in need of full-time work, many of them running out of jobless bene­fits, while our finan­cial class pock­ets record profits, spends lavishly on campaigns to secure a polit­ical order that serves its own interests, and demands that our polit­ical class push for further auster­ity. Mean­while, roughly 46 million Amer­ic­ans live at or below the poverty line, and with the excep­tion of Romania, no developed coun­try has a higher percent of kids in poverty than we do.

Yet a study by schol­ars at North­west­ern Univer­sity and Vander­bilt finds little support among the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans for policy reforms to reduce income inequal­ity.

Listen! That sound you hear is the shred­ding of the social contract.

Ten years ago The Economist — no friend of Marx­ism — warned: “The United States risks calci­fy­ing into a European-style class-based soci­ety.”

And in the words of a head­line over a recent article in the Columbia Journ­al­ism Review: “The line between demo­cracy and a darker social order is thin­ner than you think.”

We are this close — this close! — to losing our demo­cracy to the mercen­ary class. So close it’s as if we are lean­ing way over the rim of the Grand Canyon, wait­ing for a swift kick in the pants.

When Justice Bren­nan and I talked privately in his cham­bers before that inter­view almost 20 years ago, I asked him how he had come to his liberal senti­ments. “It was my neigh­bor­hood,” he said. Born to Irish immig­rants in 1906, as the harsh indig­nit­ies of the Gilded Age were fling­ing hard­ship and depriva­tion at his kinfolk and neigh­bors, he saw “all kinds of suffer­ing — people had to struggle.” He never forgot those people or their struggles, and he believed it to be our collect­ive respons­ib­il­ity to create a coun­try where they would have a fair chance to a decent life. “If you doubt it,” he said, “read the Preamble [to the Consti­tu­tion].”

Let’s all go home tonight and do just that.

Just as I asked Justice Bren­nan how he came to his philo­sophy about govern­ment, he asked virtu­ally the same of me (know­ing that I had been in both the Kennedy and John­son admin­is­tra­tions). I don’t remem­ber my exact words, but I told him — briefly — that I had been born in the midst of the Great Depres­sion to parents who had to drop out of school in the fourth and eighth grades, respect­ively, because they were needed in the fields to pick cotton to help support their famil­ies. I recalled that FDR had been pres­id­ent during my first eleven years, that my father listened to his “fireside chats” as if they were gospel, that my brother went to college on the GI Bill, and that I myself had been the bene­fi­ciary of public schools, public librar­ies, public parks, public roads, and two public univer­sit­ies; how could I not think that what had been good for me was also good for others?

That was the essence of my response to Justice Bren­nan. I wish now that I could talk to him again, because I failed to mention perhaps the most import­ant lesson about demo­cracy that I ever learned.

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 racially divided town — about 20,000 people, half of them white, half of them black; a place where you could grow up well-loved, well-taught, and well-churched and still be unaware of the lives of others merely blocks away. It was nonethe­less 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 in the news­room were on vaca­tion or out sick, and I got assigned to report on what came to be known as the “House­wives’ Rebel­lion.” Fifteen women in town — all white — decided not to pay the Social Secur­ity with­hold­ing tax for their domestic work­ers — all black.

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 Marshall 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 witch-hunt­ing days of the 1930s and 40s. They went to court — and lost. Social Secur­ity was consti­tu­tional, after all. They held their noses and paid the tax.

The stor­ies I helped report were picked up by the Asso­ci­ated Press and circu­lated nation­wide. One day the managing editor, Spen­cer Jones, called me over and poin­ted to the AP ticker beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing the report­ers on our paper for the report­ing we had done on the “Rebel­lion.” I spot­ted my name — and was hooked. In one way or another — after a detour through semin­ary and then into polit­ics and govern­ment — I’ve been cover­ing the class war ever since.

Those women in Marshall, Texas, were among its advance guard. Not bad people, they were regu­lars at church, their chil­dren were my class­mates, many of them were active in community affairs, and their husbands were pillars of the busi­ness and profes­sional class in town. They were all respect­able and upstand­ing citizens, so it took me a while to figure out what had brought on that spasm of reac­tion­ary defi­ance. 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 black women who washed and ironed their laun­dry, cooked their famil­ies’ meals, cleaned their bath­rooms, wiped their chil­dren’s bottoms, and made their husbands’ beds — 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. There would be noth­ing for them to live on but the modest return on their toil secured by the collab­or­at­ive guar­an­tee of a safety net.

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in Amer­ica: the struggle to determ­ine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embed­ded in a polit­ical contract, 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; remem­ber, I worked for Lyndon John­son. Not do I roman­ti­cize “the people.” You should read my mail and posts on right-wing sites. I under­stand what the politi­cian in Texas who said of the state legis­lature: “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 (other­wise known as social justice) and one whose insti­tu­tions have been conver­ted into a stupendous fraud. That differ­ence can be the differ­ence between demo­cracy and pluto­cracy.

Toward the end of Justice Bren­nan’s tenure on the Supreme Court, he made a speech that went to the heart of the matter. He said:

“We do not yet have justice, equal and prac­tical for the poor, for the members of minor­ity groups, for the crim­in­ally accused, for alien­ated youth, for the urban masses…Ugly inequit­ies continue to mar the face of the nation. We are surely nearer the begin­ning than the end of the struggle.”

And so we are. One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abra­ham Lincoln stood on the blood-soaked battle­field of Gettys­burg and called Amer­ic­ans to “the great task remain­ing.” That “unfin­ished work”, as he named it, remained the same then as it was when Amer­ica’s found­ing gener­a­tion began it. And it remains the same today: to breathe new life into the prom­ise of the Declar­a­tion of Inde­pend­ence and to assure that the Union so many have sacri­ficed to save is a union worth saving.

In this “unfin­ished work” the Bren­nan Center for Justice has much to do.


Bill Moyers has received 35 Emmy awards, nine Peabody Awards, the National Academy of Tele­vi­sion’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award, and an honor­ary doctor of fine arts from the Amer­ican Film Insti­tute over his 40 years in broad­cast journ­al­ism. He is currently host of the weekly public tele­vi­sion series Moyers & Company and pres­id­ent of the Schu­mann Media Center, a non-profit organ­iz­a­tion which supports inde­pend­ent journ­al­ism.