Lessons From The National Teach-In No Substitute For An Energized Citizenry

Isaiah J. Poole

Thousands of people who tuned into Tuesday night’s “National Teach-In to Take Back the American Dream” got a remarkable one-hour tutorial on how the economy collapsed, and with it the economic security of millions of working Americans. They also received a sobering reminder that the political system that set the stage for the collapse can’t be counted on to repair the damage without persistent demands from We the People.

“Grassroots mobilization and an energized citizenry, there is just no substitute for it,” said Robert Reich, University of California at Berkeley professor and former Labor secretary, during the special edition of “The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann,” a daily television talk show that airs on Free Speech TV and RT TV.

The teach-in was a partnership between the Campaign for America’s Future, Rebuild the Dream and Free Speech TV. It was billed as a show that would “tell the real story of the financial crisis”—and it did so at times in blunt terms.

Robert Borosage, fielding the first question from host Thom Hartmann, said that the economy was facing headwinds in the months before the onset of the 2008 financial crash, but “what drove the economy off the cliff … was not an accident. It was a crime.”

Specifically, a financial sector aided and abetted by lawmakers in both political parties went on a “wilding” spree as deregulation left their quest for profit by any means necessary unrestrained.

Heather McGhee, Washington director for Demos, said that while Wall Street was milking all it could from the bubble-and-bust economy, middle-class families were seeing their income growth stagnating. With all of the income gains of the past decade flowing to the people at the top of the income scale, “you have an economy running on fumes.”

Businessman Leo Hindery added that the 2009 Recovery Act stimulus as clearly the right kind of response to arrest the free fall that the economy was experiencing when President Obama took office. And it did some good. “I’m not of the school that it was a total failure,” he said. In fact, the problem with the stimulus bill was that it was too small, he said, and not focused enough on outright job creation.

Natalie Foster, co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, noted that in the wake of the economic crash “the dialogue was about cuts, cuts cuts instead of talking about creating jobs.” But, he added, “you’re starting to see the conversation shift.”

Some of the credit for that shift, the teach-in participants agreed, goes to the Occupy movement, and it is that movement’s exercise of passionate, determined and wholly people-powered protest that holds one of the keys to bringing economic and political change in the months ahead.

“I am an optimist,” Reich said, because at every point in American history when regressive forces were poised to move the country backward, an even stronger progressive wave rose up in response, whether it was the Gilded Age of the early 20th century, the Depression of the 1960s. “So it will happen. The question is how we are going to make it happen,” he said.

Hindery, however, countered that “that was all before Citizens United” and “the tsunami of money” from corporate interests that is now drenching the political process in an unprecedented fashion. Because of the threat that money poses to the balance of power between wealthy interests and ordinary Americans, “I am less optimistic than I’ve ever been in my life.”

“Citizens United was a wake-up call to people,” McGhee said, explaining her own optimism. Through the aftermath of that case, more people are seeing that “it’s not that government is too big, it was who was paying for it.” That is fueling the fight for such measures as the Disclose Act, federal legislation that would require corporations to disclose their political contributions, and a proposed constitutional amendment that would clarify that corporations do not have the same political speech rights as individuals.

Several other policy prescriptions were discussed during the teach-in, but Borosage said that “what we need out of this teach-in, what we need out of citizens now, is a mobilization and an awareness and an education and a real investment in far bolder reforms than what we have in this country now, and they’ve got to change this debate.”


The National Teach-In to Take Back the American Dream will be posted in its entirety later Wednesday at http://ourfuture.org/teachin.

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