September’s coming up fast, and we know what that means. Soon Congress will be back in session and we’ll be inundated with fresh evidence that our democracy is broken. That makes this a good time to reflect on the powerful forces arrayed against the public interest – and to remind ourselves that they can still lose.
If you’re a citizen who’s willing to take action, you have more power than you realize. As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approaches, it's a good time to remember that, too.
Granted, my perspective may be a little skewed. I spent several years of my professional life working primarily behind the Iron Curtain – before, during, and after the fall of European Communism. That experience, for someone interested in economics, was something like what an astronomer might feel at the birth of a star. And for anyone who believes in political activism, it was inspiring and enlightening. In a few short months the impossible became the imaginable, the imaginable became an opportunity, and an opportunity was turned into the event that transformed the world.
The cynical view says that there were hidden forces behind that transformation. And it’s true: when it comes to the course of world events, the unseen is often far more significant than the seen. But who knows what we’re not seeing right now? How will we know how broad our horizons of opportunity are today unless we test them?
It’s easy to retreat into the idleness of the cynic, to become the kind of person essayist Sydney J. Harris once described as “prematurely disappointed in the future.” It’s easy – and it’s a mistake.
That’s not to deny the deep corruption in our system, or negate all we've learned about the hijacking of democracy and the loss of personal liberties. A small cadre (less than 0.01 percent of the population) contributed more than $1.6 billion to political campaigns last year (per the Sunlight Foundation), and probably provided the lion’s share of $350 million in campaign “dark money” as well. A mere six corporations control 90 percent of this nation’s media, leading to a frightening uniformity in the misinformation the public receives on everything from the social safety net to national security.
We’re not saying the situation isn’t dire. We’re saying we've overcome dire situations before. The forces arrayed against the public's interests are frightening. But it's worth reminding ourselves: They’re frightened of us, too.
That was reinforced by remarks Robert Johnson recently made in a video conversation with Dr. Cornel West. Johnson, an economist who leads the Institute for New Economic Thinking, described a recent meeting with some very senior Wall Street bankers who were well aware of the public's hostility toward them. Added Johnson: “They are scared.”
Anyone who doubts that should read this report from DBA Press and the Center for Media and Democracy on the use of the national security apparatus to suppress the Occupy movement. The Department of Homeland Security created a number of anti-terror “fusion centers” around the country to integrate the Federal government’s various law enforcement and intelligence services. The DBA/CMD report details the misuse of one such fusion center in Arizona, in collaboration with security officers at JPMorgan Chase, to forestall public demonstrations against Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.
The report suggests that our national security system’s definition of “terrorism” has become so broad that it apparently now includes lawful and peaceful protests by citizens exercising their constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly. That seems like a sign of totalitarian behavior.
But it’s also a sign of fear.
Remember, the Occupy movement transformed the political landscape in just a few short months, shifting our national conversation from deficits to economic justice. Suddenly the president and his party were on fire with populist rhetoric, a move which may have ensured their electoral victory in 2012.
That demonstrated the power of mobilized citizens.
Earlier in the Obama Presidency, citizens flooded the White House and Congress with calls and emails objecting to Social Security cuts. Reports (later confirmed) had said that the President planned to announce Social Security cuts in his 2011 State of the Union message, but popular resistance put an end to that plan. So did interventions from unions and other groups representing the public.
That was a demonstration of citizen power, too.
Popular support for this nation's independence was forged with demonstrations from the Boston Tea Party onward. Demonstrations gave rise to the labor movement – and to the minimum wage, the forty-hour work week, and workplace safety laws. The Bonus Army's Washington D.C. tent cities moved public opinion, and even helped inspire a strange Hollywood movie. They may have changed the outcome of the 1932 election and given us the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Pioneering feminist demonstrators, belittled by cheap entertainers in the 1960s, proved to be the leading edge of a transformative movement which altered our public and private lives. The Stonewall “riots” of 1969 signaled the start of a gay rights movement that has profoundly affected both our culture and our politics. (A majority of Americans supports gay marriage, according to polls, up from 27 percent less than twenty years ago.)
Each of these dramatic outcomes was made possible by committed citizen-activists.
That’s why they’re frightened. That’s why they deployed the national security apparatus against the Occupy movement. That’s why they’re taking draconian steps against North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement.
Sometimes it begins with a demonstration, sometimes just with phone calls or emails to an elected official. But from the Triangle Shirtwaist marches to Hoovervilles, from women's rights marches to civil rights sit-ins, progress has always begun with a handful of determined citizens. As Fall brings us the resumption of Washington’s “Grand Bargain” talks, will you be one of the them?
It’s true that cynicism is still an option. But, as Henry Ward Beecher said, the cynic “is the human owl, vigilant in darkness and blind to light, mousing for vermin, and never seeing noble game.”
Beecher knew something about fighting cynicism. He was the New England clergyman who backed causes so hopeless he was mocked for supporting them, causes like the abolition of slavery or giving women the right to vote.
They want you to think things are hopeless. "A true revolution of values," said Dr. King, "will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth." Today that contrast is greater than at any time in modern history. But history shows us that pessimism and cynicism are fatal – and unforced – errors. They're also betrayals of our duty: to future generations, to our fellow human beings, and to ourselves.
“Cynicism,” said Norman Cousins, “is intellectual treason."
They were afraid of Occupy. They’re afraid of you. That’s because citizens have more power than we think. Their greatest weapon, the one weapon that's even more powerful than a corrupt political process or a blinder-wearing, misleading media, is our own cynicism. We need to disarm it before it disarms us.
A mobilized public can change the world at any moment. Those who oppose your cause know that.