Stop Telling Us To Be Terrified. We Should Be Pissed

BY Theo Anderson, In These Times, February 21, 2017

“Intimidation is the most powerful tool of every would-be and actual tyrant.” Fear makes us freeze. Anger makes us fight back.

Plain old fear isn’t enough anymore, apparently. Since the election, dozens of headlines and essays have urged us to be terrified about the administration of Donald Trump.

A partial list of things that you must be terrified about includes: Steve Bannon’s influence, Trump’s unhinged optimism, Trump’s utter incompetence, Trump’s Cabinet picks, Trump, himself, just in general, and most of his actions since taking office, Trump’s impact on climate-change, Trump and the GOP’s plan to repeal Obamacare, the implications of Trump’s policies for women and his treatment of the press. One piece called Trump’s behavior not only terrifying but “petrifying,” which literally means fear so acute that it creates paralysis.

Trump’s behavior and agenda are hideous for these reasons and many more. But are terror and paralysis really what we should encourage? They’re understandable, but calling Trump and his cabal of charlatans, flunkies and lunatics “terrifying” gives them a certain perverse respect. And it plays right into their agenda. Intimidation is the most powerful tool of every would-be and actual tyrant. Better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both, as Niccolò Machiavelli advised.

The odd thing about the ubiquity of the “terrifying” mantra is that it cuts against what is maybe the most deeply ingrained truism in all of American politics: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” as Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, a warning that was repeated most recently, if less memorably, in Barack Obama’s farewell speech in early January: “Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear … So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid.”

Compare the current drumbeat of fear-mongering with the Tea Party and its dominant emotion: anger. Tea Partiers were pissed. Outraged. As a New York Times writer noted, in mid-2010: “The seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party movement … is already reshaping our political landscape.”

Indeed, it was. A 2013 analysis found that the movement was responsible for between 2.7 and 5.5 million additional votes for the GOP in the House in the 2010 election, in which Republicans gained control of that chamber by picking up 63 seats and created a fortress against progressive policies being considered, much less passed, for the remainder of the Obama administration.

There’s an established science and psychology to this. Fear clouds judgement and forces retreat, which is why Tea Partiers didn’t hold up signs telling each other to be terrified. They got angry and demanded that the government stay the hell away from their Social Security and Medicare.

Anger engages the mind and ignites more of the emotions that the “resistance” needs to cultivate right now. It “not only moves us toward what we want but fuels optimism, creative brainstorming, and problem solving by focusing mind and mood in highly refined ways,” as Psychology Today recently noted. “Brainwise, it is the polar opposite of fear, sadness, disgust, and anxiety—feelings that prompt avoidance … When the gall rises, it propels the irate toward challenges they otherwise would flee.”

The reasons to feel fear are plenty obvious. They don’t need to be encouraged. When you’re told to be terrified, be outraged instead. It’ll do you and the movement a lot more good, and go a lot further in producing the hope, creativity and determination that we need to meet the current challenges.

The Governing Cancer of Our Time

Excerpt with highlighting by curator of this website – full text as published below

by David Brooks, nytimes.com FEB. 26, 2016 We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics. Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate…As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics,” “Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.” Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right ..” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power…They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine. This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals: The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders. The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics. The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder…And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means. Trump represents the path the founders rejected…the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism. This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”

Full text as posted on NYT website 

We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.

Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.

But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.

As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics,” “Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.”

Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want “outsiders.” They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.

Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:

The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.

The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.

The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.

We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution. We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.

And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.

Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of “I’d like to punch him in the face.”

I printed out a Times list of the insults Trump has hurled on Twitter. The list took up 33 pages. Trump’s style is bashing and pummeling. Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or a loser. The implied promise of his campaign is that he will come to Washington and bully his way through.

Trump’s supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.

This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 26, 2016, on page A29 of the New York edition with the headline: A Governing Cancer of Our Time. Today’s Paper|Subscribe

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/opinion/the-governing-cancer-of-our-time.html

Political and legislative dynamics 2015 – 2016

Time for the GOP to pitch in By Eugene Robinson Opinion writer, Washington Post, January 5, 2015

10 Dynamics That Will Shape the Next Two Years of American Politics by Joshua Holland, BillMoyers.com, December 30, 2014

New Senate majority leader’s main goal for GOP: Don’t be scary By Paul Kane, Washington Post, January 4, 2015

New GOP Senate chairmen aim to undo Obama policies By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER and DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press, January 3, 2015

Quotations about religion and politics

work in progress 3/18/14

Citizens  electorate – Rights, Responsibilities, Creativity, Inspiration, Courage,

  • “We must move forward with audacious faith. The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. J. Krishnamurti
  •  It takes real spiritual courage to step forward and take responsibility for where we are all going. Andrew Cohen
  •  Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced. James Baldwin
  •  ”Unleash radical thought” Harry Belafonte
  • We must love one another or die.” W. H. Auden in September 1, 1939

Nature’s God – natural law – enlightenment – morals/values – spirituality – human condition – Conscience, Philosophy, truth, Soul/Creed, Tolerance

  •  Politics in America is the binding secular religion. Theodore H. White
  •  If you go deep enough into any faith tradition, you find the common ground with all faith traditions. Martin Marty
  •  For the religious the holy is truth, for the philosophic the truth is holy. Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach
  •  This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy…our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. The Dalai Lama
  •  My call for a spiritual revolution is not a call for a religious revolution. Nor is it a reference to a way of life that is somehow otherworldly, still less to something magical or mysterious. Rather it is a call for a radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self. It is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.  The 14th Dalai Lama
  • Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on “I am not too sure.” -H.L. Mencken, writer, editor, and critic (1880-1956)
  •  Some people consider the practice of love and compassion is only related to religious practice and if they are not interested in religion they neglect these inner values. But love and compassion are qualities that human beings require just to live together. Dalai Lama
  • The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all of these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved with another. Thomas Merton
  •  Morality is the basis of things and truth is the substance of all morality.  Mohandas K. Gandhi
  •  Nothing is more contagious than genuine love and genuine care. Nothing is more exhilarating than authentic awe and wonder. Nothing is more exciting than to witness people having the courage to fight for their highest vision. Rabbi Michael Lerner
  • Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  •  Conscience – freedom of thought
  • When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion. (Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President [1861-1865]. From Henry O. Dormann, compiler, The Speaker’s Book of Quotations, New York: Ballantine Books, 1987, p. 127.)
  • Let it be henceforth proclaimed to the world that man’s conscience was created free; that he is no longer accountable to his fellow man for his religious opinions, being responsible therefore only to his God. (John Tyler, 10th U. S. President [1841-1845], as quoted by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Treasury of Presidential Quotations [Follett, 1964], p. 38, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 94.)
  • This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error so long as reason is free to combat it. (Thomas Jefferson, to prospective teachers, University of Virginia; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 364.)
  • … Jefferson, who as a careful historian had made a study of the origin of the maxim [that the common law is inextricably linked with Christianity], challenged such an assertion. He noted that “the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced or that such a character existed …. What a conspiracy this, between Church and State.” (Leo Pfeffer, Religion, State, and the Burger Court, Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1984, p. 121.)
  • We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions … shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power … we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society. (John Adams, letter to Dr. Price, as quoted by Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 1.)
  • … Jefferson, who as a careful historian had made a study of the origin of the maxim [that the common law is inextricably linked with Christianity], challenged such an assertion. He noted that “the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced or that such a character existed …. What a conspiracy this, between Church and State.” (Leo Pfeffer, Religion, State, and the Burger Court, Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1984, p. 121.)
  • The lessons of religious toleration–a toleration which recognizes complete liberty of human thought, liberty of conscience–is one which, by precept and example, must be inculcated in the hearts and minds of all Americans if the institutions of our democracy are to be maintained and perpetuated. We must recognize the fundamental rights of man. There can be no true national life in our democracy unless we give unqualified recognition to freedom of religious worship and freedom of education. (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U. S. President [1933-1945], letter to the Calvert Associates, 1937, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 82.)
  • The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We cannot permit any inquisition either from within or from without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. The mind of America must be forever free. (Calvin Coolidge, 30th U. S. President [1923-1929], Inaugural Address on March 4, 1925, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 22.)
  • The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most dishonorable belief against the character of the Divinity, the most destructive to morality and the peace and happiness of man, that ever was propagated since man began to exist. (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794-1795. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 494.)

Religion – Bible – doctrine

  • There are things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. Holy Bible, Zechariah 8:16-17
  • But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer [Jesus] of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State. (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval, 1810; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 370)
  • If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it. Stephen Colbert

Constitution  – Official documents – Facts

First Amendment – Freedom of/from religion – separation of church and state

America is not a Christian nation

The Constitution of the United States (1787-1788; 1st Ten Amendments ["Bill of Rights"] ratified 1791; no reference to any god is to be found in the body or in the amendments to the Constitution)

The senators and representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. (Article VI, Section 3, The Constitution of the United States.) – Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the freedom of press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (Amendment 1,The Constitution of the United States.)

Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, 1796-1797 – As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion–as it has itself no character of enmity against the law, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims], … (“Article 11, Treaty of Peace and Friendship between The United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary,” 1796-1797. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Edited by Hunter Miller. Vol. 2, 1776-1818, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1931, p. 365. From George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 45. According to Paul F. Boller [George Washington & Religion, Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, pp. 87-88] the treaty was written by Joel Barlow, negotiated during Washington’s administration, concluded on November 4, 1796, ratified by the Senate in June, 1797, and signed [see below] by John Adams [2nd U.S. President] on June 10, 1797. Boller concluded that “Very likely Washington shared Barlow’s view, though there is no record of his opinion about the treaty …” [p.88]. Jefferson was Secretary of State in Washington’s first administration but had resigned when the treaty was written. Jefferson was Vice-President when the treaty was ratified and signed. Barlow, identified in The American Heritage Dictionary as an American “poet and diplomat,” 1754-1812, knew and corresponded extensively with Jefferson. Among many letters Jefferson wrote Barlow was one written on March 14, 1801, just ten days after Jefferson’s first inauguration as President.)

Now be it known, that I, John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said treaty do, by and within the consent of the Senate, accept, ratify and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. (“Treaty of Peace and Friendship between The United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary,” 1796-1797. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Edited by Hunter Miller. Vol. 2. 1776-1818. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1931, p. 383; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 45.)

Democracy/Government – Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Justice, Threats to democracy

  • It is the poorest and most vulnerable who are always hurt the most in a crisis like thisthat is our job in politics — to talk about what happens to themThe biblical purpose of government is to protect from evil and to promote the good.…That vision of “common good” is what we have lost, and there is nothing more important in our public life than to find it again… Why the Government Shutdown Is Unbiblical by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, posted on Huffingtonpost.com, Oct 3, 2013
  • Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific values. Barack Obama

Democracy/politics – Power – Campaigns and Elections

Politics [is] the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order. Barry Goldwater

Religion and politics

Conservatives/Republicans/Libertarians

Right wing religious extremists

Liberals/Democrats/Progressives

 

 

 

Separation of church and state – First Amendment

  • We believe in separation of church and state, that there should be no unwarranted influence on the church or religion by the state, and vice versa. (Jimmy Carter, 39th President [1977-1981], in a news conference in Warsaw, Poland, reported by New York Times, December 31, 1977 [p. 2], according to Alan F. Pater and Jason R. Pater, compilers and editors, What They Said in 1977: The Yearbook of Spoken Opinion, Beverly Hills, CA: Monitor Book Co., 1978, p. 479.)
  • Religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy. They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives. (Barry Goldwater, 1909- , American politician, in a speech,1981. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 498.)
  • And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. (James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822; published in The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings, ed. by Saul K. Padover, New York: Harper & Bros., 1953.)
  • The only ultimate protection for religious liberty in a country like ours, Madison pointed out–echoing Jefferson;–is public opinion: a firm and pervading opinion that the First Amendment works. “Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance.” (Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 56. Madison’s words, according to Gaustad, are from his letter of 10 July 1822 to Edward Livingston.)
  • I believe in America where the separation of church and state is absolute. John F. Kennedy
  • When fascism comes to America, it’ll be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. Sinclair Lewis
  • “All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution”: freedom for religion, but also freedom from religion. Thomas Jefferson (Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 38. Jefferson proposed his language in 1776.)
  • I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 499.)
  • History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose. (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Baron von Humboldt, 1813; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 370)
  • Civil liberty can be established on no foundation of human reason which will not at the same time demonstrate the right to religious freedom. (John Quincy Adams, 6th U.S. President [1825-1829], letter to Richard Anderson, May 27, 1823. From Daniel B. Baker, ed., Political Quotations, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1990, p. 190.)
  • All religions united with government are more or less inimical to liberty. All separated from government, are compatible with liberty. (Henry Clay, 1777-1852, Speech in the House of Representatives, March 24, 1818. From Daniel B. Baker, ed., Political Quotations, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1990, p. 190.)
  •  In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes. (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Horatio Spofford, 1814; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 371)

Religion wars

  • Religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy. They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives. Barry Goldwater, 1981.
  • Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” Barry M. Goldwater
  • ………….between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” The Rev. Billy Graham, Parade, 1981

Religion and politics

  • Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is. Mohandas Gandhi
  • Those who believe that politics and religion do not mix, understand neither. Albert Einstein

Freedom of/from religion – tolerance

  • The lessons of religious toleration–a toleration which recognizes complete liberty of human thought, liberty of conscience–is one which, by precept and example, must be inculcated in the hearts and minds of all Americans if the institutions of our democracy are to be maintained and perpetuated. We must recognize the fundamental rights of man. There can be no true national life in our democracy unless we give unqualified recognition to freedom of religious worship and freedom of education. (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U. S. President [1933-1945], letter to the Calvert Associates, 1937, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 82.)
  • Religious and racial persecution is moronic at all times, perhaps the most idiotic of human stupidities. (Harry S. Truman, 33rd U.S. President [1945-1953], Where the Buck Stops; The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman, ed. by Margaret Truman; New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1989, p. 126.)
  • The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We cannot permit any inquisition either from within or from without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. The mind of America must be forever free. (Calvin Coolidge, 30th U. S. President [1923-1929], Inaugural Address on March 4, 1925, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 22.)
  • Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize [sic], every expanded prospect. (James Madison, in a letter to William Bradford, April 1, 1774, as quoted by Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 37.)
  • It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of the people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it, on all occasions, their effectual support. (George Washington, letter to the congregation of Touro Synagogue Jews, Newport, Rhode Island, August, 1790. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 500.)
  • Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society. (George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 726.)
  • In the Enlightened Age and in this Land of equal Liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States. (George Washington, letter to the members of the New Church in Baltimore, January 27, 1793. Quoted in Richard B. Morris, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 269.)
  • Washington’s religious belief was that of the enlightenment: deism. He practically never used the word “God,” preferring the more impersonal word “Providence.” How little he visualized Providence in personal form is shown by the fact that he interchangeably applied to that force all three possible pronouns: he, she, and it. (James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell [1793-1799], Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, p. 490.)
  • No citizens … were more sensitive to Washington’s role as an upholder of liberties than the religious minorities. These groups were less anxious to cultivate what they had in common with other Americans than to sustain what kept them apart. Washington recognized this, just as he recognized the tenacity of regional and economic interests, and he took pains to explain precisely what national unity meant to him. He carried to his countrymen a vision of “organic” rather than “mechanical” solidarity, a union based on difference and interdependence rather than uniformity of belief and conduct. Washington’s understanding of the kind of integration appropriate to a modern state was not shared by the most powerful Protestant establishments, the New England Congregationalists and Presbyterians; but other religious groups could not have been more pleased…. Acknowledging in each instance that respect for diversity was a fair price for commitment to the nation and its regime, Washington abolished deep-rooted fears that would have otherwise alienated a large part of the population from the nation-building process. For this large minority, he embodied not the ideal of union, nor even that of liberty, but rather the reconciliation of union and liberty. (Barry Schwartz, George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol, New York: The Free Press, 1987, pp. 85-86.)
  • The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses…. (John Adams, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” [1787-1788]; from Adrienne Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society, New York: George Braziller, 1965, p. 258.)
  • Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and Dogmatism cannot confine it. (John Adams, letter to John Quincy Adams, November 13, 1816. From Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 88.)
  • [Benjamin] Franklin drank deep of the Protestant ethic and then, discomforted by church constraints, became a freethinker. All his life he kept Sundays free for reading, but would visit any church to hear a great speaker, no doubt recognizing a talent he himself did not possess. With typical honesty and humor he wrote out his creed in 1790, the year he died: “I believe in one God, Creator of the universe…. That the most acceptable service we can render Him is doing good to His other children…. As to Jesus … I have … some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.” (Alice J. Hall, “Philosopher of Dissent: Benj. Franklin,” National Geographic, Vol. 148, No. 1, July, 1975, p. 94.)
  • The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most dishonorable belief against the character of the Divinity, the most destructive to morality and the peace and happiness of man, that ever was propagated since man began to exist. (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794-1795. From Gorton Carruth and Eugene Ehrlich, eds., The Harper Book of American Quotations, New York: Harper & Row, 1988, p. 494.)
  • Civil liberty can be established on no foundation of human reason which will not at the same time demonstrate the right to religious freedom. (John Quincy Adams, 6th U.S. President [1825-1829], letter to Richard Anderson, May 27, 1823. From Daniel B. Baker, ed., Political Quotations, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1990, p. 190.)
  • When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion. (Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. President [1861-1865]. From Henry O. Dormann, compiler, The Speaker’s Book of Quotations, New York: Ballantine Books, 1987, p. 127.)
  • Let us labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of free thought, free speech, and free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion. (Ulysses S. Grant, 18th U.S. President [1869-1877], speech before the Army of the Tennessee, Des Moines, Iowa, 1875; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, pp. 287-288)
  • We all agree that neither the Government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the Government or with political parties. We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference. (Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th U. S. President [1877-1881], statement as Governor of Ohio, 1875, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 44.)
  • Religious and racial persecution is moronic at all times, perhaps the most idiotic of human stupidities. (Harry S. Truman, 33rd U.S. President [1945-1953], Where the Buck Stops; The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman, ed. by Margaret Truman; New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1989, p. 126.)

Moral politics

  • It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy and the handicapped. (1977, at the dedication of the Humphrey Building)        Hubert H. Humphrey
  • A compassionate government keeps faith with the trust of the people and cherishes the future of their children. Lyndon B. Johnson
  • A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.  Albert Einstein
  • The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be cone. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed. Mark Morrison-Reed
  • We want people to rule the nation who care more for and love better the nation’s welfare than gold and silver, fame and popularity.   Brigham Young
  • When we come to the moral principles on which the government is to be administered, we come to what is proper for all conditions of society… Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of society. I believe that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution; that there exists a right independent of force. Thomas Jefferson
  • It is hard to imagine a more stupid or dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of those who pay no price for being wrong. Thomas Sowell
  • We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations may have their great human needs satisfied, that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address
  • The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • I think it’s important that people know that for the country to get better it needs more than just politicians. Politicians aren’t enough and it needs resurgence through churches, through revivals through a spiritual cleansing of the people.”  -Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) on the future of America and faith in in a Christian Broadcasting Network interview.

Soul/Creed

  • There is such a thing as a crime against the soul of a nation. A person or a political party can deliberately incite actions that diminish the strength, the integrity, and the overall well-being of a nation’s inner core. Caroline Myss, Crimes Against the Soul of America, Huffington Post 
  • As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Mohandas K. Gandhi
  • I think it’s important that people know that for the country to get better it needs more than just politicians. Politicians aren’t enough and it needs resurgence through churches, through revivals through a spiritual cleansing of the people.”  -Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) on the future of America and faith in in a Christian Broadcasting Network interview.
  • The word “creed” sounds forbidding and ecclesiastical. The American Creed is neither, but it is steadfast in its principles and enduring enough to redeem the nation’s history whenever we stray from their course. Capturing the essence of the American experiment, the American Creed affirms those truths our Founders held self-evident: justice for all, because we are all created equal; and liberty for all, because we are all endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. America’s fidelity to this creed is judged by history. Living up to it remains a constant challenge. But it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and–if we honor its precepts–a moral destiny.” Forrest Church.

George Washington (1732-1799; “Father of His Country”; 1st U.S. President, 1789-1797)

John Adams(1735-1826; major leader at Constitutional Convention in 1787; 2nd U.S. President , 1797-1801)

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790; American statesman, diplomat, scientist, and printer)

Thomas Paine (1737-1809; author of Common Sense; key American patriotic writer)

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826; author, Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom; 3rd U.S. President, 1801-1809)

James Madison (1751-1836; principal author, U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights; 4th U.S. President, 1809-1817)

Research/quotations from Presidents and founders, acknowledged with gratitude, from Ed Buckner, Atlanta Freethought Society, P.O. Box 1975, Smyrna, GA 30081-1975 – Copyright 1993, Ed and Michael E. Buckner and the Atlanta Freethought Society, P.O. Box 2385, Stone Mountain, GA 30086-2385. Version 7.2 (26 Mar 93). Compiled by Ed and Michael E. Buckner, P.O. Box 1975, Smyrna, GA 30081-1975. Permission to reproduce any or all pages freely is hereby granted, provided that this notice is retained. Acknowledgement of compilers for excerpts, especially lengthy ones, is appreciated but not required. posted by Clark Adams cdadams@whale.st.usm.edu

 

Overview – Politics, Power and Money

 Politics

A fundamental war has been waged in this nation since its founding, between progressive forces pushing us forward and regressive forces pulling us backward. We are going to battle once again. Progressives believe in openness, equal opportunity, and tolerance. Progressives assume we’re all in it together…Regressives take the opposite positions…today’s Republican right aren’t really conservatives. Their goal isn’t to conserve what we have. It’s to take us backwards…Yet the great arc of American history reveals an unmistakable pattern. Whenever privilege and power conspire to pull us backward, the nation eventually rallies and moves forward…. The Rise of the Regressive Right and the Reawakening of America by Robert Reich

Republicans/conservatives

A civil war is brewing in the GOP – between the realists who have to get elected and the ultras in the conservative media…the fascinating element of this sure-to-be-brutal conflict lies not in the opposing arguments, but in the make-up of each side. For long years, buoyed by Fox News and a legion of talk radio shockjocks, the conservative media and its allies in radical think tanks have been an integral part of the Republican party…internet scribe Matt Drudge, radio host Rush Limbaugh and anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist…Steve Deace, a radio host in Iowa…Bryan Fischer, a radio host with the American Family Association…Limbaugh…Herman Cain…What do these people all have in common? No one elects them.They are pundits and firebrands whose very existence relies on stirring up the base. That is where they get readers, listeners and donors. These people do not fear election losses. They thrive on them. Opposition suits their purpose…Among the GOP’s elected representatives – and its more traditional elites – there is a sudden outbreak of moderation.…it is not really a battle between two sets of warring politicians. Instead, it is a fight between politicians and pundits. It is policy versus talking points, voters versus ratings. Even Democrats should hope the politicians win. Pundits and politicians contend for the soul of the Republican party by Paul Harris, Guardian/UK, November 12, 2012 -

Amy Goodman… Karl Rove has become the ulti­mate party boss.…Craig Unger:… it’s worth going back to how he got power back in the 1980s [in] Texas…to show Karl Rove’s power during the Bush years… in 2000…in Ohio in 2004…Rove did a lot of things that were sort of under the radar and that I think have enduring consequences, and they represent real threats to democracy…I don’t think he’s an ideologue. I think he’s about winning….There’s always been this talk of a permanent Republican majority that Rove is trying to forge, and he sees it, the nation, as being entirely Republican….…Karl Rove barely escaped indictment and rose to be the biggest powerhouse, political powerhouse, in America today …President Bush’s State of the Union address that called for war against and launched the war against Iraq. And the allega­tions, of course, were not just false, but they were based on forged documents…this showed that they would stop at nothing to maintain their narrative…it’s most important to understand about this man who has now become perhaps the most powerful political operative in America…Look who’s covertly controlling the GOP – Look who’s covertly controlling the GOPKarl Rove, Scheming Election Theft and Raising a Fortune for Vicious Attack Ads, Democracy Now! By Amy Goodman, Craig Unger posted on Alternet.org, August 22, 2012 -

The Sick Social Darwinism Driving Modern Republicans

What Happened to the Traditionally Conservative Republican Party?

Power

…Power…is best understood in terms of command and control. It is either the capacity to make others do as you wish (the command function) or to reorder the environment around you (the control function)…power in America and elsewhere is undergoing directional changes…Yes, there are still cultural arbiters, and yes, presidents and lawmakers and executives obviously exert enormous influence. It is arguable, though, that technology has given us a more democratic culture (if not politics) than the world has seen since perhaps the founding… the Internet has…lowered barriers to information and has given virtually anyone with something to say the means to say it. The Web is not only a source but a stage on which we can engage in the life of the nation and of the world armed with facts we have weighed in the light of reason. “Knowledge is now once again connected to power,” says [Al] Gore. The Story of Power by John Meacham, Newsweek, December 19, 2008

…slogans and proposals and will mean nothing without the requi­site power standing behind them…We need politicians more afraid of voter outrage than they are of corporate retribution…it’s in the interest of some of the most powerful players on earth to prolong the status quo… [changes] go against the power of the status quo, and hence they will be enacted only if we build movements strong enough to force them…We’ll never get the solutions we need—the solutions everyone has known about for two decades—unless we build the move­ment first. It’s Time to Fight the Sta­tus Quo by Bill McKibben

Eighty-Six Percent of Americans Think the Government Should Fight Poverty by Zoë Carpenter, The Nation, January 8, 2014 

How a Shadowy Network of Corporate Front Groups Distorts the Marketplace of Ideas

Polarization and Gridlock Work Well for the Wealthiest Americans

The Source of Cor­po­rate Power

Money in politics

financiers who presided over the market collapse… could have and should have seen it coming.…the financial crisis was not an accident and they were not powerless. The crisis was the result of irresponsibility and misjudgments by many people…Congress’s efforts at financial reform appear to be weakened daily by politicians who are more concerned with campaign donations than regulating the financial system. Who’s Not Sorry Now? Editorial, New York Times, April 11, 2010 

“Crony cap­i­tal­ism is about the aggres­sive and proac­tive use of polit­i­cal resources, lob­by­ing, cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, influence-peddling of one type or another to gain some­thing from the gov­ern­men­tal process that wouldn’t oth­er­wise be achiev­able in the mar­ket…Money dom­i­nates pol­i­tics. As a result we have nei­ther cap­i­tal­ism nor democ­racy. We have crony cap­i­tal­ism.” David Stock­man, for­mer bud­get direc­tor for Pres­i­dent Reagan

“You and I don’t have a lobbyist and so we are not represented in this melee. There is no balance here. There’s a drastic imbalance between the people who created the problem and the people who had to pay the problem and it has not been addressed.”  Gretchen Morgenson, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times business and finance reporter – How Big Money Bought Our Democ­racy, Cor­rupted Both Par­ties, and Set Us Up for Another Finan­cial Cri­sis

The power of money trumps the power of democracy today…democracy should be a break on unbridled greed and power. Democracy Should Be a Brake on Unbridled Greed and PowerBill Moyers

Koch-backed political coalition, designed to shield donors, raised $400 million in 2012

Billionaire Koch Brothers Spending Millions To Deny Health Coverage To Low-Income Americans 

How Obama Prevailed in 2012

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI, New York Times, June 2, 2013

THE CENTER HOLDs, Obama and His Enemies By Jonathan Alter, Illustrated. 428 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.

Excerpt

“The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” is … a chronicle of the president’s fight to win re-election and his continuing battles with an obstructionist Republican party.

…What this book does do is provide context for the Obama White House’s current woes. Mr. Alter gives us a lucid picture of the toxic, highly partisan political environment in which today’s controversies are occurring. It is an environment in which anti-government conservatives have faced off against the administration over health care reform, taxes and a host of other issues, and in which Mr. Obama’s adversaries (ranging from the Republican leadership opposed to his legislative agenda to right-wing groups like the birthers, who suffer from what Mr. Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome”) have demonstrated an eagerness to block the president any way they can.

…Obama White House has been too insular, that it has often done a poor job of selling its agenda

Mr. Alter’s thesis is that the 2012 election was possibly “the most consequential” in recent times and “a hinge of history” — “a titanic ideological struggle” that put the “social contract established during the New Deal era” on the line. He readily acknowledges that he thinks the United States “dodged a bullet in 2012,” and that in re-electing Barack Obama and rejecting the Republicans’ “extremist” views, America reaffirmed its identity as an essentially “centrist nation.”

exception, Mr. Alter adds… line in reacting to criticism, he would hand his enemies a weapon: “ ‘See, he’s like all the rest of them.’ It was better for him to be perceived as ‘different,’ with all the challenges that brought.” This “stifling of himself,” this “inability to swing at certain pitches,” made him, according to one aide, about “5 percent more aloof than he had been before coming to the presidency.” … The only sections that substantially add to our understanding of the campaign are those chronicling, in minute detail, the Obama team’s creation of a sophisticated operation for reaching out to potential supporters and getting out the vote — an operation that combined impressive ground troops with the digital analysis of huge amounts of data… After the election, Mr. Alter says, the Obama for America campaign was reincarnated as a group called Organizing for Action. With more than 20 million e-mail addresses in its database, Organizing for Action “would try to make the 2012 Chicago machine a permanent force in American politics, applying money, analytics, door-knocking, and the rest of the magic formula to advancing the president’s agenda.”

Full text

Jonathan Alter’s revealing 2010 book, “The Promise,” provided a detailed look at President Obama’s first year in office, tracing his decision-making process on issues like health care reform and the Afghanistan war. Mr. Alter’s highly informed, energetically reported but often tiresomely familiar new book, “The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies,” is less a sequel than a chronicle of the president’s fight to win re-election and his continuing battles with an obstructionist Republican party.

Mr. Alter does not offer a real assessment of Mr. Obama’s handling of important second-term issues like immigration reform and gun control. And while the book mentions in passing the debate surrounding the attacks on the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, it went to press too early to grapple with the two other controversies swirling around the White House: that is, revelations that the Internal Revenue Service singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny and that the Justice Department had seized the phone records of journalists at The Associated Press.

Indeed, the problems with “The Center Holds” — which draws upon interviews with more than 200 people — underscore the difficulties faced by even the most astute reporters writing what the author calls “contemporary history.” Especially at a time when there is wall-to-wall, 24/7 news coverage online and on TV, and when one narrative — concerning, say, Mr. Obama’s resounding victory in last fall’s election — can so quickly give way to another one of gridlock and dysfunction.

Read today, much of the material here feels like reheated news. Once again, we hear about the “clown car” antics that dominated the Republican primary process as candidates like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry vied to become their party’s front-runner. Once again, we hear about disarray within the Mitt Romney campaign and its failure to blunt his image as a wealthy businessman out of touch with everyday middle-class concerns. And once again, we hear about the rise of the Tea Party and the president’s clashes with Republicans in Congress over the budget, the debt ceiling and sequestration.

What this book does do is provide context for the Obama White House’s current woes. Mr. Alter gives us a lucid picture of the toxic, highly partisan political environment in which today’s controversies are occurring. It is an environment in which anti-government conservatives have faced off against the administration over health care reform, taxes and a host of other issues, and in which Mr. Obama’s adversaries (ranging from the Republican leadership opposed to his legislative agenda to right-wing groups like the birthers, who suffer from what Mr. Alter calls “Obama Derangement Syndrome”) have demonstrated an eagerness to block the president any way they can.

This book also provides a close analysis of what Mr. Alter sees as the administration’s missteps, focused around the author’s conviction that the president’s “detached and self-contained nature had hampered his presidency.” Mr. Alter contends that what he calls Mr. Obama’s lack of “the schmooze gene” (“standard equipment for people in politics”) and his reticence in cultivating relationships with members of Congress and other politicians left him with “one less way to leverage his authority.”

Many of Mr. Alter’s observations echo complaints frequently heard within the Beltway. He argues that the Obama White House has been too insular, that it has often done a poor job of selling its agenda (say, on health care) and that the president has frequently been slow to go on offense: he “developed a habit of letting the dialogue deteriorate until he rode to the rescue like a one-man cavalry, solving all the problems with a big speech, large chunks of which he wrote himself at the last minute.”

One of Mr. Obama’s first big financial supporters said he thought the president, in Mr. Alter’s words, “had been humbled by the opposition’s intransigence”: “he had never failed to bring anyone around before, and it changed him.”

In Mr. Alter’s view, the president’s lack of experience in negotiations hobbled his efforts to cut deals with Republicans, much the way his paucity of earlier political experience “hampered him on management questions.” “Relations with Cabinet-level departments were so tangled that it was often hard to get decisions made,” Mr. Alter writes. “While centralizing the national security apparatus at the White House worked well enough (unless you happened to work at the State Department), domestic agencies had to deal with several competing power sources inside the White House that each got to say, ‘It’s the White House calling.’ ”

Mr. Alter’s thesis is that the 2012 election was possibly “the most consequential” in recent times and “a hinge of history” — “a titanic ideological struggle” that put the “social contract established during the New Deal era” on the line. He readily acknowledges that he thinks the United States “dodged a bullet in 2012,” and that in re-electing Barack Obama and rejecting the Republicans’ “extremist” views, America reaffirmed its identity as an essentially “centrist nation.”

Toward the end of this volume, Mr. Alter quotes Mr. Obama telling an aide that if he lost, his presidency would be “a footnote” and that “all of the progress we made in the first four years would be reversed”; if he won, his first-term achievements would be cemented for a generation and he could move ahead on promises sidetracked by the recession.

Whereas there had “famously been ‘two Clintons,’ the brilliant policy analyst” and “the volcanic and self-pitying victim of his own appetites,” Mr. Alter says, President Obama was “pretty much the same calm and self-contained guy inside the bubble as he was in public.” With one exception, Mr. Alter adds: “the intense racial consciousness that he had nurtured in his own mind since childhood was more apparent in private. He knew that if he crossed a certain line in reacting to criticism, he would hand his enemies a weapon: “ ‘See, he’s like all the rest of them.’ It was better for him to be perceived as ‘different,’ with all the challenges that brought.” This “stifling of himself,” this “inability to swing at certain pitches,” made him, according to one aide, about “5 percent more aloof than he had been before coming to the presidency.”

A similar sort of dynamic, in Mr. Alter’s opinion, helps explain the president’s dismal first debate, which jeopardized his re-election: “Obama didn’t trust himself to tangle with Romney. He thought Romney was a liar and an empty suit and would reverse everything worthy he had done as president,” and he had “long worried that his attitude would spill out. Suppressing that was part of what threw him off his game” in that Denver debate.

Such observations help propel the well-worn narrative of the presidential campaign forward, and Mr. Alter scatters some worthwhile nuggets of information along the way.

He reports that Bill Clinton had for many months thought Mr. Romney would win (“the Obama-Christie moment during Hurricane Sandy,” Mr. Alter says, changed the former president’s mind). And he provides some interesting observations on Republican-backed efforts to implement election “reform” around the country (like requiring state-issued photo ID’s and cutting back on early in-person voting) that would hold down “turnout among young people and minorities, who tended to vote Democratic.” Those efforts failed, says Mr. Alter, instead creating a backlash against Republicans as a wave of black voters headed to the polls in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Florida, angry at attempts to suppress their votes.

Over all, however, the long passages in this book recounting the 2012 presidential campaign feel like tired television reruns of a not-too-popular show. The only sections that substantially add to our understanding of the campaign are those chronicling, in minute detail, the Obama team’s creation of a sophisticated operation for reaching out to potential supporters and getting out the vote — an operation that combined impressive ground troops with the digital analysis of huge amounts of data.

This big data helped the campaign figure out what worked and what didn’t (for a while, e-mails with yellow backgrounds “generated 10 to 20 percent” more responses than those with white backgrounds) and assess the ever-shifting metrics of the contest. Some 4,000 to 9,000 phone calls a night were placed to voters in battleground states, Mr. Alter says, providing “the campaign high command” with “a 360-degree view of the state of the race.” Facebook was used for “supporter mobilization” and cable television data was employed to help micro-target ad buys. A mobile app, “Quick Donate,” Mr. Alter reports, “raised an extra $75 million by letting supporters give money with one click instead of filling out a form.”

This state-of-the-art campaign machine would help insure that Mr. Obama won a second term. After the election, Mr. Alter says, the Obama for America campaign was reincarnated as a group called Organizing for Action. With more than 20 million e-mail addresses in its database, Organizing for Action “would try to make the 2012 Chicago machine a permanent force in American politics, applying money, analytics, door-knocking, and the rest of the magic formula to advancing the president’s agenda.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/03/books/the-center-holds-by-jonathan-alter.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130603&_r=0

Engineered Inequality

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality, Moyers & Company,  March 1, 2012

Moyers & Company dives into one of the most important and controversial issues of our time: How Washington and Big Business colluded to make the super-rich richer and turn their backs on the rest of us. Bill’s guests – Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, authors of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, argue that America’s vast inequality is no accident, but in fact has been politically engineered. March 1, 2012

How, in a nation as wealthy as America, can the economy simply stop working for people at large, while super-serving those at the very top? Through exhaustive research and analysis, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson — whom Bill regards as the “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” of economics — detail important truths behind a 30-year economic assault against the middle class.

Who’s the culprit? “American politics did it– far more than we would have believed when we started this research,” Hacker explains. “What government has done and not done, and the politics that produced it, is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.” 

Bill considers their book the best he’s seen detailing “how politicians rewrote the rules to create a winner-take-all economy that favors the 1% over everyone else, putting our once and future middle class in peril.”

Excerpt

LINNEA PALMER PATON: This is supposed to be a government run by the people and if our voices don’t matter because we’re not wealthy, that’s really unacceptable and it’s dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: Why, in a nation as rich as America, has the economy stopped working for people at large even as those at the top enjoy massive rewards?

The struggle of ordinary people for a decent living, for security, is as old as the republic, but it’s taken on a new and urgent edge. Instead of shared prosperity our political system has now produced a winner-take-all economy…

BILL MOYERS: This gross inequality didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It was politically engineered by powerful players in Washington and on Wall Street. You can read how they did it in this book, Winner-Take-All Politics, by two of the country’s top political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

PAUL PIERSON: It’s really astonishing how concentrated the gains of economic growth have been.

JACOB HACKER: But we were actually looking at the last 30 years, and seeing that the middle class had only gotten ahead to the extent that it had because of families working more hours…

 

JACOB HACKER:  …And what we found is it’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans. And those have-it-alls, which are households in say the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution, the richest one-in-a-thousand households are truly living in an unparalleled age.

BILL MOYERS: You set out to try to solve three mysteries: who done it, who created the circumstances and conditions for the creation of a winner-take-all economy. And your answer to that in one sentence is?

JACOB HACKER: American politics did it far more than we would have believed when we started this research. What government has done and not done and the politics that produced it is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off…

BILL MOYERS: How did they do it?

PAUL PIERSON: Through organized combat is the short answer.

BILL MOYERS: And why did they do it?

JACOB HACKER: Because they could. Because the transformation of political organization, the creation of a powerful, organized business community, the degree to which that was self-reinforcing within both parties has meant that politicians have found that they can on issue after issue cater to the interests of the very well off while either ignoring or only symbolically addressing many of the concerns that are felt by most Americans and get reelected and survive politically…

BILL MOYERS: You write, we have a government that’s been promoting inequality, and at the same time, as you just said, failing to counteract it. This has been going on, you write, 30 years or more. And here’s the key sentence: Step by step, and debate by debate, our public officials have rewritten the rules of the economy in ways that favor the few at the expense of the many…

BILL MOYERS: How can this happen? How could Washington turn its back on the broad middle class to favor a relatively few at the top in a democracy?

JACOB HACKER: What has really changed is the organization of American politics, particularly the organizations that represent the deepest pocketed members of American society. What we’ve seen as an organizational revolution over the last 30 years that has meant that business, and Wall Street, and ideological conservative organizations that are pushing for free market policies have all become much more influential.

And at the same time, a lot of the organizations that once represented the middle class, labor unions, broad-based civic organizations and, sort of, organizations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous ground… the wealthy are much more powerful than in the past…

JACOB HACKER: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the history of American democracy it is about a broadening of our understanding of political equality to incorporate African Americans and women and ultimately to also incorporate the idea that large inequalities of property were a threat to democratic equality. So FDR during the Great Depression famously said that political equality was meaningless in the face of economic inequality… Americans have very complex views about equality, but they all agree in this basic idea that as Thomas Jefferson famously said, “All men are created equal.”…

BILL MOYERS: Point blank, Paul, do we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: I would say no…. in terms of its weight in the society, its ability to produce a society and reproduce a society that is oriented around the needs and concerns and opportunities of the middle class, I don’t think that we live in that country anymore…

JACOB HACKER: The fact is that for most middle class and working class Americans the politics seems increasingly removed from their everyday experience and their life. And there is a current of distrust and anger towards Washington is that is so deep right now…

JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It’s really the development of lobbying over this this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics…

the optimistic message is that politics got us into this mess and therefore potentially politics can get us out of it. ..

JACOB HACKER: When citizens are organized and when they press their claims forcefully, when there are reformist leaders within government and outside it who work on their behalf, then we do see reform. This is the story of the American democratic experiment of wave after wave of reform leading to a much broader franchise, to a much broader understanding of the American idea…what was valuable in the past could be a part of our future.

Full posting

(Because of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on our offices and studio, we’re airing this encore edition of Moyers & Company, first broadcast in January. This Election Day, issues of money, influence and “winner-take-all politics” are more important than ever.)

How, in a nation as wealthy as America, can the economy simply stop working for people at large, while super-serving those at the very top? Through exhaustive research and analysis, the political scientists Hacker and Pierson — whom Bill regards as the “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson” of economics — detail important truths behind a 30-year economic assault against the middle class.

Who’s the culprit? “American politics did it– far more than we would have believed when we started this research,” Hacker explains. “What government has done and not done, and the politics that produced it, is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.”

Bill considers their book the best he’s seen detailing “how politicians rewrote the rules to create a winner-take-all economy that favors the 1% over everyone else, putting our once and future middle class in peril.”

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality, Moyers & Company,  March 1, 2012

PAUL PIERSON: I think a lot of people know that inequality has grown in the United States. But saying that inequality has grown doesn’t begin to describe what’s happened.

JACOB HACKER: It’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans.

LINNEA PALMER PATON: This is supposed to be a government run by the people and if our voices don’t matter because we’re not wealthy, that’s really unacceptable and it’s dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: Why, in a nation as rich as America, has the economy stopped working for people at large even as those at the top enjoy massive rewards?

The struggle of ordinary people for a decent living, for security, is as old as the republic, but it’s taken on a new and urgent edge. Instead of shared prosperity our political system has now produced a winner-take-all economy.

GORDON GEKKO: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth: five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows’ idiot sons and what I do — stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90 percent of the American people have little or no net worth. I create nothing; I own.

We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval; the price of a paper clip. We pull the rabbit out of the hat while everybody else sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, Buddy?

BILL MOYERS: That, of course, was Michael Douglas as the wheeler-dealer Gordon Gekko, responding to his protégé, played by Charlie Sheen in the movie Wall Street, 25 years ago!

Back in the late 80s, the director Oliver Stone, himself the son of a stockbroker, saw something happening before it reached the mainstream. Before the rest of us knew what hit us. That little speech about the richest one percent and the demise of democracy proved to be prophetic. Flesh-and-blood Americans are living now every day with the consequences.

BILL MOYERS: This gross inequality didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It was politically engineered by powerful players in Washington and on Wall Street. You can read how they did it in this book, Winner-Take-All Politics, by two of the country’s top political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

PAUL PIERSON:

It’s really astonishing how concentrated the gains of economic growth have been.

JACOB HACKER:

But we were actually looking at the last 30 years, and seeing that the middle class had only gotten ahead to the extent that it had because of families working more hours.

So this is a story that isn’t just about those at the top doing much, much better. But is, also, we found, a story about those in the middle not getting ahead, often falling behind in important ways, failing to have the same kinds of opportunity and economic security that they once had.

JACOB HACKER:  …And what we found is it’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans. And those have-it-alls, which are households in say the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution, the richest one-in-a-thousand households are truly living in an unparalleled age.

BILL MOYERS: You set out to try to solve three mysteries: who done it, who created the circumstances and conditions for the creation of a winner-take-all economy. And your answer to that in one sentence is?

JACOB HACKER: American politics did it far more than we would have believed when we started this research. What government has done and not done and the politics that produced it is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.

BILL MOYERS: It’s the politics, stupid?

JACOB HACKER: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: How did they do it?

PAUL PIERSON: Through organized combat is the short answer.

BILL MOYERS: And why did they do it?

JACOB HACKER: Because they could. Because the transformation of political organization, the creation of a powerful, organized business community, the degree to which that was self-reinforcing within both parties has meant that politicians have found that they can on issue after issue cater to the interests of the very well off while either ignoring or only symbolically addressing many of the concerns that are felt by most Americans and get reelected and survive politically.

PAUL PIERSON: …That it couldn’t explain why the economic gains were so concentrated within a very small subset of the educated people in American society. I mean, 29 percent of Americans now have college degrees. But a much, much smaller percentage of Americans were benefiting from this economic transformation.

JACOB HACKER: We think the story that’s told about how the global economy has shifted clearly matters. But that it doesn’t get to the sort of really powerful role that government played in adapting to this new environment and in changing the well-being of people in the middle and at the top.

PAUL PIERSON: … Which to us, really, was a very strong clue that we need to understand why the American response to globalization, to technological change has been different than the response of most other wealthy democracies.

JACOB HACKER: …But how do you explain the fact that we’ve seen over this period where the rich have gotten richer the tax rates on the richest of the rich come dramatically down. ..

PAUL PIERSON: The Bush tax cuts in a lot of ways were written like a subprime mortgage. You know, they were designed to make people see certain things, and not see a lot of the fine print.

JACOB HACKER: Fully 30 to 40 percent of the benefits were going to the very top, of the income distribution. The top one percent. And when you broke it down, it was really the top one-tenth of one percent that did so well because of the estate tax changes, and because of the changes in the top tax rates, the changes in the capital gains taxes. And if you go to 2003, changes in the dividend tax….

PAUL PIERSON: …it was really designed to front-load the relatively modest benefits for the middle class, and to back-load the benefits for the wealthy….

JACOB HACKER: So why? Why do the winners get policies that make their winnings even larger? You know, this is not a trivial change. If you say from the mid-90s to 2007, those top 400 tax payers, they’ve seen their tax rates decline so much that it’s worth about $46 million for every one–

JACOB HACKER: Well, I think this is something that really needs to be understood. You know, these large shifts in our economy had been propelled in part by what government has done, say deregulating the market, the financial markets, to allow wealthy people to gamble with their own and other peoples’ money, and ways to put all of us at risk, but allow them to make huge fortunes….

BILL MOYERS: You write, we have a government that’s been promoting inequality, and at the same time, as you just said, failing to counteract it. This has been going on, you write, 30 years or more. And here’s the key sentence: Step by step, and debate by debate, our public officials have rewritten the rules of the economy in ways that favor the few at the expense of the many.

PAUL PIERSON: In some ways, the fundamental myth that we’re trying to break out of is the idea that there’s something natural out there called “the American economy” that is prior to government, prior to politics. And that government, if it’s involved at all, is only involved sort of at the end of the day, maybe tidying things up around the edges, or redistributing money from some people to another…

BILL MOYERS: How can this happen? How could Washington turn its back on the broad middle class to favor a relatively few at the top in a democracy?

JACOB HACKER: What has really changed is the organization of American politics, particularly the organizations that represent the deepest pocketed members of American society. What we’ve seen as an organizational revolution over the last 30 years that has meant that business, and Wall Street, and ideological conservative organizations that are pushing for free market policies have all become much more influential.

And at the same time, a lot of the organizations that once represented the middle class, labor unions, broad-based civic organizations and, sort of, organizations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous ground.

And so it’s that imbalance, that shift, I think, that is the sort of underlying pressure that plays out in our politics today. The way we describe it in the book is as if the ecosystem of American politics has changed. And everyone in American politics, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives has had to adapt to this new world where money matters much more in our politics, and where groups representing business and the wealthy are much more powerful than in the past.

BILL MOYERS: And you don’t beat around the bush. You say, quote, “Most voters of moderate means…have been organized out of politics, left adrift as the foundations of middle class democracy have washed away.”

JACOB HACKER: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the history of American democracy it is about a broadening of our understanding of political equality to incorporate African Americans and women and ultimately to also incorporate the idea that large inequalities of property were a threat to democratic equality. So FDR during the Great Depression famously said that political equality was meaningless in the face of economic inequality… Americans have very complex views about equality, but they all agree in this basic idea that as Thomas Jefferson famously said, “All men are created equal.”…

PAUL PIERSON: Yes, they do. And we describe that period after World War II, which lasted for about 30 years

JACOB HACKER: Right now I think we’re seeing the kind of bitter fruit of winner-take-all politics because this financial crisis was not an act of God or work of nature. It was brought on by poor decisions that were made in Washington and on Wall Street.

BILL MOYERS: So the winner-take-all politics has produced a winner-take-all economy?

BILL MOYERS: Point blank, Paul, do we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: I would say no. I mean, obviously there is still something there is still something that we would recognize as a middle class, it’s still probably the biggest segment of the population. But in terms of its weight in the society, its ability to produce a society and reproduce a society that is oriented around the needs and concerns and opportunities of the middle class, I don’t think that we live in that country anymore.

JACOB HACKER: … I think, what is wrong with the priorities of our society that we cannot figure out how to translate our great wealth, our ingenuity, the hard work of our citizens, into a better standard of living that is shared broadly across the population? That’s a fundamental thing that a well-functioning democracy should do.

JACOB HACKER: …

At the individual level Americans are extremely optimistic. And if you ask them, “Will you achieve the American dream?” Most Americans say yes. But at a collective level when you ask people, “Does the American dream still hold true?” We’re seeing in surveys for the first time that only about, you know, half of Americans are agreeing that the American dream still holds true. And that’s remarkable.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the practical consequences of that? Of giving up faith and hope in that dream?

JACOB HACKER: The fact is that for most middle class and working class Americans the politics seems increasingly removed from their everyday experience and their life. And there is a current of distrust and anger towards Washington is that is so deep right now…

JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It’s really the development of lobbying over this this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics.

Well, a few years later lobbyists had written a lot of these loopholes back into the tax code..

PAUL PIERSON: Right. It is the story that we try to tell in this book that there has been a 30 year war in which the sound of the voice of ordinary Americans has been quieter and quieter in American politics and the voice of business and the wealthy has been louder and louder

And I think the main punch line of our story and the optimistic message is that politics got us into this mess and therefore potentially politics can get us out of it. ..

JACOB HACKER: When citizens are organized and when they press their claims forcefully, when there are reformist leaders within government and outside it who work on their behalf, then we do see reform. This is the story of the American democratic experiment of wave after wave of reform leading to a much broader franchise, to a much broader understanding of the American idea.

In the mid-20th century we saw a period in which income gains were broadly distributed, in which middle class Americans had voice through labor unions, through civic organizations and through, ultimately, their government. We’ve seen an erosion of that world, but just because it’s lost ground doesn’t mean it can’t be saved. And so in writing this book we were hoping to sort of tell Americans that what was valuable in the past could be a part of our future.

BILL MOYERS: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, thank you.

PAUL PIERSON: Thank you so much.

JACOB HACKER: Thank you.

Full transcript

March 1, 2012

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality

BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company.

PAUL PIERSON: I think a lot of people know that inequality has grown in the United States. But saying that inequality has grown doesn’t begin to describe what’s happened.

JACOB HACKER: It’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans.

BILL MOYERS: And…

LINNEA PALMER PATON: This is supposed to be a government run by the people and if our voices don’t matter because we’re not wealthy, that’s really unacceptable and it’s dangerous.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. I’m glad we could get together again. I look forward to your company from week to week – here and online at BillMoyers.com. It’s good to be back.

We begin with the question that haunts our time: Why, in a nation as rich as America, has the economy stopped working for people at large even as those at the top enjoy massive rewards?

The struggle of ordinary people for a decent living, for security, is as old as the republic, but it’s taken on a new and urgent edge. Instead of shared prosperity our political system has now produced a winner-take-all economy.

BUD FOX: How much is enough Gordon?

BILL MOYERS: Hollywood saw it coming.

GORDON GEKKO: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth: five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows’ idiot sons and what I do — stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90 percent of the American people have little or no net worth. I create nothing; I own.

We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval; the price of a paper clip. We pull the rabbit out of the hat while everybody else sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, Buddy?

BILL MOYERS: That, of course, was Michael Douglas as the wheeler-dealer Gordon Gekko, responding to his protégé, played by Charlie Sheen in the movie Wall Street, 25 years ago!

Back in the late 80s, the director Oliver Stone, himself the son of a stockbroker, saw something happening before it reached the mainstream. Before the rest of us knew what hit us. That little speech about the richest one percent and the demise of democracy proved to be prophetic. Flesh-and-blood Americans are living now every day with the consequences.

AMANDA GREUBEL: My name is Amanda Greubel. I am 32 years old, born and raised in Iowa. I’ve been married for ten years today to my high school sweetheart, Josh. He’s the High School Band Director in the same district where I am the Family Resource Center Director. We have a five-year old son Benen, and our second child on the way in December. Like a lot American families, we have a lot of debt – mortgage, two vehicles, and because we both have masters degrees, a lot of student loan debt.

BILL MOYERS: Amanda Greubel was invited to testify last summer at a Senate hearing on how Americans are coping in hard times. When the state cut funding for local school districts, Amanda Greubel and her husband feared they might lose their jobs. At the last minute, they were spared, although her salary was reduced by $10,000.

AMANDA GREUBEL: $10,000 might not seem like a lot to some people, but that loss of income required a complete financial, emotional and spiritual overhaul in our family. […] It means that even though I would rather shop at local grocers, I shop at Wal-Mart for groceries because that’s where the lowest prices are. Sometimes the grocery money runs out before the end of the month, and then we have to be creative with what’s in the cupboard – and that was a fun challenge at first, but the novelty wears off after a while. […] It means that most of our clothing comes from Goodwill, garage sales, and the clearance racks because we try not to spend full-price on anything anymore. It means that when my son brought me the snack calendar for his classroom and I saw that that month was his week to provide snacks for 15 classmates, I was scared because I knew that it would stretch the grocery budget even further. And we didn’t have roast beef or pork chops in our house that month. […] This past spring our son was hospitalized for three days, resulting in $1000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses beyond what our insurance covered. Then a problem with our roof required $1500 in repairs. Even though we’d been setting aside money every month for emergencies like that, we still didn’t have enough. And so we’ve spent the last few months catching up.

And finally, this change in our finances meant giving very serious consideration to whether it was even a good idea for our family to have another child. Thankfully, life has a way of reminding us through our son’s brief illness and hospitalization that some things are more important than money and that we’ll figure it out.

BILL MOYERS: She told the senators how the sour economy has affected her students and their parents.

AMANDA GREUBEL: If my family with two Master’s degrees is struggling, you can imagine how bad it is for other people.

The past few years our school district has seen our percentage of students on free and reduced lunch increase steadily. In a community that has a reputation of being very well off, over 30 percent of our elementary level students qualified for that program this year. I’ve sat with parents as they’ve completed that eligibility application, and they cry tears of shame, and they say things like “I never thought I’d have to do this,” and “I’ve never needed this help before.” They worry that their neighbors will find out and that their kids will be embarrassed. And it’s my job to reassure them that reaching out for help when you need it is no problem – it’s not a shame, it’s not anything to be embarrassed about. […] Kids don’t necessarily tell their parents when they’re afraid, because they see that their parents are stressed out enough already and they don’t want to make it worse. Sometimes their clothing becomes more tattered and we see parents cut the toes off of tennis shoes to accommodate a few more months’ worth of growth, and let those shoes last just a little bit longer. When kids don’t have enough to eat or they worry about losing their homes they cannot concentrate on learning their math facts, or their reading strategies. And in some cases financial concerns lead to or exacerbate issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, and physical or mental health conditions. All of the things that are ailing our families right now are so interconnected.

[…] I may have been called on to be the voice of struggling families today, but there are millions more out there who want and need to be heard by you. And I would ask that you not only listen, but that you then come back here and do something. Because it was your commitment and your passion for public service that brought you here in the first place.

BILL MOYERS: Our once and future middle class is in trouble. Their share of the nation’s income is shrinking, while the share going to the top is growing. Wages are at an all-time low as a percentage of the economy, and chronic unemployment is at the highest level since the Great Depression, but the richest Americans now hold more wealth than at any time in modern history.

This gross inequality didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It was politically engineered by powerful players in Washington and on Wall Street. You can read how they did it in this book, Winner-Take-All Politics, by two of the country’s top political scientists, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

They were drawn to a mystery every bit as puzzling as a crime drama: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

Quote: “We wanted to know how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.” And that’s what you saw.

PAUL PIERSON: I think a lot of people know that inequality has grown in the United States. But saying that inequality has grown doesn’t begin to describe what’s happened. The metaphor that we had been using lately is if you imagine a ladder, with the rungs in the ladder, and you think, “Okay, well inequality’s growing. So the rungs are getting further apart from each other.”

That’s not what’s happened in the United States. What’s happened in the United States is that the top one or two rungs have shot up, you know, into the stratosphere while all the other ones have stayed more or less in place. It’s really astonishing how concentrated the gains of economic growth have been.

JACOB HACKER: You know, the startling statistic that we have in the book is that if you take all of the income gains from 1979 to 2007, so all the increased household income over that period, around 40 percent of those gains went to the top one percent. And if you look at the bottom 90 percent they had less than that combined.

And it is not just a one or two year story. I mean, we’ve seen a terrible economy over the last few years. And the last decade is now being called “The Lost Decade” because there was no growth in middle incomes, there was no, there was an increase in the share of Americans without health insurance, more people are poor. So there was a terrible ten years.

But we were actually looking at the last 30 years, and seeing that the middle class had only gotten ahead to the extent that it had because of families working more hours.

So this is a story that isn’t just about those at the top doing much, much better. But is, also, we found, a story about those in the middle not getting ahead, often falling behind in important ways, failing to have the same kinds of opportunity and economic security that they once had.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s take a look at just how dramatic the inequality is. You have a chart here. I’m not an astute reader of charts, but this one did hit me. What are you saying with that chart?

JACOB HACKER: It says how much did people at different points on the income ladder earn in 1979 and how much did they earn in 2006 after adjusting for inflation?

It exploded at the top. The line for the top one percent, it’s hard to fit on the graph because it’s so much out of proportion to the increases that occurred among other income groups including people who are just below the top one percent. So, that top one percent saw its real incomes increase by over 250 percent between 1979 and 2006. Yeah. Over 250 percent.

PAUL PIERSON: And actually, even this graph– we couldn’t find a graph that fully describes it because even this graph actually really understates the story. Because it—

BILL MOYERS: Understates it?

PAUL PIERSON: Understates it.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, this is pretty powerful. When I looked I thought it was a showstopper.

PAUL PIERSON: Okay, so well, if you really if you really want the showstopper you have to go one step further because that big increase is for the top one percent. But the real action is inside the top one percent. If you go to the top tenth of one percent or the top hundredth of one percent, you know, you would need a much bigger graph to show what’s happening to incomes for that for that more select group. Because they’ve gone up much faster than have incomes for just your average top one percent kind of person.

BILL MOYERS: But we’ve all known for a long time that the rich were getting richer, and the middle class was barely holding its own. I mean, that was no mystery, right?

JACOB HACKER: Oh, it is. It’s a mystery when you start to look beneath the familiar, common statement that inequality has grown. Because when you think about rising inequality, we think, “Oh, it’s the haves versus the have-nots.” That the top third of the income distribution, say, is pulling away from the bottom third.

And what we found is it’s not the haves versus the have-nots. It’s the have-it-alls versus the rest of Americans. And those have-it-alls, which are households in say the top one-tenth of one percent of the income distribution, the richest one-in-a-thousand households are truly living in an unparalleled age.

Since we’ve been keeping records on the incomes of the richest from tax statistics in the early 20th century, we never saw as large a share of national income going to the richest one-in-a-thousand households as we did just before the great recession.

Their share of national income quadrupled over this period, to the point where they were pulling down about one in eight dollars in our economy. One-in-a-thousand households pulling down about one in eight dollars in our economy before the great recession began.

BILL MOYERS: You set out to try to solve three mysteries: who done it, who created the circumstances and conditions for the creation of a winner-take-all economy. And your answer to that in one sentence is?

JACOB HACKER: American politics did it far more than we would have believed when we started this research. What government has done and not done and the politics that produced it is really at the heart of the rise of an economy that has showered huge riches on the very, very, very well off.

BILL MOYERS: It’s the politics, stupid?

JACOB HACKER: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: How did they do it?

PAUL PIERSON: Through organized combat is the short answer.

BILL MOYERS: And why did they do it?

JACOB HACKER: Because they could. Because the transformation of political organization, the creation of a powerful, organized business community, the degree to which that was self-reinforcing within both parties has meant that politicians have found that they can on issue after issue cater to the interests of the very well off while either ignoring or only symbolically addressing many of the concerns that are felt by most Americans and get reelected and survive politically.

PAUL PIERSON: If you listen to many public officials over the over the last 20 or 30 years as they’ve started to recognize that inequality has grown, typically what they’ll say is, this is a result just of economic change. It’s a result of globalization changes in technology that have advantaged the educated at those with high skills at the expense of the uneducated.

And there, clearly, there is some truth to this story that education matters more in determining economic rewards. But the more we looked at this, the less satisfied we were with that explanation.

That it couldn’t explain why the economic gains were so concentrated within a very small subset of the educated people in American society. I mean, 29 percent of Americans now have college degrees. But a much, much smaller percentage of Americans were benefiting from this economic transformation.

BILL MOYERS: Well, as you speak, I can hear all of those free-marketers out they say, “Come on, Piers– come on Hacker it is the global economy. It’s that cheap labor overseas. It’s those high technology skills that you say are required, these deep forces that actually are beyond our control, and are making inevitable this division between the top and everyone else.” Right? That’s what they’re saying as they listen to you right now.

JACOB HACKER: We think the story that’s told about how the global economy has shifted clearly matters. But that it doesn’t get to the sort of really powerful role that government played in adapting to this new environment and in changing the well-being of people in the middle and at the top.

PAUL PIERSON: And again, we wouldn’t want to say that the kinds of changes that they’re talking about don’t matter at all. But they still leave open for a country to decide how they’re going to respond to those kinds of economic challenges.

And when you look at other affluent democracies that have also been exposed to these same kinds of pressures, who are actually more open — smaller economies are often more open to the global economy than the United States is — you don’t see anything like the run-up in inequality, especially this very concentrated high-end inequality, in most of these other countries that you see in the United States. Which to us, really, was a very strong clue that we need to understand why the American response to globalization, to technological change has been different than the response of most other wealthy democracies.

JACOB HACKER: So it’s one thing to say, “Oh, the rich are getting richer because we have this new global economy.”

But how do you explain the fact that we’ve seen over this period where the rich have gotten richer the tax rates on the richest of the rich come dramatically down. You know, Warren Buffet now says that he thinks he’s paying a lower tax rate than the people who work for him do.

PAUL PIERSON: The thing that got us going at the very beginning was the Bush tax cuts.

GEORGE W. BUSH: This tax relief plan is principled. We cut taxes for every income taxpayer. We target nobody in, we target nobody out. And tax relief is now on the way. Today is a great day for America.

PAUL PIERSON: The Bush tax cuts in a lot of ways were written like a subprime mortgage. You know, they were designed to make people see certain things, and not see a lot of the fine print.

JACOB HACKER: Fully 30 to 40 percent of the benefits were going to the very top, of the income distribution. The top one percent. And when you broke it down, it was really the top one-tenth of one percent that did so well because of the estate tax changes, and because of the changes in the top tax rates, the changes in the capital gains taxes. And if you go to 2003, changes in the dividend tax.

I mean, these were all tax breaks that were worth a vast amount to the richest of Americans and worth very little to middle class Americans.

PAUL PIERSON: Within a few weeks after the legislation was passed, we all get a letter that says Congress and the President have given you this tax cut. And then that’s pretty much it for the middle class. But for higher income groups, the further forward you go in time, the bigger and bigger the benefits get. So it was really designed to front-load the relatively modest benefits for the middle class, and to back-load the benefits for the wealthy.

JACOB HACKER: So why? Why do the winners get policies that make their winnings even larger? You know, this is not a trivial change. If you say from the mid-90s to 2007, those top 400 tax payers, they’ve seen their tax rates decline so much that it’s worth about $46 million for every one–

BILL MOYERS: For every–

JACOB HACKER: Of those 400 tax payers. So it’s– the numbers are staggering. When you start to look within the top one percent, and look at what government has done to help those people out, through taxes, through changes in the market, financial deregulation and the like, and through protecting them from efforts to try to push back.

BILL MOYERS: Protecting them?

JACOB HACKER: Well, I think this is something that really needs to be understood. You know, these large shifts in our economy had been propelled in part by what government has done, say deregulating the market, the financial markets, to allow wealthy people to gamble with their own and other peoples’ money, and ways to put all of us at risk, but allow them to make huge fortunes.

And at the same time, when those risks have become apparent, there has been a studious effort on the part of political leaders to try to protect against government stepping in and regulating or changing the rules.

BILL MOYERS: You write, we have a government that’s been promoting inequality, and at the same time, as you just said, failing to counteract it. This has been going on, you write, 30 years or more. And here’s the key sentence: Step by step, and debate by debate, our public officials have rewritten the rules of the economy in ways that favor the few at the expense of the many.

PAUL PIERSON: In some ways, the fundamental myth that we’re trying to break out of is the idea that there’s something natural out there called “the American economy” that is prior to government, prior to politics. And that government, if it’s involved at all, is only involved sort of at the end of the day, maybe tidying things up around the edges, or redistributing money from some people to another.

And I think the financial crisis has been a rude awakening for people who viewed the economic world that way. It’s now, I think, very clear in retrospect that the decisions that leading public officials made over a period of decades helped to get us to a point where a financial crisis could be so devastating to all Americans.

BILL MOYERS: How can this happen? How could Washington turn its back on the broad middle class to favor a relatively few at the top in a democracy?

JACOB HACKER: What has really changed is the organization of American politics, particularly the organizations that represent the deepest pocketed members of American society. What we’ve seen as an organizational revolution over the last 30 years that has meant that business, and Wall Street, and ideological conservative organizations that are pushing for free market policies have all become much more influential.

And at the same time, a lot of the organizations that once represented the middle class, labor unions, broad-based civic organizations and, sort of, organizations at the local and grassroots level, including social movements, have all lost enormous ground.

And so it’s that imbalance, that shift, I think, that is the sort of underlying pressure that plays out in our politics today. The way we describe it in the book is as if the ecosystem of American politics has changed. And everyone in American politics, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives has had to adapt to this new world where money matters much more in our politics, and where groups representing business and the wealthy are much more powerful than in the past.

BILL MOYERS: And you don’t beat around the bush. You say, quote, “Most voters of moderate means…have been organized out of politics, left adrift as the foundations of middle class democracy have washed away.”

JACOB HACKER: Yeah, I mean, if you look at the history of American democracy it is about a broadening of our understanding of political equality to incorporate African Americans and women and ultimately to also incorporate the idea that large inequalities of property were a threat to democratic equality. So FDR during the Great Depression famously said that political equality was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.

So we now, I think, understand that inequality of income and wealth is part of a capitalist society, but it can’t overwhelm our democracy. And what we’ve seen in the last 30 years is a gradual erosion of the firewalls that protect our democracy from the inequalities that are occurring in the market. Money has come into politics much more.

And the power that people have in the market is being used more and more in politics as well. And that’s a concern because Americans have very complex views about equality, but they all agree in this basic idea that as Thomas Jefferson famously said, “All men are created equal.”

And he meant men probably, but you know, the modern understand of that phrase, we believe that people whether they’re rich or they’re poor, whether they have lots of property or not, whether they’re in, on Wall Street or off, they should have equal potential to influence what government does. Anybody who looks around at our government today cannot believe that’s the case or that we’re even close to that.

PAUL PIERSON: Well certainly you just have to look at recent headlines to see a Washington that seems preoccupied with the economic concerns of those at the top and is resistant in many cases to steps that are clearly favored by a majority of the electorate such as wanting to increase taxes on the very well-to-do, letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire as if you want to do something about the deficit. That’s the single most popular proposal for doing something about the deficit would be to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. And yet that gets nowhere in Washington.

JACOB HACKER: You know, there is an organized, powerful constituency for deregulation, for high end tax cuts, for policies that are neglecting some of the serious middle class strains. And there just isn’t anything of comparable size or power on the other side.

And that has pulled Washington way toward the concerns of the most affluent, most privileged members of our society and led them to often neglect the real struggles that Americans are facing during this economic crisis, struggles that are magnified versions of what Americans have been going through for 25 years or so.

BILL MOYERS: There was a time when we were sure that a strong middle class was the backbone of a democracy. And there was a time, after the second World War when I was a young man when incomes actually grew slightly faster at the bottom and the middle than at the top, is that right? Do your figures support that?

PAUL PIERSON: Yes, they do. And we describe that period after World War II, which lasted for about 30 years as being a country which we labeled Broadland. And—

BILL MOYERS: Broadland?

PAUL PIERSON: Broadland. And I think it’s most clearly captured by that old idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Everybody’s income is going up at the roughly the same rate, slightly faster actually towards the bottom of the income distribution than towards the top, but everybody’s incomes were going up. And it’s important to understand, so this wasn’t some egalitarian fantasy world. It wasn’t Sweden.

It was the United States, recognizably the United States with significant inequalities of wealth, but everybody was participating in prosperity and seeing their incomes rise. And then after the mid 1970′s we start moving towards a distribution of income that looks more like that of a third world oligarchy. It looks more like Mexico or Brazil or Russia. Income inequality that statistics on income inequality now suggest that inequality is higher in the U.S. than it is in Egypt. And that’s quite a journey from where we were when I was growing up.

JACOB HACKER: Right now I think we’re seeing the kind of bitter fruit of winner-take-all politics because this financial crisis was not an act of God or work of nature. It was brought on by poor decisions that were made in Washington and on Wall Street. Yes, there’s a global dimension to this, but a big part of it was failures of domestic policy. You know, if you look to our northern neighbor, Canada, it had nothing like the same degree of banking crisis the United States did. And that’s partly because it had much more effective regulations of the financial sector. You know, over this period that we saw leverage and speculation increasing on Wall Street, Washington, both Democrats and Republicans, were trying as hard as they could to allow Wall Street to do even more.

BILL MOYERS: So the winner-take-all politics has produced a winner-take-all economy? Right?

JACOB HACKER: Yes.

PAUL PIERSON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: And the winners are?

JACOB HACKER: The winners are those who’ve made out so well in this new economy, the very well off and financial– and people in the highest reaches of finance and corporate executives suites.

BILL MOYERS: And the losers?

PAUL PIERSON: Well, the losers are, I think, almost all of us.

I think almost all Americans lose from the shift toward a society in which rewards are so narrowly concentrated on a small segment of the population.

I was talking yesterday evening with a friend of mine who spends much of his time in Mexico who was describing a society in which a small group of wealthy people are protected by guns mostly from the rest of the population and dart from one protected location to another protected location completely separate from the rest of society.

We’re not there yet but we’ve moved a long way down a road in which there’s just a sharp social, economic, cultural separation from the vast bulk of Americans and a small astonishingly successful financial elite. And I don’t think that — I think most Americans would consider that not to be an improvement. They would consider themselves to be losers from that.

JACOB HACKER: And there’s no sign that the sort of massive concentration of the gains of the economy at the very top is slowing down. In fact, this downturn has been remarkable in the degree to which those at the very top seem to have weathered it pretty well. Profits are still very high.Those who are on Wall Street have recovered thanks to a massive government bailout.

BILL MOYERS: Taxpayers put it up. I mean, they’re spending taxpayer money.

JACOB HACKER: Yes, yes. And so we’ve seen the economy over 30 years very consistently shift in this direction. And what I think has not happened and what concerns us greatly is a kind of real undermining, deep undermining, of the operation of our democratic institutions.

I mean, we’re describing a massive erosion, but the question is could we see those democratic political institutions really cease to function effectively in the future if we have a society that continues to tilt so heavily towards winner-take-all. And that’s why we wrote the book because, you know, Walter Lippmann back in the early 20th century said the challenge for democratic reform is that democracy has to lift itself up by its own bootstraps.

And we’re, we are deep believers in the ability of American democracy to reform itself, of the strength of our democratic institutions. But they’re in very serious disrepair right now. And we’ve seen in recent political fights a sort of paralysis and a broad loss of faith in government. And that sort of secession of the wealthy from our economic life that we’ve already started to see could be matched by a secession of them from our political life and a sort of loss of that broad democracy that was characteristic of mid-20th century. That’s the greatest fear that we have.

BILL MOYERS: Would you say we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: That’s–

BILL MOYERS: Wow.

PAUL PIERSON: No, no, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t.

BILL MOYERS: You’re hesitant.

PAUL PIERSON: If you asked me if you asked me that point blank, I mean–

BILL MOYERS: Point blank, Paul, do we still have a middle class country?

PAUL PIERSON: I would say no. I mean, obviously there is still something there is still something that we would recognize as a middle class, it’s still probably the biggest segment of the population. But in terms of its weight in the society, its ability to produce a society and reproduce a society that is oriented around the needs and concerns and opportunities of the middle class, I don’t think that we live in that country anymore.

JACOB HACKER: There was a poll done in 2010 that asked Americans whether the federal government had helped a great deal the following groups: large financial institutions and banks, 53 percent of Americans said they’d been helped a great deal.

What about large corporations? 44 percent of Americans said they’d been helped a great deal. Then they asked, well, has the federal government helped the middle class a great deal? And do you want to guess what percent of Americans said that they’d been helped a great deal– the middle class had been helped a great deal? Two percent.

BILL MOYERS: Two percent?

JACOB HACKER: Two percent.

BILL MOYERS: Well, this is—

JACOB HACKER: And so it’s just a remarkable sense that Washington isn’t working for the middle class. And after writing this book I think Paul and I feel as if that assessment, while excessively harsh, is grounded in a reality that Washington isn’t working well for most Americans.

BILL MOYERS: Did either of you happen to catch the Senate hearings last summer when a procession of ordinary Americans came and testified about what was happening?

AMANDA GREUBEL: We did everything we were always told to do to have the American dream. We finished high school, we went to college, we got married, we work hard, we pay our bills. We have no credit card debt. We waited to have children until we believed we were ready. We both got graduate degrees to be better at our jobs and make ourselves more marketable and increase our worth as employees. We volunteer, we donate to help those in need, and we vote. We did everything that all the experts said we should do, and yet still we’re struggling. And when you work that hard and you still feel sometimes like you’re scraping, it gets you really down really quick.

JACOB HACKER: When I hear stories like that I think, what is wrong with the priorities of our society that we cannot figure out how to translate our great wealth, our ingenuity, the hard work of our citizens, into a better standard of living that is shared broadly across the population? That’s a fundamental thing that a well-functioning democracy should do.

BILL MOYERS: And you say we are way behind in mobility. Behind Australia, Norway, Finland, Germany, France, Spain, and Canada. We are way down the list in terms of social mobility. Am I reading you right?

JACOB HACKER: Over this period in which those at the very top have done better and better the chance of climbing up the economic ladder hasn’t grown at all, it may have actually declined. And that is reflected, I think, in a sense of pessimism that you see among many middle class Americans about whether the American dream still holds true.

At the individual level Americans are extremely optimistic. And if you ask them, “Will you achieve the American dream?” Most Americans say yes. But at a collective level when you ask people, “Does the American dream still hold true?” We’re seeing in surveys for the first time that only about, you know, half of Americans are agreeing that the American dream still holds true. And that’s remarkable.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the practical consequences of that? Of giving up faith and hope in that dream?

JACOB HACKER: The fact is that for most middle class and working class Americans the politics seems increasingly removed from their everyday experience and their life. And there is a current of distrust and anger towards Washington is that is so deep right now.

AMANDA GREUBEL: When we turn on our TV’s, our radios, or pick up our newspapers, we read about what is going on in our federal and state governments, and we start to believe that you don’t care about us. We hear that corporate welfare continues and CEO’s get six-figure bonuses at taxpayer expense, and we wonder who you’re working for. And we look across the kitchen table at our families eating Ramen noodles for the third time this week and wonder how that’s fair. We read that the wealthy get bigger tax breaks in hopes that their money will “trickle down” to us, then we turn the page and read about how our school districts are forced to cut staff again. We know that money talks around here, and that means you don’t hear us.

JACOB HACKER: That is one of the big changes that occurs over this period. Money becomes more important for campaigns and it also becomes much more important in terms of lobbying, which in some ways is the more important way that money changed American politics. It’s really the development of lobbying over this this last 25, 30 years that stands out as the most dramatic role of money in American politics.

We tell the story in the book of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, because this was one of these great examples when the lobbyists were overcome. You know, the Gucci Gulch right outside the Senate chamber where the well-heeled lobbyists attend to members of congress. Well, Gucci Gulch was a place of, not of celebration, but of despair after 1986 because all these tax loopholes were closed, rates were brought down in a way that was actually making the tax code more equitable. And that was considered to be a big step forward for the public interest.

Well, a few years later lobbyists had written a lot of these loopholes back into the tax code. Ten years later, you know, you could hardly see any traces of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Almost all of the good government public interest reforms that were put into the tax code in 1986 overcoming the lobbyists have been put back in, have been overwhelmed by the day in, day out lobbying to get those tax provisions right back into place.

BILL MOYERS: Quite a cycle, I mean, if you’re creating a winner-take-all economy the winners have more money to contribute to the politicians, who turn it into a winner-take-all politics. I mean, it just keeps—

PAUL PIERSON: Right. It is the story that we try to tell in this book that there has been a 30 year war in which the sound of the voice of ordinary Americans has been quieter and quieter in American politics and the voice of business and the wealthy has been louder and louder. Many people, I think, read this book and think it’s a pessimistic book, that it’s grim reading and there are ways in which that’s true.

But Jacob and I genuinely believe that it’s an optimistic story compared with the story that we’re typically told about what’s been happening to the American economy. Because what we’re typically told is there’s nothing you can do about this, that it’s just an economic reality, there’s no point in blaming any political party.

And I think the main punch line of our story and the optimistic message is that politics got us into this mess and therefore potentially politics can get us out of it.

BILL MOYERS: But if both political parties are indebted to the winners where do the losers find an army to join?

JACOB HACKER: When citizens are organized and when they press their claims forcefully, when there are reformist leaders within government and outside it who work on their behalf, then we do see reform. This is the story of the American democratic experiment of wave after wave of reform leading to a much broader franchise, to a much broader understanding of the American idea.

In the mid-20th century we saw a period in which income gains were broadly distributed, in which middle class Americans had voice through labor unions, through civic organizations and through, ultimately, their government. We’ve seen an erosion of that world, but just because it’s lost ground doesn’t mean it can’t be saved. And so in writing this book we were hoping to sort of tell Americans that what was valuable in the past could be a part of our future.

BILL MOYERS: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, thank you.

PAUL PIERSON: Thank you so much.

JACOB HACKER: Thank you.

http://billmoyers.com/segment/jacob-hacker-paul-pierson-on-engineered-inequality/

A Liberal Moment

By TIMOTHY EGAN, New York Times, November 29, 2012

Still hard to believe, I told a friend the other day while trying to fathom the election results, that pot is legal in my state, gays are free to marry, and a black man who vowed to raise taxes on the rich won a majority of the popular vote for president, back to back – the first time anyone has done that since Franklin Roosevelt’s second election in 1936.

And yet only one in four voters identified themselves as “liberal” in national exit polls. Conservatives were 35 percent, and moderates the plurality, at 41 percent. The number of voters who agreed to the “l” tag was up by three percentage points, for what it’s worth, from 22 percent in 2008.

What’s going on here, demography and democracy seem to be saying at the same time, is the advance of progressive political ideas by a majority that spurns an obvious label. Liberals have long been a distinct minority; liberalism, in its better forms, has been triumphant at key times since the founding of the Republic.

Abraham Lincoln’s push for the 13th Amendment, erasing the original sin of slavery from the land, was a liberal moment, as dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s new film. Teddy Roosevelt’s embrace of the income tax, eventually written into the Constitution after he left office, was a liberal moment. “No single device has done so much to secure the future of capitalism as this tax,” said John Kenneth Galbraith.

Women’s suffrage in 1920, Social Security in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – all liberal moments. Ditto the creation of national parks, and laws against child labor and poisoning the environment, and for giving most Americans access to health care.

Democrats were the knuckle-draggers on race and populist economic reform in the 19th century, Republicans in the latter half of the 20th. The party identities change; the arc of enlightenment does not.

Which brings us to the fascinating self-portrait of the United States at the start of the second half of the Obama era. A tenuous center-left majority wants to restore some equality to the outsize imbalance between the very rich and the rest of us. If a tenuous president can lead that coalition, without overreaching, he might be remembered among the greats.

In its simplest form, this will involve raising taxes at the high end and reforming entitlements enough to ensure their continued success and sustainability. Much of that, an accountant could do. But it takes a gifted politician for the heavier lifting. That leader will have to make his still-fledgling health care act work and earn his premature Nobel Peace Prize on an issue like climate change. In the process, he could restore the good name to traditional liberalism.

For at least a generation’s time, liberals in this country have been afraid to call themselves liberal. Was it the excesses of their creed, from race-based preferential programs that went on far too long to crude speech censorship by the politically correct and humorless (one and the same) that soiled the brand? In blindly embracing, say, the teachers’ union in the face of overwhelming evidence that public education needs a jolt or in never questioning the efficacy of government programs, the left earned its years in exile.

Or was it the relentless campaign by the broadcasting and publishing empires of the far right, associating liberals with tyranny, spiritual vacuity and baby killing, that drove people from the label that could not speak its name? “Godless,” “Treason” and “Demonic” are actual Ann Coulter book titles, and a representative sample of the profitable cartooning of liberals.

Liberalism, in the broadest sense, is about expanding human rights and opportunity, while embracing science and reason. What do they call the secularists in Egypt today pushing for democracy over a theocracy? Liberals.

The Progressives of the early 20th had an amazing run – direct elections of senators, regulation of monopolistic trusts, modernization of public schools, cleaning up the food supply – with only one major blooper: Prohibition.

The New Deal’s lasting legacy, Social Security, and its counterpart of the 1960s, Medicare, allowed millions of American to live out their lives in dignity. Those programs, attacked as socialistic abominations by the Fox News shills of their day, are now considered near sacrosanct by Americans of all political stripes.

Conservatives of the last decade lost their way by rejecting science, immigration reform and personal freedom, particularly in regard to choices made by women and gays. If you believe in climate change, finding a path to citizenship for millions of hard-working Hispanics and the right to marry the person you love, there is no place in the Republican Party of 2012 for you.

Their neo-con wing started a pair of disastrous wars that all but bankrupted the country. And for leaders, at least on television, the party put forth crackpots like Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and the morally elastic Newt Gingrich. This chorus promoted an orthodoxy that forced this year’s standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, to sound even more out of touch than he already was.

All political moments are ephemeral. This one could vanish in the blink of a donkey’s eye. But here it is: a chance to shore up a battered middle class, make the promise of health care expansion work and do something about a planet in peril. Huge tasks, of course, and fraught with risk. For now, the majority of Americans have Obama’s back. But should he fail, the same majority could become something much worse – a confederacy of cynics.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/a-liberal-moment/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121130

Neuroscience: Under Attack

By ALISSA QUART, New York Times, November 23, 2012

THIS fall, science writers have made sport of yet another instance of bad neuroscience. The culprit this time is Naomi Wolf; her new book, “Vagina,” has been roundly drubbed for misrepresenting the brain and neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin.

Earlier in the year, Chris Mooney raised similar ire with the book “The Republican Brain,” which claims that Republicans are genetically different from — and, many readers deduced, lesser to — Democrats. “If Mooney’s argument sounds familiar to you, it should,” scoffed two science writers. “It’s called ‘eugenics,’ and it was based on the belief that some humans are genetically inferior.”

Sharp words from disapproving science writers are but the tip of the hippocampus: today’s pop neuroscience, coarsened for mass audiences, is under a much larger attack.

Meet the “neuro doubters.” The neuro doubter may like neuroscience but does not like what he or she considers its bastardization by glib, sometimes ill-informed, popularizers.

A gaggle of energetic and amusing, mostly anonymous, neuroscience bloggers — including Neurocritic, Neuroskeptic, Neurobonkers and Mind Hacks — now regularly point out the lapses and folly contained in mainstream neuroscientific discourse. This group, for example, slammed a recent Newsweek article in which a neurosurgeon claimed to have discovered that “heaven is real” after his cortex “shut down.” Such journalism, these critics contend, is “shoddy,” nothing more than “simplified pop.” Additionally, publications from The Guardian to the New Statesman have published pieces blasting popular neuroscience-dependent writers like Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell. The Oxford neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop’s scolding lecture on the science of bad neuroscience was an online sensation last summer.

As a journalist and cultural critic, I applaud the backlash against what is sometimes called brain porn, which raises important questions about this reductionist, sloppy thinking and our willingness to accept seemingly neuroscientific explanations for, well, nearly everything.

Voting Republican? Oh, that’s brain chemistry. Success on the job? Fortuitous neurochemistry! Neuroscience has joined company with other totalizing worldviews — Marxism, Freudianism, critical theory — that have been victim to overuse and misapplication.

A team of British scientists recently analyzed nearly 3,000 neuroscientific articles published in the British press between 2000 and 2010 and found that the media regularly distorts and embellishes the findings of scientific studies. Writing in the journal Neuron, the researchers concluded that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.

The problem isn’t solely that self-appointed scientists often jump to faulty conclusions about neuroscience. It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience. A number of the neuro doubters are also humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines, creating phenomena like neuro law, which, in part, uses the evidence of damaged brains as the basis for legal defense of people accused of heinous crimes, or neuroaesthetics, a trendy blend of art history and neuroscience.

It’s not hard to understand why neuroscience is so appealing. We all seek shortcuts to enlightenment. It’s reassuring to believe that brain images and machine analysis will reveal the fundamental truth about our minds and their contents. But as the neuro doubters make plain, we may be asking too much of neuroscience, expecting that its explanations will be definitive. Yet it’s hard to imagine that any functional magnetic resonance imaging or chemical map will ever explain “The Golden Bowl” or heaven. Or that brain imaging, no matter how sophisticated and precise, will ever tell us what women really want.

The author of “Branded” and “Hothouse Kids.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/opinion/sunday/neuroscience-under-attack.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121124

Why We Love Politics

By DAVID BROOKS, New York Times, November 22, 2012

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people — young people especially — think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business…“Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way. It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphereThe challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning…Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good….

Full text

We live in an anti-political moment, when many people — young people especially — think politics is a low, nasty, corrupt and usually fruitless business. It’s much nobler to do community service or just avoid all that putrid noise.

I hope everybody who shares this anti-political mood will go out to see “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner. The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.

The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.

To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.

Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.

The movie also illustrates another thing: that politics is the best place to develop the highest virtues. Politics involves such a perilous stream of character tests: how low can you stoop to conquer without destroying yourself; when should you be loyal to your team and when should you break from it; how do you wrestle with the temptations of fame — that the people who can practice it and remain intact, like Lincoln, Washington or Churchill, are incredibly impressive.

The movie shows a character-building trajectory, common among great politicians, which you might call the trajectory from the Gettysburg Address to the Second Inaugural.

In the Gettysburg phase, a leader expresses grand ideas. This, frankly, is relatively easy. Lots of people embrace grand ideals or all-explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that they become morally infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.

But a politician like Lincoln takes the next step in the trajectory. He has to deal with other people. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” does a nice job celebrating an underappreciated art, the art of legislating.

The movie is about pushing the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. The political operatives Lincoln hires must pay acute attention to the individual congressmen in order to figure out which can be appealed to through the heart and which through the wallet.

Lincoln plays each potential convert like a musical instrument, appealing to one man’s sense of idealism, another’s fraternal loyalty. His toughest job is to get the true believers on his own side to suppress themselves, to say things they don’t believe in order not to offend the waverers who are needed to get the amendment passed.

That leads to the next step in the character-building trajectory, what you might call the loneliness of command. Toward the end of the civil war, Lincoln had to choose between two rival goods, immediate peace and the definitive end of slavery. He had to scuttle a peace process that would have saved thousands of lives in order to achieve a larger objective.

He had to discern the core good, legal equality, among a flurry of other issues. He had to use a constant stream of words, stories, allusions and arguments to cajole people. He had to live with a crowd of supplicants forever wanting things at the door without feeling haughty or superior to them.

If anything, the movie understates how hard politics can be. The moral issue here is a relatively clean one: slavery or no slavery. Most issues are not that simple. The bill in question here is a constitutional amendment. There’s no question of changing this or that subsection and then wondering how much you’ve destroyed the whole package.

Politicians who can navigate such challenges really do emerge with the sort of impressive weight expressed in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It’s a speech that acknowledges that there is moral ambiguity on both sides. It’s a speech in which Lincoln, in the midst of the fray, is able to take a vantage point above it, embodying a tragic and biblical perspective on human affairs. Lincoln’s wisdom emerges precisely from the fact that he’s damaged goods.

Politics doesn’t produce many Lincolns, but it does produce some impressive people, and sometimes, great results. Take a few hours from the mall. See the movie.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/23/opinion/brooks-why-we-love-politics.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121123