Driving through the west, headed towards home from a cross-country road trip with my wife Stacie and dog Billie, there’s endless hours on the highway, no Internet and not much radio except for hard-right talk.
Hearing the voices passing through the desert states is a grim reminder of the forces we’re up against, who now characterize themselves as the real “community organizers,” who represent the real people.
It’s not just the right wing. Lots of people have adopted the timid trickle-down theories embodied by our political leadership: “Don’t get too tough on BP or they’ll take away our jobs. Don’t cross Wall Street, we need to keep the market stable.”
We’re in Winslow, Arizona, wondering whether a boycott will worsen the dire poverty we see in front of us. It’s easier and more politically expedient to make immigrants the scapegoats for lack of jobs and economic uncertainty than it is to question a system that is seriously out of whack, that offers the biggest rewards to those who gamble on our collective losses without risking their own wealth.
That’s what a big chunk of the financial system like hedge funds and derivatives has become. Cynical and bloodthirsty, producing nothing except profits for the few. And the gesture toward financial reform winding its way through congressional conference committee does little to change that.
I understand the fears of friends and family that the money they have saved and invested over the years will be lost if we challenge Wall Street and the robber barons of our time. The financial industry has shown that if it doesn’t get what it wants it is capable of wrecking our economy and causing great suffering for others. But this kind of blackmail undermines democracy. We deserve a financial system that provides both transparency and financial security.
Traveling through the country, along roads adjacent to rail lines and mile-long freight trains, I kept thinking about our nation’s history and those rare moments of courageous leadership like Teddy Roosevelt tackling the railroad trusts, and FDR and his team creating the New Deal to save the financial system from its own excesses. And the creation of the GI Bill, which was designed to bolster possibilities for people who risked their lives for our country, and had played a huge part in the creation of a vital middle class. These were moments when audacious politics met pragmatic problem-solving.
I attended the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City earlier this month. The topic of the wide-ranging conference was “Can the Internet Save Politics?”
One of the most inspiring speakers was Daniel Ellsberg. Amid all the excitement over the possibilities for political activism and engagement with new social media, Ellsberg reminded us that one of the most important ingredients is the same as it always was: moral courage.
Ellsberg was the Pentagon military analyst who leaked a secret Defense Department account of the disgraceful political decisions that led the country into the Vietnam War and its outcome. Plenty of people on the inside knew what was happening in Vietnam, Ellsberg said, but they had kids to put through college and mortgages to pay. They were not about to step outside the system and jeopardize their careers.
Not everybody has the nerve or inside information to be a whistleblower like Ellsberg. But we can demand a financial and economic system where we don’t have to sacrifice our financial security to those who gamble against our futures.
We can demand that our president delivers on his campaign promise of real change. There can be no real change without confronting corporate power over our government and political system. We are as controlled today by the financial and oil industries as we were by the railroad barons when Teddy Roosevelt took them on. TR said one should speak softly and carry a big stick. President Obama has been doing the opposite. We need to demand that Barack Obama follow TR’s suggestion.