America’s Dying Democracy

Democracy, as a noble principle of self-governance, is fading away in big ways and small, with special interests seizing control of both media and politicians and with the people increasingly manipulated and misinformed. In this impassioned appeal, Bill Moyers calls it “the fight of our lives.”

By Bill Moyers

In the fall of 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, as families grieved and the nation mourned, Washington swarmed with locusts of the human kind: wartime opportunists, lobbyists, lawyers, ex-members of Congress, bagmen for big donors: all of them determined to grab what they could for their corporate clients and rich donors while no one was looking.

Across the land, the faces of Americans of every stripe were stained with tears. Here in New York, we still were attending memorial services for our firemen and police. But in the nation’s capital, within sight of a smoldering Pentagon that had been struck by one of the hijacked planes, the predator class was hard at work pursuing private plunder at public expense, gold-diggers in the ashes of tragedy exploiting our fear, sorrow, and loss.

The World Trade Center's Twin Towers burning on 9/11. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

The World Trade Center’s Twin Towers burning on 9/11. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

What did they want? The usual: tax cuts for the wealthy and big breaks for corporations. They even made an effort to repeal the alternative minimum tax that for 15 years had prevented companies from taking so many credits and deductions that they owed little if any taxes. And it wasn’t only repeal the mercenaries sought; they wanted those corporations to get back all the minimum tax they had ever been assessed.

They sought a special tax break for mighty General Electric, although you would never have heard about it if you were watching GE’s news divisions, NBC News, CNBC, or MSNBC, all made sure to look the other way. They wanted to give coal producers more freedom to pollute, open the Alaskan wilderness to drilling, empower the president to keep trade favors for corporations a secret while enabling many of those same corporations to run roughshod over local communities trying the protect the environment and their citizens’ health.

It was a disgusting bipartisan spectacle. With words reminding us of Harry Truman’s description of the GOP as “guardians of privilege,” the Republican majority leader of the House dared to declare that “it wouldn’t be commensurate with the American spirit” to provide unemployment and other benefits to laid-off airline workers. As for post 9/11 Democrats, their national committee used the crisis to call for widening the soft-money loophole in our election laws.

America had just endured a sneak attack that killed thousands of our citizens, was about to go to war against terror, and would soon send an invading army to the Middle East. If ever there was a moment for shared sacrifice, for putting patriotism over profits, this was it. But that fall, operating deep within the shadows of Washington’s Beltway, American business and political mercenaries wrapped themselves in red, white and blue and went about ripping off a country in crisis.

H.L. Mencken got it right: “Whenever you hear a man speak of his love for his country, it is a sign that he expects to be paid for it.”

Fourteen years later, we can see more clearly the implications. After three decades of engineering a winner-take-all economy, and buying the political power to consummate their hold on the wealth created by the system they had rigged in their favor, they were taking the final and irrevocable step of separating themselves permanently from the common course of American life. They would occupy a gated stratosphere far above the madding crowd while their political hirelings below look after their earthly interests.

The $1.15 trillion spending bill passed by Congress last Friday and quickly signed by President Obama is just the latest triumph in the plutocratic management of politics that has accelerated since 9/11. As Michael Winship and I described here last Thursday, the bill is a bonanza for the donor class that powerful combine of corporate executives and super-rich individuals whose money drives our electoral process.

Within minutes of its passage, congressional leaders of both parties and the President rushed to the television cameras to praise each other for a bipartisan bill that they claimed signaled the end of dysfunction; proof that Washington can work.

Mainstream media (including public television and radio), especially the networks and cable channels owned and operated by the conglomerates, didn’t stop to ask: “Yes, but work for whom?” Instead, the anchors acted as amplifiers for official spin, repeating the mantra-of-the-hour that while this is not “a perfect bill,” it does a lot of good things. “But for whom? At what price?” went unasked.

Now we’re learning. Like the drip-drip-drip of a faucet, over the weekend other provisions in the more than 2,000-page bill began to leak. Many of the bad ones we mentioned on Thursday are there, those extended tax breaks for big business, more gratuities to the fossil fuel industry, the provision to forbid the Securities & Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to disclose their political spending, even to their own shareholders.

That one’s a slap in the face even to Anthony Kennedy, the justice who wrote the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Citizens United. He said: “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions.”

Over our dead body, Congress declared last Friday, proclaiming instead: Secrecy today. Secrecy tomorrow. Secrecy forever. They are determined that we not know who owns them.

The horrors mount. As Eric Lipton and Liz Moyer reported for The New York Times on Sunday, in the last days before the bill’s passage “lobbyists swooped in” to save, at least for now, a loophole worth more than $1 billion to Wall Street investors and the hotel, restaurant and gambling industries. Lobbyists even helped draft crucial language that the Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid furtively inserted into the bill.

Lipton and Moyer wrote that, “The small changes, and the enormous windfall they generated, show the power of connected corporate lobbyists to alter a huge bill that is being put together with little time for lawmakers to consider. Throughout the legislation, there were thousands of other add-ons and hard to decipher tax changes.”

No surprise to read that “some executives at companies with the most at stake are also big campaign donors.” The Times reports that “the family of David Bonderman, a co-founder of TPG Capital, has donated $1.2 million since 2014 to the Senate Majority PAC, a campaign fund with close ties to Mr. Reid and other Senate Democrats.” Senator Reid, lest we forget, is from Nevada. As he approaches retirement at the end of 2016, perhaps he’s hedging his bets at taxpayer expense.

Consider just two other provisions: One, insisted upon by Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, directs the Coast Guard to build a $640 million National Security Cutter in Cochran’s home state of Mississippi, a ship that the Coast Guard says it does not need. The other: A demand by Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins for an extra $1 billion for a Navy destroyer that probably will be built at her state’s Bath Iron Works again, a vessel our military says is unnecessary.

So it goes: The selling off of the Republic, piece by piece. What was it Mark Twain said? There is “no distinctive native American criminal class except Congress.”

Can we at least face the truth? The plutocrats and oligarchs are winning. The vast inequality they are creating is a death sentence for government by consent of the people at large. Did any voter in any district or state in the last Congressional election vote to give that billion-dollar loophole to a handful of billionaires? To allow corporations to hide their political contributions? To add $1.4 trillion to the national debt? Of course not.

It is now the game: Candidates ask citizens for their votes, then go to Washington to do the bidding of their donors. And since one expectation is that they will cut the taxes of those donors, we now have a permanent class that is afforded representation without taxation.

A plutocracy, says my old friend, the historian Bernard Weisberger, “has a natural instinct to perpetuate and enlarge its own powers and by doing so slams the door of opportunity to challengers and reduces elections to theatrical duels between politicians who are marionettes worked by invisible strings.” Where does it end?

By coincidence, this past weekend I watched the final episode of the British television series Secret State, a 2012 remake of an earlier version based on the popular novel A Very British Coup. This is white-knuckle political drama. Gabriel Byrne plays an accidental prime minister thrust into office by the death of the incumbent, only to discover himself facing something he never imagined: a shadowy coalition of forces, some within his own government, working against him.

With some of his own ministers secretly in the service of powerful corporations and bankers, his own party falling away from him, press lords daily maligning him, the opposition emboldened, and a public confused by misinformation, deceit, and vicious political rhetoric, the prime minister is told by Parliament to immediately invade Iran (on unproven, even false premises) or resign.

In the climactic scene, he defies the “Secret State” that is manipulating all this and confronts Parliament with this challenge: “Let’s forget party allegiance, forget vested interests, forget votes of confidence. Let each and every one of us think only of this: Is this war justified? Is it what the people of this country want? Is it going to achieve what we want it to achieve? And if not, then what next?

 “Well, I tell you what I think we should do. We should represent the people of this country. Not the lobby companies that wine and dine us. Or the banks and the big businesses that tell us how the world goes ‘round. Or the trade unions that try and call the shots. Not the civil servants nor the war-mongering generals or the security chiefs. Not the press magnates and multibillion dollar donors [We must return] democracy to this House and the country it represents.”

Do they? The movie doesn’t tell us. We are left to imagine how the crisis, the struggle for democracy, will end.

As we are reminded by this season, there is more to life than politics. There are families, friends, music, worship, sports, the arts, reading, conversation, laughter, celebrations of love and fellowship and partridges in pear trees. But without healthy democratic politics serving a moral order, all these are imperiled by the ferocious appetites of private power and greed.

So enjoy the holidays, including Star Wars. Then come back after New Year’s and find a place for yourself, at whatever level, wherever you are, in the struggle for democracy. This is the fight of our lives and how it ends is up to us.

 Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and

22 comments for “America’s Dying Democracy

  1. Kelly
    December 29, 2015 at 09:21

    Bernie Sanders is our only hope. Elizabeth Warren, also, and maybe Alan Grayson, if he can adjust his loyalties again. Elect a people’s representative: Volunteer for Sander’s campaign and/or donate to the grass roots drive…

  2. Patricia
    December 28, 2015 at 11:44

    The United States has created a privileged system as England had. Only, in addition to lineage, it is based upon money and greed.

  3. Deschutes
    December 25, 2015 at 07:11

    Hey you guys check out this YT video by Greg Felton. He argues that Zionists have, over the last 50 years infiltrated the US government and place their loyalty with Israel over US, and now dictate American foreign policy, for example Iraq was invaded at the behest of Israel which does not want ANY equally powerful Arab country neighboring it. Even the current Syria war is for Israel’s gain. His lecture makes for thought provoking viewing, though I’m not entirely convinced by some of his arguments. Wonder what any of you think of his lecture, cheers Deschutes

  4. Tom Ryan
    December 23, 2015 at 23:50

    If I may, I have some comments for the commenters. To jaycee, in my recollection of “A Very British Coup” the Prime Minister is assassinated at the end. If a leader opposes the wealthy interests, one gets liquidated, even if one is from the wealthy class, as was JFK. To Zachary, if Stalin didn’t say that about vote-counting, he may as well have, since it reflects his political philosophy.

    To historicvs, I don’t see how the qualities and ideals that made Rome and America great led to their decay, rather the abandonment of those qualities and ideals. And the many are deceived not by themselves as much as the ruling elite’s media. The elite don’t have a better grasp on reality, in fact they’re mostly psychopaths. And finally, to Bill Moyers, you were prominently in LBJ’s administration and yet have never disowned Johnson’s Vietnam decisions to my knowledge, and certainly have never talked about his obvious connection to the Kennedy assassination. And though you are a very good critic of what ails America, you never offer any specific remedies. Concrete actions are needed, not more rhetoric.

    • Abe
      December 24, 2015 at 16:38

      Я считаю, что совершенно неважно, кто и как будет в партии голосовать; но вот что чрезвычайно важно, это – кто и как будет считать голоса.
      — Ио́сиф Ста́лин

      I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how.
      — Joseph Stalin

      Said by Stalin in 1923, as quoted in The Memoirs of Stalin’s Former Secretary (1992) by Boris Bazhanov [Saint Petersburg] (Борис Бажанов. Воспоминания бывшего секретаря Сталина).

    • Fran
      December 28, 2015 at 19:37

      I fully appreciate the first part of your comment however find you harsh over LBJ’s Vietnam involvement. It is a complex story and refer you to book by Joseph Califano:
      “The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.” That obviously truthful book reveals LBJ as the fallible human being that he was and he did a lot of good for this nation.

  5. Joseph Frankl
    December 23, 2015 at 23:45

    An excellent article, showing the utterly corrupted US government run by traitors wrapped in the flag, and the complete failure of its institutions since the rise of economic concentrations and the passing of the founding generation.

    Democracy is completely lost, and cannot be recovered by social and political education. It can be wrested from the economic tyrants by force alone. History would applaud a generation of geriatric suicide bombers taking out the judges, politicians, and CEOs en masse in their mansions and gated communities.

  6. Call A Spade
    December 23, 2015 at 23:19

    Democracy looses its appeal as soon as the elected do not know all their electors It may be a good thing for the local bowling club but on a national stage?

  7. Bill Bodden
    December 23, 2015 at 21:28

    Democracy, as a noble principle of self-governance, is fading away in big ways and small, with special interests seizing control of both media and politicians and with the people increasingly manipulated and misinformed.

    This brings to mind the story attached to Benjamin Franklin who was asked after leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “What have you wrought?” To which Franklin was said to have replied, “A republic if you can keep it” which suggested a warning of how human nature works. People who create wonders are followed by others seeking plunder and who are aided by good people doing nothing to counter their evil.

  8. historicvs
    December 23, 2015 at 20:44

    What we see happening at the highest levels of our government is the natural adaptation to a radically new condition. The form of governance that we inherited from the American republic cannot effectively manage a worldwide empire. We are witnessing the abandonment of our traditional form of government because it has been made obsolete by our world conquests. This process has dire implications for what we believe our society to mean, but we are not about to return our new possessions to their owners, not until the last ship’s hold of strategic materials is en route to “the homeland”.

    We follow the pattern of the Rome of old, upon whose checks-and-balances system the Founders patterned our constitution. Like us, the Romans built a tiny agricultural settlement into a world-dominating empire magnificent beyond anything they initially set out to do. They lost it all because their leadership failed to develop innovative thinking to meet challenges that no Roman had ever faced before. Their world crumbled into political anarchy, widespread poverty, and an aristocracy gone mad with greed, all because they relied on the values which had brought them to greatness without understanding that those values now stood in the way of moving on to the next level of survival.

    Like Rome, we retain the institutions of liberty long after they have become empty symbols without the power to safeguard liberty (why do you suppose our rulers spend so much to convince you that “limited government” is a good thing?). Even now, most Americans look at Washington D.C. and imagine it the living inheritance of Washington, of Adams, of Jefferson, of Madison, when a convincing argument can be made that the ideals of those men did not survive the passing of their generation.

    Political self-deception for the many, and the laser-like comprehension of reality by the ruling elite, is the rule, not the exception, in the human condition.

    • Call A Spade
      December 23, 2015 at 23:23

      World wide empire? Your vision of the US?

      • Bart
        December 24, 2015 at 11:20

        We have 600-odd overseas bases and Ashton Carter just asked for a new archipelago of bases in Africa. Does the sun ever set on our bases?

      • Brian
        December 27, 2015 at 00:32

        How long have you been asleep?

  9. Bruce
    December 23, 2015 at 19:54

    Can US haz “Peace Stars” (e.g., Cindy Sheehan; David Swanson; Missy Beatty; Medea Benjamin, CodePink; et al) INSTEAD? AND, since this is “the Fight of Our LIVES”), There Is NO holiday ‘break’!

  10. JWalters
    December 23, 2015 at 19:08

    “Our” Congress passed “the provision to forbid the Securities & Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to disclose their political spending, even to their own shareholders.”

    Deadly, deadly secrecy. But the mainstream media won’t tell American voters about this absolute crushing of democracy. Have they no decency?

  11. David Smith
    December 23, 2015 at 18:29

    If, as Mr. Moyer’s writes in his all too accurate essay, “…. how it ends is up to us ” , then we are completely screwed.

  12. Zachary Smith
    December 23, 2015 at 18:03

    I’d like to call Mr. Moyer’s attention to a bitter ‘joke’ in the old USSR:

    “We Pretend to Work and They Pretend to Pay Us

    A saying wrongly attributed to Stalin is this: “It’s not the votes which count, but rather who counts the votes.”

    Nowhere in this piece, nor anywhere else simple Google searches reach can I find Mr. Moyers remarking about the “black box” computerized voting in the US. Voters touch a number of labeled icons on an electronic screen, then assume their choices will accurately translated into actual votes for the candidates they chose. This trust is badly misplaced, but it has been an issue which both political parties in the US have been very careful to avoid. That’s because each assumes that if push comes to shove, it will be the one able to produce the most money to purchase the best computer hackers to ‘fix’ the vote totals to be what it wants them to be.

    All the stuff Mr. Moyers writes in the essay above is true enough, but when the actual votes are not reliably tallied, none of that matters. Getting back to that USSR thing, it can be adapted to US elections this way:

    “We pretend to vote and They pretend to accurately count our votes

    So US elections boil down to 1) buying tsunamis of propaganda to adjust attitudes if possible, and if it’s not, 2) pay the vote fixers to make the totals come out the ‘right’ way after all. After all, the propaganda will have muddied the water enough to make almost any outcome explainable by the corporate media.

    • Abe
      December 24, 2015 at 13:20

      The Best Democracy Money Can Buy—A Tale of Billionaires and Ballot Bandits (2016)

      Based in Britain, American investigative journalist Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestsellers
      — Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps (2012)
      — Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores (2012)
      — Armed Madhouse: From Baghdad to New Orleans-Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild (2007)
      — The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalization, Corporate Cons, and High Finance Fraudsters (2002)

      The book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy was the basis for Palast’s documentary film Bush Family Fortunes (2004).

      Palast has led investigations of multi-billion-dollar frauds in the oil, nuclear, power and finance industries:
      — Uncovered the theft of the 2000 US presidential election in Florida (Guardian, BBC, The Nation, Harper’s)
      — Exposure of financial vultures attacking Argentina, Congo and other nations resulting in changes of laws across the globe (BBC, Guardian)
      — The hidden story of BP’s Deepwater Horizon blow-out (ARTE, Channel 4 TV)
      — The Bush Administration’s secret pre-invasion plans for the oil fields of Iraq (BBC, Harper’s)
      — The US involvement in the attempted coup d’état against Hugo Chavez (BBC, Guardian, Telesur)
      — Undercover exposé of Enron’s purchase of British government favors (UK Story of the Year – Guardian/Observer)

  13. jaycee
    December 23, 2015 at 17:41

    In the original version of “A Very British Coup”, the embattled Prime Minister is faced with impending public disclosure of marital infidelity in his past, the means by which his enemies across the establishment hope to discredit and destroy him. He decides on a preemptive strike: a complete mea culpa delivered via a televised national address, whereby he admits to human faults and contextualizes his personal decisions, but which also outlines the means by which this information would be used against him and by whose hands.

    The original version suggests that personal integrity and clear articulation of existing power structures can revitalize democratic institutions in the interests of the people. The ending of this newer version seems a lot more passive, as it seems to rely on the supposed better natures of elected representatives for a positive result without addressing how they came to be in Parliament in the first place. Hoping that representatives do the right thing once in office is not a winning strategy, as last weeks legislation demonstrates.

  14. Joe Tedesky
    December 23, 2015 at 17:37

    Sounds like Bill Moyers is on to it. Paul Craig Roberts stated recently, how the few big banks we the American public bailed out, are now sitting on a reserve of 2.(something) trillion dollars in excess. I have also heard reported numbers as high as 32 trillion dollars sitting in off shore tax haven accounts, held by the corporate class. Plus, I have heard, where the IRS is willing to take 5% of that, and call it a day. Why, even that 5% for what it’s not, would be a fantastic down payment against our National Deficit. I mean, where, and how, does this all end? I knew a presidential fund raiser, who once told me how most donors donate to both candidates, just to sure their bets. So, no matter what, the special interest gets their way in Washington. Sometimes, it’s possible, that the corporate interest coincides with a certain segment of the populace, but when that it happens, it’s just by circumstance. Like being in the right place, at the right time. What bothers me most, is America is low on money when it comes to Social Security, Healthcare needs of anyone who applies, Veterans, and the list goes on and on, but when it comes to dropping bombs, well then it’s bombs away. How, can that be? America’s huge weight is what has held it up, due to it’s citizens hard work over the last sixty years. That weight was, for a while, evenly distributed, but now it has become much too top heavy. We all know what happens when something becomes too top heavy, it falls over. Is that our future? Okay, I’m done. Now, go have a great holiday!

  15. mike
    December 23, 2015 at 17:36

    Democracy is dying everywhere! Europe is looking more like the old USSR with smaller countries losing sovereignty to a central economic committee which tells them how to behave and how to conduct business, who to do business with and what checks and balances they will impose on their populations!

  16. Drew Hunkins
    December 23, 2015 at 17:00

    The biggest tragedy was the Democratic Party’s detachment from bread and butter economic populism. Instead the Dems decided to focus on identity politics and gonadal lifestyle issues. This whole shift has been going on for roughly 40 years now.

    All this strategy did was make sure the top 1% of the ruling class is: 50% women, 10% black, a certain percentage latino, a certain percentage gay, a certain percentage lesbian, a certain percentage bisexual, a certain percentage transvestite, etc.

    This situation is a farcical tragedy that’s done nothing to alleviate the real grievances of the bottom 99% of the population that also happens to be chock full of millions of white men who have seen their economic position slip. A group Trump is pandering to at this very moment.

    The last real substantive benefit the Dems really delivered to the masses was Medicare, ca. 1965!

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