President Obama's speech [in Kansas] focused on precisely the themes the Occupiers have been emphasizing: the concentration of income, wealth and political power at the top, the failure of big corporations and Wall Street to keep the economy going for the rest of us. I don't think this sort of speech would have happened had it not been for the Occupy movement and the change in public debate it's created.Class is becoming less and less a dirty word in our lexicon.
Polls show most Americans today don't believe their children are going to live as well as they do. A large percentage feel the game is rigged against them. Upward mobility is now far more difficult to achieve. So the issue of class has emerged as very real and very tangible. For most of us, the America we knew was one in which anyone could make it with enough gumption and guts and drive. We truly believed that America was a place where there were no class distinctions, although we saw the plight of the poor, particularly poor minorities. What's new is this sense that a relatively small number of people have rigged the game or loaded the dice in such a way that their positions of power and privilege are entrenched.Many wealthy conservatives equate capitalism with democracy, but in fact they are not related.
We think of ourselves as a nation that practices democratic capitalism, but sometimes capitalism and democracy pull in opposite directions .... Essentially, every time the excesses of capitalism threaten to destroy it, we save capitalism from itself. We did it in the Progressive era, we did it in the New Deal, and hopefully we are at least beginning to do it now. Ironically, it's progressives and Democrats who take the lead in saving capitalism from itself. The question is how bad things have to get before average people begin mobilizing.What happened to cross-party relationships like your good friendship with Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson?
Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich came to town as speaker, he brought in a group of people who were far more ideological and frankly unpleasant. The tone of Washington changed abruptly in January of 1995. I had never seen anything like it, and remember, I [came] to Washington in 1967. It was as if a dark cloud had descended over Washington and it's still there. I blame Gingrich -- not entirely, but he led the charge.Will we ever recover economically?
We can't go backward, but the economy of the 1950s, '60s and early '70s was far more equal, and America grew faster in those years on average than it's grown since. If you look at Germany over the last 10 years, until the past year, you see rapid growth combined with a far more equal distribution of [the] gains and very high wages going to average working people. What's the secret? Two things: Germany has focused intensively on public education, particularly skills that are relevant for the new high-tech world economy; and secondly, Germany has a much stronger labor movement than the United States. There's huge skepticism, if not downright cynicism, about any large institution today. Yet the questions being asked are moral questions about what we Americans owe each other as members of the same society, what we should expect from the major institutions of our society, how to reverse trends that seem to reward the wrong people, often for malfeasance or nonfeasance. These are all moral judgments about how lopsided our economy and our society has become.Are we entering a "Kumbaya" period like the 1960's?
The anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement -- those were not "Kumbaya" moments. Those were hard challenges. A friend of mine was murdered in Mississippi for trying to register voters. This was the opposite of "Kumbaya." Mickey Schwerner. I was always very short for my age and older guys help[ed] protect me from the bullies, and Mickey was one of my protectors. When he was killed by the real bullies, it was a transformative experience for me. It opened my eyes to how important it is to give people the power to stop the bullies. I date my commitment to these issues to that summer of '64.