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Journalist Bill Moyers recently gave a speech in honor of Public Citizen’s 40th anniversary that put the recent Wall Street protests into a great historical perspective.

During the prairie revolt that swept the Great Plains in 1890, populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease exclaimed, “Wall Street owns the country…. Money rules…. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us." –Bill Moyers

It’s been more than 120 years since then, and what’s changed? Seemingly nothing, apart from the fact that we don’t really use the word “rascals” anymore. Except, as Moyers points out, for a little while there—a few decades at least—America succeeded in more or less leveling the playing field between rich and poor. As Moyers, who was born in 1934, so aptly describes it:

I was one of the poorest white kids in town, but in many respects I was the equal of my friend who was the daughter of the richest man in town. I went to good public schools, had the use of a good public library, played sandlot baseball in a good public park and traveled far on good public roads with good public facilities to a good public university. Because these public goods were there for us, I never thought of myself as poor. When I began to piece the story together years later, I came to realize that people like the Moyerses had been included in the American deal. “We, the People” included us.

So when did turn back the clock to nineteenth-century America? According to Moyers,

We can pinpoint the date. On August 23, 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell—a board member of the death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future justice of the Supreme Court—released a confidential memorandum for his friends at the US Chamber of Commerce. We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.

Recall the context of Powell’s memo. Big business was being forced to clean up its act. Even Republicans had signed on. In 1970 President Nixon put his signature on the National Environmental Policy Act and named a White House Council to promote environmental quality. A few months later millions of Americans turned out for Earth Day. Nixon then agreed to create the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress acted swiftly to pass tough amendments to the Clean Air Act, and the EPA announced the first air pollution standards. There were new regulations directed at lead paint and pesticides. Corporations were no longer getting away with murder.

But murder is so profitable. So Powell urged his fat cat friends in the Chamber to “fight back” against the new government regulations that allowed average Americans to live cleaner, healthier lives—to build a movement that focused on taking back the political power of the rich through “careful long-range planning and implementation…consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and united organizations.” –

To be clear about who the Chamber of Commerce is, they are the 1%. Though the Chamber deceptively describes itself as “the world’s largest business federation representing more than 3 million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region,” it is actually a lobbying group representing the interests of rich oil companies, rich pharmaceutical companies, automakers, and other rich industries. It spends tens of millions of dollars each year—by far the most of any organization—lobbying in Washington for the interests of the rich. Every single day, the Chamber fights in Washington for your tax dollars to help make the rich richer, instead of helping make sure your kids have clean air to breathe, fresh healthy food to eat, a good public education and a safe place to play after school.

According to Moyers, the 99% are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied America. If anyone needs to be kicked out and told to shut up, it’s the 1%. But because the power and influence of the 1% has wormed its way so deeply into our political infrastructure, we can’t just send a team of police over to, ahem, politely tell them to leave. Often we don’t even realize they’re there.

Against such odds, discouragement comes easily. But if the generations before us had given up, slaves would still be waiting on their masters, women would still be turned away from the voting booths on election day and workers would still be committing a crime if they organized. –Bill Moyers

Let’s remember this next time we feel like being cynical, and work to keep the truer American tradition alive.

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