Bill Moyers: Democracy and plutocracy don’t mix

The really good news is that Bill Moyers will be back in January, with “Bill Moyers and Company.”

Details at Bill, where you can see this vintage critique of current politics (even though it’s a year and a half old).

Bill Moyers Essay: Plutocracy and Democracy Don’t Mix from on Vimeo.

Moyers broadcast this in his farewell performance on Bill Moyer’s Journal, April 30, 2010

Text of his remarks below the fold.

An excerpt from “Bill Moyers’ Journal”
(premiered April 30, 2010)

BILL MOYERS: You’ve no doubt figured out my bias by now. I’ve hardly kept it a secret. In this regard, I take my cue from the late Edward R. Murrow, the Moses of broadcast news.

Ed Murrow told his generation of journalists bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. So here, one more time, is mine: plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. Plutocracy, the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy.

Plutocracy is not an American word but it’s become an American phenomenon. Back in the fall of 2005, the Wall Street giant Citigroup even coined a variation on it, plutonomy, an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer with government on their side. By the next spring, Citigroup decided the time had come to publicly “bang the drum on plutonomy.”

And bang they did, with an “equity strategy” for their investors, entitled, “Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer.” Here are some excerpts:

“Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper…[and] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the last 20 years…”

“…the top 10%, particularly the top 1% of the US– the plutonomists in our parlance– have benefited disproportionately from the recent productivity surge in the US…[and] from globalization and the productivity boom, at the relative expense of labor.”

“…[and they] are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. [Because] the dynamics of plutonomy are still intact.”

And so they were, before the great collapse of 2008. And so they are, today, after the fall. While millions of people have lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings, the plutonomists are doing just fine. In some cases, even better, thanks to our bailout of the big banks which meant record profits and record bonuses for Wall Street.

Now why is this? Because over the past 30 years the plutocrats, or plutonomists — choose your poison — have used their vastly increased wealth to capture the flag and assure the government does their bidding. Remember that Citigroup reference to “market-friendly governments” on their side? It hasn’t mattered which party has been in power — government has done Wall Street’s bidding.

Don’t blame the lobbyists, by the way; they are simply the mules of politics, delivering the drug of choice to a political class addicted to cash — what polite circles call “campaign contributions” and Tony Soprano would call “protection.”

This marriage of money and politics has produced an America of gross inequality at the top and low social mobility at the bottom, with little but anxiety and dread in between, as middle class Americans feel the ground falling out from under their feet. According to a study from the Pew Research Center last month, nine out of ten Americans give our national economy a negative rating. Eight out of ten report difficulty finding jobs in their communities, and seven out of ten say they experienced job-related or financial problems over the past year.

So it is that like those populists of that earlier era, millions of Americans have awakened to a sobering reality: they live in a plutocracy, where they are disposable. Then, the remedy was a popular insurgency that ignited the spark of democracy.

Now we have come to another parting of the ways, and once again the fate and character of our country are up for grabs.

So along with Jim Hightower and Iowa’s concerned citizens, and many of you, I am biased: democracy only works when we claim it as our own.

11 Responses to Bill Moyers: Democracy and plutocracy don’t mix

  1. James Kessler says:

    *sighs* Correcting a typo from a week ago…it should read “So it will be kind of hard for Alan and Morgan to deny the rich…”


  2. James Hanley says:


    My concern is that democracy may inevitably lead to plutocracy.

    “Inalienable” rights are a great normative concept, but in reality they can be effectively alienated, even if in some abstract sense they’re not. That is, I may have an inalienable right to liberty, but that doesn’t mean my liberty can’t in fact be denied. And in a democracy, there are all too many people willing to deny our rights.

    Secure constitutional constraints on democracy are the key to protecting our rights, not democracy itself. (Although democracy does tend to do a better job than authoritarian governments, of course). E.g., your example of Utah demonstrates the tension. Preventing the good Mormon folk of Utah from electing a religious government may be necessary to preserve the quality of democracy that you prefer, but it is nonetheless a constraint on democracy.

    You are more than happy to impose that constraint, and so am I. But let us not pretend that the constraint itself is any more pro-democratic than it is anti-democratic.


  3. Jim says:

    I am angry at Moyers. Mostly because he never ran for President. The man is one of the great gifts Texas has given to America. I pray that his tribe increase.

    It seems, sadly, to be shrinking exponentially.



  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Mr. Hanley,

    How can democracy and plutocracy exist together? Is it possible for a democracy to elect a plutocracy, and still call itself a democracy? The idea of unalienable rights, as I understand it, is that some rights cannot be given away, even voluntarily. People of Utah might think it a good idea to let the state government help them select the Mormon religion, but the Constitution regards those rights as unalienable. Mormon’s cannot agree to even a Mormon government — the government may not accept such powers.

    Same with other plutocratic notions. The demos may cannot agree to give away its citizenship duties.

    Can it?


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Radicalize for good or bad?

    Way back when I was studying rhetoric in graduate school, there was a duo of posters put out by some group based on one of the comparisons in Plutarch’s Lives, the comparison of the great Greek orator Demosthenes and the great Roman orator Cicero.

    The first poster said, “When Cicero spoke, the people said how well he spoke.”
    The second poster said, “When Demosthenes spoke, the people said ‘Let us march!'”

    Maybe radicalization is what it takes to get people to act to save America.


  6. It’s facts like the ones Moyers cites that have a tendency to radicalize folks.


  7. James Kessler says:

    Then the Founding Fathers are rolling over in their graves at about mach 5.


  8. James Hanley says:

    What if he’s wrong. What if in our ideals democracy and plutocracy don’t mix, but in reality they commingle all too readily?


  9. James Kessler says:

    So it will be kind of hard for Alan and Grayson to deny the rich are the ones taking people’s money and not the government when Citibank is even using that phrasing.


  10. Ellie says:

    ::sitting back with a bowl of popcorn to watch the show coming up::


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