Returning Political Power to the Americans Who Need It

Veteran journalist William Greider sits down with U.S. News to talk about his latest book.

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In his new book, Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country, William Greider argues that the United States finds itself at a political, cultural, and economic crossroads. The Washington Post and Rolling Stone veteran, currently at The Nation, sat down with U.S. News to talk about the roots of America's myriad problems and what ordinary citizens can and should be doing to fix them. Excerpts:

What motivated you to write this book?

A friend who read the book recently said to me, "This sounds like your fireside chat with the American people." And I thought, yeah, that's exactly what I had in mind. And the book has a lot of tough assertions and difficult situations our country is in. The basic thesis is our predicament is far more serious than people realize. And the country is going to have a hard passage ahead. And it's going to have to change, whether it likes it or not. But I wanted to do that in a way that people can absorb. No ranting. No heavy accusation of who's to blame. But explain to people, to help them understand what they're facing. Because, as I say early in the book, people do better when they know what the realities are. How did the government contribute to the financial crisis?

The first [mistake] was, and this was not just the elected government, the Federal Reserve was utterly blind as to what was happening. If you go back a year or two, you will see these reassuring statements that yes, we have some problems, but—they didn't see this coming. And that's their job to see this coming. They failed, big time. The Bush administration, you could say, failed similarly. But so did the Democrats. One of my themes is that the two parties are not as oppositional as they pretend to be. On the financial deregulation and other matters, the Democrats and Republicans have cooperated and colluded for many years. So they're both obliged to step up and correct the problem they helped create. Cooperated and colluded?

The legislation that deregulated the financial system, that shifted the priorities of government, that cut taxes. Go back and look at the roll calls, going all the way back to when Ronald Reagan was president. It's true the Democrats railed at this and that. But when they took roll calls, they were there, mostly. Not all of them. But the Democrats voted for a lot of this stuff. And they were sponsors for deregulation before Ronald Reagan got to town. And then roll back to the Clinton years, they were not just cheerleaders; they were taking credit for some of the developments we now understand were malignant. Stock market bubbles that the Fed allowed. The very purposeful action that the Clinton White House and treasury—Robert Rubin, Larry Summers—took to block regulation of things like credit default swaps. This is not theoretical. It's very concrete political actions. I'm a Democrat. I greatly admire Barack Obama. I voted for him with great enthusiasm. But at the end of the day, I'm not all that partisan because I see this collusion. I'm not trying to find villains. What specifically do you advocate ordinary citizens do to fix our country's problems?

It's a very difficult process for ordinary people to develop their own confidence in themselves that allows them to act as though they had power even if they don't. And the best example in my lifetime of this happening in extraordinary ways was the civil rights movement, when the most marginalized and least powerful people in the country—mostly poor African-Americans in the South in the era of white supremacy—found the courage to challenge that system. Not just here and there, but all across the society. That doesn't come overnight. I mean, how could it? It's a really daring thing for people to do, to put themselves at risk in their lives. I believe American people still have those qualities and have been miseducated by the last generation of politics into thinking they're really not part of it. If you look across American history, the really crucial fundamental changes came out of this process of people discovering that the society was unfair or unbalanced or brutal in different ways, and they challenged that. And sometimes it took years, decades, generations to change things. I'm insisting that we're at such a point now in our history.