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Peter Dreier on a New Generation of Activists

Part of the Series

Historian Peter Dreier. (Photo: Moyers & Company)Historian Peter Dreier. (Photo: Moyers & Company)In his interview with Bill this week, historian Peter Dreier shares why he’s optimistic about America’s future, shining a spotlight on grass-roots initiatives around the country that remind us of our collective capacity to make a real difference. Dreier, author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, also explains why the radical politics of Dr. Seuss, the late children’s book author and illustrator, is a source of inspiration.

“The message that Dr. Seuss is sending in his books to young people is to stand up to arbitrary authority and take back your own life and be a fighter for justice and for your own integrity,” Dreier tells Bill. “I think that Dr. Seuss would be very pleased with a lot of the movements today because these are people standing up to authority and big power and trying to take the country back.”

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Bill Moyers: The wicked machinations of capitalism and finance we just talked about with Gretchen Morgenson can be overwhelming to everyday citizens struggling to make ends meet. Against a colossus like Wall Street, even committed citizen activists fighting in the trenches for democracy are tempted to throw up their hands and say, “I surrender. What’s the use?”

But there is something to the old saw that the answer to organized money is organized people. Outraged citizens who press against the fault lines of a corrupt system until it cracks opens — reminding us of what’s possible. Now rarely does that happen as a nationwide mass movement, but it takes place here and there and often enough to remind us of our capacity for action.

This isn’t wishful thinking; it’s a careful reading of the past. See how it happens in Peter Dreier’s most recent book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20thCentury: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. Peter Dreier teaches at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he’s a distinguished professor of politics and chair of the school’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy – he imbues his students with stories of organizers, activists, writers, artists and, yes, politicians who changed history.

Peter Dreier, welcome…

Peter Dreier: Thank you, Bill. It’s great to be here.

Bill Moyers: So you’re sitting out there in California on the West Coast, 3,000 miles from what is happening in Washington. What are you thinking?

Peter Dreier: I’m thinking this is an incredible turning point in American history right now. For the last 30 years Wall Street and big business have basically put, invested, a lot of money in the right wing, in the far right, in the Tea Party, in the religious right. And they’ve sown the seeds of their own destruction. Wall Street and big business right now has spawned a movement that’s out of control, and they can’t control the Tea Party anymore. They can’t control the right wing forces in the country. And so a lot of Americans are thinking that big business is in control of this, but they’re not.

Bill Moyers: So there’ve been some lobbyists from big business, CEOs from Wall Street down trying to talk sense to the Republican leadership and even trying to reach the Tea Party and say, “Wait a minute. You can’t destroy the good faith and credit of the United States.”

Peter Dreier: Right, exactly. And this is a moment similar to the Depression where a lot of big business was against Roosevelt, but they didn’t want America to, like, stop working. And this is a moment where big business is vulnerable. All the polls show that Americans think that business has too much political power, the rich don’t pay enough taxes, the government needs to protect us from predatory banks and from polluting corporations.

Americans are now realizing more than ever that we need to go in a new direction. And I think that’s lots of evidence all over the country, maybe not in Washington right now, but all over the country there’s evidence of people that are fighting back against big business and against the Right. And that’s going to coalesce. And eventually we’re going to see changes in Washington. But it’s going to take a while because those things trickle up from the bottom, they don’t happen from the top down.

Bill Moyers: But if you talk to everyday members of the Tea Party, you will hear them express their concern for America, their anguish over what’s happening to the middle class, their anger over corporate power in politics over both their party and the Democratic Party.

Peter Dreier: I think there’s a big difference between the Koch brothers and Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz and the leaders and the funders of the Tea Party and most of the ordinary people who are just frustrated with the way America’s going and they don’t quite know what to do.

I think the Tea Party members, not the hardcore activists, but the people that tell pollsters that they sympathize with the Tea Party, they want a good home, they want a good job. They are in favor of social security. They want the government to protect them from the insecurities of old age. But they’re confused and some of them are racists and some of them are right wing, but most of them are just ordinary Americans feeling a lot of pain. But the grassroots Tea Party really wouldn’t have existed without the funding from people like the Koch brothers and the free media propaganda publicity from “Fox News.”

Bill Moyers: Don’t you concede though that there are many people, conservatives and members of the Tea Party and they’re not always one and the same, who really think government does more harm than good?

Peter Dreier: You know, Ronald Reagan was the one that said that government’s the problem, not the solution. And a lot of people still believe that. But when you— so ideologically many people will say that. But when you say— do you think the government should provide social security, they’ll say yes. Do you think the government should provide Medicare? Yes. Would you like your children to have government sponsored college tuition scholarships? They say yes. Do you want the government to protect your family from unsafe pollution and water and consumer products and food and medicine? They say yes.

So when you ask people what should government do? They are progressive. When you ask them sort of the big ideological question, is big government a good thing? They’ll say no. But what people have to run on when they run for office is not just the ideology of being for or against government. What do you want government to do? And there the American people are in line with the long line of progressives from Hiram Johnson to Eugene Debs to Franklin Roosevelt to Martin Luther King.

Bill Moyers: My friend, the journalist David Sirota, who writes for Salon, said the other day that the government shutdown and the budget fights are huge ideological victories for the conservative movement because they have “yanked the political discourse even farther to the right.” Do you agree with that?

Peter Dreier: No, I don’t agree with that at all. I think that what’s happened in this shutdown is that people realized how much they need government.

I think the American people are feeling a lot of pain right now. And it’s only that something like with 9/11 happens and the first responders become the heroes of America that people realize you really need government, not just in an emergency but in on every day basis.

People understand more than ever how important it is that— the role that government plays in their daily lives. It’s not that they’re ideologically in favor of big government, but they realize that this shutdown has shut down America. The Tea Party was responsible for $10 billion a week loss of our economy. And that’s untenable.

And the corporate class, the Wall Street class doesn’t know what to do about that because they’ve depended on the Republican Party to be their allies. And now this unholy alliance between Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, the Tea Party and the religious right is imploding right in front of us.

Bill Moyers: There’s so many ironies here. You know, there are also polls showing that the progressive agenda, your agenda of higher taxes on the rich, stronger regulation of Wall Street and policies to combat economic inequality, these have broad public support. But at the same time these polls show only meager, meager public support for the Tea Party. Yet look who’s getting all the attention.

Peter Dreier: Well, that’s a big problem. You know, all over America right now there are people fighting back on the grassroots level. And it’s quite amazing how little media attention they get. For example, in Richmond, California there’s a small city of 100,000 people, a progressive mayor and city council. And a community organizing group called ACCE is taking on Wall Street directly. In that city over half of the homeowners are underwater, their mortgages cost more than their homes are worth this is Wall Street’s predatory practices crashing the economy. This has happened all over America.

There are over 10 million American homeowners that are underwater. And in Richmond, California the mayor and the community are fighting back and saying, “We’re not going to take this anymore.” They’ve tried to get Wall Street banks to rewrite their mortgages so they can stay in their homes and avoid foreclosure. And when Wall Street wouldn’t do that, the city council said to the banks, “We’re going to take these mortgages by eminent domain. We’re going to buy them from you. If you don’t want to sell them to us, we’ll do it by eminent domain. And we’re going to sell them back to the homeowners for about half the price, for the current market value.” And of course Wall Street, the Wells Fargo bank and other banks, have sued the city. The federal judge threw out the suit. And they’re going to win, the city of Richmond is going to take on Wall Street and they’re going to win.

And once they do, that idea is going to spread throughout the whole country. There are dozens of cities ready to pounce and to do the same thing. And Wall Street is frightened. And in general Wall Street is frightened because they know the American people have had enough.

And we’re not talking Occupy Wall Street, we’re not talking about people sitting in and taking over the banks by civil disobedience. We’re talking about using the electoral politics in one small city, in Richmond, to take on Wall Street. And this is going to spread throughout the country.

Bill Moyers: Tell me about that mayor.

Peter Dreier: A woman named Gayle McLaughlin, who’s a former schoolteacher, she’s the mayor of this city. They started off— it’s a city dominated by Chevron oil, the biggest refinery and it’s the biggest employer in town. And Mayor McLaughlin and a community organizing group called ACCE and the Service Employees Union have mobilized the homeowners in that city to go before the city council and to demand that the city do something.

And the mayor is responding. She’s a leader in this movement. And she knows that Wall Street is looking at her as, like, enemy number one. And she’s willing to take the heat because she’s on the right side of history.

Bill Moyers: Earlier this month, you wrote about the confrontation between a couple of activists on this and two plutocrats at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles.

Here they were: Laurence Fink of BlackRock earned $75 million dollars last year, he’s the highest paid financial services CEO in the country. BlackRock is the world’s largest money manager with $3.6 trillion in assets.

William Gross of PIMCO has a personal net worth of $2.2 billion. He made about $200 million in 2011. And both Fink and Gross are on the Forbes list of “The World’s Most Powerful People.”

What happened?

Peter Dreier: Well they were talking to a group of UCLA Business School students and alumni about the state of Wall Street and the state of the financial situation in this country. And two— a couple of activists from ACCE, the community organizing group, and the Service Employees Union

They infiltrated the meeting and they asked the CEOs of PIMCO and of BlackRock.

Activist: Why are you suing the city of Richmond instead of negotiating?…

William Gross: Now both of us, right? Perhaps you would like to answer.

Peter Dreier: And they kind of admitted that things are tough for working people in California and all over the country.

Laurence Fink: We are acting as a fiduciary on behave of our client. This is not our money and if we did not stand for our clients rights in this—- and if we did not stand for this suit, we would not be a fiduciary for our clients.

Peter Dreier: Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU issued a statement and said, you’re not representing our shareholders. You’re not representing the pension funds of SEIU workers. We want you to negotiate to save those homeowners in Richmond.

They looked incredibly foolish. They looked incredibly selfish and self-serving. And I think that exposed them for what they are.

They must know somewhere in their core that they’re on the wrong side of history, that they should not be kicking people out of their homes who’ve been working hard and paying their mortgages.

Bill Moyers: What does that tell you? That they—

Peter Dreier: It tells you that all over the country there are people willing to stand up to these Wall Street titans and raise the fundamental questions of democracy. You know, you are making a huge fortune on the backs of working people. Profits are going up and wages are going down.

There’s a recession for the majority of the American people and there’s luxury and prosperity for the top one hundredth of one percent of which these two guys are members. And all over the country in North Carolina every Monday, Moral Monday, in Florida the group called the Dream Defenders took over the governor’s office.

There are students all over the country fighting the fossil fuel industry by demanding that their colleges divest from these— from Exxon oil and other major fossil fuel companies that are causing global warming.

And all over the country there are people who are taking to the streets, taking to the polls and saying, “We’ve had enough of Wall Street and big business and the Tea Party and the religious right. And we’re going to take the country back.” And I know that rhetoric is similar to what the Tea Party says. But you know, but this is about Wall Street and big business really being vulnerable for the first time probably in 30 years.

Bill Moyers: I have to press you on that Peter, because Republicans are ruled as you know by the radicals in their party with enough votes in the House in particular to protect massive tax breaks for the wealthy, to jeopardize Medicare and social security, to attack women’s rights, to reduce food stamps, to push measures that degrade the environment.

And yet, the Democrats cannot move their agenda.

Peter Dreier: Well, remember the debate over the health care bill, what is now called Obamacare. The overwhelming majority of the Democrats in both the House and the Senate wanted a public option. They wanted some kind of Medicare for all. And it was only a handful of Democrats, the corporate Democrats led by Max Baucus.

Bill Moyers: From Montana.

Peter Dreier: Yes.

Bill Moyers: Who was chairman of the Banking and Finance Committee.

Peter Dreier: That’s right. So a small group of Democrats, the corporate Democrats were able to thwart the public will and have a public option.

So I don’t think you can blame the entire Democratic party. It is true that big business has an important role to play in the Democratic party. And I think that’s why we got Robert Rubin and we got Tim Geithner and we got the kinds of people that have.

Bill Moyers: Clinton Democrats?

Peter Dreier: The Clinton Democrats. And I think that’s why Obama picked, I think, the wrong people to be his financial advisors when he came into office.

Bill Moyers: But there are with all due respect very few signs of leadership on a progressive agenda in Congress, in Washington for workers, for consumers or the environment. The Congressional Progressive Caucus 76 members, they put forth an ambitious “Back to Work” public investment agenda in education, infrastructure which is in terrible shape in this country, renewable energy. And it was categorically ignored. Yet the 90 Tea Party members in the house can shut down the government?

Peter Dreier: Well, you know, the desire of the progressive movement is for the Democrats to act more like a party, to act more like a movement.

And there are enough Democrats in both houses of the Congress to do that, but they need to be more disciplined. And also we need to realize that change doesn’t happen from inside Washington. It happens from the grassroots and then changes Washington.

Bill Moyers: But Peter—

Peter Dreier: In Congress.

Bill Moyers: Almost every other guest on this show says the same thing you did, that it takes time, it takes patience — and it has to come starting with Roosevelt, from the grassroots up. But we all know there’s been great progress in this country on some cultural issues, particularly on gay marriage and equality for gays, but not much movement on the very issues that the people you describe are agitating about out there, environmental issues, income equality, racial justice, gun control, women’s rights. Something’s not working.

Peter Dreier: There is enormous amount of movement out there. Wendy Davis, a state senator from Texas, stood up— in a filibuster and became a cultural hero in Texas. And she—

Bill Moyers: Yes, but the next week the state legislature, controlled by Republicans, went on and did what they would’ve done if she hadn’t filibustered. They lost anyway despite her hero— admittedly heroic stand and national attention, she still lost—

Peter Dreier: But that’s how movements happen, Bill. Bill, they don’t happen overnight. They happen—

Bill Moyers: But in the meantime politics, electoral politics are the frustrating barrier to the change you’re describing.

Peter Dreier: I agree. And it’s going to take a while for that breakthrough to happen. But I think we’re seeing here in New York, the bastion of Wall Street, the bastion of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who presided over 20 years of widening inequality, gentrification, and the destruction of the middle class in New York, you now have a champion of working people, Bill de Blasio who’s going to be the next mayor of New York. And things like that are happening in other states. In California, Governor Brown passed— just signed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour—

Bill Moyers: But didn’t he oppose that last year?

Peter Dreier: He wouldn’t do it a year ago, but he’s doing it now. Why? Because he’s responding to the strikes of the fast food workers, to the organizing of the Walmart workers, to the public opinion polls that show that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that if you work full time, you should not live in poverty, that the minimum wage still leaves you desperately below the poverty line. And Governor Brown realized that.

He also recently signed a bill to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, to provide a “Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights” to match New York’s domestic workers bill of rights. There are legislative changes that are happening all over the country that are the result of these movements.

Think about if this were January of 1960 and I said to you, “Bill, there’s going to be a new civil rights movement mostly among young people.” You’d probably think like many people thought, I was crazy. But yet on February 1st, 1960 four college students in North Carolina took over the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina and spawned a movement that spread throughout the South, created an organization called SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which engaged in freedom rides and civil rights protests and voter registration and changed our country forever. And yet no one predicted that. No one thought that was about to happen. History happens behind our backs sometimes and changed elections and electoral politics and what happens in Washington as well as all over the country.

Bill Moyers: And in 1964 after Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater by the largest plurality on American political history, nobody thought that the conservatives, the right wing would be running the country for the next 30 years or gaining in power as they did. Can’t your optimism blindside you?

Peter Dreier: You know, if I thought that I was being Pollyannaish I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning because, you know, why live in a world where things are going downhill? But if you look at the long view, all change happens two steps forward, one step backward, two steps forward, you know. So when you’re in that backward moment, right, everything looks bleak, everything looks hopeless, right.

In 1911 Victor Berger, a socialist Congressman from Milwaukee proposed something he called old age insurance. And people laughed at him. He didn’t get a single vote in Congress for this thing called old age insurance. And 20 years later under the New Deal— 25 years later under the New Deal we got social security.

Bill Moyers: And a lot of people suffered in the meantime. I mean, it’s hard to ask suffering people to be patient.

Peter Dreier: The people in Richmond, California are suffering and they’re not being patient. They are fighting back against Wall Street. They are taking their own lives into their own hands. And that’s happening all over the country. It’s not— you don’t see this in The New York Times every day. You don’t see this in The Wall Street Journal or in “The Washington Post.”

You see snippets of it, but you see the Tea Party every day, right, they have a great publicity machine. And Jim DeMint and other— of their leaders are very good at getting publicity. But the everyday grassroots work on the ground doesn’t give you the sense that there’s a movement— aborning all over the country, burgeoning in every state in the country. Because we don’t see it every day.

Bill Moyers: You know polls show a large majority of Americans favor raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Yet President Obama called on Congress to raise it from $7.25 an hour only to $9 an hour. Do you consider him a progressive?

Peter Dreier: I think President Obama, a former community organizer, understands that he is a president in a moment of crisis and he’s torn between trying to be a moderate and to get things done and to be a progressive and move the country in an entirely different direction. And he’s making some gestures about moving in the right direction with as you said the $9 an hour minimum wage. It’s not good enough. And just like FDR, you know, said I believe you, I agree with you. But go out and make me do it.

Obama is a community organizer, right. He should understand better than anyone that he needs people out there protesting not only the protesting against Wall Street and the right, but protesting some of the moderate Democrats that are also obstacles to change. And I would like to see him encourage activists to be in the streets and protesting. And he did that a little bit a few months ago when he encouraged students on college campuses to get involved in the divestment movement over fossil fuels because he remembers when he was at Occidental College—

Bill Moyers: Your college.

Peter Dreier: His first political act was a speech he gave against apartheid and encouraging my college, Occidental College, to divest itself from stocks doing business in South Africa. And unfort—

Bill Moyers: 1981.

Peter Dreier: —unfortunately my college didn’t listen to Barack Obama—

Bill Moyers: — and many of them— most of them are not listening to Bill McKibben and the divestment movement on fossil fuels.

Peter Dreier: But many colleges did divest from companies doing business in South Africa eventually. And that helped to dismantle the apartheid government and brought us Nelson Mandela as president and changed that country forever for the better.

And I do think that the fossil fuel movement, the movement against global warming that’s— of which this is just one tactic to divest from these companies that are causing global warming like ExxonMobil, that’s going to happen.

And more and more of us have to learn that history happens when you realize that change is possible. Being angry, being upset, being frustrated is not enough. People have to have hope. They have to believe that change is possible.

People won’t remember this crisis unless they— unless we see it in the historical context of a moment in American history, a turning point in American history where America’s decided, “Enough of Wall Street, enough of the widening gap between the rich and everybody else, enough of this destroying our environment, enough of college students going into huge debt just to get an education and being in debt for the next 30 or 40 years.” That’s untenable and it’s uncivilized and we have to move in a different direction. And Americans are fed up.

Bill Moyers: Can you think of some small victories that progressive have won this year?

Peter Dreier: Sure. In Los Angeles— has the dirtiest port in the America, the dirt— it’s high rates of asthma among children all around the port. And a coalition of the Teamsters Union and the Sierra Club and local community groups forced the Port of Los Angeles to clean up its act, to create a clean trucks program, to clean up the environment and to make it possible for the mostly immigrant truck drivers to improve their health and their working conditions. And now that is spread to ports all over the country. And so there are tens of thousands of truck drivers and residents who live near these dirty ports that are going to be healthier because of this victory in California. Another example of that is you might remember that in 2008, right after Obama got elected president, about 300 factory workers in Chicago at Republic Windows and Doors were being fired from their jobs arbitrarily and unceremoniously. And most people in that situation would say, “I guess I’m fired. I better go home and find another job.” But the union led by a guy named Robles and a young organizer named Leah Fried said, “We’re not going to take this.”

And they organized the workers to take over the factory just like in the 1930s in Flint, Michigan and other places. And the owners of the factory eventually sold the business and the workers bought it. And now there’s a factory there called New Era Windows. And it’s a worker owned company that’s thriving. And that’s because the workers stood up.

And in a little town south of Seattle, Washington called SeaTac, Washington where the Seattle airport is located, the city council is about to vote on a $15 minimum wage for the people that live in that town and that’s mostly— and that work in that town. And that’s mostly going to be people at the Seattle airport.

Now, the Seattle airport is not going to move to Mexico, it’s not going to move to China. And so they have the Seattle airport where they want them. And they’re going to have to raise their wages and $15 an hour isn’t even middle class, right. And so in Richmond, California and in SeaTac, Washington and in Florida with the Dreamers and in North Carolina with the Moral Mondays and all over the country on college campuses there are these victories happening.

Small colleges are starting to divest from these fossil fuel companies. And so, you know, there are these hopeful signs. And if the media gave more attention to them, Americans would realize change is possible. So it’s only because people are ignorant of them, they don’t know about them because they’re not in the mainstream media that people think that things are hopeless.

But they’re not hopeless. People are on the ground are making change and they’re building a movement that’s going to have lasting impact. And we need to spread that message.

Bill Moyers: Are unions hopeless? Because as you know unions have been losing members and political clout for years now.

Peter Dreier: Well, we would all hope that President Obama would’ve supported labor law reform. Because we have the most—

Bill Moyers: He said he would in the campaign.

Peter Dreier: Right, we have the most pro-management federal labor laws of any country in the world. And the labor movement has suffered as a result of that. But only a few weeks ago in a suburb— a rural suburb of Atlanta, in DeKalb County, 500 sanitation workers signed a contract with the county through the representation of the Teamsters Union.

Five-hundred garbage workers now have a union voice that they didn’t have two months ago. And that is a sign that the labor movement, it’s not thriving. But there are lots of experiments and initiatives happening all over the country.

That one day strike in cities around the country by fast food workers a couple of months ago— and the growing— activism among Walmart workers who are taking on the biggest corporation in the world and saying, “We’re not going to take poverty wages anymore,” those things are signs that the labor movement is starting to stand up and be counted and I’ve been to lots of meetings with labor leaders and labor activists where they realize they’ve got to change the paradigm, they’ve got to change the way they do organizing, or else the labor—

Bill Moyers: How so?

Peter Dreier: —movement’s going to die. They’ve got to mobilize young people, they’ve got to mobilize immigrants. They’ve got to go into workplaces where they hadn’t gone before. They have to spend more of their budgets on grassroots organizing. They have to build alliances with the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood and the civil rights organizations and with community organizations. In Richmond, California SEIU is a key player, the Service Employees Union, in this battle against Wall Street. And so here you have the largest union in the country standing up without Wall Street on behalf of homeowners in this little small city of Richmond, California. And that’s a sign that the labor movement recognizes it has to change the way it operates and save itself from extinction and become the kind of player it needs to be to move the country in a different direction.

Bill Moyers: One of the progressive heroes in your book is Dr. Seuss. How did that happen?

Peter Dreier: You know, Dr. Seuss’ real name was Theodor Geisel. What people don’t realize about him was that— you think of him as a kindly old man who wrote children’s books. But in fact he was a progressive and a moralist. And when he became a children’s author, many of the themes, the progressive themes that he’d written cartoons about, drawn cartoon about, became prominent in his children’s stories.

So if you think about The Butter Battle Book which is about the Cold War, the stupidity of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. And The Lorax, that was made into a movie recently, is about how corporate America is destroying the environment and we need people to stand up to them.

And then Ted Cruz was on the Senate floor reading Green Eggs and Ham on behalf of a filibuster to stop Obamacare which hadn’t even started yet. And he didn’t even realize what is the message of Green Eggs and Ham?

Ted Cruz: Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do!

Peter Dreier: It’s don’t criticize something until you’ve tried it. The message that Dr. Seuss is sending in his books to young people is to stand up to arbitrary authority and take back your own life and be a fighter for justice and for your own integrity. And I think that Dr. Seuss would be very pleased with a lot of the movements we’ve been talking about today because these are people standing up to arbitrary authority and big power and trying to take the country back just like he argued and wrote about in Yertle the Turtle.

Bill Moyers: Tell me briefly the story of Yertle the Turtle.

Peter Dreier: Dr. Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle about a turtle that wanted to be the empire, he wanted to be the king of all he could see. He wanted to be the most powerful person in the land. And he was living in this little dirty pond. And he convinced a bunch of turtles to pile on top of each other so that he could be on top, he could have his throne.

And the more turtles that piled up on top of each other, the more difficult and suffering was going on underneath, but he was getting to see the whole world and he was feeling very powerful. And then on the bottom, a little turtle named Mack said, “It’s really bad under here. Can you let up a little?” And Yertle said, “No.”

And so eventually Mack, the turtle at the bottom burped intentionally. And the whole pile of turtles came tumbling down. And Yertle fell off of his throne into the mud pond. And the turtles looked around, they realized, “He’s just like us. He’s no more powerful than the rest of us.”

And that’s really what the story’s about. It’s really— it was a metaphor for Hitler, but it was a broader story about the need for ordinary people to challenge people in power, to realize that people in power are only there because we allow them to be there. In a democracy you can take back power.

Bill Moyers: So what would Yertle the Turtle’s message be to us today?

Peter Dreier: That we can win, that we can topple the Wall Street titans, we can topple the big corporations, we can change America in a more democratic direction if we’re willing to fight back and we’re willing to challenge the powers that be and also realize that throughout history there are always moments when it looks like Yertle is winning, right.

But at the end Mack had more power than Yertle did because he was able to topple him just by burping. And that really means speaking truth to power, having your voice heard. And Americans are beginning to feel like their voices now can be heard. And that’s why I’m optimistic, not because I walk— I get up in the morning with rose colored glasses. Because I really do think that we’re at this transformational moment in our history.

Bill Moyers: Peter Dreier, thank you very much for being with me.

Peter Dreier: Thank you, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.

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