March 12, 2004

Studs Terkel's national diagnosis

On Wednesday night, I was lucky enough to hear a great American speak: Studs Terkel. An alumnus of our law school, Terkel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written eleven books on various topics of 20th-century America, including the Great Depression, World War II, and the civil rights movement. Terkel is unique in his methodology because all of his books are composed of interviews that he has conducted with various people who actually lived through the great events that shaped our nation. When I saw him on Wednesday, Terkel was witty, idealistic, and most of all, he was aware of the dire national condition.

Studs Terkel understands what is going on in this country. He offered his diagnosis of the American malaise that has allowed President Bush to dismantle the federal government.

"We have national Alzheimer's disease," he declared. He went on to say that when the stock market crashed in 1929 (due to what he deemed "free market economics"), everyone, from the CEOs to the day laborers, was knocked down. Terkel believes, and rightly so, that it was the New Deal and all of its regulatory agencies that got Americans up off the dirt. Now, the children and grandchildren of the people that "big government" saved, including our President, use that phrase as if it is a dirty word.

Studs Terkel is absolutely correct. The federal government is an effective check on corporate greed that is so often veiled in the cloth of laissez-faire economics. The federal government is the only force in this country that can reckon with the corporate machine—it did so in the Progressive Era, it did so in the New Deal, and it did so during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson.

Yet Bush wants to restrict the power of the federal government as much as possible—except, that is, its power to write discrimination into the Constitution and to rob women of their right to choose. He wants to cut federal spending in education, healthcare, and welfare. But don't you dare mention cutting the money that goes to the Pentagon—more than $400 billion of it.

However, Bush and the Republicans are not the only ones at fault. The Democrats have forgotten the message that made them the dominant political party of the 20th century.

Democrats are neglecting what should still be their dogma: Government, for all its failures in the past and to come, is a place where people come together, and no one is left behind.

A national healthcare system was in the party platform in 1948. LBJ was talking about one public school system in this country that would afford every child—white and black, rich and poor—an equal opportunity to succeed. And yet it was President Clinton who joyfully declared, "The era of big government is over."

In the 21st century, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the Democrats were once on the right track, and have now strayed from the path. The Republicans, on the other hand, were never on the road in the first place.

Our Alzheimer's is not specific to economic policy. It is endemic to our current political situation. We have forgotten what our parents and grandparents fought for last century—the fight was inherently American. The story of America is, at its core, a story of a national promise to its people—equality for every citizen—and the subsequent struggle to get closer to that noble ideal. Workers, women, and blacks, to name a few, have fought to become part of the American promise, and they have not reached the level of equality they so richly deserve. Yet with each fight, with each sacrifice, all of us inch closer to that goal of equality for all.

In a time that reeks of hopelessness, Studs Terkel has remained immune to the disease that afflicts so many of us today. A man who has seen so much suffering and so much sacrifice thinks that the fight is still worth fighting, and he thinks that it is we, the youth of this nation, that will be the ones to continue the struggle.

Terkel cited the statistic that of Americans who were 18 to 24 years of age, only 16 percent voted in the 2000 election. As he put it, the overwhelming majority stayed home. Cognizant of the fact that a low turnout in the 2004 presidential election would ensure Bush's reelection, Terkel told the audience that the bigger the turnout in November, the better the chances that we will depose Dubya.

In deference to Mr. Terkel, I feel obligated to relay his message to young Americans: "If you don't vote in this election, you're voting for George Bush."