I hate to sound Pollyanna-ish, but sometimes the sunny point of view turns out to be right.
Yes, corporate money has hijacked democracy. And it's true that our two-party system often fails to offer real choices or reflect the will of the majority. Our corporate political system doesn't have a problem. It is the problem.
But we saw yesterday that concerned citizens can make a difference. Yesterday they won a battle against one of democracy's most implacable adversaries: Wall Street. They fought back against a lousy bank deal and stopped it in its tracks.
For the moment.
It wasn't obvious that it could be done. Despite a setback or two -- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau being the primary one -- bank executives have scored one victory after another:
They got to keep their jobs after destroying the economy and driving their own institutions into the ground.
They kept on collecting fat bonuses after the American people bailed them out.
They were able to weaken regulatory reform so they could keep their too-big-to-fail status and retain many of their screw-the-customer privileges.
They've settled one lawsuit after another, often for flagrant criminal behavior, by paying relatively puny settlements -- and writing the checks with other people's money to do it. They've been able to avoid paying for their misdeeds with their money -- or their time.
They've even been able to whine ad nauseum without public anger or ridicule, about the mild reprimands and even milder regulatory changes they've had to face since crashing the world's economy.
One for the People
This weak bankers were on the brink of another undeserved victory, capping months of negotiation led by Obama Administration officials and involving most of the states. But hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens signed online petitions from a range of organizations that includes MoveOn, Color of Change, Progressives United, and the Campaign for America's Future.
The President was reportedly eager to promote the deal in tonight's State of the Union message as some sort of victory for the American people. The press was told that his negotiating team, which includes Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and officials from the Justice, Housing, and Treasury Departments, had finalized a deal which was about to be "presented to the states.'
But presenting 360,000 signatures to the White House had an impact. So do demonstrations like this one, which took place outside the building in Chicago where settlement talks were taking place.
Public statements had an impact, too. Elected officials like Sen. Sherrod Brown, Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva (speaking for the entire Progressive Caucus), and Rep. Brad Miller opposed the settlement. So did leaders like Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, Justin Ruben of MoveOn, and Bob Borosage of Campaign for America's Future. Their widely-reported words hit the media the same day the deal was announced.
The reaction was immediate. Attorney General Miller immediately released a statement retracting earlier announcement. Miller's statement said that the AGs were "today discussing the details of the progress we have made so far in settlement negotiations, including the terms we must still resolve." (Emphasis ours.) "We have not yet reached an agreement with the nation's five largest servicers," Miller added, "and we won't reach a settlement any time this week."
How Bad Was the Deal?
How bad was the deal that was stopped this week? Bankers would have been able to settle civil and criminal charges covering a wide range of mortgage misdeeds for a maximum of $25 billion, to be disbursed under their own supervision.
That's $25 billion after a mortgage meltdown that has left more than 11 million homes underwater. That's $25 billion, while banks continue to demand (and usually receive) mortgage payments for more than $700 billion in housing value that no longer exists.
Payments on this $700 billion continue to serve as an "invisible bank bailout." Each mortgage check on these underwater homes includes money for an ongoing Wall Street rescue, as millions of struggling homeowners continue to pump billions into Wall Street.
Their money continues to artificially inflate banks' balance sheets and providing bonuses for the very same bankers that screwed them over in the first place.
Other People's Money
And speaking of bonuses: The House Progressive Caucus rightly noted today that "the six biggest banks could pay the proposed $25 billion settlement five times over with last year's bonuses and compensation alone."
What's more, the $25 billion would have been largely paid by pension funds and other institutional investors who were deceived by the very same bankers collecting those rich payouts. And in return, the deal could have shut down ongoing civil and criminal investigations of those bankers.
(There's more on the deal here, including a radio interview.)
The President's Role
The Obama Administration's usually been on the wrong side of this struggle. It has declined to investigate or prosecute bad bankers, even when the evidence appeared to be overwhelming. (See here, here, and here, for starters.) The President has continued to insist, as recently as last month's 60 Minutes interview, that bankers did nothing illegal -- even as it was working behind the scenes to make sure that investigators wouldn't be able to discover what they had or hadn't done.
And yet I'll say this for the Administration: They bowed to public pressure. A Republican Administration would have been less likely to do that. And the citizens who made that happen didn't just send a message to the President. They also saved him. This bank deal would have been a political disaster for him.
The President's most loyal supporters should take note of the political benefits he reaps from this kind of outside pressure. Then they, too, should join in the effort to get a fair settlement deal and investigate bank fraud.
Hopefully the President will use tonight's State of the Union to announce a full-scale investigation of bank fraud. He heard the voice of the people on the settlement issue, but that's only one side of the bank-fraud coin. The other half involves law enforcement, and proving to the nation that bankers operate under the same system of justice as the rest of us.
We've won one battle, and even that victory could be undone if the deal is revived in its present form. And the Administration hasn't committed to doing what's really necessary, which is to support courageous Attorneys General like New York's Eric Schneiderman by conducting a full-scale investigation of bank fraud. So there's more work to be done.
What should people do? Be prepared to mobilize again. As the saying goes, "Watch this space" -- and others like it at MoveOn and other progressive organizations.
Patti Smith wasn't wrong when she sang that "People have the power." We do have the power to win a battle or two, even against those guys on Wall Street. We have more power than we realize -- but only if we're willing to use it, and to keep using it until the battles have ended and the war for fair play has been won.
(There's a website for people who want to send an e-mail to President Obama in the next few hours: No sweetheart deals for big banks in the State of the Union.)