05/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Fair Shake for Those Who are Not Already Rich and Powerful

The following are Bob Herbert's remarks on the occasion of his acceptance of the 6th Annual Ridenhour Courage Prize. For more information about the Ridenhour Prizes see and

I want to talk for just a few minutes about two wrong-headed ideas that are held by a very large percentage, and maybe a majority, of Americans.

I've noticed over the past few years, along with many other reporters, that many people feel a sense of powerlessness when it comes to the government policies and corporate practices that have such a great effect on their lives. This is a feeling that is both disheartening and self-fulfilling. Right now, in the midst of a terrible recession, a lot of people are hoping that President Obama will be able to do something to turn things around. But they don't feel that there is anything that they themselves can do. People vote, but they don't have a real sense that they have clout, that they can affect the decisions made in the White House or on Capitol Hill or in the boardrooms of the great corporations.

During the presidential campaign, I asked a woman in a Detroit suburb if she had any thoughts about what might help bolster the economy and create jobs.

"Get rid of Bush," she said.

When I persisted, she said, "Are you kidding? Who would listen to me?"

I believe that this notion that ordinary people are powerless is wrong, but it's widely held.
The other widely-held idea that I think is wrong is the widespread belief among ordinary people that they bear no responsibility for the policies and events that often have such a dramatic effect on the society and on their lives. According to this view, they were in no way responsible for the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the crazy doings on Wall Street and in the corporate sector that wrecked the economy. They weren't responsible for the egregious failures of this society to develop a first rate public school system for all of its kids, or for the sorry state of the nation's infrastructure.

All of that was somebody else's doing.

Both of these notions -- that Americans are basically powerless to intervene in their own fate, and that they bear no responsibility for the important events of their time -- are wrong. And not only are they wrong, they're dangerous.

They're wrong because ordinary Americans actually have tremendous power to shape the policies and practices that affect their lives -- if they are willing to make the big effort and take the risks inherent in trying to make substantial changes in the society.

We've seen it. We saw it most dramatically in the civil rights movement, which changed the face of this nation, and again in the women's movement. We saw it long ago in the labor movement, and later in the fight for a cleaner environment. It's tough. It can be dangerous. It requires courage. It can take a long, long time. But it can be done.

It's also wrong for ordinary people to fall back on the comforting illusion that they bear no responsibility for the events swirling all around them. My response to that kind of thinking is, 'Where were you for the past 30 years?'

Either you bought into the greed and the excessive tax cuts and the trickle-down absurdities and the labor-bashing and the election hijacking and the curtailment of civil liberties and the exportation of jobs and the market mania and torture policies and shock and awe and wars without end...

Either you bought into all of that stuff that had such a deleterious effect on people across the board in this country, or you didn't raise your voice loudly enough against it. One way or another you had some responsibility.

If you didn't understand during the fight over welfare reform - when millionaires on the Senate floor stood up and cheered the withdrawal of benefits from poor children - if you didn't understand then that when they finished tearing up the safety net for the poor that they would soon be coming after the middle class, you bear some responsibility.

It wasn't long before they were homing in on social security.

We're all responsible for the state of our society.

But the point I want to stress here is that these two notions of powerlessness and failure to acknowledge responsibility are particularly dangerous because they prevent ordinary people from seeing the landscapes of their lives clearly, and from taking the steps necessary to improve that landscape. The society's problems are always seen as somebody else's fault, and the person who feels powerless looks to somebody else -- most often a president -- to come along and fix them. That turns the average American into some kind of helpless, hapless figure -- the polar opposite of an informed, involved citizen.

If you don't think you can do anything about the conditions of the society, then you won't even make the effort to clearly understand the issues. What would be the point?

And we've seen what happens. You start to think crazy thoughts, like there may be something to this trickle down, after all. And the logical next step is to believe that the best thing for you and your family is to make sure that the people at the top have lots and lots of money so there'll be plenty to eventually trickle down to you.

Suddenly you feel strongly about getting rid of the inheritance tax. You don't mind those payroll taxes, but that death tax has to go.

After a while, with the imbalance of wealth and power increasing step by step, year after year, you don't even have a good sense of how unfair the system has become. You're anxious, maybe even frightened. But you have no clear idea of what is going on.

All you want to do is keep your job. Protect your little bit of mortgaged turf. Just survive.
Now, of course, even that's a problem.

For all the talk of change in the last election -- and obviously the Obama era is a big change from the Bush years -- but for all the talk of change, and for all the silly howling about socialism from the republicans, we are not even close to making the kind of fundamental changes in this society that I think are necessary.

What we need, of course, are steps taken to bring about a fairer apportionment of the nation's wealth and resources. And that won't happen without a sustained demand, amounting to a campaign, by ordinary Americans that the government and corporate elites stop stomping all over the interests of working people and the poor and begin to seriously address their concerns.

Full employment. A world-class education system. Health coverage for all Americans. Protection of the environment.

If the United States -- with all its wealth and freedoms and technological genius -- is not capable of bringing those things about, then it means that this great experiment in democracy that we claim to be so proud of has failed.

For 30 years or more, working people -- and when I talk about working people, I'm including the so-called broad middle class, everybody who has to work in order to make it from month to month -- for 30 years working people have been ceding wealth and power to the people at the top.

Men who are now in their 30's -- the prime age for raising families -- earn less money than members of their fathers' generation did at the same age. The median income for men in their 30's in 1974, using today's inflation-adjusted dollars, was about $40,000. Now it's approximately $35,000. If you adjust for inflation, from 1980 -- when Ronald Reagan was elected President -- to the midpoint of the current decade, the average income for the vast majority of Americans actually declined.

The peak income year for most individual American taxpayers, believe it or not, was way back in 1973. Standards of living for most American families were maintained or improved over the decades since then because women went into the workplace in droves.

And because we mortgaged ourselves up to our eyeballs.

So a realignment of the wealth and resources of our society is in order. But that won't come from the White House or Congress, not even with the Democrats in control.

The banks and the great corporations are always pressing their case in the corridors of power. But who is pounding the table for working people, day in and day out? Who's their advocate?

I love the quote from Leo Gerard, president of the steelworkers union, who said, 'Washington will bail out those who shower before work, but not those who shower afterwards.'

A fairer, more just, more equitable distribution of the nation's resources won't come about unless and until the ordinary working men and women of this society become less passive, less quiescent -- until they realize that they have to raise their voices and take much more direct responsibility for bringing about the changes necessary to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

A fair shake is all I'm talking about. A fair shake for those who are not already rich and powerful.

The media's role in this effort is the same as it always is -- to dig out the stories and provide accurate information and informed commentary about what is really going on in the society.

But what the progressive media especially could do that would be helpful would be to encourage greater participation by everybody in the civic and political life of the nation. Today's version of Plato's cave is the American living room where so many sit, with remote in hand, watching the flickering images of a flat-screen TV.

We won't get the kind of change that I'm talking about, a transformative change to a more just and equitable society, until ordinary Americans step away from their televisions and look outside the door at the real world, to see clearly and unmistakably the unfairness in the way they've been treated. And even then they'd have to marshal the courage to take big risks, as so many did in the early days of labor, and in the civil rights movement, to fight for their interests, which I contend are identical to the national interest.

They'd have to demand that we stop fighting debilitating, unwinnable wars. That we make employment a true top priority, give it more than lip service. That we stop squandering the potential of the young and instead go to the mat to see that they are given a first-class education. And so on.

If such a movement were to get started, trust me, leaders would emerge. The talent and the intelligence are out there.

But without that kind of commitment, the most we can look forward to is the eventual passing of this recession and then a long period of what will most likely be a lower standard of living and an expansion of the ranks of the poor.

Do I think that this kind of real change, transformational change, is possible?

I know it's possible. Time and again during the course of my life, I've seen what was believed to have been impossible come to pass.

Not to be flip, but a black man has been elected president of the United States.

And I'm standing here the recipient of this wonderful award, when my father could not have held any of the jobs that I've had in my career. Not one of them. So that's a big change in just one generation.

When I came into the newspaper business, we worked with typewriters and carbon paper and everybody in the newsroom smoked. And a fair number of them drank. And women reporters, for the most part, were confined to the feature pages.

So change is possible.

But Frederick Douglass knew way back in 1857 that power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, he said. And it never will.

Bob Herbert is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.