William Greider (1936-2019)

This exceptional journalist, who towered above most of his contemporaries, died on Christmas day. Jon Schwarz explains why his was such an important voice in the political media world.

Greider pulled this off because he didn’t care about the daily political garbage tornado. Instead, his focus was always on the huge subterranean battles that actually determine our lives, i.e., capital vs. labor, creditors vs. debtors, marketing vs. people, and capitalism vs. democracy.

The message running through his work is that, for decades, one side in these fights has been absolutely beating the shit out of the other. But Greider didn’t spend his life diagnosing America’s disease to make us despair. It was the opposite — he did it because he believed we can develop the cure, if we put in the work. He thought that normal humans were capable of understanding the world, and governing ourselves.

Greider made exactly the opposite case: that the people in charge have no more idea what they’re doing than anyone else, and often less. During his career in journalism, he wrote in “Who Will Tell the People,” “I have seen up close the frailties of power. At the pinnacles of political command, whenever I have been able to peer behind the veil of platitudes, I have usually glimpsed a scene of confusion … trial and error, folly and misapprehensions.”

Meanwhile, Greider wrote, “this is a nation of people who are mostly smart and capable and, on the whole, generously disposed.” Even in the most brutalized parts of the country, “I frequently came away thinking to myself: Those people would be running things if they had been born with a bit more luck. … There is a vast pool of unrealized ability dwelling in the American population.”

Toward the end of his life, Greider was overjoyed to see the burgeoning movement behind Bernie Sanders and the rise of young politicians and activists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. His case had never been that something like it would happen, but just that it could, that it was within the capability of Americans to do this and much more. As he put it, “Power can accumulate in mysterious ways, if citizens believe they possess this right.”

Greider provided me with a quote that helps save me from despair when positive change does not happen as fast as I would like it to and when politicians pay merely lip service to some new progressive idea without showing any willingness to actually implement it. He wrote that hypocrisy is often the precursor to change so we should not too quickly dismiss it as contemptible.

An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy. First, the powerful are persuaded to say the appropriate words, that is, to sign a commitment to higher values and decent behavior. Then social activists must spend the next ten years pounding on them, trying to make them live up to their promises or persuading governments to enact laws that will compel them to do so.

Getting political leaders to commit to some general principle of justice, even if they have no intention of doing anything to advance it, is a step forward. We see this process happening time and time again with civil and human rights issues where the moral position being espoused was too strong to be ignored. Actually getting that outcome takes hard work and a long time. But it will come.


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