Goodbye to William Greider, a Great American Democrat

Thomas Jefferson said all people were divided into two parties: aristocrats, who want to hold all power themselves, and democrats, who believe in regular human beings.

William Greider, author and editor at The Nation magazine, during an interview in New York City.
William Greider, author and editor at The Nation magazine, during an interview in New York City. Photo: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

William Greider, a columnist at The Nation and author of some of the most significant political books of the past 40 years, died on Christmas Day at the age of 83.

If you’re familiar with Greider’s writing, you won’t be surprised that this news generated an outpouring of sorrow across the internet. If you’re not familiar with it, you should definitely go to the library. If you had to choose the work of a single person to understand how America ended up in our current gruesome predicament, it would be hard to do better than Greider’s.

He tackled gigantic subjects: the Federal Reserve (“Secrets of the Temple,” 1987), the evaporation of American democracy (“Who Will Tell the People,” 1992), globalization (“One World Ready or Not,” 1997), society’s deformation by the military-industrial complex (“Fortress America,” 1998), whether we can reinvent the U.S. economy (“The Soul of Capitalism,” 2003), and what to do when the people running this country seem determined to destroy it (“Come Home, America,” 2009).

I used to talk about “Who Will Tell the People” in particular so much that a friend of mine threatened to mock up the cover for a book called “I Will Tell the People!” with a picture of me on the front angrily shaking my fist. I eventually met Greider and became one of the many younger writers he encouraged and supported.

Each of these books is still completely relevant — something that almost never can be said about aging political writing. Pick up, say, “Game Change,” the bestseller by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 election, and you’ll find it’s now as fascinating as gossip about the Harding administration.

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.

Greider didn’t spend his life diagnosing America’s disease to make us despair.

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.

In other words, Greider was a member of humanity’s second party, the “democrats,” as Thomas Jefferson defined it in 1824:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties. 1. those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2dly those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them cherish and consider them as the most honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests. … call them [by] whatever name you please … aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.

Meanwhile, those at the top of America’s pyramid almost uniformly belong to the first party, Jefferson’s aristocrats. The nicer ones want to control us for our own good, while others are true predators who would, given the opportunity, hunt and eat us. But they all share a belief that human beings are, in general, dim pack animals, to be ignored when possible and to be herded in the correct direction when not.

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.” He thought everyone should be angry about this, but productively angry. The word “anger,” he pointed out, is derived from angr, an Old Norse word that means grief.

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 was a believer; he loved and believed in people. Anyone who pays attention to what he said has to admit that you don’t have to be foolish or gullible to be a believer too.

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