Author Peter Dreier

The politics professor examines the role of social justice issues in the presidential campaign and discusses his text, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century.

For more than three decades, Peter Dreier has been involved in urban policy as a scholar, a government official, a journalist and an advocate for reform at both the national and local levels. He's written widely on American politics and public policy and is a frequent speaker to a wide variety of professional, scholarly and civic organizations. He's currently professor of politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Los Angeles' Occidental College. In his text, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, Dreier profiles the century’s most effective and influential reformers and radicals.


Tavis: Peter Dreier is a professor of politics and chair of the urban and environmental policy department at Occidental and author of the new text “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.” Peter Dreier, good to have you on this program.

Peter Dreier: It’s great to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: So two debates down, one more to go. As I said at the top, still not a whole lot of talk about the least among us; namely, those who are in poverty or near poverty. With a country that has such a proud history of social justice, how is it that these issues that matter to the least among us seem to be missing in this campaign?

Dreier: I think that the history of this country, particularly the 20th century, shows us that when there are grassroots movements and protests and people in the streets making noise, and their voices get heard, then the politicians respond.

I think that’s what we need in this country, is a stronger progressive movement to keep the politicians honest. On the right side of the political spectrum, the Tea Party has played that role over the last couple years, and you could see Mitt Romney zipping over to the right as fast as he possibly can in order to respond to the Tea Party and the right wing and the billionaires that are funding them.

The progressive side of the ledger, the unions, the community organizing groups, the faith-based groups that are pushing for more foreclosure relief and a higher minimum wage and a stronger jobs program, their voices haven’t been heard.

But I think if the president gets reelected and they’re out there protesting in the streets, I think we’ll see a different kind of Obama administration in the second term.

Tavis: You’re not the first person on this program to suggest to me that they think that if he gets a second term that he’s going to behave differently. Not long ago my friend Jeffrey Sachs on this program had the same point of view, so I’ll ask you now the same question I asked Jeffrey.

What in his resume, what in his back story, what in his record, what in his book, what in his life (laughter) gives you the reason to believe that he’s going to respond to a progressive push?

Dreier: Well, I think the, the best example of that was during the healthcare debate when it looked like the president and particularly Rahm Emanuel had given up on healthcare reform, and then all of a sudden the healthcare reform now folks were out there protesting in front of insurance companies, going over to the CEOs’ homes and getting themselves arrested and showing that there was a grassroots movement and the voices of the victims of the healthcare debate were out there.

I think the president got a backbone as a result of that, and I think that’s how we got healthcare reform passed in 2010. So I think that people that believed that he was going to be the messiah because he’d been a community organizer, I think that was unrealistic. But I think the history of this country is that when there’s pressure from progressive grassroots organizations, politicians respond.

Some people, like Paul Wellstone, are allies of the progressive movement regardless of what’s going on in the streets, but I think someone like President Obama is going to read what’s going on in the country and will respond to pressure.

Tavis: Let me respectfully pick that apart to the best of my ability, at least.

Dreier: Okay.

Tavis: I dare not debate with you; you’re the expert here. But if the president, this president, Obama, were going to respond to progressive pressure, the healthcare debate wouldn’t have been what it turned out to be in the first place. I mean, progressives were pushing for a very different policy than what came at the end.

Progressives were happy about what he said on the campaign trail, but when he got in, he watered that down.

Dreier: Yeah.

Tavis: So when you say people took to the streets to save what was left of a healthcare debate, some of that has to do, with all due respect to the folks in the street, Nancy Pelosi, and the story’s been told many times now, walked into the president’s office and got in his face and told him off and told Rahm Emanuel off, and said, “I am not, having given up all I’ve given up and pushed my party to do all this done in the House, and made all the – we are not going to give in on this legislation, with or without Republican support. We’re gonna push this thing through.”

So Nancy Pelosi had a lot to do with pushing the president on that, but the point is if he had done what progressive protests wanted him to do, he wouldn’t have been in trouble in the first place, or the kind of trouble that it was, and it wouldn’t have been so watered down.

Dreier: Well, there’s a great story in my book about how a bunch of progressive union activists were meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression, and they were trying to push him to pass legislation, and he listened to them very carefully and then he said to them, “I agree with everything you just said. Now go out and make me do it.”

I wish Obama had learned that lesson, because when he first became president some of his high-profile insider cabinet people and advisers told the progressive activists to basically slow down and don’t go after the moderate Democrats that were holding back the healthcare reform bill.

It took about a year into the Obama administration before they revved it up again. So I think it did take about a year and that’s when the healthcare debate got a second wind, and I think that’s one of the lessons of this book is everyone from Eugene Debs to Martin Luther King to the current situation, you need people on the outside keeping the people on the inside honest.

Tavis: I’m glad you mentioned Dr. King, because he is, of course, one of the 100 greatest Americans of the 20th century where social justice is concerned, this social justice Hall of Fame, as you call it.

Let me link King and Obama, if I can, since you’ve raised both of their names now. So the story you tell about FDR saying go out and make me do it, it’s a great story, told many times. President Obama on the fundraising trail, in these private fundraisers, he has said that any number of times.

He has retold – he himself has retold that FDR story many times in fundraisers. The problem is – and trust me, we’ll come to Romney in a second. I got a whole bunch of Romney questions as well about social justice as he sees it in this country.

So the president retells this FDR story time and time again, but I get the sense, and I’m not the only one; a lot of folk in the media have written about this, that he seems to be annoyed, he doesn’t like being pushed. He does not like progressives whining about what they’ve done.

You recall the famous Rahm Emanuel quote, when he was chief of staff. He was so dismissive of the left, dismissive of progressives, so we know what many in the White House think about progressive causes and progressive people pushing him.

So here’s the irony of this – so Dr. King is famously known for telling LBJ – Bill Moyers tells this story all the time; Bill Moyers, of course, was the press secretary for LBJ long before his PBS career.

Dreier: Right.

Tavis: Moyers tells the story all the time of the president meeting with Dr. King and asking Martin to kind of tone it down, and Martin says, “Mr. President, respectfully, it’s the protests that are making you successful.” So Martin understood that very clearly, he told the president that.

Dreier: Yes, yeah.

Tavis: I don’t get the sense that Mr. Obama likes being pushed by the left. That they find it annoying, that they don’t like the whining, that they don’t think the left understands what they’re up against. They don’t really like that. So that’s a long way of saying if you don’t like being pushed by your left flank, if you don’t like being pushed by people who want to see a more significant social justice agenda, then what motivates you to move in a second term?

Dreier: It’s not clear to me that he really matters what he personally likes. It’s what’s in the political atmosphere.

Tavis: Okay.

Dreier: So there’s a lot of moderate Democrats who need to be pushed to get raising the minimum wage or doing something about jobs or immigration reform or protecting the rights of women to have a choice. I think that those issues are going to come up in the second term, if there is a second term, and the protests in the streets will make a big difference because the moderate Democrats will hear it, just like the moderate Republicans had to respond to the Tea Party.

They didn’t like being pushed either. Richard Lugar and some of those right-wing Republicans, they didn’t like the Tea Party out there holding them accountable and holding their feet to the fire, but they had to respond to that.

So I think the president and some of the moderate Democrats in Congress will respond to protests, particularly if there are people like Nancy Pelosi, people like John Lewis, other progressives in the Senate and in the House that will keep these issues alive.

Tavis: Are those persons in this social justice Hall of Fame, these 100 great Americans in the 20th century, all of these persons come from the left. Are there examples of persons from the right who have pushed for social justice?

Dreier: Well, there are people who’ve changed their views. When Earl Warren was the attorney general and then the governor of California, he was a conservative Republican. In fact, he was the one most responsible for interring Japanese Americans during World War II, an incredible violation in civil liberties.

He winds up on the Supreme Court, appointed by Dwight Eisenhower, and he becomes one of the great champions of civil rights and civil liberties, responsible for Brown vs. Board of Education and lots of other good decisions.

Eisenhower once said that was the worst decision he ever made. He thought he was appointing a right-wing Republican; turns out he was appointing a civil libertarian, civil liberties activist. So I think that there are people – there are a number of Republicans in the book, but back in the early 20th century there was this thing called a progressive Republican.

Robert La Follette and Hiram Johnson, the governor of California, and even Theodore Roosevelt, who has an ambiguous record. He was a militarist and a racist, but he also was a progressive on labor and consumer and environmental issues.

So I think that the Republicans in the book are people who either began as progressive Republicans and kept that alive, or people like Earl Warren, who had a change of heart.

Tavis: I know that some will laugh at this question before I even get it out, but let me ask it anyway because I want to be fair to both sides here. Paul Ryan, for all that those on the left thing is wrong with him and his budget priorities, and the Catholic bishops came out against his budget plan, and he is, of course, a Catholic, so his own church lambasted his plan.

But he more than Romney, he more than Obama, he more than Biden, talks about the issue of poverty and about the poor. He went to Georgetown and gave an entire speech about poverty in America.

Now, he has his own way of addressing the issue, but I’m wondering if the president, Obama, doesn’t get reelected, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan do take to the White House, whether or not there is something to appeal specifically to him on about why social justice matters, given that he is unafraid, at least, to talk about the poor, to raise the issue of poverty, and to give major policy speeches about it, even though he may be wrong in them.

Dreier: Yeah. Well, I think a lot of his concern about poverty is mostly lip service, to be honest with you.

Tavis: Okay. Okay, that’s fair.

Dreier: His voting record in Congress is entirely about cutting budget priorities that help the poor. You don’t see him supporting raising the minimum wage, you don’t see him supporting labor unions, you don’t see him supporting expanding the earned income tax credit, you don’t see him asking for more money for public schools.

There’s a long tradition of Catholic social justice and a lot of the people in my book reflect that, Dorothy Day and many others, and you don’t see Ryan talking about that. Ryan is a Ayn Rand, right-wing, Libertarian conservative, and he can try to mask that during the campaign just like Romney has been trying to mask some of his fundamental right-wing beliefs.

But if they get elected, I think it’s a disaster for not only the poor but for the middle class. I’d like to believe you, Tavis. I’d like to believe that –

Tavis: I’m not saying that I believe it. I’m just asking the question. (Laughter)

Dreier: Yeah, yeah. I’d like to believe there’s some saving grace if Romney and Ryan get elected, but I think the best hope for progressive politics in this country is for Obama to get reelected and then to be pushed by progressives.

There are all kinds of people in this country fighting foreclosures, fighting for union rights, fighting on behalf of the disenfranchised, and I think if that movement as it appears today in the form of community organizing groups like the Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment and National Peoples Action and faith-based groups all over the country, if they get a second wind, in some part because the Occupy Wall Street movement helped to change the mood of the country, people are now talking about the richest 1 percent.

About inequality, about the incredible power of Wall Street and big corporations and the right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers. The conversation in this country has changed than it was even four years ago when Obama was running for office.

The mood of the country is much different. The public opinion polls show that even the majority of Republicans think that big corporations and Wall Street have too much political power.

So I think there’s a movement bubbling under the surface that’s going to explode and make a big difference.

Tavis: Everything you’ve just said now is predicated upon the notion or the belief that those persons who care about social justice issues are going to activate themselves, that they’re going to use the agency that they have, that they’re going to, put another way, assign themselves to push whoever the next president is going to be. That’s a big if, and I raise that because in this first term – and I understand the second term is very different.

In the first term, so many of those social justice stalwarts have been sidelined and silenced by the Obama administration. They’ve been silenced and sidelined because they have been able, the Obama people, in the first term, have been able to say we are your best hope. What do you want – us or Romney?

Dreier: Right.

Tavis: So the unions have not been as strong and as vocal as they could be or want to be, and everybody who covers the union movement knows that. They hope that he’s going to get a second term so he’ll do more of what they want, but they’ve been silenced and sidelined.

A number of other people – I won’t run the list – the environmental movement, there are bits and pieces here and there. The Occupy movement came out for a while. But by and large so many of the social justice advocates have been sidelined and silenced in this first term, hoping he’ll get a second term and all of a sudden he’s going to start to be a real fighter.

He’s going to become an LBJ and become an FDR, they believe, in the second term.

Dreier: Yeah.

Tavis: So tell me – forget Romney and Obama for a moment. Tell me why you think that these persons in the spirit of these great Americans who live today are going to take up the gauntlet in the second term or if Mr. Romney were to win?

Dreier: I think soon after Obama got elected in 2008 these progressive activists got a little bit seduced by being close to power, and Obama’s inside staff people were pretty good at seducing them, and I think there’s still a bit of that. But I think after four years of frustration – there’s been some good things that came out of the Obama administration, but he’s clearly frustrated a lot of people who thought that this would be a much more progressive administration.

Even counting the right-wing assault in Congress and the power of big corporations, I think that people are now aware that if you’re going to make progress in the second term, there’s got to be a movement out there. I see all kinds of signs of that happening.

A year and a half ago a group of faith-based and community organizing groups here in California tried to get a homeowners bill of rights passed through the state legislature and they went nowhere. But after the Occupy Wall Street changed the mood of the country, about a month and a half ago Governor Brown signed the homeowner bill of rights, which really protects a lot of people from the worst parts of foreclosure.

So I think that’s a sign, that’s an example that underneath, there’s this grassroots movement that’s just ready to explode, and I think that, um, you’re right, that the Obama administration may or may not welcome that, but it doesn’t matter whether they welcome that. If it happens, they’re going to be held accountable, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s what the history of the 20th century teaches us.

Tavis: One of the things that one notices immediately when one just looks at the cover of the book – forget even cracking the cover. You look at the cover and you start to see the names of these great Americans, these 100 greatest Americans in the 20th century who have made your social justice hall of fame, and one immediately recognizes that the issues and the causes they fought for and the gains that they won have benefitted all Americans.

Dreier: That’s correct.

Tavis: Never mind political ideology or any other extraneous factor. What they fought for has benefitted all Americans. Why is it then – and I’m not naïve in asking this question – but why is it then that those on the right don’t seem to understand that when there’s a push for this kind of social justice that all Americans benefit, that we all win?

Dreier: Well, it turns out that in 1911 the first socialist congressman, a guy named Victor Berger from Milwaukee, introduced the first Social Security bill. At the time, people thought that was a radical idea, a socialist idea. Then Franklin Roosevelt passed Social Security during the Depression and now 75 percent of Tea Party members think that Social Security is a good thing.

So even the people who call themselves right wing conservatives understand and believe that the government has a responsibility to protect the vulnerable, to protect the elderly.

So I think people can get misled pretty easily, so the right’s been pretty good at dividing people on social issues, on abortion, on gun control, on gay marriage, on things like that, but the churches, the right-wing, conservative, evangelical churches, have a social justice component to them as well.

So I think that the right in America is still trying to figure out whether it’s a pro-business group or whether it’s a social conservative group of people. I think that the corporate America that’s funding the Tea Party, that’s really who’s doing it, the Koch brothers and people like that, they have a different agenda than the grassroots people and the Tea Party.

They want to lower taxes on the rich, they want to get rid of labor unions, they want to promote more inequality and give people at the top more of the wealth of this country. I think that the people on the progressive side of the ledger have to find a new way of talking about that, and I think that that’s been happening the last couple years, and particularly after Occupy Wall Street, about the growing inequality in America.

Tavis: This book is about celebrating these 100 great Americans who pushed all kinds, pushed forward, advanced, all kinds of social justice issues. We’re talking individuals here. If I said to you that it’s not the way it once was in this country, and because of cynicism, because of any number of issues, it’s hard for individuals to get the kind of traction that they did back in the day because institutions have so much more power now than they ever had.

Dreier: That’s true.

Tavis: The institution of Wall Street, the institution of lobbyists, the institution of political parties, et cetera, et cetera.

Dreier: Okay.

Tavis: So how do individuals break through when they’re up against institutions that seem to have all the power and all the clout these days?

Dreier: Well, it depends on what institution. So the most powerful institution that’s promoted social justice in this country has been the labor movement, and it’s been incredibly weakened in the last 30 years. But there are signs of a growing labor movement around the country among immigrants, among African Americans, among women.

So I think the labor movement has pushed back in the last couple years and I think we’ll see revitalization of organized labor. But if you think about in 1900 or you think about the things that were considered radical back then – Social Security, the women’s right to vote, the dismantling of Jim Crow and poll taxes and things like that, the minimum wage, laws protecting consumers and protecting the environment, and laws giving workers the right to unionize, those are all things that were once considered radical and now they’re considered common sense.

Most of the women in my classes at Occidental College don’t think of themselves as feminists, but they believe in equal pay for equal work, they believe in a woman’s right to choose, they believe that a woman should be able to go to medical school or law school regardless of her gender.

So I think that what’s missing is that a lot of people don’t realize how hard it was to win these gains, and if we remind people that it takes struggle, it takes protest – as Frederick Douglass says, if there’s no protest, there’s no progress, then people realize that they need to get out in the streets.

I think they’re, as I said, bubbling under the surface. There is that movement. If this was 1959 and I said to you that there’s going to be a civil rights movement beginning with the Greensboro sit-ins in February of 1960, most people would think that I was crazy, right?

Yet a few months later these four students from North Carolina A&T take over the Woolworth’s and that sets up a whole new wave of civil rights activism. So I think that’s possible again.

Tavis: There are some great people profiled in this book whose names I expected to find. I see Fannie Lou Hamer here, I see Ella Baker here, I see Michael Harrington here, I see W. B. Du Bois here, I see Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall – does that say Dr. Seuss?

Dreier: Dr. Seuss, yeah. Dr. Seuss –

Tavis: How did Dr. Seuss make the social justice hall of fame?

Dreier: Okay, well that’s a good question.

Tavis: Yeah.

Dreier: Dr. Seuss’s real name was Theodore Geisel, and what people don’t know about him was that before he was a famous children’s author he was an editorial cartoonist for a left-wing newspaper in New York called “PM,” and a lot of his children’s books have a subtle but very obvious, for some people, if you look for it, social justice scene.

“Yertle the Turtle,” one of his most famous books, is a metaphor for Hitler. It’s about a bully. It’s about a guy who abuses his power. The “Butter Battle Book” is a criticism of the arms race. It’s about two sides, two different groups of people who were trying to get bigger and bigger weapons to kill each other. That was written in the middle of the arms race with the United States and the Soviet Union. “The Lorax,” which is now a popular movie, was a Dr. Seuss book about the environment and how corporate greed is destroying the environment.

So generations of young people and their parents who’ve been reading Dr. Seuss to each other for many years maybe were not aware that there’s a message of social justice and what Theodore Geisel once said, he said, “I don’t like other people pushing other people around,” and that’s what most of his books are about.

Tavis: So often the political right in this country dismisses the very notion of social justice, but when you get this book it’s hard to imagine what America would be like without these “100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.”

The book is written by Occidental Professor Peter Dreier, and I’m delighted to have you on this program, Professor. Thank you, sir.

Dreier: It’s been a pleasure, Tavis, thanks a lot.

Tavis: It’s good to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm