“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine said that, and I wish I could ask him, “What times aren’t?” Still, whatever else they are these are our times. And, however obviously true that is, it is painful to confess.

These are times when bankers, like so many Snidely Whiplashes on steroids, are trying to take homes from people who don’t even have mortgages.

These are the times when public education, foundational to democracy, is under assault from profiteers who just have to get their hands on all that money, a move that would turn education over to the kinds of lawless people who are, well, foreclosing on homeowners who don’t have mortgages.

The same is true of Social Security, a successful citizen cooperative that goes a long way toward guaranteeing two of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms:  freedom from want and freedom from fear. Oh how the Wall Street bandits and buccaneers want to get their hands on that money – as if giving them the cash will make anyone but them more financially secure.

These are the times in which the courts say money is speech, so those with more money have more speech. Corporations are persons and they can spend all they want to buy elections, functionally disenfranchising individual working Americans. Campaign finance and disclosure laws, intended to help level the field, are failing and collapsing like weak levees before a terrible storm.

These are the times in which increasing wealth inequality makes the losers blame other losers (usually of different colors, religions or origins) for theft perpetrated by the rich. An alarming new study (pdf) shows that in times of rising inequality, the victims left at the bottom embrace the very policies that stripped them of their wealth. There’s no better analysis of 2010 election cycle:

…rising inequality in the United States has profound implications for political inequality, essentially creating a vicious cycle in which inequality begets yet more inequality.

These are the times that hopes for democracy have given way to the cruel, feudal dreams of yore.

These are the times when no one blinks as Glenn Beck claims (video) the soul-aware Thomas Paine, whose hatred for everything the Becks of the West stand for destroyed his career, was just an earlier version of Glenn Beck:

“Thomas Paine was kind of the…oh, I don’t know, ooh, my apologies to Thomas Paine, but kind of the Me of [the revolutionary] generation.”

About this time you’re wishing you were spending your time this particular moment on anything but contemplation of these times. Take heart. This battle’s been going on a long time, and our times are not so different from earlier times in American history.

Read this from historian H.W. Brands’ new book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900:

“By the [19th] century’s end the imperatives of capitalism mattered more to the daily existence of most Americans than the principles of democracy. The old forms of law and politics survived, not least since the capitalists couldn’t be bothered to change them. ‘What do I care about the law?’ bellowed Cornelius Vanderbilt. ‘Hain’t I got the power?’ He did have the power, and with it he and the other capitalists dominated American life.”

Well, today’s capitalists can and are bothered to change those principles of democracy. Hence, the Supreme Court’s willingness to turn over our lives to corporations – even foreign corporations. Hence, the decades-long effort at voter suppression. Hence, the shuttering of our courts under the ridiculous disguise of “tort reform.” Hence, the prison-industrial complex. Hence, the supremacy of Big Insurance.

If liberals made a mistake in 2008, it was the mistake of magical thinking. Winning a single election – regardless of who we sent to the plate – wasn’t going to change much in a fight that’s been underway for many lifetimes.

I am saddened to see the idiots like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle be taken seriously by a media that has lost all judgment, all concern for the future of democracy, and any sense of responsibility, personal or institutional.

But hell, they’re just hacks. We are right to pin some hopes for democracy on freedom of speech. We are wrong to pin those hopes on the lapels of reporters. Very, very few have ever seen beyond their noses or cared, really, about their limitations.

This is going to be a long, long fight. Longer than we ever imagined. We may lose the last vestiges of democracy before we find another path up the mountain. We will find it.