Sunday night’s presidential debate was enough to leave any sentient person despairing over the state of our republic. Donald Trump has managed to lower the national dialogue to the level of “The Jerry Springer Show.”

It was depressing. Not a word about how to help veterans, including a generation that volunteered for a decade of relentless war. Instead, we were treated to a bad reality TV show masquerading as politics, an embarrassing race to the bottom.

Jimmy O’Brien watched the debate, hoping he’d hear the man and woman who want to be president talk about what they were going to do for working men and women. But he didn’t hear any of that.


“The middle class in this country is under attack,” O’Brien said. “You wouldn’t know it listening to that.”

Principle, acting on it, is in short supply these days. Last week, Jimmy O’Brien and six other men decided they had to act on principle. Following the example of the most principled Americans, they used civil disobedience to make a point.

A few hours before the MBTA fiscal control board voted to privatize the T’s money collection operation, they went down to the T’s money room in Charlestown and refused to move from the front gate. They were arrested for unlawful assembly, handcuffed by Transit cops who belong to a union themselves, carted off to Charlestown District Court.

Jimmy O’Brien grew up in Charlestown, not far from that courthouse. Some of the kids he grew up with could find that courthouse in their sleep, for all the wrong reasons. But O’Brien made better choices, and today he’s the president of Local 589 of the Carmen’s Union, representing 4,100 working people who work for the MBTA.

O’Brien and six other leaders of Local 589 — Pat Hogan, Mike Keller, Joe Cerbone, Allen Lee, Larry Kelly, and John Hunt — submitted themselves to arrest. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. It was an act of principle. It was drawing a line in the sand. It was saying they believed in something strongly enough to get pinched for it.


And Jimmy O’Brien and the six others believe strongly that outsourcing public jobs, that privatizing public transportation, is a bad deal for the working people who make the MBTA run and the working people who rely on it to get to work.

Governor Charlie Baker and the man who runs the MBTA for him, Brian Shortsleeve, believe privatizing portions of the T will make it more efficient and less expensive. Jimmy O’Brien doesn’t believe that for a minute, and he points to Keolis, the company that took over the commuter rail, as a prime example of the fallacy of privatization.

“Keolis did what every company that comes in under the guise of privatization does: They lowballed everything to get the contract. Then, once they get the contract, they come back with hat in hand, saying they need more money. So they get another $66 million,” O’Brien says. “That’s how it will work with every other company, because they are not answerable to the public; they’re answerable to their shareholders.”

Brink’s got the $18.7 million contract to run the money room for five years. Shortsleeve says that will save the T more than $8 million. O’Brien doesn’t believe that, but his union hasn’t been allowed to see the math all this is based on.


O’Brien says this is about far more than protecting jobs for his members.

“Teachers, nurses, mental health care workers,” he said. “All of those jobs are getting nickeled and dimed.

“What we’re talking about, if people would be honest about it, is a race to the bottom, replacing employees who make a decent wage with those who make a lower wage, making it impossible for them to live a decent life.”

What Jimmy O’Brien is saying, about the devaluing of working people, about the erosion of the middle class, is the background music to the most disturbing, depressing, dispiriting presidential campaign in history.

And the worst part is, hardly anybody is listening to the music.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.