How our misreading of history harms progressivism today.
On the day in late April when Barack Obama gave his speech at Cooper Union urging financial regulation reform, The Huffington Post, one of the most important liberal websites we have, could hardly have made more clear to its readers what it thought about Obama’s appeal to his audience. “Two Presidents, Two Messages to Anti-Reform Bankers,” ran the headline over photographs of Obama and Franklin Roosevelt an hour or two after the President wrapped up his speech. Obama, the sub-headlines explained, urged bankers to “Join Us,” while Roosevelt had said: “I Welcome Their Hatred.”
Substantively, I can’t say I disagree with the editors’ assessment that Obama’s approach to the Wall Streeters in attendance at the Great Hall was more conciliatory than it should have been. And the reform bill itself, like much of what we have seen in the past year-and-a-half, contained several good and much-needed measures but fell short in significant ways. HuffPo, which I read daily, is right to point that out, just as it was right to cast the proverbial disinfecting sunlight on the White House’s deal with the pharmaceutical lobby during the health-care debate.
The juxtaposition and the wording struck me as representative of a kind of liberal stance that’s been common since Obama took office and that does not serve liberalism’s long-term interests, into the Obama years and beyond them. It’s one thing to be disappointed in policy outcomes, or even angry about them. But more and more it seems that we are in an age of liberal despair–as reflex and first instinct, as motif and explanation, even, it sometimes seems to me, as fashion. Criticism of legislation and proposals is always proper and necessary, as is the application of whatever pressure people can apply to try to produce more progressive outcomes. But I’ve read and heard many critiques that then race right past that into outright desolation. One noticed it in the days after the passage of the health-care bill in late March. There was a brief geyser of euphoria, and then, in two or three or at most five days, skirmishes broke out over why Obama didn’t make more recess appointments than the 15 he shoved through on March 27. By March 31–10 days after the House passed health-care reform–when Obama announced his since re-thought plan to open many coastal areas to offshore drilling, things on the liberal side were more or less back to the dour normal.
The despair has taken many guises. There is the disappointment, wholly ingenuous and therefore shot with some pathos, of the rank-and-file progressive voter who really did get swept up in the overbaked rhetoric of 2008 and came somehow to believe that Obama possessed unearthly powers and ought to have been able to set everything right in seven or eight months, a year tops. There is in other instances the welled-up anger of what we might call professional disgruntleists: people on the left who “just knew” that Obama wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be–or, more pointedly, that he cracked himself up to be–and have taken each apostasy and sell out, on single-payer or the banks or the Copenhagen summit or what have you, as proof that they were right all along. There are many colorations in between: some worth taking seriously, some not; some of them authentic, inasmuch as they represent the legitimate and proper statements of principle from people who work every day in support of certain bedrock ideals and expect some adherence to them, and others the kind of peanut-gallery semaphoring performed more for the sake of constituencies or donors or page views than of the polity.
There has been plenty to be frustrated about. From the too-small size of the stimulus package to the Afghanistan policy (which I support, while I recognize that most progressives don’t) to the lethargic-at-best pace of the dismantling of the Bush-Cheney security state, Obama has given the disgruntleist caucus lots of material. The Democrats in Congress have been–if anything–worse. They passed the health-care bill all right; but could they have contrived in their wildest imaginations to make the process uglier? And that was their signal accomplishment! More generally, the last year and a half has shown the congressional Democrats to be at odds with one another, at war with the concepts of competence and cohesion, and leaving us wondering in some cases why they were even Democrats in the first place.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this tendency. About why, for example, Harper’s Magazine, just six months into Obama’s term, rendered the verdict that he was Barack Hoover Obama; about why the influential Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos was advising his vast audience late last year that the health-care bill deserved to die (to his credit, he changed his position by March and favored passage); about why Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake declared jihad against the bill right to the end, even allying at one point with conservative opponents of it.
There are many answers. Occam’s Razor suggests the obvious one–that people are in fact disappointed, which is understandable, and they should say so. I don’t doubt, for example, Hamsher’s sincerity in wondering how working-class families are going to be able to afford the mandated coverage (progressives who don’t worry about that aren’t being honest with themselves about the possible problems that could arise from the bill). But I keep returning in my mind to another matter, one that The Huffington Post’s home page’s invocation of Roosevelt brought home to me: the way liberals interpret and talk about history today. The five-alarm political culture in which we live now forces upon us a certain kind of response to current events: Every little flare-up is elevated to roiling controversy, and every minor setback a potential death blow to the progressive cause, every departure from the sacred codex of Keynes not a mere delay or strategic feint or hindrance but an act of treachery. This much we know; who didn’t, during the last presidential campaign, think that some breathlessly reported development that turned out to be unimportant–the late revelation about Obama’s aunt in Boston who was an undocumented immigrant springs to mind–would be the back-breaking event that would sober up a besotted electorate and lift John McCain to the presidency? After 30 years of mostly defeats, liberals are quick to catastrophize.
But our political culture affects the way we think about the past as well. Too often, when progressives think of American history, we think only of the snapshots: those glorious moments when a historic bill is signed into law, or when the great progressive leader thunderingly confronts the forces of reaction. It’s good to remember those; they are our lodestars. But they are moments. Actual history is slower, more tedious, and certainly less uplifting. It’s not for Obama’s sake, but for liberalism’s over the long haul, that we need to consider this reality and proceed in full awareness of it. It’s only by seeing this fuller picture that we can know how history actually unfolds in real time and place our present experience within that context. We don’t do nearly enough of that. Cable news and op-ed pages and websites are a kind of modern-day camera obscura, giving us an image to be sure, accurate in a way, but upside-down.
The changes we want to see won’t happen in 18 months, or in two years, or four, or probably even eight. Indeed, the entire Obama era, if it lasts eight years, is best thought of not as a culmination, or a self-contained time frame that should be judged a failure if X, Y, and Z don’t happen. It’s the start of a process that may take 16 years, or 24; that may be along the way interrupted or undone; that will be fought tooth and nail, as we’ve plainly seen these recent months, by others whose idea of America is incomprehensible to us but who are citizens too, with the same rights we have. They (and by the way: no despair on their side! There is rage, to be sure, but judging from the Tea Party events I’ve been to and watched, it is a joyful rage) and the corporate interests and the elected representatives on their side have a lot of power. Liberal despair only reinforces their power and helps to ensure that whatever gains are made during the Obama term could quickly be rolled back. And if that happens, we are back, ten years from now, to fighting the usual rearguard battles. With this in mind, some perspective is in order.
The clubs regularly used by liberal critics who hammer the Administration for its tentativeness and caution are the New Deal and the Great Society. He must be more like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson; there were proud liberals who didn’t vacillate, didn’t muck around with this bipartisanship foolishness, and licked their chops at the prospect of a good fight, as evidenced by the “I welcome their hatred” quote, which FDR directed at the “economic royalists.” We were also treated, especially in the Administration’s first six months, to regular comparisons to Roosevelt’s famous Hundred Days: “By this time, FDR had…”
The Hundred Days were a wondrous thing, there is no denying it. But today, when we ask why Obama couldn’t just do that, we misunderstand the context in which they occurred. Roosevelt took office with an unemployment rate of 24 percent. For Obama the number was 7.6 percent. FDR also became the president of a desperately poor nation. It’s hard to make a precise comparison, because good economic numbers on household income go back only to 1947, but some economists who’ve looked at the question have determined that the median household income in 1933–in today’s dollars–was in the range of $15,000 to $20,000. That figure today is right around $50,000, and the poverty threshhold today for a family of four is about $22,000. In other words, not only were incomes far, far lower then, but most people were poor–if not officially, then effectively. And one in four workers had no work. That is light years away from today’s America, even post-crisis, and it made for a desperate situation in which all manner of experimentation was welcomed by a public that often literally couldn’t eat. So the Hundred Days set about changing that–but did not, at least as regards the unemployment rate, which stayed above 20 percent until 1936.
The New Deal was not a seamless narrative of aggressively liberal steps in which conservatives were sent scampering. It was full of starts and stops, and it took a long time. There were many reasons for this, but a chief one had to do with Roosevelt himself–seen by the more impatient reformers of his day as equivocal and adhering to too few core beliefs, exactly the way some see Obama today. Alan Brinkley, in Liberalism and Its Discontents, reminds us that the general historians’ view of Roosevelt, quite far removed from that presented in the sound bites and summaries employed today, was that of “a man without an ideological core and thus unable to exercise genuine leadership.” Huey Long, who sat out on FDR’s left flank, complained of this in a quote in which he invoked his ideological nemesis, the Senate majority leader from Arkansas: “When I talk to [Roosevelt], he says, ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ But Joe Robinson goes to see him the next day and he says ‘Fine! Fine! Fine!’ Maybe he says ‘Fine’ to everybody.”
To read through any number of thorough histories of the New Deal is to be struck not by the differences between Roosevelt (man of action) and Obama (pensive equivocator) but by the many consistencies in how politics actually unfolds in real time–the difficulties inherent in trying to effect change, the readiness to accept half a loaf, and the regular reassurances sent to the moneyed classes that the liberals hadn’t taken over the candy store. It’s worth noting, for example, that the second act to become law under the New Deal, after the Emergency Banking Act, which was a progressive piece of legislation, was a conservative bill, the Economy Act. It cut salaries of government employees and benefits to veterans, the latter by 15 percent. Arthur Schlesinger, in The Coming of the New Deal, writes that literally an hour after signing the banking act, Roosevelt outlined this bill to congressional leaders, saying the next day and sounding more than a little like some Robert Rubin progenitor had been whispering in his ear: “For three long years, the federal government has been on the road toward bankruptcy.” (And maybe one had: Schlesinger notes that Roosevelt’s budget director, Lewis Douglas, was certainly no Keynesian.) Just imagine Obama having tried something like that, alienating both veterans and AFSCME within a week of taking office. The Economy Act was opposed by many liberals in the House, so FDR turned to conservative Democrats and Republicans, who passed it.
Roosevelt and some advisers felt the bill was necessary to win support in Congress for other, more liberal moves. Chief among those, in the near-term, would be the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). NIRA, of course, was the linchpin of the first New Deal–passed at the end of the Hundred Days in June 1933, it was the subject of contentious Senate debate (although ultimately it did pass comfortably, with the backing of some Republicans, which remains one crucial difference between FDR’s time and ours), and it was criticized and attacked constantly by the right (same players as today: the Chamber of Commerce, the National Associations of Manufacturers) and by some on the left who thought it didn’t go far enough. NIRA did, unquestionably, dramatically help organized labor, through its famous 7(a) provision that provided for collective bargaining. But its lack of enforcement mechanisms–not unlike the lack of sanctions for insurers in the health bill–also led to vast labor unrest–strikes and walkouts adjudicated by no clear arbitrating authority; and there were aspects of the law that labor did not like, language labor had wanted that just didn’t make it into the final bill.
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