How our misreading of history harms progressivism today.
Among those measures: a cap on the work week and a wage increase. Sidney Hillman and other leaders were impatient for Roosevelt to impose one. It wasn’t until August 1934 that FDR did so, and even then, the figures he announced–a 36-hour work week and a 10 percent hike–were compromise numbers, and the order applied only to the cotton garment industry. When in September of that year, after months of tension, Roosevelt finally sacked National Recovery Administration leader Hugh Johnson (another anti-Keynesian whom Roosevelt put in a position of vast power), he replaced Johnson not with a liberal tiger, but with a board–a board that included Hillman but was chaired by the head of Reynolds Tobacco, Clay Williams, and had if anything a slightly center-right overall cast, according to Steven Fraser in Labor Will Rule, his majestic Hillman biography.
The NIRA, as we know, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935, and FDR, along with Harold Ickes and Rexford Tugwell and Adolf Berle and the rest of the Brains Trusters, went back to the drawing board. “The fantasies of state capitalism,” wrote Fraser, “…disintegrated in an acid bath of acrimonious self-interest, administrative ineptitude, and political vacillation.” Think about that: The centerpiece legislation of the new era was a mixed bag that was ruled unconstitutional in the President’s third year in office, with unemployment still around 20 percent. It was only with the “Second New Deal” in 1935-36 that the administration truly found its footing–and even then, FDR changed course in 1937 when his more centrist instincts reasserted themselves and he sought to balance the budget too quickly, sending unemployment back upwards.
These paragraphs are obviously a sketch of history, meant neither to denigrate Roosevelt, nor to represent the full sum and substance of what the New Deal was. The New Deal is a great success story. I mean merely to convey that modern liberalism was hardly consummated or made whole in FDR’s first two years–indeed, insofar as Social Security in the form we know it today needed 20 years to take shape (for example, agricultural workers, employees of nonprofits, and the self-employed weren’t added to the system until 1954), the New Deal is best seen as the start of a process that unfolded over two or three generations and three presidential administrations. Roosevelt enjoyed massive majorities in Congress (44 Senate seats and 219 House seats–yes, those were the Democratic margins!–in 1933-34), and he made his indefensible deals with the Dixiecrats, which would be unthinkable today and which to some extent tarnish many of his accomplishments. But even then, with all that in his favor, real change came slowly. And by the way: the famous speech in which FDR welcomed the hatred of the “economic royalists”? It wasn’t delivered during the Hundred Days, or his first year in office, or his second. He delivered it in October 1936–in the heat of the reelection campaign, to gin up his base. It wasn’t issued in behalf of legislation, nor did it produce any.
The Great Society, the second club, was different. It was indeed “the perfect storm” of liberalism, to borrow the phrase of G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot in their book, The Liberal Hour. But even here, the hurricane of activity in 1964-65 needed years to gather strength. One could argue that the seeds of the Great Society were planted in the Senate election of 1958, a landmark event, as described by Michael Foley in his The New Senate. That election brought several outright liberals–Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie, Philip Hart, Thomas Dodd, Ernest Gruening, and others–to the conservative Senate. It and the next two–the 1962 class, of course, included Ted Kennedy–shifted the balance of power in that body dramatically (remember also that there were liberal Republicans in those days). Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, another seed was planted in 1961, under John F. Kennedy, when a vote was forced in the House of Representatives to expand the Rules Committee. Rules was under the chairmanship of Virginia’s Howard Smith, a remorseless segregationist who never would have let civil rights legislation reach the floor of the House, except for this vote, forced upon by him Kennedy and Johnson and a somewhat reluctant Sam Rayburn, which put more liberals on his committee (and it might not have happened at all–it was an extremely close call, with a final tally of 217 for, 212 against).
And so the legislative blitzkrieg that looks to us today, if we accept conventional wisdom, like something for which the famous Johnson Treatment was solely responsible was in fact the result of many factors over several years, and much chip, chip, chipping away. Thus, Mackenzie and Weisbrot:
But in the years that began near the midpoint of John Kennedy’s presidency, [liberal] elements began to gather. They would come together with a force and furor no one could have predicted. They would yield a public policy accumulation that challenged all precedent…
In this sense, it’s not unreasonable to view Johnson’s first full year as President as the fourth year of the New Frontier. Johnson himself made the link with Kennedy explicit–five days after Kennedy’s assassination, he told the American people quite plainly that he was merely completing the mission begun by JFK:
The dream of education for all our children; the dream of jobs for all who seek them and need them; the dream of care for our elderly; the dream of an all-out attack on mental illness; and above all, the dream of equal rights for all Americans, whatever their race or color–these and other American dreams have been vitalized by his drive and by his dedication. And now the ideas and the ideals which he so nobly represented must and will be translated into effective action.
Even then, with all that lofty rhetoric, the War on Poverty had many critics who regarded it as piecemeal. Pat Moynihan observed later that it was “oversold and underfinanced to the point that its failure was almost a matter of design” (he exaggerated in that it was not a failure, but point taken). And, even then, with all that lofty rhetoric, what was the first piece of Kennedy-legacy business that LBJ placed before the Congress? A tax cut! The Revenue Act of 1964 stands as the third-largest tax cut in postwar history, after Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s. This hardly made Kennedy or Johnson a supply-sider, but again: The tax cut came first, before everything else.
Worth remembering also about the early 1960s are three crucial points. First, the economy was roaring: GDP rose by nearly 6 percent in 1964, disposable income by 7 percent. Urban and rural poverty notwithstanding, many millions of Americans were simply free of any meaningful economic anxiety, and on the far horizon was nothing but sunshine. Second, more Americans were willing to identify themselves as liberal then, and far fewer as conservative: Gallup’s 2010 numbers show 42 percent of Americans call themselves conservative and just 19 percent liberal; in October 1964, though the categories were slightly different (“very” and “moderately” were attached to the labels), those numbers were 28 percent and 26 percent respectively–imagine what a different environment that made for. And third, many Republicans voted with the Democrats, even more than in FDR’s day. The crucial 67th vote for civil rights in the Senate, the one to break cloture? John J. Williams, Republican of Delaware. On Medicare in 1965, 13 of 30 Senate Republicans voted for it, as did 68 of 138 House Republicans. If we had a Republican Party even remotely like that today, nearly every item on the Obama agenda would have passed already, in some form.
So the Great Society was not wholly a thing willed into being by LBJ. It was a circumstance that resulted from a series of social and political changes that sent a new breed of man (and man only, in those days) to Washington, creating a moment in American political history like none before it or since, at a time when, the opposition to civil rights in the South aside, a broad national consensus existed that government should be in the business of helping people (and by the way, divisive cultural politics barely existed: Neither JFK’s nor LBJ’s party was ever called upon to lay out a position on abortion). To compare unfavorably our time to that one is, unless one installs appropriate caveats, pointless; like complaining about cabbage because it doesn’t taste like ice cream. But our present-day misperceptions of history don’t end even there.
I was born three weeks before Kennedy was elected. To pick two other progressives in positions of somewhat greater prominence, Rahm Emanuel was born a few months before me, and Barack Obama, a few months after. People my age now run things; whatever liberalism exists today is in no small part a creation of my generation’s experience and imagination.
We grew up with a set of assumptions. If you were born in the United States between, say, 1945 and 1965, you were raised in a basically liberal political culture when liberalism was the default position. You studied the New Deal, or were instructed in it by your parents and grandparents, as I was (neither of my grandmothers could even say “Hoover” without spitting the name out like a mouthful of turpentine), and you thought: This is how it is. This is America. We were once a conservative country. But that was then. We’ve put it away. Progress–progressive progress, if you don’t mind the redundancy–was inevitable.
When Reagan came, you thought: aberration. Maybe we did go a bit overboard here and there, and, let’s face it, Jimmy Carter was not an effective president. So this is a corrective. Temporary. Things will sort themselves out. That was how it looked in August 1988, when Michael Dukakis was 17 points ahead of George H.W. Bush, and when many hoped that President Dukakis’s tenure would be followed by President Cuomo’s. In the America in which we were raised, that was how things would have gone and were fated to go.
Thirty years later–actually, about 27 years later, or three or so years ago–I started to ask myself: What if all these presumptions I grew up with were wrong? What if Reagan wasn’t an aberration? What if Roosevelt and Johnson were the aberrations? True, we had Bill Clinton in the meantime. Poor Clinton never plays a central role in these narratives, and I think today we’re gaining enough historical distance that he is starting to deserve better: His presidency may not have constituted a golden age of progressivism in the way selected Roosevelt and Johnson years did, which remains the reason we focus more on those two, but it was certainly a comparative golden age for the country. Still, as we know, the right marched onward during the Clinton years. And then of course came Bush. The idea we young people of the 1980s once entertained–the idea that the Age of Reagan was somehow false, anomalous, a torn page in an otherwise seamless development of plot–had now to be reexamined, in light of the speed with which Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove undid so many (thankfully not all) of the ideas and policies we had been raised to believe were inviolate.
The historians Nick Salvatore and Jefferson Cowie of Cornell University published a brilliant paper in 2008 in the journal International Labor and Working-Class History called “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History.” In their Abstract, they write:
The New Deal was more of an historical aberration–a byproduct of the massive crisis of the Great Depression–than the linear triumph of the welfare state. The depth of the Depression undoubtedly forced the realignment of American politics and class relations for decades, but, it is argued, there is more continuity in American politics between the periods before the New Deal order and those after its decline than there is between the postwar era and the rest of American history. Indeed, by the early seventies the arc of American history had fallen back upon itself. While liberals of the seventies and eighties waited for a return to what they regarded as the normality of the New Deal order, they were actually living in the final days of what Paul Krugman later called the “interregnum between Gilded Ages.”
Salvatore and Cowie argue that on three crucial fronts–labor, race, and religion–the New Deal and the Great Society both represented abnormal (and extremely fleeting) moments of commonality in an arc of American history that otherwise bent strongly away from any notion of a common good and toward the primacy of the individual. Of the Reagan era, they wrote that “it might be more accurate to think of the ‘Reagan revolution’ as the ‘Reagan restoration,’ a return to a more sharply conservative, individualistic reading of constitutional rights and liberties prevalent before the New Deal.”
Today, as we watch Obama struggle against a unified Republican opposition; as we contemplate a Supreme Court rendering decisions like the one in Citizens United v. FEC; as we witness the rise of the Tea Party movement; as we bear in mind that the financiers of the conservative movement spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on political advocacy of many sorts, several times more than George Soros and his ideological confederates spend on direct political activity; we see that we inhabit a political culture very far removed from those of the 1930s and 1960s. The misery prevalent during the former era allowed for vast experimentation. The prosperity of the latter, and a faith in government that still existed then, provided a basis for collective action. And our time? Think of this: We’ve experienced the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and the only mass movement to emerge from that reality is a right-wing populist one. Progressives must believe in and work toward a politics of the common good, but we must also be clear about why that is harder today than it once was.
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