How our misreading of history harms progressivism today.
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.
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