How our misreading of history harms progressivism today.
One also cannot overstate the importance of the many political consequences of World War II. The “Great Compression” in the American wage structure, as the postwar trend toward equality is called, happened chiefly because of the war, as Salvatore and Cowie argue. Consider: The top marginal tax rate in the United States–now just 35 percent–was hiked up to 94 percent during the last two years of the war. It stayed at around that level through the 1950s–times were flush, Dwight Eisenhower embraced the New Deal, there was no reason to change–and went down to 77 percent as a result of the Kennedy-Johnson tax bill. It was still 70 percent when Reagan chopped it to 50, and then in 1987 to 38.5. Another lesson for today’s impatients: Even things that were intended as temporary at the time can quickly morph into permanence, and it can take political opponents years to undo them. And so conservatism needed 36 years to reduce those hated top marginal rates (incidentally, on the subject of “temporary” things that became permanent and have proved rather difficult to undo, consider employer-sponsored health insurance, also a wartime stopgap measure that we should dismantle but that, 55 years later, we can’t touch).
I remember that I am supposedly writing an essay against despair–against ennui and drift, and against the idea that progressives should be unhappy or irritated with the current state of affairs. So the fair question arises: How does this arid interpretation of progressive history accommodate a posture of optimism in the present day?
The image of Barack Hussein Obama speaking to America from his stage in Grant Park that night in November 2008 as president-elect was, for liberals, one of the most staggering images we’ve ever seen. One felt–many millions of us felt–almost invincible in a way; finally justified in our beleaguered beliefs, after so many years of despondency and rage; aware in fresh and unprecedented ways of our collective power, like mortals transformed into superheroes in the movies, realizing for the first time that they could fly or crush stone. It seems likely that American liberals will never again for the foreseeable future feel quite like we did that night. All things seemed possible.
And yet, it almost goes without saying, all things weren’t possible, because all things never are. American liberalism has, for the last year and a half, been living through a painful period of coming to terms with this reality. It’s a traumatic process: First, one has to admit to oneself that one was wrong, which can be hard enough; but even harder than that is accepting those feelings of invincibility and redemption were misplaced. That–the idea that the power and euphoria were somehow counterfeit–is difficult to acknowledge.
It has meant accepting three difficulties. First, the limits of our power. Michael Walzer had it right in our last issue [“Missing the Movement,” Democracy, #16]: In the 1930s and 1960s, “there was a vibrant left politics, a movement politics…which doesn’t exist today.” This is true and will likely remain true. Labor, for example, will never again come close to claiming the allegiance of one-third of the private-sector workforce, as it did in the 1950s; even to hit 12 percent (the figure is now around 7 percent) in the foreseeable future would require a nearly inconceivable concatenation of harmonious developments. The netroots are invigorating and important, but they aren’t a mass movement in the way the old broad-based constituencies were. Wealthy liberals have been contributing to building an infrastructure in a more focused way in recent years, but as noted, conservatives are decades ahead and spend many millions more.
Second, it has also meant coming to terms with the nature of our political system. About the House of Representatives, we’re forced to say that, monumental though Nancy Pelosi’s effort was to secure the 216 votes for healthcare reform, the Blue Dog faction has more power than the liberal faction and probably always will because the moderates hold a stronger trump card–it’s only in their districts that the Democrats can ever expand their majority as we saw in 2006 and 2008. The Senate, far from playing the role it did in LBJ’s day, is back to its usual historic function of being the main chokepoint for progressive change. The Republicans will likely keep trying to block almost everything. They have the votes to do it and after this November’s elections will probably have more.
And third, we have faced the limitations of Obama himself, and of the Democratic Party. This isn’t the place to rehearse the full litany of intra-liberal arguments about what particular things Obama has done or not done. He has both accomplished a great deal and failed to accomplish important things. But he did founder as a leader for much of his first year. It is unreasonable to expect him to be an FDR or an LBJ, given the far more favorable political waters those two navigated. But it is the case that both assumed the mantle of leadership in a way Obama did not until the eleventh hour of the healthcare debate. He hasn’t always communicated his goals clearly–on health care or the economy or detention or foreign policy–because, it has sometimes seemed, his goals and bottom-line motivations weren’t clear in his own mind; or if they were, he felt he couldn’t quite come out and state them. He and his team seem to be running far more of a top-down kind of administration than one would have expected from the people who ran such an impressive bottom-up campaign. He hasn’t galvanized or, often enough, shown he can lead a broad movement. And, at certain crucial points–notably over the public-option question–he allowed the liberal base to feel ignored and condescended to, and even if a president can’t and won’t fulfill all the goals the base has in mind, he cannot do that. We can only hope these first 18 months have been clarifying for him, and that he’s learned something.
But we have to take a longer view than that, too. I present the history I have here to suggest that progressive change is hard in the United States: It doesn’t happen quickly, it always faces intense opposition, it is in no sense inevitable, and it is eternally–even under Johnson, who rejected going for universal health care as too risky, and who once glared silently and balefully at his labor secretary, Willard Wirtz, when Wirtz suggested to him a government-run, New Deal-style employment program–compromised, never quite enough for the activists of the time.
I say that a perhaps paradoxical comfort can be taken in these facts. If we insist on thinking of Obama–and in our personality-driven political culture, it’s so hard not to do this–as liberalism’s redeemer, he will always disappoint, as redeemers usually do. But if we think of him as one piece on a vexing historical chess board in a match that will take years to play out, we can exhale, and see the true shape of the tasks ahead of us. I don’t mean to say here that people should just be quiet. Quite the opposite: Progressive pressure is a better guarantor of progressive governance than hoping that governors will follow their most compassionate instincts. And liberals shouldn’t declare themselves entirely satisfied with an outcome unless they actually are (something that probably won’t happen too often). But I do very much mean to say that liberals should avoid the seductive temptation of wallowing in disappointment, and letting that turn into fury and then resignation–branding decisions one disagrees with as “betrayals” and “sell-outs,” retiring inward, pushing away from civic life. Those responses only help conservatism, which has quite enough power as it is.
The use or misuse of history as a blunt weapon is a trope that guarantees despair. If this Administration’s moments are always to be compared with liberalism’s greatest hits, it will never measure up, and the effect will be to signal to rank-and-file progressives that their values are constantly being sold short (I notice no one compares Obama outright with the segregationist-coddling FDR or the Vietnam-bombing LBJ, comparisons from which he would emerge favorably). But this is about something more important and lasting than any single president. We are in a pitched ideological battle that seems virtually certain to continue for many years. In that battle, despair will produce only defeat.
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