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.
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.
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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