Monday, June 21, 2010

"Maybe he says 'fine' to everybody"

Michael Tomarsky writes in Democracy that liberals, progressives...whatever...are predisposed to an often ugly combination of defeatism and political cannibalism that constantly sets back attaining the very goals they demand. It's a result, Tomarsky writes, of a political culture that elevates every misstep as a catastrophe to the progressive cause. Every word out of Rahm's mouth is evidence of his treachery and the Obama administration's failure to bend all 59 Democratic Senators as a failure of will, not political reality.

But it's also a result, Tomarsky goes on to say, of a misreading by progressives of progressive political history. We tend to view the great achievements of the 20th century -- the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society -- as snapshots, blissfully unaware of the painful political process, the half-measures, the compromises, the back-tracking, the sell outs, that went into finally achieving those great moments.

So Tomarsky is set on helping us see the full picture of history.

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."

Tomarsky also reminds us that 13 of the 30 Republicans in the Senate voted for Medicare. Imagine what that would do for Obama's agenda if he could rely on even a handful of Republicans to support the reform of what is a very broken health care system.

Tomarsky's point is that if you were a "baby boomer," born between 1945 and 1965, you were raised to believe that modern American history was a progressive one. A chain of one progressive victory after another. Then there was Carter's loss to Reagan. An aberration, many raised to revere the New Deal and the Great Society thought. But that flies in the fact of the larger historical picture in which the late 1930s-1980 were really the anomaly. The "interregnum between the Golden Ages," as Salvatore and Cowie quote Paul Krugman. We have been in the midst of an era of a sharply more conservative, more individualistic reading of the Constitution.

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.

Harder, but Tomarsky's article is titled "Against Despair." We can't let the historical obstacles progressives have always faced, or the new powerful media conservatives now control, force us to give up. We can't let unfair historical comparisons to FDR and LBJ make the current administration's real accomplishments be sold short. And we certainly can't let some people's disappointment that Obama hasn't brought the banksters to their knees, put the health insurance companies out of business, or told Joe Lieberman to go fuck himself, stop us from being engaged in this messy process called "progress." Something was started in 2006 that became glorious one night in Grant Park in 2008. We need a basis in reality combined with an intensity of purpose. Remember, he other side has none of the former but an abundance of the latter (just yesterday I saw an Audi -- an Audi! -- with an "I miss Ron" bumper sticker).

If we wallow in disappointment or let that disappointment morph into rage we only give concervatism more power than it already has.

Anyway, I've lifted liberally from the article (pun intended, of course), but the whole thing is essential reading, especially during what the Times' foremost Concern Troll calls, Liberals' Summer of Discontent.

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