Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
I think I’ve figured out what’s been bothering me about President Obama. He is intelligent, articulate, maddeningly cool, calm and pragmatic and his values seem humane and liberal. But in rejecting any semblance of an ideology, he seems to have no firm set of ideas that guide his policies and to which he is committed, which may explain why he moves so easily to the center.
In sum, I am bothered because I believe he is the personification of the decline of the liberalism I grew up with and generally supported most of my life.
Obama called himself a “progressive” when he was in the Senate. But I can’t imagine him saying, now, what John F. Kennedy said, when asked to define a liberal:
“...someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people...If that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’”
If there is a difference between Obama and most of his Democratic predecessors, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson or Kennedy, all of whom were unafraid to call themselves liberals, it’s that there is no real liberal movement behind him. Indeed, Obama seems to have rejected such a movement, although I’m not sure there is much of what could be called a liberal movement left.
The word “progressive” is empty of commitment or meaning. Liberalism, after all, has a long and honorable place in the history of political thought, and it has meaning, which we are losing.
I’m not talking about the left of center blogosphere which is ephemeral, self-absorbed, splintered and politically fickle. I do not see that it has an abiding set of beliefs or loyalties or interests, beyond the blog, which lasts only as long in the universe as a twitter of text. It goes without saying that the most liberal of blogs have little to do with trade unions, which have been at the heart of the liberal agenda.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, for the tweets of Twitter and Facebook and the blogs have zilch to do with the liberalism in my lifetime.
As I’ve recounted, I came of age in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. A mostly Jewish enclave on the shores of the Atlantic. Our neighbors in nearby Coney Island were Italian. And virtually all of us came from immigrant families who knew enough about politics to have fled the old countries.
In America they joined unions or fellowships like the Workmen’s Circle and the Italian American Social Club. But the unions gave that generation and mine great political and, yes, class consciousness and strength.
The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, the rival Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the Furriers, the Cloakmakers and Hatmakers were among those, mostly Jewish-led, unions that became powerful and wealthy New York institutions that even built housing for workers.
Elsewhere in America, the Boston Irish organized the men and women who worked in the textile mills of New England; the United Mine Workers of the legendary John L. Lewis brought some semblance of sanity, dignity and safety to the mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The International Workers of the World (the Wobblies) organized with bloody struggles against company goons, the copper mines of Montana and the far west and gave us songs like Joe Hill.
In Michigan, the United Auto Workers with the Reuther brothers were born in radical sit-down strikes in which they and their families took over the factories to fight the violence from Ford’s strikebreaking thugs. Longshoremen, merchant seamen, retail store workers, waiters and newsmen were organized, despite the lack of laws, to protect their right to do so.
The politics of these workers – and most did not bother to vote – ranged across the ideological spectrum: anarchist, communist, syndicalist, socialist, incipient fascist and Democrat. But no Democrat had been elected since Woodrow Wilson; the progressive Republican era of Theodore Roosevelt had died and very few working Americans had anything in common with the then dominant Republicans of Herbert Hoover and his ultra-conservative Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, who was a social Darwinist believing, after the 1929 market crash, in the economic survival of only the fittest.
The obvious political vacuum was explored first by the unsuccessful 1928 presidential candidacy of New York’s Irish Catholic governor, Al Smith. But it was left to Smith’s vice-presidential pick and his successor in Albany, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to put together a coalition of union workers, big city ethnic groups from immigrant backgrounds who had been left out of American politics and family farmers who had lost almost everything in what came to be known as the Great Depression.
Catholics, Jews, southerners (who boycotted the party of Lincoln) and midwestern Protestants choking on the barrage of dust that buried their farms – these were among the forces that came together for the Roosevelt landslide in 1932.
Some revisionist historians claim the New Deal was an afterthought, tailored by a pragmatic president to meet the crises of the Depression. But the fact is that the Roosevelts – Franklin and Eleanor – were keenly aware of the suffering among the people who voted for them. As Roosevelt said,
“I see one-third of the nation, ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed.”
And unlike too many Democrats, before and after him, he moved not to the center but to the left. With the help of advisors, his “brain trust,” many of them from Yale and Jewish, he fashioned policies that kept faith with the people who voted for him. He was proud to fight those who didn’t.
The New Deal gave the people who voted for him jobs through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. But more important and longer lasting was the National Labor Relations Act which protected the right to organize labor unions; the Wages and Hours Law, which institutionalized the 40-hour week; the Child Labor Laws; and, as part of the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance.
The New Deal took on the Andrew Mellons and the banks, curbing runaway speculation with Glass-Steagall and the National Banking Act; the Wall Street barons with the Securities and Exchange Commission; and the commercial pirates with the Federal Trade Commission.
No small part was played by Roosevelt's talented cabinet appointees including Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and the Agriculture Secretary, Henry Wallace.
In short, the New Deal became the expression of modern American liberalism which saved capitalism from the demands of those more radical and angry socialist and communist elements of the American working classes, but moderated and transformed the excesses of the free and unfettered market.
Those, of course, are the hallmarks of social and political liberalism in an industrial society.
The Depression dragged on, with some improvement, until the great stimulus of the Second World War. But as Wikipedia notes,
“[T]he programs of the New Deal were extremely popular, as they improved the life of the common citizen by providing jobs for the unemployed, legal protection for labor unionists, modern utilities for rural America [through the great dams in the west, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Association], living wages for the working poor and price stability for the family farmer.”
Because Roosevelt remained faithful to those who brought him to the presidency, the voters stayed with him through his death in 1945, as he led the nation out of its traditional isolationism towards Europe to help his friend Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin confront the threat of fascism.
And even while fighting a two-front war against Hitler and the Japanese Empire, Roosevelt built on his New Deal with his call for Four Freedoms and the organization of the United Nations with Eleanor as it early ambassador.
Indeed, the Roosevelt-liberal coalition and the Democrats as the nation’s majority party, remained generally intact through 1968, the end of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson who had been a New Deal member of Congress. As President, Johnson renewed the liberal agenda with Medicare, Medicaid and landmark civil rights laws.
Alas, beginning with the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyist red-baiting, liberals in self-defense, joined in the anti-communism fervor, which led America into two winless wars.
But despite the elections of Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, most of the great pillars of New Deal Liberalism – the labor laws, Social Security, the SEC, the FDIC and the FTC stood the test of turbulent times.
To the country’s great shame, one of the most important elements of New Deal liberalism, the Glass-Steagall Act, was killed under a Democrat, Bill Clinton, in 1999, and the nation has not yet paid the price of turning the banking industry and Wall Street loose on the American economy. (Clinton, caving in to the demands of Newt Gingrich, also permitted the beginning of the privatization of Medicare.)
The end of Glass-Steagall, which was murdered by Clinton’s banker, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his sucessor, Lawrence Summers, was, in large part, what marked the decline of my brand of liberalism. Clinton, proud to be a centrist, had declared, “the era of big government is over.” And he hailed the end of Glass-Steagall giving a signing pen to Sanford Weill of Citigroup who gave the top job in the company to Rubin.
Thus, according to the acerbic journalist Chris Hedges, liberal government and governance of the robber barons had been replaced by the worship of Wall Street and corporatism. At the same time, as Robert Higgs wrote in a preface to Arthur Ekirch’s book, The Decline of American Liberalism,
“[L]iberalism once meant embrace of commerce and material progress, but this presumes an environment of peace and diplomacy as a means of resolving conflict...Liberals embraced militarism and dragged liberalism down with it. That dramatic shift led to the invention of this creature called conservatism.”
Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning former correspondent for The New York Times, goes further. He wrote for Truthdig on September 13,
“There are no longer any major institutions in American society, including the press, the educational system, the financial sector, labor unions, the arts, religious institutions and our dysfunctional political parties, which can be considered democratic.
“The intent, design and function of these institutions, controlled by corporate money, are to bolster the hierarchical and anti-democratic power of the corporate state. These institutions, often mouthing liberal values, abet and perpetuate mounting inequality....
“(See the latest census figures documenting that inequality; the rich are getting very rich and the poor are mostly out of work).
“The menace we face does not come from the insane wing of the Republican Party...but the institutions tasked with protecting democratic participation....Do not fear the tea party movement, the birthers, the legions of conspiracy theorists...Fear the underlying corporate power structure, which no one, from Barack Obama to the right wing nut cases...can alter.”
He quotes my old friend, Ralph Nader:
“The corporate state is the ultimate maturation of American-style fascism. They leave wide areas of personal freedom so that people confuse personal freedom with civic freedom...But they do not have the freedom to participate in the decisions about war, foreign policy, domestic health and safety issues, taxes or transportation...
“[T]he price of the corporate state is a deteriorating political economy...the question is, at what point are enough people going to have a breaking point in terms of their own economic plight..to say, enough is enough.”
“The failure of the Obama administration to use the bailout and stimulus money to build public works...has snuffed out any hope of serious economic, political reform coming from the corporate state...the rot and corruption at the top levels of our financial and political systems, coupled with the increasing deprivation felt by tens of millions of Americans are volatile tinder for a horrific right-wing backlash in the absence of a committed socialist alternative.”
Or the kind of committed, grass roots and trade union-based liberalism that has been part of the American tradition. Perhaps it lurks somewhere among the blogs. Perhaps.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Always Women