And Now for Something Completely Different

This is Rick Perry’s genuinely disgusting ad that he hopes will win him back the bigot social conservative vote in Iowa.

If you don’t want to watch it, here is the transcript:

“I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”

Here is a response:

Was it really faith that made America strong? Or attitude?

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Remembering Our History

Yesterday I was cleaning out a closet and stumbled on the May 2006 issue of The American Prospect. And there’s an article in it called “Party in Search of a Notion” by Michael Tomasky that I don’t remember reading, but now I wish I could afford to have copies made and hand them out to all progressive and liberal activists in the U.S., including OWSers, with certain parts highlighted for special attention.

First, here is the basic argument Tomasky makes —

For many years — during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society — the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today’s. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea — the philosophical principle — that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

Tomasky has quite a lot of text supporting this argument, the important point being that for a long time most citizens, meaning more specifically most white middle-class citizens, accepted this basic premise — that good government requires citizens to contribute to something — their nation; the commonweal; whatever — larger than themselves.

That was the glue that tied the Democrats together as a party and won the support of the public for progressive legislation, through the New Deal to the Great Society. But when that ideal was lost, the Dems were reduced to “their grab bag of small-bore proposals that so often seek not to offend and that accept conservative terms of debate.”

And here is the little bit of history that I think most of you know, but I want all of today’s progressives to understand (emphases added):

The old liberalism got America out of depression, won the war against fascism, built the middle class, created global alliances, and made education and health care far closer to universal than they had ever been. But there were things it did not do; its conception of the common good was narrow — completely unacceptable, in fact, to us today. Japanese Americans during World War II and African Americans pretty much ever were not part of that common good; women were only partially included. Because of lack of leadership and political expediency (Roosevelt needing the South, for example), this liberalism had betrayed liberal principle and failed millions of Americans. Something had to give.

At first, some Democrats — Johnson and Humphrey, for example, and even some Republicans back then — tried to expand the American community to include those who had been left behind. But the political process takes time, and compromise; young people and black people and poor people were impatient, and who could blame them? By 1965, ’66, ’67, the old liberalism’s failures, both domestically and in Vietnam, were so apparent as to be crushing. A new generation exposed this “common good” as nothing more than a lie to keep power functioning, so as not to disturb the “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” that Herbert Marcuse described in 1964 in one of the more memorable phrases of the day. Activists at the time were convinced — and they were not particularly wrong — that the old liberalism, far from nurturing a civic sphere in which all could deliberate and whose bounty all could enjoy, had created this unfreedom. The only response was to shatter it.

That was the work, of course, of New Left groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the (post-1965) Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and a host of others. Other activists opposed the shattering — to the contrary, their goal was to make the Democratic Party more inclusive. But even this more salutary impulse could be excessive, as with the famous example of the Cook County delegation to the 1972 Democratic Convention, in which, of the 59 delegates, only three were Poles. Many in the Democratic Party of that era opposed these attempts at inclusion and new social-justice efforts vehemently. But in time, the party rid itself of those elements, and some of the ’60s activists became Democratic operatives and even politicians. The stance of radical oppositionism dissipated as the ’60s flamed out; but the belief system, which devalued the idea of the commons, held fast and became institutionalized within the Democratic Party. The impact on the party was that the liberal impulse that privileged social justice and expansion of rights was now, for the first time, separated entirely from the civic-republican impulse of the common good. By the 1970s, some social programs — busing being the most obvious example — were pursued not because they would be good for every American, but because they would expand the rights of some Americans. The old Johnsonian formulation was gone. Liberalism, and the Democratic Party, lost the language of advancing the notion that a citizen’s own interest, even if that citizen did not directly benefit from such-and-such a program, was bound up in the common interest. Democrats were now asking many people to sacrifice for a greater good of which they were not always a part.

Toss in inflation, galloping under a new Democratic president; a public, especially a white urban public, tiring of liberal failures on the matters of crime and decline; the emergence of these new things, social issues, which hadn’t been very central to politics before but became a permanent fixture of the landscape now; the Iranian hostage crisis; and the funding on a huge scale, unprecedented in our history, of a conservative intellectual class and polemical apparatus. Toss in also the rise of interest-group pluralism: the proliferation of single-issue advocacy organizations. All supported good causes, but their dominance intensified the stratification. They presented Democrats with questionnaires to fill out, endorsements to battle for, sentences to be inserted into speeches, and favors to be promised — and not just at election time; but even more importantly, when it came time to govern.

In short, the ideal of the common good was sacrificed for a worthwhile reason — the New Deal status quo excluded racial minorities and women. But it was replaced by the perception that various interest groups had to fight each other for a slice of a finite pie. And as Tomasky goes on to explain, this perception became the horse Reagan rode in on.

But, to a large extent, it was liberal activists of the 1960s and 1970s who bred and raised that horse.

Why do I think this is important? First, as much as OWS seems to want to emulate the old New Left (and they are doing that, even though some may deny it) it would be really good if they could understand what the New Left got wrong, so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes.

Second, in our continuing argument about why the Democratic Party is so lame, I cannot emphasize enough the role that 1960s and 1970s liberal activists played in shattering the old New Deal coalition, after which most of them walked away from party politics and left the Dems a party with little in the way of a base. The Dems were thus left to go to this interest group and that, hat in hand, for money and support. And often they were lining up for the second biggest check, after the one Republicans got. So if you want to know why the two parties seem to always pull in the same direction, this is why.

Third, it became gospel among Democrats that they had to continue to disown the old liberalism, especially in presidential politics, because the presidential candidates who had the nerve to be unabashedly liberal — Fritz Mondale comes to mind — or who could be painted as such — Michael Dukakis — were defeated by landslides. The only Democratic candidates who won between Johnson and Obama were Carter and Clinton, and these guys both did plenty of compromising and appeasing to conservatism and in many ways were more like pre-Goldwater Republicans than New Deal Democrats.

Today’s young progressive activists often evoke the memory of FDR and seem to want to go back to New Deal-type governance, and I’m fine with that. But there are certain realities that have to be addressed.

One, it took us many years to get into this mess. It will take us at least a few years to get out of it. Those who throw up their hands ad quit after just one election didn’t change much are fools.

Second, like it or not, if you want to change government, you either do it through established political processes or you stage a revolution. The problem with revolutions — beside being messy and violent — is that when you break up the old system you introduce chaos, and there are no guarantees you will maintain control of what emerges from that chaos. And I’m saying, we don’t need to re-invent the wheel here.

However, working through established political processes means getting involved in elections. It also means getting involved in party politics. If you want the Democratic Party to be more like the party of FDR (albeit with more diversity and equal rights for everyone), then get involved in the Democratic Party and work to make it the party you want it to be.

Because, I’m telling you, perpetually keeping aloof from the party while bitching and moaning and voting for Ralph Nader or some other political outsider to “send a message” — which I’ve seen progressives do for the past forty bleeping yearsain’t workin’.

Regarding President Obama — in many ways Obama actually does lean in a more progressive direction than either of his two Democratic predecessors, if you look at the three presidents honestly and knowledgeably. Even so, until there is a solid progressive majority in Congress, even FDR himself couldn’t have accomplished much more than Obama has accomplished. And that’s not an excuse; that’s reality.

I keep referring to this chart I found on Nate Silver’s old site; might as well publish it here —

When you appreciate that a chunk of Obama’s Democrats are Blue Dogs who vote with Republicans, and that the picture is even worse after the 2010 midterms, you ought to be able to see that comparisons to FDR are not entirely fair. This isn’t to say that Obama hasn’t deserved criticism, but frankly, I don’t see any other nationally recognizable Dem who might have won in 2008 who would have done any better with this Congress — including Hillary Clinton.

Finally, I agree with Tomasky that re-valuing the common good is the most essential thing those of us who call ourselves liberals or progressives can be doing now. Elizabeth Warren is particularly good at expressing herself in the context of a common good and is a great role model for doing this.

And what we need to stop doing is re-playing the old New Left tapes.

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