From our overstocked archives
Sam Smith, 2011 - As I was listening recently to a Bob Edwards interview
with Kirsten Downey, biographer of the New Deal labor secretary, Frances
Perkins, it struck me that the first woman ever to hold cabinet office in
American history had played a key role in getting more accomplished than the
last three decades of American liberalism combined - things like the Civilian
Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Social Security, federal
insurance for bank accounts, welfare, unemployment insurance, child labor laws,
bargaining rights for labor, restrictions on overtime, a 40 hour work week and
a minimum wage.
Perkins’ colleagues in the New Deal also brought us legal alcohol, regulation
of the stock exchanges, the Soil Conservation Service, national parks and
monuments, the Tennessee Valley Authority, rural electrification, the FHA, a
big increase in hospital beds, and the Small Business Administration.
Add to that the numerous achievements of the Great Society including bilingual
education, civil rights legislation, community action agencies, Head Start, job
Corps, the national endowments for arts and humanities, Teacher Corps, anti-poverty
programs, nutrition assistance, Medicare and Medicaid.
Next to this, post-1980 liberalism seems at best pathetic and at worst a major
betrayal of its own past. Even the otherwise crummy Nixon administration did
better – bringing us EPA, affirmative action, the Clean Air Act, the first
Earth Day, indexing Social Security for inflation, Supplemental Security
income, OSHA, and healthcare reform.
Future historians seeking to learn why America so easily surrendered its
democratic traditions and constitutional government to a rabid right will find
plenty to study in the rise of a liberal aristocracy that became increasingly
disinterested in its own historic values. Like all aristocracies, it came to
exist primarily to protect itself, had an impermeable faith in its own virtue,
and held in contempt those who did not share its values or accept its hegemony.
For many years, 20th century liberalism was saved from becoming an aristocracy
because of the dominance of constituencies such as labor, European socialists
and ethnic minorities. By the 1980s, however, these constituencies - thanks in
no small part to successful liberal policies - had advanced socially and
economically to the point that they no longer functioned as a massive reminder
of what liberalism was meant to be about.
With the end of the Great Society, Democrats began a steady retreat from
liberalism climaxing in Clinton and Obama with their systematic dismantling of
liberal programs and paradigms. As Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda
Report, put it recently, “President Obama seems positively eager to dismantle
the safety nets put in place in the thirties and strengthened by a black-led
movement in the sixties.”
Among the greatest victims of this retreat have been economic decency, social
democracy and civil liberties. It was not that the new liberal aristocrats
actually opposed them; it just didn't matter much to them. Liberalism was no
longer a matter of masses yearning to breathe free, but of boomers yearning for
an SUV and millennials for a new I-Something.
While there were still repeated expressions of faith in a declining number of
icons such as diversity, abortion, and the environment, the fact was that the
liberal elite had become far more characterized by its capacity for
self-defense than by its concern or action for others.
Most striking was the disappearing interest in those at the bottom. Liberal
city councils went after the homeless, pandered to developers, and engaged in
other forms of socio-economic cleansing. The Clinton administration attacked
welfare in a manner once limited to the Republican right; prison populations
soared without a murmur from the liberals; Democrats supported without question
a cruel and unconstitutional war on drugs; they joined the war on two centuries
of public education; and liberal media aristocrats prided themselves in faux
realpolitik and patronizing prescriptions for the masses. Obama gave freely to
the banks but hardly noticed the foreclosed.
The trend produced remarkable twists of liberal values. Members of the
Congressional Black Caucus backed the war on drugs; the leaders of NOW
repeatedly defended a sexually predatory male in the White House. And liberal
academia provided all purpose justification through the magic rationalization
Through it all, the liberal aristocracy was the dog that didn't bark. Just as
Sherlock Holmes' creature failed to warn of an intruder, so America's liberal
leadership failed repeatedly to warn of infringements of civil liberties, of
unconstitutional acts and legislation, or to rise to the defense of people
beyond its own class.
When the liberal aristocracy backed the war on drugs, happily sacrificed
national and local sovereignty to multinational corporations, yawned as the
Clintons disassembled their own former cause, and looked the other way as Obama
expanded the police state, it was clear that this atrophied elite would not
handle a real crisis.
Thought without action is the coitus interruptus of the mind, which may be why
liberals produced so few progeny. A politics so heavily grounded in
intellectual considerations as opposed to human experience, runs the constant
risk of losing its bearings. A wiser approach was espoused by Julius Nyerere
who argued that the true revolutionary acted as one of thought and thought as
one of action. Another great African activist, Nelson Mandela, credited cattle
farming rather than universities as his inspiration. Moving herds around, he
explained, had taught him how to lead from behind.
Politics involves real people and it helps to speak real people talk. Many
liberals have a tin ear for their presumed constituency. This involves more
than a choice of words; the over-refined language is clouded with abstractions
while disdaining the anecdotes and metaphors that every good preacher knows is
the easiest way to propel a message.
I sometimes think that liberalism died when, in the last few decades, its
advocates started talking about “infrastructure” instead of public works. The
language of obfuscation added to the divide between liberals and others.
Thomas Jefferson said that people "by their constitutions are naturally
divided into two parties:
“1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from
them into the hands of the higher classes.
“2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them,
cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most
wise, depository of the public interests."
There is little doubt as to which of these parties many liberals belong.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, too often those leading liberal America believe they
were born to rule. In fact, their profound self-assurance on this score helps
to explain another anomaly of liberals and leftists: the frequency with which
you will find them -- Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are names that spring to
mind -- cavorting with those whose politics should be an anathema. The reason
is simply that the blood of their entitlement is thicker than that of their
ideology. What really ties Washington together and unites it against the rest
of the country is not policy but a common understanding of the sort of person
who should be in charge.
Now the economy has fallen, our world status collapsed, our Constitution
tattered, and our civil liberties deteriorating by the day. And in the place of
a quietly incompetent alliance between conservative and liberal elites, we now
find a rabid Republicanism rising unlike anything seen before – the most
extremist mainstream party in our history.