May 19, 2019

One reason liberals do so poorly

Sam Smith – One reason liberals do so poorly is they don’t learn from their own history. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is about to receive the John F Kennedy Award. Said Kennedy daughter Caroline Kennedy, of the middlin’ muddlin’ Pelosi, she is “the most important woman in American political history.”

For starters, Kennedy might have mentioned Eleanor Roosevelt. And I have long argued that the most underrated woman in American politics over the past century was Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Roosevelt.Here are a few things about liberals and Perkins:

Sam Smith, 2012 - In recent decades, liberalism has turned into a upscale social demographic rather than a political movement. As it has done so, its historic connections with the working class and labor have suffered badly. For example, Franklin Roosevelt's labor secretary, Frances Perkins, was central to more progressive economic legislation than the entire liberal movement has been able to come up with in the past thirty years. It's hard to get liberals excited anymore about issues like pensions or the minimum wage and eventually politics reflects this fact. Consider the example of the women's movement, which - with a few exceptions like the group Nine to Five - has been stunningly uninvolved with the most oppressed women in the country, those of lower incomes and social class. Further, treating those you should be organizing as just a bunch of Bible thumping, gun toting idiots doesn't help much.

Wikipedia -   Frances Perkins was an American sociologist and workers-rights advocate who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, the longest serving in that position, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. She and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet to remain in office for his entire presidency.

During her term as Secretary of Labor, Perkins executed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act. With the Social Security Act she established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard forty-hour work week. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service. Perkins dealt with many labor questions during World War II, when skilled labor was vital and women were moving into formerly male jobs.[3]

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.

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.

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 of postmodernism.

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.

Progressives, populists, Greens, socialists and others fed up with the bipartisan crisis of our politics need to make a clearly visible break with dysfunctional liberalism and define a new way of approaching our problems. Here are a few things that could help it happen:

- Put economic issues at the top of the list. If you review the historical examples above you will find an overwhelmingly concern for improving the economic life of ordinary Americans.

- If you wish to win people’s support, argue with them, encourage them, heal them, teach them but don’t insult them. Raise hell against the big guys but don’t abuse the ordinary citizen. Show them the way, not the door. Today’s liberals repeatedly castigate those they should be recruiting.

- Build communities not clubs. Liberalism used to be street theater. Now it’s a private club. You can’t build a movement with a club.

- Build new constituencies issue by issue. Many of your allies will disagree with you on other things but so what? One of the reasons that liberals are in such trouble is that they support diversity of skin color but not of thought. Besides when people come together on one issue they discover that the things that divided them aren’t as important as they thought.

- Bring back labor unions, the most positive non-governmental institution in America’s past century.

- Help small business. Neither of the two major parties do, so you can make a lot of new friends this way. And, along the way, end corporate personhood.

The liberal approach has become elitist; the alternative is populist. One draws from European history and thought; the other is rooted in American experience. One favors a centralized state and believes in the beneficence of large bureaucracies; the other is skeptical of grand institutions and keeps pulling decisions back towards the community based democracy. One seeks confrontation; the other consensus. One is polar; the other holistic. One is rational; the other spiritual.

And one is dead, and the other is still waiting to be born.

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