Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Progressives Can't Make you Act, Mr. President

Franklin Roosevelt’s injunction to progressives in 1933: “Now Make Me!” has never been so oft cited. It worked, but that was then.

'Then’ was before McCarthy, the atom bomb, ‘containment’ transformed into an arms’ race; before the Civil Rights Movement and Roe vs. Wade. Before Richard Viguerie, Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. Before senators and commentators had so often repeated the words “A strict interpretation of the Constitution”, or  “a strict Constitutionalist”, that people with limited schooling began to take those words literally.

With all the things the progressive movement made Roosevelt do for the working class (social security tops the list), you chose to follow him in a direction that helped eliminate that movement for the next sixty years: in the 1930s, the famed muckraking writer Upton Sinclair decided to put his money where his mouth was and run for governor of California. He won the primary, but according to Greg Mitchell writing recently in The Nation,  FDR withheld his endorsement because, "he believed the greatest challengefor the head of a democracy was not to fend off reactionaries but to reconcile and unite progressives.”

Similarly, your priority was to cajole cooperation from a Republican Party determined, for its part, to see that you are a one-term president.  Obsessed with this goal, Republicans allowed themselves to be co-opted by a movement that takes 'strict constitutionalism" literally, naively believing the country could be run according to a document written two hundred years ago, for a different world.

In Roosevelt’s day, the progressive movement provided a vibrant foil to the designs of the country’s reactionaries. After Roosevelt dared to recognize the USSR as it tried to ‘build socialism’, fear that similar remedies would be applied to the dire situation of the American economy convinced most Americans that socialism was a dirty word, like death and taxes.

And yet, since Roosevelt’s death at the end of the Second World War, the countries that have consistently been among the top performers in health, education and general quality of life, are those that have combined entrepreneurship with government-administered education and welfare. We see French workers take to the streets when they do not agree with their government.  But few Americans know that top administrative ranks are filled by graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, as elite a school as you will find anywhere, founded by Napoleon.

By now many Americans realize that the country's options are painfully limited without the rehabilitation of government-led regulation and solidarity.  Yet since the days of the  Pilgrims they have clung to the absurd belief that government is our greatest enemy - a necessary evil.  By worshipping an eighteenth century revolt against tyranny, reformers have cut themselves off from twenty-first century solutions to the problem of equity.

The war Roosevelt took us into, craftily, some say, but necessarily, was the opening salvo of a confrontation between two philosophies of governance: corporate fascism and a no less tyrannical communism. Distracted by the extremes, Americans have never been allowed to understand that the struggle is not between government and citizens, but between the few and the many.  As a result, the most powerful country on earth has been deprived of solidarity, not from a lack of means, but from a collective failure of nerve on the part of opinion-makers. Even the most outspoken broadcasters, whether mainstream such as MSNBC or ikons of the alternative media such as Amy Goodman, have not allowed themselves to use the ‘s’ word. The entire progressive community has painted itself into a corner, whence it tries (unsuccessfully) to foil attacks by crying out: “Of course we’re not talking about socialism!”

Their pusillanimity has been as decisive to the rise of the Tea Party as Sarah Palin.  And by commandeering both the word socialism and the word fascism, the Tea Party has killed two birds with one stone: the progressive movement is barred from defending civilized govern- ment, and simultaneouly, from warning Americans that a right-wing revolution could become reality.  Whatever the outome of this election, in an eerie echo of the nineteen-thirties, the brutal few are poised to take over.

Mr President, it’s time for you to explain the eternal struggle between the few and the many to Americans, and liberate progressives so they can make you do what they made Roosevelt do: choose the civilized many over the brutal few.

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