During the Great Depression, America was a different nation. We were drawn togther as a people, even or especially in extreme hardship. Class was a salient term, one to build on, not an object of ridicule subject to obfuscation. We accepted responsibility for one another, solidified in a view of social obligation centered on government as the people’s instrument for achieving the public interest. We were not stampeded and frightened away, either by a cultural atmosphere of heightened individualism or organized campaigns by corporations and right-wing ideologues for privatization and trickle-down economics. The refrain, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”, in the early days of gathering conviction and will, emphasized the first word–brother. Had I been of age (I was born in 1933–and did not think of myself as a radical until 14-15, with the Cold War and the campaign of Henry Wallace in ’48), I would have been proud to be an American during the New Deal, where public values, public institutions, and public works as the means for job creation and to address underconsumption came to the foreground.
Leadership matters. Through his speeches, his fireside chats, his example in fighting polio (he would never again walk unaided, heavy braces, leaning on his son’s arm, giving the illusion of walking), his warmth, unflappable demeanor, and, yes, charm, Franklin Roosevelt established a bond with his supporters which mutually strengthened both. A positive dialectic: the interplay of political nourishment, strengthening resolve for each leading the other forward, so that FDR–a conservative at heart, but conservative in ways not understood today–could venture far afield from conventional economics and, partly in response, partly nudging him still further, his supporters, a large majority of the American people, could and did lift their own horizons, did indeed perhaps for the first time in American history grasp the full meaning, without apology, of entitlement as a basic human right.
This dialectic, or interplay, fortifying the conviction, dignity, and resolve of both, was based on the foundation of societal reconstruction: tangible achievement in what today we call infrastructure, but even more, in the realm of the human spirit, not as an ethereal concept, because food on the table also mattered. To be sure, the outer limits of the New Deal remained capitalistic (i.e., to save capitalism), and there should be no illusion about NRA (National Recovery Administration), which, under Hugh Johnson, promoted the concentration of industry. Nonetheless, the other side of the ledger, much of which was quasi-socialist in nature, or when not, still affirming the primacy of human over property rights, was a veritable alphabet soup of ingenuity and creativity (pragmatism, not as later usage would have it, to forestall basic change, but to uncover further needs and solutions).
WPA, PWA, CCC, these three alone suffice to constitute a silent revolution when measured against three centuries of American political culture. Even poets’ workshops, leaf-raking, federal theater projects, bring tears to my eyes because of the nourishment they gave to those who participated and those whom they reached. America was affirming itself and its people. Odets: “Awake and Sing.” There was of course more: the Wagner Act, Social Security, banking and securities legislation, the fundamentals of a social capitalism only partially realized and perhaps an oxymoron in the world to follow. This was not Roosevelt’s doing alone, as though creating a new society from whole cloth, but depended as much if not more on a people responding to the opportunity he provided for self-organization (as in the Wagner Act) and pressuring him leftward because they were mobilizing for concerted action after decades of repression or indifference. FDR removed the cobwebs; the dialectic was consummated in the people’s own assertion of rights for a decent competence, presented to receptive ears. When the “economic royalists” of the period made known their hatred of him, he responded, “..and I welcome their hate.”
Long ago (actually not) and far away, as measured in the steadily rightward shift of America itself, a chief casualty of this development has been the Democratic party, which at each step became an accomplice in what I might term the fascisization of the society at large, including the body politic. America is not fascist…yet, but as both a structural and a social process the trend line seems to me clear. Fascism does not require the concentration camp, persecution, torture–although their threat and potential remain present always, ready to be invoked and remaining discretely under the surface. Rather, fascism can be apprehended through a number of indices: e.g., extreme wealth concentration; the partnership of business and government, itself to promote monopoly capital, prevent union organization and labor militancy, and create a strong State predicated on military power and trade supremacy; and a compliant (and complacent) populace which is deferential to power and wealth, tied in ideological knots through false consciousness, and intellectually broken down through media, propaganda, and signals from above.
Enter, therefore, the Obama administration, a mirror image of FDR and the New Deal in reverse. We expect reactionary ideology and politics from Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, but surely not the Democrats, first Clinton, and now, more spectacularly, Obama. Clinton does not concern me here; he is probably the most overrated Democrat ever. He has repositioned the American economy–more systematically than his Republican predecessors–on the axis of deregulation, so thoroughly as to cripple any possibility of effective regulation of business and banking in the public interest and, with destroying Glass-Steagall, to pave the way for the financial debacle of 2007. Clinton gave market fundamentalism a folksy vibe, while the administration, from Robert Rubin down, provided corporate America a bountiful feast and shifted the direction of the economic system to finance, widening its reach, at manufacturing’s expense, to international channels and in the concoction of exotic, highly profitable, investment vehicles. Here the dialectic between leader and followers turns decidedly negative. With each movement and maneuver away from the people, the people applauded more; Clinton basked in their adulation, nerving him to still greater efforts on behalf of the business community, from trade pacts to personal tributes.
One cannot understand Obama without Clinton–as, not merely background, but a straight line projection, in which Obama took over much of the Clinton team and all of the free-market ideology focused specifically as the starting point on deregulation. This was not known to Obama’s base, his fervent supporters in the 2008 campaign (for whom I was one–one who participated in the civil-rights struggle in the late 50s and through the 60s, now elated at the election of a black president who talked the language of social justice). I was from practically Day One quickly disabused–with the appointment of Geithner and Summers. As the rhetoric soared, the policies plummeted. Few saw this happening as it occurred, and his base remains in a state of profound denial, giving false consciousness an exponential boost that neither Marx nor Marcuse could perhaps imagine. The Nobel Prize for Peace for waging war. The New START treaty on nuclear weapons reduction for actually ordering a new round of weapons development under the euphemism of modernization. A constitutional law teaching position, for perhaps the greatest setback to civil liberties since the Palmer Raids: the list is long, such as surveillance, made possible through advanced technology, as in the National Security Administration usage; reliance on the state-secrets doctrine to hide potential war crimes and place government completely out of reach as the National Security State; denial of the right of habeas corpus to detainees, and relatedly, the despicable doctrine of indefinite detention; employment of the Espionage Act against whistleblowers, thereby stifling dissent and criticism where and when they are most needed; and, under civil liberties, I would insist on including the drone attacks, in which the targets for assassination (personally authorized by Obama) are hardly given the right of counsel, a fair trial, or even proper identification. How his base can condone the drone, making them complicit in its hideous use, speaks volumes about the moral bankruptcy of modern liberalism.
Cornel West is wrong, I think. Obama is not the “black mascot of Wall Street,” but something far worse–not a symbolic figure to bring the Street good luck, but a heart-and-soul activist, or what we once called “a true believer,” who consciously tailors policies to the interests of upper economic groups–frequently through omission, the absence of genuine banking regulation, as well as commission, as in favoritism to the oil companies, nuclear power industry, defense contractors (already an unmistakable record of assistance to key sectors sufficient to validate capitalism as so top heavy that the tipping point to fascism is within reach or has been reached). This active strengthening of capitalism has its clear military and international-economic components. We are verily a Garrison State. Obama’s foreign policy would make another National Security Democrat’s mouth water: Dean Acheson. Obama is the next in a long line of Democrats anxious to burnish anticommunist credentials, under whatever name the current enemy may be labeled, a party mistakenly thinking itself and viewed by others as to the Left and for that reason wanting to prove to the world its superpatriotism, manifested largely in military prowess and huge defense budgets. Naval power, as in the Mediterranean and the South China Sea, is “in,” as is support of dictators (Honduras) and opposition to popular governments (Venezuela) in seeking to remain dominant in Latin America. Most Important, Obama is positioning foreign policy, his Pacific-first strategy, with respect to the encirclement and/or containment of China.
To all of the foregoing, his base is silent as the tomb. In contrast to the New Deal, there is very little opposition in the street. The Flint Sit-down strike of 1937 might as well have been at the time of the Roman Empire. The ACLU, despite its good intentions, has not taken on Obama and DOJ. The Occupy Movement in what seems to me its nebulous posture has not confronted Obama directly and by name. In other words, the negative dialectic is alive and well, each Obama betrayal met by like passivity in the base, thus giving him reason to think he can get away with more. At the moment, he might be right.
Norman Pollack is a Harvard Ph.D. and the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.