When America was a “Social Democracy”



There is a bit of a thought exercise that needs to be engaged with maturely with regards to the economic history of the United States over the past 75 years. If you haven’t already, grab the new issue of CounterPunch also to read Andrew Smolski’s brilliant critique of Progressivism, because I intend this exercise to be a sort of annotation to that one.

We all know the once-upon-a-time story of when America’s “guns and butter Keynesian” democratic socialism brought the country out of the Great Depression and into the Happy Days/Leave It to Beaver wonderland that Donald Trump keeps referring to obliquely when he says he wants to “make America great again”. We also know the basic history of neoliberalism, the embrace of Milton Friedman’s monetarist policies that was simultaneous with the stagflation of the economy. David Harvey points to Gerald Ford telling New York to “Drop Dead” as a practice run for what would later be rolled out on the national scale in Chile by Pinochet. There’s the famous Trilateral Commission paper on the Crisis of Democracy and Powell memorandum that both outline the fact that the ruling elites were horrified by the gains made by the Baby Boomers in the face of the Vietnam War.

That history is acceptable but it leaves out a key point, the racial factor. It would be wrong of me to not acknowledge Lester Spence’s Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics, though I admit I have not read it, because he was the first to point out the gap between scholarship on neoliberal policy and the impact on people of color. But this is an exercise in remembering white mainstream politicians who used racism as a wedge issue to create the opening neoliberal policies needed to become hegemonic.

So let’s start with recalling the famous first televised presidential debate where John Kennedy took on a ghoulish Richard Nixon, looking due to a combination of a fever and bad stage makeup like he quite literally was melting under the klieg lights. At a certain point in that debate, rather brilliantly dramatized by the Oliver Stone NIXON biopic, Kennedy pivoted to the right and actually red baited the man who convinced America that Communist spies were hiding secret documents in pumpkins (!), a feat that in and of itself would have made recently-deceased family friend Joe McCarthy beam with pride.

And what exactly was he baiting the Trickster with? If one reviews the transcripts, they are loaded with thinly-veiled racism. Consider the Kennedy’s opening statement from the first debate:

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free. In the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free… Mr. Khrushchev…maintains the Communist offensive throughout the world because of the productive power of the Soviet Union itself.

There we have the typical bait-and-switch of ‘white slavery’ for actual chattel slavery. This is a classic liberal trope that has been used time and time again within the contexts of labor and solidarity efforts. It becomes even more prominent in their third debate:

The candidate who was a candidate for the president of Brazil, took a trip to Cuba to call on Mr. Castro during the election in order to get the benefit of the Castro supporters uh – within Brazil. There are many indications. Guinea and Ghana, two independent countries within the last three years – Guinea in fifty-seven, Ghana within the last eighteen months – both now are supporting the Soviet foreign policy at the U.N. Mr. Herter said so himself. Laos is moving in that direction. So I would say our prestige is not so high. No longer do we give the image of being on the rise. No longer do we give an image of vitality.

It is so obvious that Kennedy was pandering to the fear within white voters of black/brown internationalism and how it would impact American domestic ethnic relations. It was during Kennedy’s short but effective time in office that he began to implement a series of tax and monetary policies that began to dismantle the Keynesian social safety net while simultaneously doing as much as possible to sabotage the civil rights movement. His Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage included a chapter about Sen. Edmund G. Ross precisely because he voted against Andrew Johnson’s conviction during the impeachment for sabotaging Reconstruction, something Noel Ignatiev told me this past weekend was intended as a clear signal to white southerners what could be expected from a Kennedy administration regarding civil rights.

The paranoid fever-dreams of a high-level conspiracy to kill Kennedy has a racist element to it in two ways.

First, look at the narrative arc, things were good in Camelot and then Lyndon Baines Mordred Johnson unleashed the forces that led to the downfall of human civilization itself. But that is simply untrue, Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts actually made the world a better place. The suggestion that making black and brown people capable of casting a ballot goes in tandem with social downfall is frankly repellent. The original purveyors of this line of talk were the right wingers from Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign base. As human freedom in America increased, so too did William F. Buckley’s ranting and raving about corrupt liberal Democratic Party machinations.

But more obviously, this mythology about a vast conspiracy supposes that Kennedy was a dove rather than a hawk and an abolitionist rather than one in a long line of Kennedy racists. Errol Morris produced a short documentary  several years ago about “umbrella man”, the one who opens his rain gear up in Dealey Plaza as Kennedy’s motorcade drives him towards his death. While conspiracy theorists have said that this is a signal to the shooters, in fact Morris shows that Umbrella Man was making an anti-racism protest at Kennedy, hoisting the rain gear to mimic Neville Chamberlain’s similar umbrella when Joseph P. Kennedy was the ambassador that pushed for appeasing Adolf Hitler, a man who Kennedy called a lesser evil than Stalin! Furthermore, not only did Kennedy do as much evil to Vietnam as possible, he nearly blew the entire world to smithereens over a country that had outlawed Jim Crow in Havana and dared rub it in our faces at the United Nations! In fact, as Noam Chomsky demonstrated in Rethinking Camelot, up until the 1968 Tet offensive, the Kennedy machine was still saying the fallen prince would have “stayed the course until victory”, intentionally goading Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara to carry on the carnage through their intermediaries in the press and arguably making that war last longer than necessary in the name of Kennedy’s brand of anti-Communism!

Who in their right mind wants to be sticking up for high-class trash like that?

For further illustration, take a look at Providence. Rhode Island would be considered a classic example of a social democracy in Europe if it were to be moved from New England to Olde England. In a landmass smaller than the state of Israel, it has three public institutions of higher education that are specially catered to three different learning modes, meaning you don’t get the same degree at the Community College of Rhode Island that you get at Rhode Island College and you don’t get the same degree from RIC that you get at University of Rhode Island. Hell, the man who gave previous generations free tuition, Claiborne Pell of Pell Grant fame, was our Senator! The public sector is one of the highest employers in the entire state and the union movement here is so robust that business owners still dread organizers getting under the radar and into their shops.

But now look at the capital city, La Prov. The state legislature refuses to give any funding to the city. The White House recently sent a report from DC that recommended the privatizing of the water system to shore up funding. The school buildings are in shambles, with Providence Teachers Union Treasurer Alex Lucini testifying last year how one floor of a high school is legally condemned. The streets bear a striking resemblance to the cratered surface of the moon, with more potholes than a golf course per city block. Libraries close early and are not open during the weekends. Meanwhile Warwick, a city whose borders are so close to Providence I regularly ride my bike between the two in less than fifteen minutes, is a bastion of middle class suburban quality living.

Why the disparity?

Just take a look at the difference between the tax bases of both cities. South Providence is made up of low-income black and brown families, mostly renters, a significant number of whom speak Spanish. The police behave like heathens and are militantly resisting a checks-and-balance ordinance called the Community Safety Act. The austerity measures in action make it look like Greece. An interesting exception to this rule in Providence is the schools on the uber-rich/uber-white East Side, the location of Brown University, an urban campus. When you walk into an East Side public school, one would think they were on the Google campus. Could this point be any more plain?

This underwrites the true difference between communism and democratic socialism, the ability to remove the social safety net when the Other begins to take benefits from the government. A notable historical illustration of this was when the Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus blocked access to the welfare state by blacks when he stood in the doorway of a school that had to be desegregated by federal troops sent in by Eisenhower. Simultaneously, Radio Moscow would announce on the air every time that Sputnik was flying over Little Rock.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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