Make America Radical Again: A Conversation with Harvey J. Kaye

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, the Founding Director of the University’s Center for History and Social Change, and the author of numerous books, including The British Marxist Historians, The Education of Desire (winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize) Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History?, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, The Fight for the Four Freedoms (The Nation’s 2014 progressive book of the year), and most recently, Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again (Zero Books). This spring he will also publish FDR on Democracy (Skyhorse Books).

In this interview, Daniel Falcone discusses with Harvey Kaye his latest work and breaks down the importance of the left to reclaim the framing of US history from the conservative right. He also discusses the relevance of Obama to the emergence of Trump, the rightward drift of the US political spectrum, and the (forgotten) radical idea of America exceptionalism. Kaye argues that we can take on the Establishment and counter the long-standing neoliberal – and emergent neo-fascist – order by reminding Americans who they are and what that demands. Moreover, he cites Bernie Sanders as the candidate who has most effectively begun to speak to and engage Americans’ progressive, if not radical impulses and energies.

Daniel Falcone: Your book is titled Take Hold of Our History and is subtitled Make America Radical Again. Can you comment on the specific meanings of these titles?

Harvey Kaye: If you have aspirations to be a transformative leader, you are going to have to transform the narrative and you’re going to have to transform American historical memory and imagination. From the right Ronald Reagan did just that. Starting out as an FDR liberal , but turning to the right in the 1950s and moving ever steadily rightward, Reagan himself realized the degree to which he had to rethink his own sense of what America means and rhetorically try to redefine the popular imagination. And he proceeded to grab hold of America’s story, refashion it, and hijack it to the right to build a decidedly conservative, if not reactionary, historical narrative. For example, accepting the Republican nomination in 1980, Reagan kidnapped three figures ever popular on the left and among working people – Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt – to declare what the media would dub the “Reagan Revolution.” He not only outraged the left, but also pundits on the right such as Washington Post columnist George Will who worried that Reagan had not quoted Edmund Burke. But Reagan was smart – smarter than liberals and leftists appreciated.

In essence, we as progressives, liberals, leftists, and socialists now must do more than debunk the history propagated by the right. We must reach back, take hold of American history, and articulate it in a more honest and democratic fashion.

We often turn our backs on the American story, and by doing that we fail to remind Americans of how we in all our diversity have fought for America’s promise of freedom, equality, and democracy against the powers that be – we fail to speak to our fellow citizens’ democratic anxieties and radical impulses by reminding them of popular and progressive struggles to make real the promise of equality and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and to enlarge not only the We in We the People, but the powers of the people. We fail to enable them to recognize why they feel as they do and what they must do truly make America America. We fail to connect them to the struggles abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, labor unionists, populists, progressives, socialists… Failing to do that, we leave open the door for the right to continue to make off with American memory.

Daniel Falcone: In the book you argue that “Obama was no FDR.” Was Obama far too loyal to the mechanisms and policies of the establishment? Is that something important to stress during the Trump presidency in your view, and what do you see to be the main differences between the politicians within the modern Democratic Party over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries?

Harvey Kaye: We too quickly assert that the outcome of the 2016 election was a racialist reaction to Obama. I actually think it was the fact that Obama and his cohort promised so much… but did so little…. We imagined a new FDR, a new New Deal, and initiatives to combat 45 years of class war from above. But the Democrats didn’t do it. Race mattered, sure. But American working people were angry. Trump spoke to that anger. Hillary ignored it, of course.

In fact, Obama actually abandoned the very folks whose spirits he raised. My students were generally liberal left. They were incredibly roused by the Obama campaign. Obama should have harnessed the energies he enthused. For example, he could have pushed for a national service program that ultimately guaranteed every young person a job, or full employment. Those are the types of things younger voters anticipated – and yet he did essentially nothing to address those sort of aspirations. So, Obama was no FDR. And in 2016, working people – men and women – wanted to punch the capitalist establishment in the nose. But of course, they ended up making things worse.

Daniel Falcone: I wanted to ask you about the Republican Party moving to the hard right of the political spectrum. It has drifted so far right that the GOP doesn’t resemble so much a political party as a cult – which unfortunately this caused Democrats to drift rightwards as well, thus reducing them to mild reformers at best and moderate Republicans at worst. What kind of dilemma does this pose in your estimation?

Harvey Kaye: I think it’s worse than “drift.” Eisenhower Republicans of the 1950s were probably further to the left than the Democrats have been for much of the last 45 years. In 1954 Eisenhower wrote a letter to his conservative brother Edgar, saying “any party that seeks to dismantle social security, labor laws, subsidies to farmers, and social security, will never be heard from in this country again.” Ike knew well that FDR, the New Deal, and War effort had essentially turned those whom we would call the “Greatest Generation” into social democrats. You realize that in 1944, 85% of Americans said they wanted National Healthcare?

In the 1970s, a new leadership emerged inside the Democratic Party, and they were hostile to the Roosevelt legacy. They – folks like Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter, and the corporate interests which promoted them – wanted to pull the Democratic party away from the liberal/social-democratic Democratic agenda. And that is exactly what President Carter proceeded to do in the late seventies when he not only turned his back on labor law reform and consumer rights, but also pursued the deregulation of banking and transportation and paved the way for the Reagan presidency. And thereafter, the Democratic Party followed suit as well by essentially turning its back on the Roosevelt legacy and the decidedly progressive tradition he launched.

Daniel Falcone: You write about “The Progressive Vision for American Exceptionalism.” I am noticing more and more liberals engaging in resistance as a means of restoring faith in institutions, that the right wing is dismantling. How do we advance progressivism and at the same time critique these institutions that have done harm to historically marginalized people, working class people, people of color, immigrants, and women without undermining them so dangerously as the right does?

Harvey Kaye: We’re confronting not only the Trump Administration and a truly corrupt and reactionary political regime, but also 45 years of corporate class war from above – a class war that is not just economic for it involves assaults on the rights of workers, women, and people of color – a class war that not only conservative and reactionary Republicans but also neoliberal Democrats have advanced. All of which led to the Trump presidency… And we now face a crisis…

The crisis we face is a mortal crisis of democracy. Just imagine what four more years of Trump after 2020 might mean, in light of the kinds of initiatives that he’s pursuing and the way in which the courts are being “manhandled.”

Having said that, what makes American exceptional? Think about it… When Americans have confronted mortal crises in the past – the 1770s, 1860s, 1930s and 1940s, and the 1960s perhaps, we have found our way, led by Lincoln and FDR, to defeating our enemies and transcending the crisie by making America freer, more equal, and more democratic. Yes, must was left undone. Exploitation and oppression persisted. But those generations of farmers, artisans, slaves, workers….radically transformed the nation for the better. The created the makings of a democratic republic. They overthrew the slavocracy. They empowered working people and defeated Fascism. They enacted a War on Poverty and Civil Rights….

And I repeat, we’re facing a mortal crisis today. A crisis engendered by 45 years of class war from above and all the devastation it has wrought. And it is ugly. Just think… We see white supremacy and anti-Semitism tolerated, no, welcomed, inside of the White House. Clearly, we need more than resistance –and hell, we don’t want a return to normalcy, a normalcy of widening inequality, denial of rights…. We on the left have to cultivate and push for a more radical agenda.

The struggle involves more that voting… for sure. But we must win in 2020 to start truly taking back America and renewing America’s promise. The left must unite. We must throw ourselves into electoral politics. And I should say that I now support Sanders even more energetically and intellectually than I did in 2016 because I think he’s come to appreciate that we need to lay hold of that promise, take hold of American history, and redeem and renew the legacy of FDR, the New Deal, and the Greatest Generation. Propelled by working people’s energies, FDR not only launched the initiatives of the New Deal and industrial democracy. He also called for an Economic Bill of Rights. Today, Bernie seeks to not only revive the New Deal promise with a Green New Deal and revive industrial democracy with a program of workers’ democracy. He also wants to create a 21C Economic Bill of Rights. And we ourselves should not forget Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary vision of America serving as an “asylum for mankind” – a vision proclaimed anew by poet Emma Lazarus and inscribed at the Statue of Liberty.

We have got this incredible tradition that’s ours to reclaim and use to remind ourselves of who we are and what we must do truly Make America Great Again – to remind us that we must do what generations past have done when America’s promise was in jeopardy… Make America Radical Again.

Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.