Yves here. This post gives a historical account of how “progressives” have become a shadow of their former selves. It overlaps with a 2013 post, Why Progressives Are Lame.
By Ed Walker, who writes as masaccio at Firedoglake. You can follow him at Twitter at @MasaccioFDL, and here’s his author page at Firedoglake.
The Economist says Eric Holder is the most liberal US Attorney General in recent memory, and explains with a quote from one of those liberals at MSNBC:
[He] has shown amazing leadership on the issue of LGBT rights. He’s challenged Republican restrictions on voting rights. He’s fought for sentencing reforms. He’s condemned “Stand Your Ground” laws and showed effective leadership during the crisis in Ferguson. He cleared the way for Colorado and the state of Washington to pursue marijuana legalization. He’s worked to reverse the disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated.
Buzzfeed sent a couple of reporters out to interview nominally progressive groups about a replacement for Holder, and they all confirmed that they think Holder is with them on their issues, except, of course, national security and spying on US citizens. They interviewed the ACLU, sentencing reform groups, LGBT groups, and vote protection groups.
That’s a lot of liberal box ticking, but what’s missing? That’s right, not a single word about the real power of the office, the right and duty to enforce securities and anti-trust laws against white collar criminals. On those issues, Eric Holder stands further to the right than most Republican AGs. And what’s really sickening is that not a single one of these groups thought to mention these crucial economic law enforcement in their list of demands for a replacement for Holder. It’s just one more indication of the absence of progressives from all discussion of the economy.
Before we see how this happened, I want to point out that progressives are doing a lot of good work on financial matters, including the SEIU and others on the minimum wage, and those working on health care like National Nurses United and Physicians for a National Health Program. I am especially impressed with the work done by the FACT Coalition which is working effectively towards tax reform. This group is a good example of different organizations putting staff and efforts behind a coordinated push for economic fairness.
There are a number of powerful writers on these issues as well, including Bill Black on control fraud, Dave Dayen on the housing disaster, and blogs like this one which keep a sharp focus on the FIRE sector and its predatory tactics. Still, neither the Economist nor Buzzfeed thinks these individuals are worthy of consultation on the priorities of a new AG.
It wasn’t always like this. Here’s a short refresher on economic issues and politics. Beginning in the late 1800s, there was a powerful wave of economic liberalism, fiercely and sometimes violently opposed to the rampant capitalism of the times. Outbreaks of violence include the Ludlow Massacre, the Pullman Strike, and the Homestead Strike, where states and the federal government and armed thugs attacked striking working people and their families. Sometimes there were electoral fights such as the campaigns of William Jennings Bryan as a Democrat demanding Free Silver and trust-busting (along with his support for prohibition and against Darwinism). Journalism in the form of the muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair was a vital and vibrant part of the US political scene. I read The Pit and The Octopus by Frank Norris in high school, and they showed in melodrama both the extent of the crimes of the rich of that era, and the damage they did to hard-working people.
The progressives and their labor class supporters had some successes, but many of them were stolen by the Supreme Court in cases like the 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York, which struck down New York’s 60-hour work week for bakers over a vigorous dissent by Oliver Wendell Holmes. That process of victories in the legislature destroyed by the Supreme Court was a constant in the early 1900s. As legislative victories turned to dust, economic progressives became more aggressive. Leftist intellectuals and labor leaders turned to Socialism and Marxism as alternatives to bloody capitalism. Workers continued to strike and there was violence in the streets. The economic elites continued to use their control of state and national government to put down those strikes with more intense violence. The few public figures who espoused Socialism were subject to bad-faith prosecutions and jailed, among them Eugene Debs, jailed on specious charges on the watch of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and his horrid Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. This was an early example of Democrats running from the shadows of non-capitalist economic theory.
When the Depression came and deepened, the nation seemed to teeter between bitter acceptance and bitter anger. Roosevelt was elected, and progressives played a major role in the economic reforms he adopted. Eventually the Supreme Court was cowed into submission and the absurd idea that they were capable of dealing with economic issues was shelved for a while. The leftist intellectuals of the day were able to install the New Deal and the economy began to recover. With the advent of the Second World War, the economy thrived.
The economic elites suffered short term defeat in the 30s and 40s, but unfortunately, their views were not eradicated. The Republicans took over Congress in the wake of the war, and launched an assault on the Democratic party and its labor allies as infiltrated with communists and socialists. The attack on labor resulted in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, weakening the ability of unions to organize and setting the stage for further weakening of the union movement and the ability of the working class to protect itself. Majorities of both parties joined approving the bill and in overriding President Truman’s veto.
It probably wasn’t necessary to attack the Democrats, because they were purging themselves. They had already thrown out the Communists and Socialists, and with the advent of the red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy and the slimy attacks of Richard Nixon and others, they became even more cowardly. Soon they and all their academic and intellectual allies (there were still people identified as intellectuals in those olden days) had joined in what the sociologist C. Wright Mills called the “American Celebration”. They all pledged allegiance to the premise that the US was the exceptional and indispensable nation, and that the capitalist system was the most perfect of all possible systems. The great projects of the 30s were now cemented in law, and protection of those gains became the only goal of the self-neutered left. In an essay titled On Knowledge and Power, Mills wrote
As the administrative liberalism of the Thirties has been swallowed up by economic boom and military fright, the noisier political initiative has been seized by a small group of petty conservatives, which on the middle levels of power, has managed to set the tone of public life. Exploiting the American fright of the new international situation for their own purposes, these political primitives have attacked not only the ideas of the New and Fair Deals; they have attacked the history of those administrations, and the biographies of those who took part in them.
On the one hand, we have seen a decayed and frightened liberalism, and on the other hand, the insecure and ruthless fury of political gangsters.
That analysis holds up well for an essay published in 1955 in Dissent Magazine, which kindly provided me with a copy. It puts an end-date to the idea of a left organized to deal with economic issues. The only thing the left had was recriminations among themselves, social issues beginning with Civil Rights, and, of course, the Viet Nam War. That war, I think, solidified the wall between labor and the active left, because most unions supported a war that was anathema to leftists.
It turns out that the Socialists and other leftists never really had much influence on the economic policies of FDR. The actual policies were drafted by reformist Democrats, who believed that tight economic substantive regulation would solve the problems created by rampant capitalism. They and FDR effectively co-opted the activists seeking genuine change, people like the millions of supporters of the Townsend Plan who had to accept FDR’s Social Security, a much weaker version of that proposal. It was easy for the Democratic party to dump the few real leftists and start their inexorable movement away from leftist economic issues and towards the American Celebration of Capitalism.
Things are worse now. The putative left is required to prostrate itself before the altar of neoliberal economics. They must at every opportunity explain that their policies are business and market friendly, and will cause more and more economic growth. They can’t just point out that we are poisoning the planet and argue that we should stop, they have to say that wind and solar power will produce economic growth. Apparently health is irrelevant in the neoliberal marketplace of “ideas”.
We cannot expect leadership from politicians. Each of them is hostage to the money primary. They spend hours every day calling rich people and asking for money. They aren’t going to do anything that might make that miserable job any worse. More bluntly, they are all chosen in the first place because they won’t rock the boat, at the policy level, the party level, and certainly at the biting the hand that gets them elected level. Speaking for myself, I’d say that they are true believers in neoliberal economics, and simply cannot comprehend the possibility that there are other and better ways to think about the economy. Others have harsher views, and they may be right. As a side note, the disconnect between the way politicians perceive themselves and the way the public perceives them is astonishing. Check out the series at Esquire, like this one.
The unwillingness of politicians to lead was never more clear than it is this year, in the wake of the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, and the raft of data flooding us about the sickening inequality of wealth in this country and globally and the likelihood that it will get worse. The Republican responses are hypocritical and bone-ignorant. The Democrats translate clear prose and simple graphs into a murk of stupid talk about “social mobility”, “equality of opportunity”, and the rare mention of “income inequality”. As far as I know, no Democrat has ever described wealth inequality as an actual problem. The issues of wealth and income inequality galvanize voters but you won’t see them discussed in the race to the absurd that constitutes the US electoral process.
And that brings us back to the issue of nominally liberal interest groups, the groups that didn’t think it was important that the new AG be interested in law enforcement against white collar criminals and anti-trust law. There are few organizations which support progressive economics. There are only various levels of support for a failed neoliberal theory and the rich people who love it. All nominally progressive organizations get massive donations from the rich too, and that probably explains why they are mute in the face of the greatest financial disaster of our lifetimes, so far. They don’t acknowledge that there won’t be change on their issues as long as money dominates the political process, and that only by forcing the filthy rich to defend their pig behavior through taxes and harsh criminal sanctions can we hope to see any of the good policies they support come to pass.
If we want fair economic policy, or any other progressive issue that involves money, we have to take away the advantage the rich hold. A good first step would be to withhold donations to organizations that don’t actively support progressive economic initiatives, and funnel those donations to groups that do.