Like most progressives I tend to believe, in the words of playwright Tony Kushner that “the world only spins forward.” But two books I am reading, side by side, have had the combined effect of making me re-think that notion. It is just possible that the United States is spinning backward and that a change in course — while possible — is certainly not inevitable.
The two books are The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank.
The two books have only one thing in common. They are both about the Republican Party. Goodwin writes about its dominant progressive wing of the early 20th century. Frank writes about its reactionary tea party wing, dominant in the early 21st century.
Read in tandem, these two books would disprove Darwin’s theory of evolution if Darwin had presumed to apply it to American politics.
From the vantage point of 2014, it is hard to imagine that the Republican Party under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft was the party of restraining corporate power, implementing governmental regulation and protecting working people from the worst excesses of the free enterprise system.
But it was that under Roosevelt, as everyone knows, and almost as much under Taft, whose very name conjures up the phrase conservative. Roosevelt and Taft were the first presidents to use government to protect ordinary Americans from corporate power, laying the foundation for their next two Democratic successors Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the development of the modern welfare state.
No wonder Glenn Beck points to Teddy Roosevelt as the president who started America down the path to socialism. And no wonder Republicans are seeking to spin the country back to where it was before Teddy Roosevelt and Taft.
Their goal: to turn the clock back to the 19th century, when successive Republican administrations believed that so long as government kept its hands off, the free enterprise system was perfect. Sure, kids worked in dangerous factories from dusk ’til dawn but, if they worked hard enough, they could ultimately become Andrew Carnegie. Sure, food and drugs were thoroughly contaminated, but free enterprise capitalism would eventually change that as companies realized that doing so was in their own best interests.
And that is what Republicans believe today. But, as Thomas Frank points out, it’s even worse than that. That is because following the crash of 2008, the right has actually convinced millions of ordinary people that it wasn’t Wall Street and the banks that produced the disaster but onerous regulations imposed on business by government. In Frank’s words, it is as if “the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster; if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national hero.”
Frank notes that until now, “people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from ‘red tape’ and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the main in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.” But that is where we are now, or at least where the Republicans are now — and not just the Ted Cruz and Ron Paul Republicans either. One of the most eloquent advocates of the “Pity the Billionaire” worldview is the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan (WI).
And that is scary, perhaps even scarier than believing that the reason the Republicans behave as they do is because Barack Obama is black. After all, racism has always been a terrible American problem but we have made great strides against it. Besides, Obama won’t be president forever.
But what if behind Republican obstructionism and — to be blunt — craziness is not just racism but the belief, inculcated by rightwing media and subsidized by the Koch Brothers, that the rich are rich because they are simply better people and the less fortunate suffer because they deserve it. What if the right is as much driven by misanthropic greed and contempt for economically hard hit Americans as by racism? What if the real war the right is waging is against compassion for anyone except those who least deserve it—the rich? (Frank describes how tea party Republicans view the depression-era song “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime” as describing struggling businesspeople harmed by government meddling.)
Just thinking about this had led me to a counterintuitive conclusion that progressives need to defeat this ugly phenomenon by getting behind whichever Democratic candidate for president who looks like he or she can not only win but, just maybe, bring in strong Democratic congressional majorities.
In other words, the threat posed by this phenomenon is so great that progressives cannot afford to wait until a progressive dream candidate comes along but should go with Hillary Clinton who, at this point looks like our strongest candidate. I know it’s very early, but seeing polls that show her a landslide winner in Ohio against any Republican makes me dream of a Clinton sweep in 2016 resembling the Johnson landside of 1964, which brought in the most progressive Congress since FDR’s day.
Frankly, I’d prefer a candidate farther to the left than Clinton but, in terms of actual governance, there is unlikely to be any difference between an Elizabeth Warren or a Hillary Clinton or a Joe Biden. It’s not as if Warren would (or could) enact more public investment than Clinton or Biden, or tougher regulation of banks, Wall Street and big business in general.
Any Democrat would be constrained by obstructionist Republicans in Congress (who may be in control of both houses after this November) which is why it is critical that there be as few of them as possible. As things stand now, that means nominating the candidate who looks the strongest. As the first female nominee and as a figure widely admired in this country, it is hard to imagine we could do better with someone else. If so, I think we should support that person. But the key thing is defeating the right.
Quoting Thomas Frank again: “…the scenario that should concern us most is what will happen when the new, more ideologically concentrated Right gets their hands on the rest of the machinery of government.”
That is what we can’t permit. No, I would not advocate the nomination of some neoliberal type even if I thought he or she could win. But among progressives, a few degrees difference won’t mean anything. Certainly not as much as an electoral sweep that conceivably could relegate Republicans to a minority again, a minority too small to prevent the next Democratic president from governing. Yes, this may be a dream. But it is one we should not abandon.
MJ Rosenberg spent 20 years working in Congress as an aide to Democratic Senators and House members. His most recent position was at Media Matters For America.