Sunday, February 14, 2010

The New Deal in Reverse

Looking at the financial crash and the deepening jobs crisis, Steve Fraser of TomDispatch compares President Obama’s increasing tilt to the wrong-wing with Franklin Roosevelt’s tilt to the left, and offers a few explanations for why the stark contrast.

First, externally, there are “precious few” social insurgencies now, as there were in the 1930s. Fraser ticks off a handful of social insurgencies that helped propel Roosevelt to the left, including Upton Sinclair’s 1934 “End Poverty in California” campaign for governor; Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth”; a militant labor movement; and the Farmer-Labor Parties of the upper Midwest.

Internally, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party gained strength in mid-term elections, becoming more progressive and militant, whereas today “the Democratic Party has spent the past 30 years emasculating itself” to become what Fraser calls “Republican Lite.” Roosevelt, a born patrician, did not have to prove himself, and readily accepted the social dynamics of the day, seeking to align himself with these rising social insurgencies. Obama, on the other hand, “looks for friends where there aren’t any.” And the teams of advisers each President surrounded himself with were markedly different in temperament and proclivity to radical thinking.

Finally, Fraser notes, the depths of the crisis today simply is not as severe as that in the 1930s, with its widespread Hoovervilles and malnutrition, with thousands literally dying of starvation. Fraser does not mention it, but the severity of the crisis today is mitigated by what’s left of the social welfare programs that were established during the New Deal. Imagine how much worse the situation in the U.S. would be if there were no Social Security, no unemployment benefits, and no food stamps.

The result is that President Obama is moving in a different direction than Roosevelt did. In the interview, Fraser confronts the orthodoxies of economic thinking by directly attacking the idea that a modern nation can get along with a manufacturing base. “It’s striking that [Obama] hasn’t talked about industrial recovery. That was the centerpiece of the New Deal.”

In the article itself, How the Obama Administration Ended Up Where Franklin Roosevelt Began, Fraser notes that this wrong-ward drift of the Obama administration is forfeiting populist anger at an imperious, greedy, and arrogant financial system to the teabaggers.

Would the Republican right and its tea-party populists -- marginal, mockable political freaks less than a year ago -- have enjoyed their current growth spasm if the administration hadn’t been committed to bailing out the very institutions most people considered the villains responsible for running this country into a ditch? Would the Democratic Party have been in imminent danger of losing its faltering grip on Congress had it found the will to pursue serious health-care reform and environmental legislation, or wrestled the financial oligarchy to the mat as Roosevelt did? A long generation spent cowering in the shadows of the conservative ascendancy has left the newly empowered Democrats congenitally incapable of seizing their own historic moment.

After a year of feinting to the left without meaning it, how seriously is anyone going to take the administration’s latest call to tax the banks or break their addiction to reckless speculation?

Fraser ends by noting that Roosevelt’s willingness to embrace the left was rewarded by voters with stunning mid-term electoral victories of the Democratic Party.

Exactly because the New Deal showed itself ever readier to junk the ancien régime, break with economic orthodoxy, and above all say goodbye to its erstwhile corporate friends, it was rewarded handsomely at the polls.

According to the Wikipedia page on the party composition of Congress , the Democrats went from 217 seats in the 72nd Congress, to 313 seats in the 73rd Congress! The Republicans were decimated, losing nearly half their 217 seats in the 72nd Congress to only 117 seats in the 73rd Congress! And it got even better in the Presidential election cycle: 322 Democrats in the 74th Congress, versus the Republicans at 103 seats.

The same trend occurred in the Senate: the Democrats grew from 47 Senators, to 59 Senators, to 69 Senators, while the Republicans shrank from 48, to 36, to 25.

Steve Fraser discusses his latest article, "The New Deal in Reverse."

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