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Depression & New Deal

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It’s Not Even Past.

“The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office…[B]lack history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it…Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge — that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

In a long, deeply-researched, and very worthwhile essay, Ta-Nahesi Coates surveys the sweep of American history to make the case for reparations — “by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences”. “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success — and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”

Coates’ historical case here — ranging from 1619 to the present day and resting on works by Edmund Morgan, Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, and others (he even gets in the oft-forgotten Tulsa riots) — is air-tight and undeniable. At the very least, we could all stop pretending that four centuries of shameful discrimination and brutality didn’t happen, and acknowledge that, as Coates points out, it remains manifest in everything from our housing policies to the wealth gap to our absurd incarceration rates.

Along those lines, granted this may be changing soon, but it remains ridiculous that we have a very powerful Holocaust Museum on the Mall, but no equivalent museum or memorial about our own national original sin, slavery. The Holocaust Museum is very appropriate for DC: It is an unforgettable reminder of the systematized depravities that even supposedly civilized societies can commit. But we need to start considering the beam in our eye more seriously as well.

This piece also dovetails nicely with one of my favorite Cornel West quotes: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.”

Hues of History.

/r/ColorizedHistory is dedicated to high quality colorizations of historical black and white images, and discussions of a historical nature.” Reddit’s endlessly browsable History in Color, with some choice selections collected here.

“In those years, photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) undertook a photographic survey of the Russian Empire with the support of Tsar Nicholas II. He used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images.” Along related lines, and making the rounds again because of the Ukraine situation, “real” color photos of Russia from 1909 to 1912.

The Lollipop Sails.

“‘People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl,’ Mrs. Black often said in appraising her success.” Child star, Depression icon, Republican diplomat, and cancer survivor Shirley Temple Black, 1928-2014.

The Wisdom of the Elders.

“Does this rollout failure discredit the core goals of a liberal project, including that of a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance? Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of a governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism.”

Assessing the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, Mike Konczal makes the case for returning to the old ways. “[T]he Category B grouping, which we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society…creates a universal floor so that individuals don’t experience basic welfare goods as commodities to buy and sell themselves…My man Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not have known about JavaScript and agile programming, but he knew a few things about the public provisioning of social insurance, and he realized the second category, while conceptually more work for the government, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary administrative problems.”

Of course, Social Security had rollout problems too. And progressives at the time definitely lamented the concessions that were made as Social Security evolved from bill to law, including the exclusion of agricultural and domestic laborers [re: African-Americans] from the law. (Frances Perkins: “The whole thing has been chiseled down to a conservative pattern.”)

That being said, I think it’s important to keep this in mind every time the right starts complaining about byzantine complexities in the Affordable Care Act: We could’ve avoided many of these issues if this change-bringing administration hadn’t immediately ruled out the obvious progressive solution to the health care problem — a single-payer system of Medicare-for-all, like most other advanced industrialized nations enjoy, perhaps phased in with an immediate voluntary buy-in and a gradual lowering of the coverage age.

Instead, we adopted the Republicans’ proposal, the marketplace/exchanges plan originally conceived by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, without even including a public option to keep the insurers honest. And what’d we get for this ginormous unforced concession to the right? Nothing. Republicans still didn’t support the health care law in 2010, and they’ve screamed holy hell that it’s tyrannical government socialism for the past three-odd years — even though it was their plan to begin with.

Now, they’re deliberately sabotaging implementation of the ACA and trying to pin every misstep, including this rather sad website #fail, as a failure of the liberal project. As Konczal aptly points out, what’s failing here is the NEO-liberal project — the desire to embrace public-private, technocratic conservative ideas of a generation ago (see also: cap & trade), in the hopes that today’s conservatives will somehow be intellectually honest enough to support them too. That is a sucker’s bet every time.

One other important takeaway from this article: “[I]f all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, ‘Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.'”

In other words, here again conservatives are decrying exactly what they ostensibly espouse. Perhaps a better way forward on fundamental pieces of legislation, instead of playing Lucy and the football with the Republicans, is to try to enact our own ideas from now on.

Update: In Foreign Affairs, Kimberly Morgan makes much the same argument: “The real source of Obamacare’s current problems lies in the law’s complexity. A straightforward way to assure coverage would have been to extend an existing, well-worn program to more people…In the United States, [due to] political antipathy to government programs…policymakers regularly rig up complex public-private, and often federal-state, arrangements that are opaque to the public, difficult to administer, and inefficient in their operation.”

From Old Ones to New Deal.

“The sketch on the right side of this page of notes, with its annotations (“body dark grey”; “all appendages not in use customarily folded down to body”; “leathery or rubbery”) represents Lovecraft working out the specifics of an Elder Thing’s anatomy. As Lovecraft’s narrator was a scientist, the description of the Things in the novella is dense and layered; here we can see the beginnings of that detail.”

Speaking of taking notes: In her house at S’late, Rebecca Onion points the way to H.P. Lovecraft’s handwritten notes for At the Mountains of Madness. “The writer, who had fallen on hard times, used a deconstructed envelope in an attempt to save paper.”

Also, I forget if I’ve blogged this before, but I found this interesting read while looking to briefly shoehorn Lovecraft into the dissertation: Lovecraft’s final years as a New Dealer:

As for the Republicans—how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical ‘American heritage’…) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.”

Tales of Wonder.

By way of io9, an impressive collection of vintage sci-fi pulp art. (You can still make your own here.) Note the editor above — Hugo Gernsback, sci-fi pioneer and the Man in the Mask. (He also appears briefly in Uphill All the Way.)

100 Years Ago, A Nation Awoke.

At any rate, this was a terrible accident; 147 young people, they were all young men and women, were killed, lost their lives and a number of others were badly injured…This made a terrible impression on the people of the State of New York. I can’t begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! We didn’t want it that way. We hadn’t intended to have 147 girls and boys killed in a factory. It was a terrible thing for the people of the City of New York and the State of New York to face.” — Frances Perkins

I meant to post on this a few weeks ago, but busy-ness conspired against it: 100 years ago last month, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground. And ultimately, from its ashes, a New Deal — something the Scott Walkers and Paul Ryans of the world might should consider.

Anatomy of a Tantrum.


This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for, for a hundred years – but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get…somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

“Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intensions are and how tough we are…That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.

As I’m sure most of y’all know by now, the president decided to indulge in some cathartic lefty-bashing at his tax cut deal press conference earlier in the week. [Transcript.] At this point, the fact that Obama feels this way about progressives is not at all a surprise, and I feel like I’ve already responded to his appalling penchant for this sorta thing at length. So, here’re just a few numbered points about this latest sad window into Obama’s “pragmatic” mindset:

1) Alex Pareene at Salon cut right to the heart of the fallacy on display here: “[Obama] continues to imagine that his liberal critics are upset with the idea that compromises need to be made in order to accomplish progressive policy goals. Some of them are that stupid. But lots of them are actually critics of the White House’s legislative strategy, and their apparent willingness to preemptively compromise before the negotiations have already begun.Yep.

2) See also Paul Krugman: “Leave aside the merits for a moment: what possible purpose does this kind of lashing out serve? Will activists be shamed into recovering their previous enthusiasm? Will Republicans stop their vicious attacks because Obama is lashing out to his left? It was pure self-indulgence; even if he feels aggrieved, he has to judge his words by their usefulness, not by his desire to vent…[W]hat we really don’t need right now is a president who blames everyone but himself, and seems more concerned with self-justification than with sustaining the alliances he needs.

3) As I noted on Twitter, the president’s argument here is inherently contradictory. He began his presser by saying he had to make a bad deal because the Right, however wrongheaded, held stubbornly to their convictions. Then he verbally abuses the Left for…holding stubbornly to their convictions. Uh, it seemed to work pretty well for the GOP.

4) Speaking of Twitter, the Twitterverse response to the presidential presser is well worth perusing for gallows humor and hard truths. Take for example, “Obama: This is like the public option fight all over again where I caved and opposed the thing that reduced the deficit.

5) As many have pointed out now, the president is also wrong on his New Deal history. In the presser, he claimed Social Security was only for widows and orphans. Wrong. He’s thinking of the civil war pension system, circa 1862. I know that law degrees are considered the be-all, end-all of our civilization these days, but an ostensibly progressive president not understanding the origins of Social Security is sort of a big effing deal. (And he didn’t just misspeak — He’s said it before.)

6) As historian Thomas Ferguson noted several weeks ago, this is not the first time the president has badly screwed up the history of the New Deal in a way that was ultimately self-serving. (As an aside: Given they they chose to structure a major policy speech around a fake Lincoln quote, his communications staff isn’t much better.)

7) As Dan Froomkin pointed out, Obama’s argument about the public option is also contradictory. He argues that Social Security and Medicare started out small, than belittles the public option because it “would have affected maybe a couple of million people,” i.e. it would’ve started out small.

8) Obama also no longer seems to understand how the public option was supposed to work. Here’s Froomkin: “What the president conspicuously disregarded was that the central point of the public option was that its existence would exert enormous competitive pressure on the private insurance system. The goal was not to serve a particularly large number of people directly — that would only happen if the private offerings were terribly inadequate. The goal was to keep the private sector honest. So no matter how many people it enrolled, ‘the provision,’ as Obama put it “would have affected” tens of millions.” In other words, the public option was designed to be a yardstick. So, even in terms of recent history, there are some serious revisions going on.

9) Politico’s catty analysis of the president’s relationship with Chuck Schumer offered more insights on Obama’s thinking today: “Obama himself warned Schumer that the millionaire strategy could sink the stock market. When a vote on the millionaire plan came up short last Saturday, the administration gloated.” The vagaries of the stock market? Is that really what we’re basing our tax policies on these days? (Also, I don’t think Chuck Schumer, of all people, needs to be informed of when and how Wall Street will balk. I think he has his finger pretty solidly on that pulse.)

10) A day after the president’s remarks, Larry Summers solemnly informed us that not passing the millionaire tax cut would lead to a double-dip recession. This is basically the economic equivalent of the terror, terror, terror, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 argument. And, as David Dayen and Jon Walker both pointed out: If the economy is resting on that sort of knife’s edge, why’s the White House just reduce purchasing power by announcing a federal worker’s pay freeze? Something does not compute.

11) Obama at the presser again: “Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.” Um…do we really want to go there? Because I’m sure this would be news to Maher Arar. In any case, as a friend pointed out, this isn’t kindergarten — You don’t get a gold star just for “trying.”

Anyways, so, yeah, Obama doesn’t like “the professional left” very much. And, at this point, it’s safe to say the feeling is mutual. As for myself…well, these days I just feel like a sucker.

FDR: The View from the Inside.

Tully took the president’s dictation for his famous Pearl Harbor speech. ‘Miss Tully had been with Roosevelt since his days as governor of New York,” said David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. ‘And many of his most sensitive letters, instructions, notes and even scribblings passed through her hands.‘”

The National Archives obtains 5,000 pages of new FDR documents, courtesy of the archives of personal secretary Grace Tully. (This video describes the acquisition.) “Archivists hope to have the collection publicly available by November and online by January.

Tales of the Homefront.


These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations.” Two recent photo-exhibits of historical interest: The striking image above is from the Denver Post‘s “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943″ exhibit, which is definitely worth perusing. And the WP points the way to a similar FSA series: “Life During Wartime: Washington DC and World War II.” In both cases, the images come via the LoC.

Bank to Basics.


The big U.S. banks were the source of the global financial crisis, in part because their bigness and their practices were copied by major banks around the world. What happens in this reform effort is being watched avidly in many countries, because it will say much about how global finance is to be conducted. What is often missing in these discussions are the assumptions people make about banking and its role in a modern economy. We should begin therefore with some first principles.

As the manifestly fradulent behavior by Goldman Sachs of late comes to full light — one among many, it seems — Numerian of The Agonist goes back to basics to make a case for strong banking reform. “The very first lesson we should learn from this crisis, which we thought this nation learned in the 1930s, is never again…The second lesson we should learn from this crisis is that we should not as a nation have to learn these lessons over and over again every 80 years. Something has to be done to make the legislative changes this time stick.

Luce Canon (and FORTUNE’s fool).

“From the mid-1930s through the late ’50s, Time Inc. was probably the largest news organization in the world, with bureaus on every continent…The company’s success was partly a result of shrewd management. But it was also a result of Luce, who had looked into the future and seen an increasingly integrated nation bound together by railroads, highways, radio, movies and the rise of a national corporate culture. As a result, Americans would need a vast amount of information and an efficient way of accessing it. Luce embraced that future and created vehicles that served the needs of his rapidly changing times.”

On the release of his long-awaited The Publisher, an extensive biography of TIME/LIFE founder Henry Luce, Columbia historian (and my dissertation advisor) Alan Brinkley discusses how Luce may have coped with the Digital Age. “Luce — for all his flaws — was an innovator, a visionary and a man of vast and daunting self-confidence. Were he to live in our time, trying once again to revolutionize the spread of knowledge, he might find his talents much in demand.

And, in very related news, Boing Boing posts Chris Ware’s recently rejected throwback cover for Fortune‘s annual 500 issue. “It hearkens back to the golden age of Fortune as an exemplar of beautifully designed and illustrated magazines…’and he filled the image with tons of satirical imagery, like the U.S. Treasury being raided by Wall Street, China dumping money into the ocean, homes being flooded, homes being foreclosed, and CEOs dancing a jig while society devolves into chaos. The cover, needless to say, was rejected.’

FDR’s Preexisting Condition?

“Is it conceivable that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s doctors knew he had widespread cancer in 1944 and still let him run for his fourth term as president? New research makes this astounding argument — and claims that the physician who supposedly told the truth about Roosevelt’s death in 1970 was in fact continuing the deception he had helped create.Slate‘s Barron Lerner evaluates new claims that FDR may have suffered — and died — from cancer.

“How plausible is this research? If Roosevelt indeed had a hemianopsia, it suggests a brain mass, and melanoma would be as likely a cause as any…But all of these symptoms have other possible explanations…Perhaps most important, there is no smoking gun: In all of the documents Lomazow and Fettman unearthed, neither Bruenn nor FDR’s other doctors ever used the word cancer. Still, Lomazow and Fettman’s research is of great importance.”

The Ghosts of Ford and Bourne.

As most everyone keeping up on current events these days knows, the people around the president, as well as the president himself, spend a good bit of time emphasizing the pragmatic nature of this administration. One senior administration official recently deemed the president a “devout nonideologue”, and Obama himself has argued several times that he aims to tackle the myriad problems before us with a “ruthless pragmatism.” Now, we’ve seen nothing to indicate that Obama’s pragmatic nature is an act. If anything, from installing Sen. Clinton as his Secretary of State to keeping Sec. Gates at Defense, it’s clear that pragmatism, accommodation, and inclusiveness are his temperamental instincts as a politician. Nevertheless, it’s also clear that comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, and the “bold, persistent experimentation” Roosevelt promised in 1932 — and subsequently followed through on over the course of the decade — aren’t entirely undesired by the White House.

Well, I’ve been traveling over the past few days, and thus haven’t been following the news as closely as usual. Still, even given President Obama’s health care announcement on Monday (highly reminiscent of the NRA in that it purports to let the big players in the health care industry help write the codes, so to speak) and the welcome declaration on Wednesday that the administration would soon seek a new regulatory apparatus for derivatives markets, Franklin Roosevelt was not the first president that came to mind as a point of reference for Obama this week.

No, that would be Gerald Ford, who, most historians agree, was an honorable man thrust into a thorny dilemma by the crimes of his predecessor, and who grievously hamstrung his own brief administration by deciding to pardon Richard Nixon. And now, it seems, history gets dangerously close to repeating itself. For, it’s moved beyond obvious that the Dubya administration not only willfully engaged in torture — clearly, bad enough — but did so to compel false confessions of an Iraq-9/11 connection that they knew never existed. And yet, we’ve already witnessed the ungainly sight of President Obama equivocating on the question of prosecutions in the name of some dubious “time for reflection, not retribution.” (Never mind that, as President Obama reminds us on other matters, wounds, like corruption, fester in the dark.)

This week, President Obama has compounded his recent error — twice. In the first of two eleventh-hour reversals, Obama — who has promised us “an unprecedented level of openness in government” many times over — instead chose to side with the publicists of the Pentagon and block the court-ordered release of new photographs detailing detainee abuse: “‘The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,’ Obama said yesterday. ‘In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.‘” (How bad are they? If Sy Hersh is correct, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t, they could be very, very bad.)

Then, today, the Obama administration announced they will continue using extra-legal military tribunals, not federal courts or military courts martial, for Gitmo suspects. “‘Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States,’ said Obama in a statement. ‘They are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered.’” (The key line of the WP story: “In recent weeks, however, the administration appears to have bowed to fears articulated by the Pentagon that bringing some detainees before regular courts presented enormous legal hurdles and could risk acquittals.)”

Obama’s statements aside, the arguments — re: excuses — in favor of blocking the release of these no-doubt-horrifying photos and maintaining extralegal tribunals — now with 33% less illegality! — are the thin gruel you might expect. The WP’s Dan Froomkin already eviscerated the former quite devastatingly, while Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, laudable as usual, has taken point on the idiocy of the latter: “[W]e’ll give due process as long as we’re sure we can win, and if we can’t, we’ll give you something less.” In both cases, the principle animating the advice given to President Obama seems mainly to be the usual self-serving, CYA behavior of Dubya holdovers at the Pentagon.

But that doesn’t absolve President Obama of his failures here. For whatever reason — perhaps he’s trying to smooth things over in these areas so he can focus on the considerable domestic problems on his plate — Obama is increasingly making the exact same mistake as Gerald Ford. As other commentators have pointed out, by shoving the rampant illegalities of the GWoT under the rug — or worse, perpetuating them — Obama is dangerously close to making his administration retroactively complicit in the crimes of the previous administration.

Now, I’d like to move on to fixing the economy and universal health care — not to mention voting, lobbying, and campaign finance reform — as much as the next guy., But sidestepping the tough choices on torture and the imperial presidency, as Paul Krugman (whom I’ve had issues with but am in complete lockstep with here) noted a few weeks ago, is simply not an option, if we are to maintain anything resembling our national soul after this egregious wallowing in torture and illegality.

Speaking of which, a quick comment on the emerging question of what and when Speaker Pelosi knew about torture (which the Republicans have shamelessly latched onto like a life raft — see in particular Karl Rove frantically pointing at her to save his own skin the other day. You can almost smell the desperate flop sweat exuding from his every pore.) Well, let’s look into it. Commissions, investigations, prosecutions — let’s quit screwing around and start getting to the bottom of this fiasco. I can’t believe I have to keep writing this like it’s even a bone of contention, but look: If we can’t get it together enough to collectively agree that torture is both immoral and illegal, and that those who designed and orchestrated these war crimes during the Dubya administration be subject to investigation, prosecution, and punishment, then we might as well call this whole “rule of law” thing off. As ethicist David Luban noted yesterday in congressional testimony, the relevant case law here is not oblique. Either the laws apply to those at the very top, or they don’t — in which case, it’s hard to see why anyone else should feel bound to respect them either.

Which brings me back to pragmatism. Hey, in general, I’m all for it, particularly when you consider all the many imbecilities thrust upon the world by the blind ideological purity of the neocons of late. But, let’s remember, the limits of pragmatism as a guiding national philosophy were exposed before all the world before Obama, or even FDR, ever took office. When, after several years of trying to stay well out of the whole mess, Woodrow Wilson entered America into World War I in 1917, the very fathers of Pragmatism, most notably philosopher of education John Dewey, convinced themselves war was now the correct call and exhorted their fellow progressives, usually in the pages of The New Republic, to get behind it. (Many did, but others — such as Jane Addams and Nation editor Oswald Villard — did not.) War went from being a moral abomination to a great and necessary opportunity for national renewal. Given it was a done deal, the pragmatic thing to do now was to go with the flow.

Aghast at this 180-degree shift in the thinking of people he greatly admired, a young writer named Randolph Bourne called shenanigans on this “pragmatic” turnaround, and excoriated his former mentors for their lapse into war fervor. “It must never be forgotten that in every community it was the least liberal and least democratic elements among whom the preparedness and later the war sentiment was found,” Bourne wrote. “The intellectuals, in other words, have identified themselves with the least democratic forces in American life. They have assumed the leadership for war of those very classes whom the American democracy had been immemorially fighting. Only in a world where irony was dead could an intellectual class enter war at the head of such illiberal cohorts in the avowed cause of world-liberalism and world-democracy.

Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for the progressives than I. But the fact remains that Bourne, who perished soon thereafter in the 1918 influenza epidemic, was prescient in a way that many of the leading progressive thinkers were not. The emotions unleashed by the Great War and its aftermath (as well as the sight of the accompanying Russian Revolution) soon fractured completely the progressive movement in America, and proved exceedingly fertile soil for the reascendancy of the most reactionary elements around. (Back then “Bolshevik” and “anarchist” were preferred as the favorite epithets of the “One Hundred Percent American” right-wing, although “socialist,” then as now, was also in vogue. At least then they had real socialists around, tho’.) And the pragmatic writers and thinkers of TNR, who thought they could ride the mad tiger through a “war to end all wars,” instead found their hopes and dreams chewed up and mangled beyond recognition. They wanted a “world made safe for democracy” and they ended up with the Red Scare, Warren Harding, and an interstitial peace at Versailles that lasted less than a generation.

The point being: however laudable a virtue in most circumstances, pragmatism for pragmatism’s sake can lead one into serious trouble. And, as a guiding light of national moral principle, it occasionally reeks. As Dewey and his TNR compatriots discovered to their everlasting chagrin, you can talk yourself into pretty much anything and deem it “pragmatic,” when it’s in fact just the path of least resistance. And, when your guiding philosophy of leadership is to always view intense opposing sides as Scylla and Charybdis, and then to steer through them by finding the calm, healthy middle, you can bet dollars-to-donuts that the conservative freaks of the industry will always be pushing that “center” as far right as possible, regardless of the issues involved. And, eventually, without a guiding moral imperative at work — like, I dunno, torture is illegal, immoral, and criminal, or the rule of law applies to everyone — you may discover that that middle channel is no longer in the middle at all, but has diverted strongly to the right. In which case, welcome to Gerald Ford territory.

Nobody wants that, of course. We — on the left, at least — all want to remember the Obama administration not as a well-meaning dupe notable mainly for its unfortunate rubberstamping of Dubya-era atrocities, but as a transformational presidency akin to those of Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. To accomplish this goal, it would behoove the White House to remember that Lincoln, pragmatic that he was, came to abolition gradually, but come to abolition he did. Or consider that Franklin Roosevelt, pragmatic that he was, eventually chose his side as well. “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match,” FDR said in his renomination speech of 1936. “I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

I should like to have it said of President Obama’s administration as well. The alternative — Obama’s sad, “pragmatic” capitulation to Dubya-era criminals — is too depressing to contemplate. But the picture below (found here) gives you a pretty good sense of what it’ll mean for America if we don’t get to the bottom of this, and soon.

On the Shoulders of Giants.

Two recent and choice Columbia-related links by way of Ted at The Late Adopter:

“Lincoln is important to us not because of his melancholia or how he chose his cabinet but because of his role in the vast human drama of emancipation and what his life tells us about slavery’s enduring legacy…In the wake of the 2008 election and on the eve of an inaugural address with ‘a new birth of freedom,’ a phrase borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, as its theme, the Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth.” In The Nation and on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Eric Foner evaluates the continuing legacy of the 16th president.

“Economic orthodoxy — which gave high priority to balanced budgets and fiscal restraint — remained a powerful force in the 1930s, even as its limitations became increasingly obvious. Similar arguments can still be heard today…The New Deal was least successful when it was least aggressive–when it let concerns about fiscal prudence override the urgent need to pump enormous sums of money into a moribund economy.” And, over in TNR, Alan Brinkley notes what the Obama administration can learn from the New Deal.

Update: “Most Americans, I suspect, if asked whether they would prefer a president with strong principles or one who prefers pragmatic politics, would choose an idealist over a realist in a flash. But almost all successful politicians combine principle with pragmatism constantly.” In a TNR piece that ties the two above together quite well, Prof. Brinkley speculates on the fatal flaw in Dubya’s make-up: certitude. “For whatever reasons…Bush has seemed to be comfortable only when he could make quick and firm decisions, however complicated the issue, and then move on. Admitting mistakes or changing course seems almost contrary to his nature.

Will Write for Food.

“This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media.” In the wake of the turmoil engulfing the newspaper industry at the moment (see also: The Wire, Season 5), journalist Mark Pinsky argues in TNR for a 21st century revival of the Federal Writers’ Project. Given the woeful state of the academic job market during this current downturn, I bet there are quite a few historians out there who’d give this a “Huzzah!”

He knows Hoover, and Hoover is no GWB.

Even revisionist historians who view Hoover kindly concede that his was a failed presidency. Still, it’s unfortunate that commentators and politicians are employing ‘Hoover’ as an epithet for inaction. His White House tribulations consumed only four of more than 90 years studded with extraordinary achievements- — as Great Engineer, as World War I Food Czar, and, above all, as Great Humanitarian.” In light of recent events, esteemed historian William Leuchtenberg rides to the rescue of the Great Engineer, and attempts to set the record straight on comparisons of Dubya to Herbert Hoover. “In contrast to George W. Bush,” he concludes, “President Hoover moved in unprecedented ways to cope with economic calamity.

The New Deal fights on.

“Despite sustained efforts to tear down the New Deal — from the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 to President George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2005 efforts to dismantle Social Security — the 1930s-vintage infrastructure has proved remarkably durable…Although the Tennessee Valley Authority has yet to pitch in, four 70-year-old agencies are helping to cushion the blow of the housing bust. Let’s count them.Slate‘s Daniel Gross examines how the New Deal is working to mitigate today’s credit crisis. (He also has a funny line about Sen. Clinton’s bizarre call yesterday to have Greenspan wave a magic wand to fix things: This “is a little like Chicago appointing a cow to a panel on preventing disastrous fires.“)

Progressivism, Continued.

So, sorry to regale y’all with another long-winded, bloviating political post only two entries after the last one. But Ted of The Late Adopter asked an important follow-up to my comments on David Greenberg’s Obama piece and public-interest progressivism, namely: “If FDR, Stevenson, the Kennedys all spoke with the rhetoric of citizenship, when did the Democrats stop? With Johnson? Carter? During the 80s while trying to oppose Reagan?” And, while trying to respond in the comment section, I apparently blathered on so long that I broke the site. (“Access Denied with Code 406….severity [EMERGENCY]“) So, I’m posting my response as an entry instead (and there’s precedent for this anyway, as when Scully and I discussed the space program a few years ago.) So, if you find this all ponderous and insufferable, feel free to skip down to the previous entry, where I raved on at equal length about Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (10/10!) And I promise to get back to more concise entries again soon…

“Hmm, good question, Ted. Let me take a crack at it in the long-winded, digression-filled, multiple-answer manner we’ve been trained into. :)

First, while I don’t think he’s entirely comfortable with the Sandelian argument I’m making here, our mutual advisor posits one answer to this question in The End of Reform: This all began in earnest during WWII, when two things occurred. [1] The financial and productive power of Big Business became absolutely integral to the success of the war effort (thus there was less of a rationale for opposing corporate power in political life), and [2] Politicians and economists discovered in boom times and Keynesianiam that they could “grow the pie,” economically speaking, rather than be forced to choose a best way to carve it up. So, the civic-minded questions of political economy that dominated the early New Deal fell by the wayside.

Obviously, Adlai and the brothers Kennedy come after WWII, so that in itself is not a complete answer. So I’d add the following trends:

* 1968. Like 1919-1920, when the strike wave, the race riots, the Red Scare, the failure at Versailles, and various other traumatic events — the tail-end of the influenza wave, the death of TR, the Black Sox scandal, the widespread exposure to Freudianism, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and literary/artistic modernism, the recent Bolshevik revolution, and the Great War itself — all conspired to create great anxiety and help overturn the existing order, I would argue that the events of 1968 irrevocably rent the social fabric of the nation.

It became especially hard for anyone after ’68 to talk about a civic project or a common public interest when America was divided so badly between left and right, black and white — rifts that Republicans like Nixon and Reagan would exploit to their advantage with the Southern strategy and veiled rhetoric about “law and order” — particularly when those leaders who did it best were gunned down in their prime. (This “culture war” is one of the same obstacles the progressives face in the ’20s, with the Red Scare, Scopes, Prohibition, the KKK, etc.) It also became problematic to speak in the language of citizenship when it was now well beyond clear that [a] women, African-Americans, and other minorities had been and were being treated in the civic culture as second-class citizens, and [b] the main civic project which the government was then asking its citizens to become engaged in was the war in Vietnam, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

* GENERATIONS. While both the early New Left (see the Port Huron Statement) and the early civil rights movement (see King, in the original entry) have strong civic, and even Emersonian, components, both Sixties protest groups and the general mood of politics eventually swung over into the rhetoric of individualistic, rights-based liberalism. Meanwhile, the New Right, in its opposition to the New Deal and Great Society, also abandoned to a large extent the language of citizenship and virtue and made an appeal based on individual freedom as opposed to a corrupt, socialistic central government. (For an excellent civic-conservative reaction to this shift, see George Will’s 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft, the best thing he’s ever written.)

Stevenson and the Kennedys were of the WWII generation, and — while I loathe the term “greatest generation,” unless you find something inherently great about training fire hoses on small children — they were more comfortable with the civic, “we’re all in it together” appeal of an earlier time. The appeal held less water with the much more skeptical Boomer generation, and, as the political culture embraced the individualistic liberalism/liberation of the late sixties and early seventies, with the nation at large. (You could argue Carter tried to make a civic argument on the energy question, and he was basically laughed out of the room.) Boomer politicians of either party — the Clintons, the Bushes — just aren’t as comfortable making civic-minded, public-interest arguments as their forbears. It’s not how they see the game is played. This is also due to:

* WATERGATE, GATEGATE. From Vietnam to (particularly) Watergate to bureaucratic bloat to Iran-Contra to the fiascos of today, Americans have experienced a severe diminuition in what we believe government is and should be capable of. This open-eyed skepticism about centralized power should be a good thing, but not if we throw out the baby with the bathwater. You know how Richard saida withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy?” Irony isn’t only the shackles of youth, it’s the shackles of our politics as well.

There’s other things going on too. Not to get all Caro up in here, but LBJ, I think, was inherently uncomfortable making civic arguments as well (unless he was appropriating them, a la “We shall overcome.”) His view, shaped as it was by the exigencies of local Texas politics and his days running the Senate, was that everything ultimately boiled down to self-interest. (This partly explains how he could screw up Vietnam so badly. Eventually he thinks about buying off Ho Chi Minh with a TVA-style system of dams for the Mekong Delta, not realizing that Ho — and North Vietnam — are persevering in part because they’ve committed to an ideal more important to them then self-interest: national independence, a cause they felt they’d been fighting for for thousands of years.)

But, perhaps most important to note, I think it’s fair to say that one reason the rhetoric of citizenship went out of style was because:

* THE PATTERN WAS FLAWED, for all the reasons I said above. If I was a guy growing up in Chicago, Mississippi, or anywhere else, and I was being treated as a second-class citizen by the white power structure, either by being denied the right to vote or being snubbed out of quality jobs or housing, and then I was told my civic duty was to go die in Southeast Asia for lousy reasons (while the Dick Cheneys of the world piled up deferments), I might turn against the civic project too. If I was a woman who was told my civic duty basically amounted to finding a good man, keeping his stomach full and his house clean, and punching out healthy, patriotic American children, I’d rebel against this flawed social order as well.

In short, the post-WWII, Cold War-obsessed civic culture of the 1950s and early 1960s was stifling and half-baked. It basically told citizens that their civic obligation was to buy as much as possible, to not consort with Reds, and, most importantly, to not cause any trouble. It needed to be broken up and reconfigured.

(The progressives of the 1920s come to this conclusion as well, when they see how easily Wilsonian public-interest rhetoric enables the Red Scare (thus letting people on the Right brand every possible progressive program as “Bolshevik.”) This is why some of the most civic-minded Progressives — Jane Addams, for example — play a major part in the creation of the ACLU.)

Here we get to the inherent problems with arguments that rely on civic-mindedness and appeals to citizenship. For one, a public interest that treats certain citizens as second-class is inherently and fatally flawed. Look at the early New Left — for all its progressive inclinations and civic-mindedness on paper and even in practice, it still basically treated women like the help. (See SNCC and Stokely Carmichael: “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.“)

Plus, as a general rule of human nature, groups of people working together tend to desire conformity and despise independence, no matter what their political inclinations. This is as much a failing of the Left as it is the Right. (See Animal Farm, Dylan plugging in at Newport, etc.)

Also, here the coercion problem in civic strands of political thought rears its head — Rousseau’s social compact forcing people to be free, and all that. An argument made on the basis of citizenship presumes coercion — citizens are expected to do this (vote, serve in the military, be informed about public matters) and not do that (drink, hang with Communists, etc.) Coercion isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself — I think everyone agrees citizens should not kill, own slaves, etc. — but [1] telling people they have to do anything goes against the view of absolute individual freedom enthroned today, and [2] coercion invariably leads to conformity. which is ultimately the avowed enemy of republican government, which both relies on and should promote individual excellence.

How do we get around this Gordian knot? My answer (which, not surprisingly, was also the answer of many of the Progressives) rests with Emerson. As I just said, an argument based on citizenship presupposes inculcating a certain virtue into citizens. But what if that virtue was individuality (not the same as individualism) and independence? The ability to think for oneself, the freedom to grow and innovate, and then the inclination to come back to the circle of citizens, share what you’ve learned, and deliberate about the public good? Emerson argues that we express our consent to government by expressing our dissent with government. If republican government is going to reach its full potential, it needs a community of independent-minded nonconformists. This is the type of citizenship a progressive candidate could and should get behind.

And the Progressives did promote it — People always read Herbert Croly as an apologist for strong, centralized government, but this isn’t quite right. Decades before he got into poltics, Croly was an architecture critic — he was deeply concerned about art and aesthetics, and was trying to fashion a political architecture that would help individuals to thrive. At the end of The Promise of American Life (p. 414), Croly talks about what’s he’s been aspiring to create: “A national structure which encourages individuality as opposed to mere particularity is one which creates innumerable special niches, adapted to all degrees and kinds of individual development.” For him the “Jeffersonian ends” of individuality and improvement were as important as the “Hamiltonian means” of a strong central government.

Ok, to step away from Planet Theory and get back to our real world: How would progressive-minded candidates of today work towards this new civic fabric? Well, first and most importantly, they would have to reconceive today’s liberal arguments in civic, progressive terms, to stop using the language of consumer choice and individual freedom — which plays so easily into the hands of corporate power and the small-government Right — like a crutch and bring back the language of citizenship and a shared narrative/vision/history that brings people together. The civic idea is so desiccated at the moment, for all the reasons mentioned in the original post, that just hearkening to its continued existence would be an immense step in the right direction (as well as a huge political boon for the Left regardless.)

From there, progressives, like their counterparts a century ago, would have to work to fix a broken system. This means campaign finance and lobbying reform, doing what we can to ensure that unwashed money doesn’t corrupt the system as horribly as it does now, and that dollars don’t speak louder than people.

As important here is voting reform. The voting system in our nation is absolutely abysmal. I refuse to believe that a country that can give almost every supermarket or store an ATM and almost every person a cellphone and iPod must be reduced to semi-functioning punchcard booths or electronic voting that can’t create a paper trail. And the long lines we see on every election day are patently shameful. Election Day should be a holiday (why not?), we should move to weekend voting, we should establish a Marshall plan to get every county in America an operating voting system, or something. Also, I doubt mandatory voting would ever work in this country, but what about tax incentives, or more likely public-private partnerships to encourage turnout? (Thanks for voting — here’s your free sundae at McDonalds and 20% off your next purchase at Borders.) The people who say this would be tantamount to bribing folks to vote are usually the people who don’t want voters showing up at the polls.

Today’s progressives should also look to education. The (Bill) Clinton model of adult, lifelong education is a step in the right direction, but what’s missing is the civic component. Civics is deader than dead in our high schools and colleges, so on the most basic level that needs to be emphasized. But, equally importantly, we need to reemphasize the skills key to republican government: critical thinking, deliberation, etc. (Dare I say it, reading.) From an early age we all need to learn how to sift through information to reach a critically informed opinion, to ask the right questions about the information being presented to us, and — perhaps most importantly — to learn how to engage with people who disagree with us in a constructive fashion.

And, a civic-minded progressive would continually look to our shared past and our shared future to bring Americans together. This would mean not only basking in but owning up to our collective past — say, adding a National Museum of Slavery to the Mall. It would also mean engaging in great civic projects which would bind the nation in common purpose (one of the many reasons I believe in the necessity of the space program.)

Some might argue that I’m on crack for thinking that campaign finance reform, civics classes, a slavery museum, and/or a trillion-dollar space program is going to change what’s wrong with America. And, no, these aren’t sufficient. But, as I said in the original post, the story is everything. If our leaders help us reconceive our view of the government — to remind us that the government is an expression of our shared values and ambitions as citizens — then we can begin to look at other problems differently. If we’re all in it together, the continued existence of child poverty, or the woeful lack of health insurance for many, here in the richest nation on Earth becomes that much more unacceptable.

I’m not naive enough to believe that embracing civic progressivism or adopting the rhetoric of citizenship is going to change the country immediately, that money is suddenly going to disappear from our political process thanks to one new law, or that the next iteration of American’s civic fabric will be bereft of the types of discrimination in evidence in the 1860s, 1920s, 1960s and beyond. But, to borrow from Cornel West, “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.

To put the same argument another way, there’s a scene in The Princess Bride where our hero Westley (Cary Elwes) and the princess Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) are on the run and looking for safety in the dastardly and invariably fatal Fire Swamp. “We’ll never survive,” bemoans Buttercup, to which Westley responds: “You’re only saying that because no one ever has.” That pretty much sums up how I feel about a lot of things, including progressivism in politics. Does true love exist? I dunno. Lord knows it hasn’t seemed like it, and I’ve been kicked in the teeth often enough at this point to think not. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t live my life as if it could happen. Same with this view of civic progressivism. David Greenberg may be right that civic-minded candidates have done pretty poorly in recent history, but that doesn’t mean the principle is flawed, or that we should stop trying.

And, besides, to jump over to another fantasy classic, you don’t wear the ring — you destroy the ring. So I’d rather stake my claim with the public interest progressives, even if that doesn’t play as well as all the blatant appeals to self-interest, than get all Boromir up in here and start acting like Republican-lite, which all too many of our party frontrunners have been doing these past few years.

Progressivism: A Born Loser?

Reagan aside, I do respectfully take issue with Greenberg’s prior Slate piece comparing Obama to a long list of well-meaning losers, including Adlai Stevenson and Bill Bradley. Greenberg writes: “Obama exhibits other elements of this Stevensonian style as well. It’s a style — an ideology, really — that links the quest for common ground with a language of enlightened reason. It disdains the passionate and sometimes ugly politics of backroom deals, negative campaigning, sordid tactics, and appeals to emotion. It extols sacrifice and denigrates self-interest…What he doesn’t seem to understand — as Stevenson did not — is that democratic politics fairly demands a measure of thrust and parry, of appeals to self-interest, and of playing the political game. And so does being a good president.

I would argue that these constant appeals to individual self-interest is exactly what’s what wrong with Democrats today. Put simply, our civic life has nearly wasted away, with devastating consequences for the Left in this country.The major operative question our politics seeks to answer today is not “How should we live?” or “What can we accomplish together?” but “Where’s my stuff?” And, due to this narrow, limiting absorption with individual self-interest, lefty candidates of late have mostly based their proactive appeals on small-minded ideas like bribing elderly voters with prescription drug benefits and everyone else with tax cuts. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?

As a result, more and more citizens are tuning out of the process completely. Without vision, the people perish. People find the grasping individualism at the center of politics today inherently unsatisfying, and they look for a deeper common purpose wherever they can find it. And, since Democrats too often can’t stop speaking in uninspiring technocratic policy-wonk, a consequence of their limited vision and ambitions, voters have been inclining in recent years toward the GOP, who at least offer a flawed but workable story, often rooted in gung-ho nationalism and unpacked ideas like “Freedom, Yeah!”, about who we are as a people. The story is everything (which is one main reason why I was drawn to American history in the first place.) To be successful, to be anything other than GOP-lite — a pathetic state we’ve been floundering in for decades — Democrats need to tell the nation a story about our shared history and our shared goals, and stop pandering to voters’ immediate self-interest all the live-long day.

Greenberg may argue that civic-mindedness in a political candidate is the province of losers, but I disagree — It’s all in the telling. After all, it was the extremely popular John F. Kennedy who reminded us to ask what you can do for your country, and his slain brother RFK obviously talked a great game in that respect too.

In this piece, Greenberg also discusses the retreat from the “the Mugwumps’ and Progressives’ moral uplift in favor of a pragmatic approach” under FDR. (This is also the ground my dissertation covers.) And, yes, the broker-state model of governance honed by the New Deal worked for a long time. More importantly, the idea of interest-group pluralism it cultivated has had many critically important successes to its name, not the least the civil rights revolutions of the past few decades (although those too have a strong civic component — MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech makes it explicit: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” This is not the language of self-interest but an appeal to a shared narrative as Americans.)

But I would argue that the enthronement of individual self-interest above all else in politics has reached its logical endpoint, and as a result our system is on the verge of falling apart — half the country doesn’t vote, money constantly bends the rules and everyone knows it, people are losing the inclination (or even the capacity) to act as informed, independent citizens. Indeed, you could argue Hillary Clinton’s failure with health care reform in the nineties exemplified the problem with broker-state leadership: When setting out to confront the issue, the Clintons cut everyone in on the deal, from insurance companies to HMOS to the AMA, in true broker-state fashion. As a result, no reform at all was forthcoming.

This was mainly because, as I’ve said before, the individualistic/broker state model of liberalism has no theory for coping with corporate power — It serves the wants, needs, and interests of consumers, what’s wrong with that? But a civic-minded progressive would argue that there are more important goals than the sating of individual desire, that the government is an expression of our common aspirations and should be more than just a dispensing machine, and that undue corporate influence over — and outright corruption in — our political affairs in fact represents a dire threat to the republic and to our way of life.

The progressive idea of citizenship both offers and demands higher aspirations of people than the lowest common denominator of individual self-interest that both parties appeal to today. We’re fast becoming a society where freedom is measured at best by what choices we make, but more often by what we can own as consumers. Progressives envison a society where freedom is also measured by what we can accomplish as citizens. Ultimately, freedom isn’t a state of being — it’s a state of becoming, of improvement, of progress. A political candidate who could tap into this progressive vein, I think, could inspire people like they haven’t been inspired by politics in a good long while. So, this is my crux of disagreement with Greenberg here — I don’t subscribe to the notion that common-good, public-interest progressivism is inherently a losing proposition. Quite the contrary.

Still, Greenberg’s article does a solid job of delineating the origins of Obama’s progressive appeal, and, at the very least, we agree that Obama is considerably more progressive than Clinton.

Only Yesterday.

By way of Ted at The Late Adopter, a bunch of 1940’s D-listers reminisce about the Depression Decade, VH-1 style, in I Love the ’30’s. Hey, isn’t that one of the Sonic guys? (The married one, not these two.)

Creators, Kingfish, and consiglieres.

Some quality historicizing in today’s Washington Post Book World: Michael Kazin reviews Richard White’s new Huey Long biography, H.W. Brand’s looks at Godfrey Hodgson’s new bio of Edward House (right-hand-man to Woodrow Wilson), and novelist David Liss briefly surveys recent works on the Founders.

Worst President Ever?

“Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties — Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush — have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures — an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities.” As seen all over the place, historian Sean Wilentz wonders aloud in Rolling Stone if Dubya is the worst president in American history.

To my mind, the only other president that even comes close is James Buchanan. Sure, Warren Harding was lousy, but he knew it (“I am a man of limited talents from a small town. I don’t seem to grasp that I am President.“), and thus didn’t go out of his way to be actively terrible like Bush has been. (Plus, for all the corruption of the Ohio gang, Harding’s cabinet also included Charles Evans Hughes, Andrew Mellon, and Herbert Hoover, all impressive in their own right.) Speaking of Hoover, both he and Ulysses Grant have been given a bad shake. Even if the Depression basically ate his administration alive, Hoover — once renowned as the “Great Engineer” — was a more innovative president (and empathetic person) than he’s often remembered. And Grant’s administrations, although plagued by corruption, at the very least tried to maintain Reconstruction in the South. (In fact, I’d argue that Grant’s sorry standing in presidential history is in a part a reflection of the low esteem in which Reconstruction was once held by the now-woefully obsolete Dunning School.) Regarding the other Reconstruction president, Andrew Johnson is assuredly down near the bottom too, but to be fair, he faced an almost impossible situation entering office in the time and manner he did, and — as with Clinton — his impeachment was a bit of a frame-job. And Richard Nixon, for all his many failings, had China (as well as the EPA despite himself, and, although it didn’t pan out, the Family Assistance Plan.) Nope, I think it’s safe to say that we may be experiencing perhaps the most blatantly inept, wrong-headed, and mismanaged presidency in the history of the republic. Oh, lucky us.

Plot Foiled.

A quick book bash: I wasn’t going to write about Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, which I read a few weeks ago, until seeing C.S.A tonight crystallized my problems with it. I should say up front that I run hot and cold on Roth — I quite liked Portnoy and American Pastoral, but kinda loathed Goodbye, Columbus. And, while The Plot Against America is getting good reviews all around, I had a strongly adverse reaction to it. For those of you who haven’t heard anything about it, Plot describes an alternate USA in which famed aviator and rabid isolationist Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in 1940, makes peace with Hitler, and begins a pogrom of sorts against Jewish-Americans, forcibly enrolling Jewish children (including the narrator’s brother) in Americanization programs and, eventually, attempting to relocate Jewish families to the Midwest. As per Roth’s usual m.o., the tale is told from the perspective of a Newark family trying to find their way — not very successfully — amid the deteriorating events.

As alternate histories go, it’s a great idea for a book, and I was really looking forward to seeing what Roth did with it. But, unlike CSA, which clearly showed an attentiveness to both what happened and what might have happened, Roth here has written an alternate history without seeming to give a whit about the history. In short, I found the book stunningly, almost narcissisticly, myopic. One gets the sense from reading Plot that the rift beween Jews and Gentiles in America was not only the most significant but the only ethnic or cultural schism in FDR’s America. This is not to say anti-semitism wasn’t rampant and widespread at the time — Of course it was, as attested by Father Coughlin, Breckinridge Long, and Lindbergh himself, who — in a speech that tarnished his reputation much more than Roth lets on — blamed support for the war on the “large ownership and influence [of Jews] in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our Government.” But, in The Plot Against America, no one else seems to even exist besides Jews and (White) Gentiles — To take the two most notable examples, there’s no mention of the fact that Africans-Americans were being lynched in staggering numbers in this period (the only lynching mentioned is that of Leo Frank), or that we actually did intern Japanese-Americans during the war. (As a point of contrast, C.S.A.‘s central thesis is about slavery, but it moves beyond white-black relations to explore, or at least reference, the place of Asians, Latinos, and gay Americans in the new Confederate system.)

This isn’t about tokenism — it’s about doing justice to the people and the history of the period you’re writing about. And, frankly, the history in The Plot Against America strains credulity time and time again. I’ll skip over the final twist so as not to give it away, and because it’s so ridiculously implausible that Roth couldn’t have intended for us to take it seriously. But, even despite that, Lindbergh’s popularity — and the public’s taste for isolationism — by 1940 seem significantly overstated throughout. (To take one example, there is no way that the Solid Democratic South would up and vote GOP that year — With the Civil War only recently out of living memory, the Dems could’ve run a wet paper bag in the South, so long as it wasn’t of the party of Lincoln and didn’t threaten to upset the Jim Crow racial order. That didn’t even begin to change until Strom in ’48.) And, while Walter Winchell plays a large role here in calling out the Nazi-American pact and resulting Jewish pogrom, he seems to be the only public figure in America doing so. Where’s everyone else? It doesn’t make sense.

Finally (and I’ll admit, this really ticked me off), Plot basically commits a character assassination of progressive/isolationist Burton Wheeler of Montana, who here appears as Lindbergh’s Vice-President (or, more to the point, his Cheney — I’m assuming that’s what Roth was getting at.) At a certain point in Plot, we’re supposed to believe that Wheeler — a guy who refused to prosecute alleged dissenters as Montana Attorney General during the hysteria of WWI, helped lead the investigation into the government corruption of Teapot Dome, and turned on FDR because he thought court-packing was an unconstitutional powergrab — is going to, out-of-the-blue, declare martial law and start rounding people up? That makes zero sense, and is, in effect, a slander on a real historical figure. Roth is obviously one of America’s most gifted writers — but, lordy, I thought The Plot Against America needed more research, more attention to historical nuance, and more sense that injustice and suffering in this country has often run along more than one axis of discrimination.

New Deal, Raw Deal.

“It was during the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman that such great progressive policies as Social Security, protective labor laws and the GI Bill were adopted. But with them came something else that was quite destructive for the nation: what I have called ‘affirmative action for whites.’ During Jim Crow’s last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s, when southern members of Congress controlled the gateways to legislation, policy decisions dealing with welfare, work and war either excluded the vast majority of African Americans or treated them differently from others.” With Katrina as a newspeg, Columbia’s own Ira Katznelson previews his new book on New Deal racial exclusion in the Washington Post.

Rewriting Roosevelt.

“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Or is quoting Orwell too shrill? Well, you tell me — A coalition of women’s groups are blocked from holding a forum on Social Security at the FDR Library in Hyde Park because none of the attendees wanted to support Dubya’s ill-conceived privatization plan (Two Republican representatives were invited to speak — both declined.)

I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that, despite the lies of Brit Hume and FOX News, ole FDR himself would probably have agreed that dismantling one of his most enduring achievements so that Dubya’s Wall Street cronies could pad their wallets is a lousy idea. (For what it’s worth, FDR’s grandson agrees.) At any rate, the new head of the National Archives, Allen Weinstein, is trying to mitigate the damage. And, well he should, for after all: “Weinstein has been on the job for six weeks. Several historical organizations opposed his selection, fearing he would politicize the archives. Bush removed the previous archivist without providing a reason to Congress.

Barton Fitzgerald.

In the summer of 1937, broke, in debt and trying desperately to dry out, F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, where he joined the legions of jerks with Underwoods…” The University of South Carolina acquire the papers of Fitzgerald’s late Hollywood years, which disclose that the author of Gatsby actually struggled to make the Great American Movie, to no avail.

Dust, Discrimination, and Domestic Containment.

Some thanksgiving orals reading, for you and yours…read with lavish amounts of stuffing and cranberry sauce.


Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.

Brave New Century.

Slow and steady wins the race, I hope:


George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
.
T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920.

Consume and Progress.

Another wave of updates over at the Orals site:


Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.
Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State.
John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War.
Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America.
Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age.
Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920.

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