“Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment,” writes Eric Alterman in a mammoth new essay about the constraints that supposedly make a progressive presidency impossible. Well, count me among the few. A law guaranteeing near-universal health coverage is more than merely “significant;” it’s the fulfillment of a century-long progressive dream. And the Obama stimulus bill lavishes more money on liberal priorities than anyone dreamed possible in the Carter or Clinton years. Yes, Obama is wading deeper into Afghanistan and yes, his record on civil liberties is mediocre, but if that’s the acid test for a progressive president, then Franklin Roosevelt (Japanese internment), Harry Truman (loyalty boards that hounded many progressives out of government) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam) fail as well.
No one believes, as many did in the mid-1930s and mid-1960s, that if presidential reform fails, blood will spill in the streets.
In truth, every president disappoints his base. “In the past few weeks, conservative and neo-conservative thinkers inside and outside the administration have reached a state of open disaffection with the Reagan administration’s policy directions,” declared The Wall Street Journal in 1982. To this day, many conservatives insist that George W. Bush wasn’t really one of them. The complaints grow loudest when a president’s popularity declines, as Reagan’s did during the 1982 recession, and Bush’s did starting in 2005. When a presidency runs into trouble, activists rush to deny ideological paternity.
But let’s take today’s progressive activists at their word when they say Obama has let them down. Let’s assume they had every right to expect that he would enact a public option, pass a cap and trade bill, emasculate Goldman Sachs, close Guantanamo Bay and get America out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Why has he failed? The answer, I think, goes beyond the filibuster rule that creates a de facto, 60-vote threshold in the Senate. (It’s true that the filibuster is used more often today than during FDR and LBJ’s time, but back then, conservative committee chairman often kept progressive legislation from even reaching the Senate floor). And the answer goes beyond the influence of corporate money, although that clearly plays a role. The more fundamental difference between the Obama era and its New Deal and Great Society predecessors is this: Back then, progressives did not define the left end of the political spectrum. In the 1930s and 1960s, America featured honest-to-goodness alternatives to capitalism, home-grown radical movements that scared the crap out of the American establishment and sent some of its denizens scurrying into arms of reformers like FDR and LBJ. Because our entire ideological spectrum has shifted right since communism’s collapse, reforms that once looked like centrist compromises now look like the brainchild of Chairman Mao.
In the 1930s, some of America’s most prominent intellectuals saw communism as a serious alternative to Depression-era capitalism. (One reason so many writers and artists got in trouble during the McCarthyite scare of the early 1950s was that so many had flirted with pro-communist groups during FDR’s presidency.) And while American communism never became a mass movement, the Depression years birthed home-spun assaults on capitalism that were almost as frightening. Louisiana Senator Huey Long, who would likely have challenged Roosevelt in the 1936 Democratic primaries had he not been gunned down, proposed capping the wealth any American could possess, and providing every family an income that was one-third the national average. Dr. Francis Townsend’s wildly popular scheme for old age pensions made Social Security seem timid by comparison. By 1935, FDR faced almost as much grassroots opposition from his left as from his right.
Similarly, Lyndon Johnson launched his campaign for racial justice and a “Great Society” against the backdrop of an increasingly militant civil rights movement and beginning in 1964, a sequence of urban riots. Ultimately, African-American anger and violence pushed white America to the right, helping to destroy Johnson’s war on poverty. But between 1964 and 1966, when Johnson passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicaid, Medicare, and Head Start, the realization that Washington faced a mass African-American movement flirting with radical alternatives to the political and economic order helped convince some in Congress that LBJ’s reforms were a safe harbor. In the mid-1960s, like the 1930s, a conservative-minded politician or businessman could genuinely believe that if FDR or LBJ failed, something more radical would follow in their wake.
No one believes that today. There are vibrant progressive organizations, from Moveon.org to SEIU, but they are part of the Democratic Party; there is no powerful grassroots movement that stands outside the two-party system calling for revolutionary change. No one believes, as many did in the mid-1930s and mid-1960s, that if presidential reform fails, blood will spill in the streets. From Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, American progressivism has historically occupied what Arthur Schlesinger famously called “the vital center,” a bulwark against the anti-democratic ideologies of both left and right. Except that today, powerful left-wing ideologies barely exist, and so large numbers of Americans can genuinely believe that Barack Obama is a socialist, if not a totalitarian. Luckily for them, and unluckily for progressives who want dramatic change, America no longer features the real thing.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.