Tuesday, April 27, 2010

FDR Populism

If, for some strange reason, you really want your heart broken some time, read FDR's first or second second inaugural addresses or virtually any utterance of Harry S Truman (the ones about economics, anyway) and then compare and contrast with the current Thing That Used To Be Liberalism.


Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

I suspect a lot of this goes back to the way the left split in the late sixties, over Vietnam and (to a lesser extent, civil rights); blue collar and union guys vs. the "New Left" college radicals. That split has consistently and only served one constituency well, really; the rich. It is worth remembering that the central, core, consensus issues that have united the left's most dominant constituency (the New Deal coalition) were economic in character.

The consensus left position, the set of beliefs that really distinguished you as "left," used to be very simple, and went like this:
It is legitimate and necessary to use the power of the central government (through progressive taxation, income redistribution and support for labor) to restrain the tendency of big business to concentrate wealth in the hands of an elite few, and thus provide social and economic stability.

See? Simple.

Everything else needs to flow from that crucial, central, distinctive-to-the-left premise - and when it does, suddenly the national conversation starts to change.

FDR again:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.

When the Republican Party says we need tax cuts to stimulate the economy, I'd love it if the Democrats countered that by pointing out that the Republicans have been trying that for years, and really just want to give more money to their rich friends and weaken the government's ability to stick up for working folks. They might also say that we Democrats want to pass a big jobs bill to give our constituency, ordinary Joes and Janes, a chance to practice their legendary work ethic and provide a future for their children.

Like that.

In short, I and Digby and (to some extent) Paul Krugman and others have been calling for the Democratic Party to take the golden opportunity of the current crisis to break out the economic populist rhetoric to sell economic populist policies.

This would seem to be an obvious and winning strategy that could plausibly lead to a couple generations of electoral and ideological dominance.