We Have Examples, Mr. Chait

We Have Examples, Mr. Chait

by David Atkins

The insightful David Frum piece that Digby highlighted earlier was complemented in New York Magazine by a companion piece by regular concern troll Jonathan Chait attacking the liberal/progressive base.

One shouldn't dismiss Chait out of hand. He deserves a fair hearing, and much of what he has to say is food for thought, if only because he brings some uncomfortable facts to the table that need grappling with. Unlike the usual neoliberal claptrap, Chait's essay is lengthy, packed with evidence and detail, and in some ways persuasively argued while lacking in others.

Chait examines the presidencies of every Democratic President since FDR and notes that the Left has always seen as them as too compromising, too ineffective, and too beholden to right-wing economic interests. Obama and Clinton, obviously, have been seen by many on the left as little more than affable fronts for socially liberal but economically and militarily conservative policies. History tends to look back at Carter as more progressive than he actually was as president, a point that Hacker and Pierson also note at length. LBJ was despised for the Vietnam War. Kennedy was constantly stymied by conservatives, and had a fairly aggressive foreign policy. Truman had his problems with the left.

And Chait is right that even FDR was pilloried frequently from the Left, and would have been more so today. FDR came into office railing against Hoover for allowing deficits, and in 1937 lengthened the Great Depression by making big cuts to curb deficits. He made big compromises on his social programs to secure business support and especially the support of racist Southern Dixiecrats, which meant that African-Americans were largely excluded from some of the most important programs:

An exception to this trend, but only a partial exception, is Franklin Roosevelt, the most esteemed of the historical Democratic president-saints. Roosevelt is hard to compare to anybody, because his achievements were so enormous, and his failures so large as well (court-packing, interning Japanese-Americans). But even his triumphs, gleaming monuments to liberalism when viewed from the historical distance, appear, at closer inspection, to be riddled with the same tribulations, reversals, compromises, dysfunctions, and failures as any other. Roosevelt did not run for office promising to boost deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy. He ran castigating Herbert Hoover for permitting high deficits, then immediately passed an austerity budget in his first year. Roosevelt did come around to Keynesian stimulus, but he never seemed to understand it, and in 1937 he reversed himself again by cutting spending, helping plunge the economy into a second depression eventually mitigated only by war spending.

Liberals frustrated with Obama’s failure to assail Wall Street have quoted FDR’s 1936 speech denouncing “economic royalists,” but that represented just a brief period of Roosevelt’s presidency. Mostly he tried to placate business. When he refused to empower a government panel charged with enforcing labor rights, a liberal senator complained, “The New Deal is being strangled in the house of its friends.” Roosevelt constantly feared his work-relief programs would create a permanent class of dependents, so he made them stingy. He kept the least able workers out of federal programs, and thus “placed them at the mercy of state governments, badly equipped to handle them and often indifferent to their plight,” recalled historian William Leuchtenburg. Even his greatest triumphs were shot through with compromise. Social Security offered meager benefits (which were expanded under subsequent administrations), was financed by a regressive tax, and, to placate southern Democrats, was carefully tailored to exclude domestic workers and other black-dominated professions.

Compared with other Democratic presidents, Roosevelt enjoyed relatively friendly relations with liberals, but there nonetheless existed a left opposition during his time, mostly of socialists and communists, who criticized him relentlessly. Progressive senator Burton Wheeler complained that FDR, “for all his fine talk, really preferred conservatives to progressives.” And actually, the Roosevelt era had the same pattern we see today, of liberals angry with the administration’s compromises, and the administration angry in turn at the liberals. In 1935, Roosevelt adviser Rex Tugwell groused of the liberals, “They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there.”

All of this is unassailably accurate. One can only imagine what a 1930s era Glenn Greenwald would have said about FDR's multiple terms, his attempts to pack the Supreme Court, the Korematsu decision on Japanese-American internment camps, etc.

Chait also takes on the myopia of the Thomas Friedman and "Americans Elect" crew in a smart way, declaring them even more irrational than the progressive base he assails previously:

What, by contrast, are we to make of third-party activists like Thomas L. Friedman or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz? They have a president who supports virtually everything they want—short-term stimulus, long-term deficit reduction through a mix of taxes and entitlement cuts, clean energy, education reform, and social liberalism. Yet they are agitating for a third party in order to carry out an agenda that is virtually identical to Obama’s. In a column touting the third-party Americans Elect, the closest Friedman comes to explaining why we should have a third party, rather than reelect the politician who already represents their values, is to say that such a party “would have offered a grand bargain on the deficit two years ago, not on the eve of a Treasury default.” He agrees with Obama’s plan, in other words, but proposes to form a new party because he disagrees with his legislative sequencing.

As political analysis, this is pure derangement. It’s the Judean People’s Front for the Aspen Institute crowd. But these sorts of anti-political fantasies arise whenever liberals are forced to confront the crushing ordinariness of governing. (Matthew Miller, a fervent promoter of Americans Elect, likewise pined for a third party in 1996, on the curious grounds that President Clinton wasn’t doing enough to balance the budget.) Liberal disaffection helped Republicans win elections in 2000, 1968, and very nearly in 1948. All those elections came after Democrats had held the White House for at least two terms, and liberal disgust with politics had built up to toxic levels.

There is a catchphrase, which you’ve probably seen on bumper stickers or T-shirts, that captures the reason liberals have trouble maintaining political power: “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” At first blush it sounds constructive. If you consider it for a moment, though, the line assumes that there are two modes of political behavior, bitching and revolution. Since the glorious triumph of revolution never really pans out, eventually you’ll return to the alternative, bitching. But there is a third option that lies between the two—the ceaseless grind of politics.

Chait's critique has some merit. Progressives have never been happy with Democratic presidents. But he also misses the mark in two very big ways. Both have to do with a failure to learn from example:

1) It's undeniable that while liberals have groused forever about our own presidents, the last 30 years have given us something to actually be very upset about, particularly on the economic front. The knock on FDR and Truman was that they didn't go far enough; the biggest knocks on JFK and LBJ had to do with foreign policy, rather than domestic policy.

It's with Jimmy Carter that the move to supply-side economics and asset-oriented policy truly begins, and it has continued mostly unabated ever since with little in the way of push back. Progressives have every right to be upset about that--and to be more and more upset with each succeeding Democratic president. FDR can be forgiven for his 1937 attempt to balance the budget during a Depression; he had few examples to go on. Carter could be forgiven for responding to 1970s economic shocks with then-untested conservative approaches. Clinton was less forgivable because two decades had shown the weaknesses of conservative approaches; even if he had to move considerably to the right to survive politically after 1994, co-operating with the elimination of Glass Steagall and other deregulatory moves was unnecessary.

One of the biggest problems with Obama is not so much that he is so different from his Democratic predecessors--though none of them have been so quick to compromise as he has been, and none until now have offered to put Medicare and Social Security on the bargaining table--as that the failures of conservative economics are so patently obvious at this point there is no excuse for perpetuating them or giving credence to them at all. We have at least 70 years of history to prove fairly conclusively that we're right and they're wrong.

Moreover, the devastating financial crisis of 2008 had given us a unique opportunity to make needed core changes to the economic system. The voters were ready for change. They voted for change. The biggest disappointment with President Obama isn't so much what he has done, or that there he is somehow different from his recent Democratic predecessors, than about the missed opportunities he didn't take, and the fact that he should by all rights have taken a markedly different approach than Clinton or Carter, who did not have the benefit of Obama's hindsight.

This time could and should have been different.

2) Progressives have the object examples of social democracies abroad to which we can compare the American system and find it wanting. As I have pointed out in the past, conservatives have no such examples to look to:

This is one of the reasons that conservatives are so desperate to hold onto the notion of American exceptionalism: liberals have a wide of range of models from Japan to Scandinavia to prove the efficacy of various progressive solutions to America's problems. No country is perfect, of course, and solutions that work elsewhere may not work here. But as a general rule, progressives have effective examples worldwide to prove the value of our approach, whether it be in medicine, criminal justice, labor or otherwise.

Conservative approaches by contrast are a failure wherever and whenever they are tried. Theocracy inevitably leads to tyranny and despotism, whether it be the Christian theocracies of the Middle Ages or the modern theocracies of the Islamic world. Weapons-happy libertarianism ultimately ends in the sort of anarchic despotism we see in Somalia. Conservative approaches to finance, taxation and regulation lead inevitably to economic collapse, as seen in the history of basically every single country that ever even temporarily earned the "tiger" moniker from Austrian economists seeking to validate their theories.

So if progressives are upset that Obama's Affordable Care Act doesn't go far enough, it's not our grousing opinion. It's because we know it doesn't--and all we have to do is look north of the border at Canada, or to most any country in Europe, or to the social democracies of Asia to prove it. If progressives are upset that campaign finance laws are woefully ineffective, it's because we have examples overseas of less corrupt electoral processes to prove it. Europe's financial system has also been remarkably stable for decades until the Anglo-American-caused economic crash combined with the misguided adoption of the Euro. We know that our transportation and broadband infrastructure are inadequate: all it takes is a trip to Seoul or Munich to prove it. We have examples of what actually works all around us, which makes our lack of progress infuriating to those who actually travel outside the borders of the U.S.

Conservatives, despite their moniker, have few examples to look toward for policy prescriptions short of the pre-1930s Gilded Age. They're engaged in a utopian hyperlibertarian agenda, and every piece of "progress" they make toward that agenda is just gravy. Liberals in the United States are constantly frustrated by the fact that we can look at examples from history, as well as contemporary examples just to the north or just across either ocean, to demonstrate the worthiness of our ideas. And yet little is done in the realm to public policy to acknowledge the difference between liberal fact-based arguments, and plainly wrong-headed conservative utopian speculation.

So yes, Mr Chait. Liberals are always--and increasingly of late--frustrated with our Presidents. That's because we have every reason to be.