"Progressivism or liberalism is fundamentally the attempt to mold social life in the light of the best available knowledge and in the interest of a humane ideal. It lives by the definite formulation of convictions, by the initiation of specific programs and by the creation of opportunities to try them out. It is necessarily aggressive. In order to be successfully aggressive, it must know what it wants; it must know how to get what it wants; and it must be willing to make the sacrifices which are necessary for the success of its aspirations and plans.”
More socialist talk from that radical in the White House intent on destroying the country that Glenn Beck loves so much?
Wrong. The year was 1920, and the writer was Herbert Croly — a progressive Republican, staunch supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, co-founder of The New Republic and author of The Promise of American Life, a classic that merged bold Hamiltonian means with the more individualist Jeffersonian ends. TR embraced these ideas as his “New Nationalism.”
With progressives in disarray, Croly saw the conservatives winning in 1920 and bringing back pre-TR reactionary governance. “The Return to Normalcy” was what they called it, and the “Roaring ’20s” was the party they threw. Several smelly “party gifts” arrived along the way: widespread corruption in the Harding administration; the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, with related lynchings and bombings; and Prohibition, which gave America Al Capone. Not coincidentally, everybody got to enjoy their lowest tax rates ever, until … well, until today. (Some refer to the ’20s as the coming of American fascism, but that’s for another time.)
On Oct. 24, 1929, the party ended. By 1933, unemployment stood at 25 percent. Enter FDR, who, as David Brooks wrote, “understood that his first job was to restore confidence, to give people a sense that somebody was in charge, that something was going to be done.”
Having lost badly in the elections, the reactionaries flailed wildly: “That man in the White House” was called a closet Jew, a “traitor to his class,” a fifth-column liberal secretly preparing the way for a communist takeover of America. The conservative Supreme Court did its part, overturning as much of the New Deal as it dared. Nor did those who had enjoyed the good times a decade earlier accept any responsibility for the mess they had caused. Ring a bell?
Roll the tape forward to 2009. The immediate right-wing assault on Barack Obama was unprecedented. He was given no “honeymoon” — even Richard Nixon got a “clean shave” from Herblock, the famous Washington Post cartoonist who had pilloried “Tricky Dick” for years.
Moreover, Obama faced worse circumstances than did Roosevelt in 1932. By the time FDR took office, the Depression was into its third year and any hint of improvement would be welcomed. Obama took office at the beginning of the economic firestorm. He inherited a situation that was going to get worse before it got better — and patience has never been the Americans’ strong suit. Still, given all the country’s challenges, he assumed that a responsible, loyal opposition would work with him. Well, dream on. It was to be “deja vu all over again.” Republicans shamelessly blamed him even for what had happened on their watch.
This seemingly spontaneous assault did not come about by accident. Jane Mayer, in her startling New Yorker article, “Covert Operations,” reveals that many of the attacks were promoted and orchestrated by the oil-rich and ominously effective Koch brothers, David and Charles (only Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s fortunes are larger). While the Koch brothers and their political allies publicly support libertarianism (problematic enough), their stated objectives amount to rapacious corporatism (a political system in which legislative power is effectively awarded to corporations which represent economic, industrial and professional groups). As for representative government, the foundation of our democracy? One brother put it bluntly: Members of Congress should just read off scripts prepared by others.
To recruit foot soldiers, they appealed to America’s nativists and accused Obama of denying “American exceptionalism.” (Message? Obama is un- American.) Their version of “exceptional” — no surprise — is identical to the 1920s Republican agenda.
As one Democratic strategist put it: “They are out to destroy progressivism.”
Alexis de Tocqueville viewed American politics, by whatever label, as reflecting a historical tension between two competing perspectives: individuality and community. In summary, he observed:
(Principles of Freedom)
(Principles of Order)
As our astute French visitor predicted, the country typically “muddles through,” resolving its conflicts towards the middle, between these two sets of ideals.
Then comes Election 2000: They spend hundreds of millions getting the feckless Bush “appointed,” hand him his corporatist script and approvingly watch as government is opened for “bidness.” No more muddling through. Corporatism, masked as good old American individualism, had made its comeback.
Now along comes this popular, young president, and, damn, he could mess things up. Another FDR they didn’t need. What to do? Ironically, they turn for help to Obama’s own role model, Saul Alinsky, and use his ideas. From Rules for Radicals, Rule 13: “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it.” This is just what they have done.
Their strategy? Keep Obama from derailing their gravy train so they can fully enjoy the second coming of the Roaring ’20s. Make no mistake: This is what the November election is really about.