I cannot understand why some progressives and liberals engage so frequently nowadays in hand wringing and fussing about how President Obama isn’t “liberal enough.” People, please take note. Progressives and liberals won all the big battles in the 20th century over whether America was going to become a moderate nation with a social safety net or one that followed the aggressively selfish philosophy of someone like Ayn Rand and her ilk. That war is over. We won. Now, we just have to be sure we don’t lose the “peace” by allowing what passes for conservatism today (actually, it’s reactionary and extremely dangerous to our representative democracy) to divide us and conquer us all.
President Obama never was a leftist politician. He never pretended to be. He is a centrist or at best a center-left pragmatist who understands that getting half a loaf in the poisonous atmosphere in Washington today is far better than going for it all and losing it all. We also need to understand that this nation is, at best, a centrist country, with a tendency to lean to the conservative side unless self interest makes us want the federal government to save us from something. The good thing is that a majority of Americans support the social safety net and the programs given to us by those who have gone before, giants like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
If you like knowing that someone has inspected the meat you are going to feed your children, thank TR. You also can thank him for the Pure Food and Drug Act, which banned food and drugs that are impure or falsely labeled from being made, sold, and shipped.
While the Republican party rejected the progressive policies of TR, the Democrats took up that cause and advanced it to where we are today. We all owe great thanks to Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson for ultimately winning the “war” over exactly what America would become. (I have no doubt that someday historians will note that Barack Obama brought back regulation of Wall Street and protection for consumers, as well as giving the nation its first attempt at health care for all Americans…Ken Kookinelli notwithstanding.)
So, let’s not buy into the “divide and conquer” idea that plays into the strengths of the radical Republicans. There’s no need for us to separate ourselves into those who support the pragmatism of Mark Warner and Barack Obama and those who align with Dennis Kucinich and Alan Grayson. For better or worse, we are a “big tent” party that can form a majority far more easily than the far right wingnuts who have taken over the GOP. Instead, we have a legacy to protect, one that people rely upon in times of trouble like the present. It was a gift to us from those giants who went before us.
Let’s remember that when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, there was no social safety net like the one we have today. The millions of Americans who were unemployed back then had absolutely no benefits to bridge the gap until they could find another job. People were desperate, unlike the Great Recession that Barack Obama faced upon assuming the presidency. Now, at least, those who have lost their jobs can get enough assistance to avoid total family catastrophe.
Ironically, considering what is transpiring in Wisconsin nowadays, that state pioneered unemployment insurance in 1932. The same act that started Social Security in 1935 also set up a federal-state unemployment insurance program, financed through a tax on employers. In times of high unemployment, such as we have now, the federal government lends money to states to cover shortfalls in unemployment payments. In this crisis the Democrats in Congress and President Obama engineered an unprecedented 99 weeks of assistance for the long-term unemployed, something never achieved – or even needed – before.
Much of the safety net we take for granted today is the result of the efforts of Francis Perkins, a former social worker who became Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. She pushed for and saw enacted into law child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, and extra pay for overtime work. Perkins shepherded through the Social Security Act of 1935 as chair of FDR’s President’s Committee on Economic Security. For those who bemoaned the 2010 Affordable Care Act and how long it took to pass, the original Social Security law also took months to enact and was hardly what we have today. It was quite limited in scope and benefits, especially since it did not cover farm workers or domestic servants, primarily to satisfy demands of southern Democrats who wanted to exclude Blacks from the program.
It was President Harry Truman who first gave support to the civil rights movement by desegregating the armed forces in 1948 and allowing a strong civil right plank into the Democratic party platform, a gutsy move considering he was driving away the racists in the southern wing of the Democratic party.
It remained for Lyndon Johnson to complete the victory for liberalism. His “Great Society” programs included Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Head Start, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (By the way, he said at the time that he was signing away the South for Democrats for a generation. He was more than right.)
So, I contend that the war for what kind of America we will have was won in the last century. Our job as progressives is to come together, work diligently and preserve that heritage that is now under attack for the next generation and the one after that. It is most emphatically NOT to shoot ourselves in the foot and allow one of the nutty crazies from the GOP presidential field the opportunity to destroy our nation.