HUDSON VALLEY ACTIVIST NEWSLETTER/CALENDAR
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This newsletter/calendar, published in New Paltz, N.Y., appears once a month, supplemented by additional listings of new activist events, usually sent to Valley readers only. Editor, Jack A. Smith (who writes all the news articles that appear without a byline or credit to other publications). Copy Editor, Donna Goodman. Calendar Editor, Rocco Rizzo. If you know someone who may benefit from this newsletter, ask them to subscribe at email@example.com
Part 2, the Activist Events Calendar, will be emailed tomorrow to Hudson Valley readers only.
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1. THE COLLATERAL DAMAGE OF WAR — A brief excerpt from an outstanding article by a prize-winning war correspondent about the nature of war and its victims.
2. WHAT'S UP WITH THE DEMOCRATIC CONGRESS? — During June Congress funded the Iraq war deep into next year, approved a version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that endangers civil liberties, and, in effect, eliminated the possibility of impeaching President Bush. Why are progressives and the left not particularly surprised?
3. EDITORIAL: DYING FOR AN EDUCATION — The recent legislative upgrading of the GI Bill to provide a free four-year college education to post-9/11 Bush era enlistees in the military seems to have met with popular approval. But it raises some big questions.
4. CREATING A NEW PROGRESSIVE ERA — Under what conditions might it be possible to bring about a period of significant progressive change and reform that would adequately address our country's major social problems? That's the question this magazine-size article investigates with an excursion into the history of progressive reform in the United States. Much of its content is devoted to examining three eras our history noted for important reform legislation, and juxtaposing them to the last four conservative decades where new social programs for the working class, lower middle class and the poor have been virtually nonexistent. This is the last of six articles on economic inequality and poverty in America.
5. CHECK IT OUT — Our latest collection of new articles of more than usual interest to progressive people, with websites for access.
1. THE COLLATERAL DAMAGE OF WAR
[Editor's Note: The following few paragraphs about the nature of war are outstanding. They are excerpted from a 5,000-word article by Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges, the former Middle East Bureau Chief of the New York Times. Earlier in the article, Hedges notes that "The war in Iraq is now primarily about murder…. American Marines and soldiers have become socialized to atrocity." Details about accessing the full article on the internet are at the end, plus information concerning the important new book about Iraq — titled "Collateral Damage" — that Hedges wrote with journalist Laila Al-Arian.]
The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of "glory," "honor," and "patriotism" to mask the cries of the wounded, the brutal killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with stories of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war.
The vanquished know the essence of war — death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin, with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.
But the words of the vanquished come later, sometimes long after the war, when grown men and women unpack the suffering they endured as children: what it was like to see their mother or father killed or taken away, or what it was like to lose their homes, their community, their security, and to be discarded as human refuse. But by then few listen. The truth about war comes out, but usually too late. We are assured by the war-makers that these stories have no bearing on the glorious violent enterprise the nation is about to inaugurate. And, lapping up the myth of war and its sense of empowerment, we prefer not to look.
We are trapped in a doomed war of attrition in Iraq…. We have become tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. And we believe, falsely, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have the right to wage war.
We make our heroes out of clay. We laud their gallant deeds and give them uniforms with colored ribbons on their chests for the acts of violence they committed or endured. They are our false repositories of glory and honor, of power, of self-righteousness, of patriotism and self-worship, all that we want to believe about ourselves. They are our plaster saints of war, the icons we cheer to defend us and make us and our nation great. They are the props of our civic religion, our love of power and force, our belief in our right as a chosen nation to wield this force against the weak, and rule. This is our nation's idolatry of itself. And this idolatry has corrupted religious institutions, not only here but in most nations, making it impossible for us to separate the will of God from the will of the state.
These excerpts are part of an article Hedges adapted from the introduction to the book titled "Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians" which he wrote in collaboration with journalist Laila Al-Arian. It's based on interviews with 50 U.S. combat veterans of the Iraq war and was published by Nation Books this month. The article is available online at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174939/chris_hedges_war_and_occupation_american_style. Also, Hedges and Al-Arian were interviewed by Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now radio program June 10. The text (or broadcast if you wish to listen) is at http://www.democracynow.org/2008/6/10/chris_hedges_and_laila_al_arian.
2. WHAT'S UP WITH THE DEMOCRATIC CONGRESS?
During the month of June the Democratic-controlled Congress voted to fund the Iraq war deep into next year, to support a compromise version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that endangers civil liberties, and, in effect, eliminated the possibility of impeaching President George W. Bush.
Why are progressives and the left not particularly surprised? Because it is consistent with the timidity, compromise, and opportunism that has come to characterize many of the actions and inactions of the Democratic Congress since it took power in January 2007. This is especially the case regarding the question of ending the Iraq War, the raison d'etre for its victory in the elections of November 2006.
We're not suggesting the Democrats are the same as the Republicans. Their centrism is an improvement over neoconservatism. But what consolation is that to liberal and antiwar voters when the Democrats just shoveled $162.5 billion into the furnace of war in Iraq and Afghanistan to last until August 2009 when Bush originally only sought $108 Billion to last until October? Or when the House has essentially legalized some the Bush Administration's domestic spying operations? Or when the Democrats voted "in favor" of liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich's impeachment resolution by sending it to a Judiciary Committee that intends to bury it alive on instructions of the House majority leadership?
[Editor's Note for Hudson Valley Readers: Valley Congressmen Rep. Maurice Hinchey (22 CD) and Rep. John Hall (19 CD) both voted against the war funding proposal and the compromise FISA bill. In addition, Hinchey has now joined as a co-sponsor of Rep. Kucinich's call for the impeachment of President Bush.]
It seems to us that the Democratic Party's congressional leadership rather cavalierly decided to alienate its own rank-and-file constituency that wants the troops out of Iraq next year, that opposes the FISA legislation on civil liberties grounds, and that believes the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush Administration deserve impeachment.
Fortunately for the party's politicians they will not suffer more than trace desertions by the faithful at the polls in November due to the cloak of immunity protecting them by virtue of being the "lesser evil." It's a powerful magnet, and rarely fails to pull in the disgruntled liberals and progressives. But even so, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn and Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel agreed on a rather deceptive approach to the war funding vote.
Rep. Pelosi and her colleagues worked out a way to split the funding bill into three separate sections to please the various Democratic House factions, but present the results to the Senate as a single proposal. This allowed the representative to be recorded as voting up or down on each measure. They were: (1) war funding, (2) a withdrawal provision, and (3) spending not related to Iraq and Afghanistan.
First it must be understood that the Democratic Party and Congressional leadership has no intention of halting war spending, particularly in an election year, but sought to convey the impression that it did in order to satisfy Democratic voters.
In this regard, President Bush earlier in the year presented a request for a supplemental appropriation of $108 billion through September. In discussions between the two parties, however, it was agreed to boost the war funding to $162.5 billion and extend the time until August 2009. The purpose was to achieve two objectives: (1) Eliminate having to vote on a new appropriation just weeks before Election Day. (2) Insure that the next president can wait until next summer before requesting more money for the wars.
The Democratic House leaders understood before the vote that the funding bill would pass since about a third of the Democratic members were going to vote in favor anyhow, and many more were prepared to vote "Yes" if their votes were absolutely necessary for passage. The money measure was approved June 19 with 268 votes in favor, including those of 80 Democrats, while 155 representatives, mostly from antiwar districts, voted against. Pelosi, from a strongly antiwar San Francisco district, voted "No," although the Democratic leadership has actually worked quietly to approve funding for the last 18 months. Hoyer, Clyburn and Emanuel voted "Yes."
Progressive Democrats such as Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.) were angry about the funding verdict, knowing that their party could have fought much harder. "For me," he was quoted as saying by the New York Times June 20, "this is one compromise too many, one cave-in too many."
In justification, Pelosi complained that "The president simply will not sign such legislation. Our troops are in harm's way. They need to be taken care of." This has been the leadership's line from the beginning, ignoring the alternatives: Passing a limited money bill with a strong withdrawal proviso, or a bill with money specifically for bringing the troops home in three or six months — and standing firm in the face of Bush vetoes, sending it back to him every time. He'd eventually have to relent or take the blame since the Democrats would be offering money to remove the troops from "harm's way," and he would be seen as rejecting it.
The second vote in the funding package was a proposal for removing all combat troops by December 2009, which passed 227-196. It was for show. The measure was non-binding, so it didn't amount to much more than allowing the Democrats to go on record favoring withdrawal even as they facilitated war funding. It was understood the this part of the funding package would be eliminated in the Senate.
The third vote was on domestic spending add-ons, primarily a popular measure updating the GI Bill to bill to provide free college education to enlistees who joined after the 9/11 terror attacks and remained at least three years. It passed 416-12 as both sides of the aisle competed to show how passionately they supported the troops. (See our editorial below, "Dying For An Education.")
The Senate passed the funding package June 26, minus the withdrawal proposal by vote of 92-6. All Democratic senators voted in favor. The "No" votes were from Republicans that objected to the domestic add-on spending.
The funding bill might have passed a month earlier but for a droll contretemps that took place on May 17, the day of the first vote. The Republicans were perturbed because the House majority leadership did not consult them when this complex three-part bill was put together, and also because they understood the real meaning of the bill was to approve the war money but to make it appear that the Democrats were mounting a serious opposition. Pelosi had 85 Democrats lined up to vote in favor, enough to pass the measure with the expected Republican votes.
But the GOP minority pulled a fast one. By last-minute prearrangement unknown to the Democrats, 132 Republicans didn't vote but answered "present," resulting in the defeat of the war funding bill 149-141. This pseudo "victory" for the antiwar side did not amuse the Democratic leadership. Hoyer accused the Republicans of not supporting the troops. Rahm told them, "Explain that to the troops." Pelosi took note that "House Republicans refused to pay for a war they support." GOP Minority Leader John Boehner commented: "It was a political scheme. We wanted to expose it, and we did."
On June 20, the House voted 293-129, with 105 Democrats joining the Republicans in supporting an updated "compromise" version of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was introduced 30 years ago to prevent the government's ongoing abuses of electronic surveillance allegedly intended to strengthen national security.
The compromise was the product of lengthy discussions between Democratic and Republican leaderships. The Democrats gave away so much that Republican chief negotiator Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri told the press: “I think the White House got a better deal than even they had hoped to get."
The New York Times revealed two years ago that the Bush Administration had been engaged in violating the terms of the act starting after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Bush then argued that the requirements of national security during the "War on Terrorism" provided him with the right to override aspects of the 1978 law. The compromise was intended to make improvements, but the new version of the act failed to close certain loopholes, let the White House off the hook, and provided no penalties for those who had violated the law.
In evaluating the updated proposal after its passage, the Times wrote that the compromise strengthened "the government’s powers to spy on terrorism suspects in some major respects… [and] would strengthen the ability of intelligence officials to eavesdrop on foreign targets. It would also allow them to conduct emergency wiretaps without court orders on American targets for a week if it is determined that important national security information would otherwise be lost. If approved by the Senate, as appears likely, the agreement would be the most significant revision of surveillance law in 30 years."
The bill also provided immunity to several telecommunications giants such as Verizon and AT&T, which cooperated with the government's illegal program. This means the dismissal of dozens of pending lawsuits against the companies for engaging in unlawful surveillance.
Civil libertarians and some Congressional Democrats were sharply critical of the compromise and House passage of the bill. New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, charged that the bill “abandons the Constitution’s protections and insulates lawless behavior from legal scrutiny." Liberal Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold said the bill "is not a compromise; it is a capitulation."
A sense of the reactionary nature of this legislation was provided by Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office: This bill, she declared June 20, "is not a meaningful compromise, except of our constitutional rights. The bill allows for mass, untargeted and unwarranted surveillance of all communications coming in to and out of the United States. The courts’ role is superficial at best, as the government can continue spying on our communications even after the FISA court has objected. Democratic leaders turned what should have been an easy FISA fix into the wholesale giveaway of our Fourth Amendment rights."
The party leadership, stung by the deluge of criticism, is evidently seeking to repair its reputation by promising to seek modifications in the Senate bill after the Independence Day holiday. They are also concerned about deflecting criticism from both left and right directed at Sen. Barack Obama, their presidential candidate. The left is aghast that Obama declared last week that he approved of the compromise, and the Republicans are mocking him for his "flip-flops," given that just a couple of months ago he sharply opposed granting immunity to the implicated telephone companies.
According to an article in the June 28 Chicago Tribune, Senate Democratic leader's are "giving the presidential candidate a chance to save face" by seeking to jettison "the lawsuit protection from the bill. While the amendment is expected to fail, it would allow Obama to vote against immunity and then vote later in favor of the FISA bill with the immunity provision intact."
The Tribune then quoted the ACLU's Fredrickson as saying, "Clearly there's that kind of maneuvering" going on, suggesting that a Senate amendment will "allow him [Obama] to vote, even if it's not in a meaningful way. Then he can claim he tried his best and move on."
The Democratic leadership has opposed impeaching President Bush ever since Speaker Pelosi announced two years ago that the issue has been taken "off the table," but Democratic voters and some liberal members of Congress have been agitating for the party to initiate impeachment proceedings. Their argument has two main points. (1) It's absolutely justified on the basis of the Bush Administration's known lies and illegal actions, particularly the unjust war in Iraq. (2) If Bush and his cohorts are allowed to escape the Constitutional remedy for "high crimes and misdemeanors," a dangerous precedent will be established for future administrations.
Rep. Kucinich, whose resolution now has five co-sponsors, has been arguing for impeachment for several years. On June 9 he spent hours reading the text of his entire bill in the House. He then introduced a motion with 35 Articles of Impeachment against President Bush. Each article is accompanied by a very brief description, such as Article I: "Creating a Secret Propaganda Campaign to Manufacture a False Case for War Against Iraq." There are also lengthy explanations and evidence. The full text is available in PDF format online. The first three pages of the 65-page document contain the brief descriptions. The rest is the text Kucinich read. It may be accessed at http://chun.afterdowningstreet.org/amomentoftruth.pdf.
As soon as the impeachment resolution was submitted all Democratic members "supported" the measure by sending it to the House Judiciary Committee headed by Rep. John Conyers, who is expected to keep it bottled up indefinitely. The vote was 251-166, with 24 Republicans voting with the Democrats. Most of the Republicans who voted against the bill did so because they wanted an immediate debate and vote on its merits, knowing that the majority of Democrats, following their leadership, would vote against impeachment. This would have been a big embarrassment for the Democrats.
Kucinich himself voted to send the motion to committee, knowing that it had little chance of ever reaching the House floor for debate and a vote. He remained publicly optimistic, however, pledging to bring the matter up again with additional Articles of Impeachment. He can do this because impeachment is a privileged resolution under House rules, and if it is not voted on quickly, the motion can be reintroduced. "The leadership wants to bury it," the Ohio Congressman said, "but this is one resolution that will be coming back from the dead. Thirty days from now, if there is no action, I will be bringing the resolution up again, and I won't be the only one reading it."
The chances of obtaining and winning an impeachment vote seem impossible. But the occasion presents Kucinich with an opportunity to keep the issue before the public.
3. EDITORIAL: DYING FOR AN EDUCATION
We think that progressives should have qualms about the Democratic Party initiative to upgrade the GI Bill to provide a free four-year state college education, including housing and books, for military veterans who signed up for at least a three-year active duty military enlistment after 9/11. The measure was approved by both houses of Congress in June as part of the war funding bill to finance fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democratic politicians pushed this bill from the beginning. Their purpose was to display before the American electorate just who it is that really and truly supports the troops, in case their party's "antiwar" stance is misconstrued as meaning they are not patriotic or lacking gratitude for what the U.S. Army of Occupation is accomplishing on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. One Democratic lawmaker described the bill as the way "a grateful nation can repay its heroes," the implication being that Americans are grateful for the war as well as those who volunteer to fight it.
Our reason for questioning the bill has nothing to do with the opportunism and posturing surrounding its introduction. That's routine. Nor is it because the educational commitment is also intended to solve the Army's serious recruitment problems. It will undoubtedly help, though the Pentagon is worried college-bound GIs won't sign up for reenlistments, so it evidently will continue its generous bonuses and other benefits to attract and retain recruits.
What bothers us is this: It's a fact that one of the best ways to avoid a lifetime of low-wage work in today's America is to obtain a college education. But millions of qualified young Americans from working class, lower-middle class and poor families are not going to be able to afford college educations, even if they have jobs. Why then is it that the only youths to whom the government will provide a free higher education are those who serve in the military?
We do not begrudge anyone a free education. Our view is that ALL young people in our country who cannot afford to attend college but wish to do so, and maintain a reasonable grade average, should be able to obtain an education paid for by the government, not just those who join the military and serve in unjust wars.
America is already a class society split between "haves" and "have nots." It's unfair to further split youthful "have nots" into two groups, offering a free education to the minority who enlist to serve the dictates of militarism, and a majority who do not, and usually get little but low wage employment because they cannot afford college.
The United States has the funds to pay for college education for all low-income youth. But Washington spends its money in the wrong places, such as the incredibly expensive and unnecessary wars in the Middle East that it is now contriving to portray as a ticket to the middle class for enlistees lucky enough not to get maimed or killed in the process of striving for a college education.
4. CREATING A NEW PROGRESSIVE ERA
[Sixth and last of a series on Poverty and Inequality in America]
How can poverty and grave economic inequality be significantly reduced in the United States? Under what conditions might it be possible to bring about a period of significant progressive reform that would address our country's major social problems?
These are obvious questions to pose in the last of six articles we have written over the year detailing the increasing economic plight of the poor, the working class and a significant sector of the middle class in our country.
As the income and living standards of the majority of Americans have declined, a quite small portion of the population — the upper class — has become wealthier and more powerful than ever. One would have to revisit the Gilded Age of the late 1800s or the Roaring Twenties just before the 1929 Great Depression to locate comparable contradictions between the rich and the rest of the American people.
If you've been reading this series, you know the distressing statistics. So we we'll just quote one of the most illustrative of them and go on:
The top 20% of wealthy families in the U.S. now possess 84.7% of all assets and wealth. The top 5% alone control 58.9%, and the richest 1% command 34.3%. The "bottom" 80% possess of 15.3% of the nation's wealth. The bottom 40% within this total have accumulated 0.2%. That's two-tenths of one percent owned by 120 million Americans, while 34.3% is possessed by 3 million.
According to progressive economist William K. Tabb, writing in Monthly Review (July-August 2006), the Bush Administration's economic policies "carry echoes which have been heard down through our nation’s history and have taken on resonance analogous to the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, other periods when conservative ideology and politics held sway and rapid increases in inequalities were produced by deregulation and variants of laissez faire policy and Social Darwinist thinking. But in all periods, we have had a government of the rich that has acted in the interests of the rich."
Columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman, writing in the N.Y. Times April 27, 2007, argued that "Income inequality… is now fully back to Gilded Age levels…. Last year... a hedge fund manager took home $1.7 billion, more than 38,000 times the average income. Two other hedge fund managers also made more than $1 billion, and the top 25 combined made $14 billion…. The hedge fund billionaires are simply extreme examples of a much bigger phenomenon: every available measure of income concentration shows that we’ve gone back to levels of inequality not seen since the 1920s."
We have noted in our series that there is a clear cause and effect when the "upper" classes get richer and the "lower" classes get poorer. It often derives from the ability of those with power and wealth to manipulate government policy regarding taxes, regulations, and programs to further benefit themselves at the expense of those lacking power and wealth.
This is hardly unique in American history, but more prevalent at certain periods, such as the present moment when economic inequality and poverty are at high levels. We will focus upon three comparable periods in the past that generated a progressive response ultimately resulting in major social and economic reforms.
The United States advertises itself as the world's outstanding example of democracy. But how can a democracy function properly and fully in conditions of gross economic disequilibrium, especially when class inequality is compounded by racial and gender inequities as well?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized this contradiction when he declared in 1944, that "true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence."
Economist Lester Thurow, in his 1999 book about the income gap titled Shifting Fortunes, asked: "How does one put together a democracy based on the concept of equality while running an economy with ever greater degrees of economic inequality."
American progressives of an earlier era understood this as well. Historian Richard C. Wade, writing about the reform struggle of the early 1900s, noted: "Progressives agreed that the central question of their times was how to control the power of concentrated wealth in a democracy."
No wonder increasing comparisons are made between America in the early 2000s and the Gilded Age — a period of enormous wealth and opulence for the few and exploitation and oppression for the many.
An important difference between this earlier period and now is that in the late 1800s/early 1900s, there was a substantial fight back against the machinations of wealth and power, while in comparison today's response has largely been confined to the wringing of hands.
Progressive movements arose in opposition in several past situations of extreme inequality and flaunted wealth. There were people's organizations out in the streets; unions were marching; there were sizable left groups organizing and leading struggles. At times, popular pressure obliged the ruling parties to put some restraints on the corporations, investors, financiers, and their hangers-on, and even to pass legislation favorable to working people.
But now, after a quarter-century of stagnating wages, with a recession looming over the country as prices are rising and incomes are falling, as workers are losing their jobs and homes, Washington is spending trillions on aggressive wars and a relative pittance on new programs to help the masses of people.
There's a class war going on, initiated and led by wealth and power. Various administrations in Washington in recent decades offer a perfect example of our government's penchant for coddling the rich and ignoring the needs of working families. But aside from small left organizations and reform groups, some unions and a few politicians, what forces in our society are truly fighting for the poor, the working class and lower middle class majority of the American people? It is certainly not the two ruling parties.
There's an election going and neither Democrat Barack Obama nor Republican John McCain has put forward a worthwhile immediate program to counter high prices for food and fuel, increasing unemployment, and depressed incomes. Neither offers a strategic program to greatly reduce poverty and inequality in America, to create good new jobs and affordable housing. Neither will contemplate big cuts in the military budget nor sharply increasing taxes for the rich to pay for these programs.
For over 200 years in America, virtually every decisively important government program or law that benefited the masses of people was the product of persistent, hard-fought struggle led by progressive and left social or political or labor movements, or all in combination. This was true at various points in history in the attainment of an eight-hour day, vacations, and a minimum wage; the right of women to vote and to work in jobs previously held by men only; the granting of Social Security pensions, Medicare and Medicaid; the end to lynch laws, the poll tax and formal racial segregation — and just about every other advance that has taken place in our society.
None of it was a gift. All of it was a struggle. And it's the only way poverty and inequality — and all comparable abuses — can be reduced significantly.
The last period of relatively progressive governance in America lasted a few years and ended four decades ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson left office. LBJ is accurately remembered as the president who led the U.S. into the quagmire of the imperialist Vietnam War. But his extensive and fruitful "Great Society" domestic program was the final attempt to continue New Deal-type reforms initiated by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression when masses of people were demanding relief and reform.
The great obstacle to progressive social change in America today is that we have been living in conservative political times for decades. The nation is just emerging from eight years of George W. Bush's hard core ribald neoconservatism and preemptive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; preceded by eight years of Bill Clinton's centrist compromise with the rightists, killer sanctions against Iraq and the unjust war in Yugoslavia; four years of George H. W. Bush's conservatism and the first war against Iraq; and eight years of Ronald Reagan's reactionary Cold War policies, subversion throughout Central America, and right wing economic programs.
The 2008 election offers the U.S. people a choice between centrism and neoconservatism — all in the name of an ambiguous mantra of undefined "change." This means that the right and center — the political tendencies least willing and able to end gross economic inequality and banish poverty in the U.S. — will dictate national policy through the next four years as they have in the past.
It doesn't have to be this way. There were periods in American history when conservative times did transform into progressive times. When this happened it was almost invariably a consequence of popular mass struggle for affirmative political reform.
Today, the U.S. left — from left-liberalism and progressivism to social democracy, socialism and communism — is weak and without meaningful influence. And our critically important union movement is weak as well, with a leadership that remains wedded to the "lesser evil" centrism of the Democratic Party in return for token political compensation.
When the American left revives, as it certainly will, and popular mass struggle resumes, the conditions will exist to bring about a new period of substantive social, economic, and political reform.
Lately there have been some reports of an incipient progressive upsurge within the Democratic Party that might seriously address matters of poverty and economic inequality, among others.
Undoubtedly there are many left-liberal and progressive Democrats who are justly disappointed by the cautious performance of their party's majority in Congress and by the refusal of the leadership to venture even a trifle to the left of center. Groups such as Democrats.com and MoveOn.org, among others, are cited as evidence of a progressive resurgence and even a possible harbinger of an effort to seize party leadership "from the bottom up."
Our country would benefit if the center/center-right Democratic Party moved to the center-left in the next few years on the basis of agitation within its ranks. But it is far-fetched to think it will do so after the party leadership's diligent and successful efforts over the decades to bury liberalism and completely reject the hint of social democracy implicit in the first few years of FDR's New Deal.
At some point there will be another period of progressive advance, such as several earlier times in America's history. When that happens it probably will be generated from outside the Democratic Party and consist of mass movements with progressive and left leadership around such key issues as economic reform, peace, inequality, poverty, jobs, housing, militarism, imperialism, union rights, and so on.
Such circumstances might influence the Democrats to take some action. Or it could lead to another Progressive Party, as it has done thrice before on the national level (1912, 1924, and 1948) and four times on the state level, not to mention many other left third parties.
Let's briefly look back to some earlier periods of progressive reform in our history. While there were active reform movements in the years before the Civil War (abolition and women's rights), a broad major reform struggle began in the 1870s and lasted with varying levels of intensity about 40 years. It took place during two historic periods: the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.
The name Gilded Age was taken from a 1873 book of that title penned by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Their use of "gilded" derived from Shakespeare's King John: "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily... is wasteful and ridiculous excess."
The Gilded Age officially began with the end of Reconstruction in 1877. It was weakened by the decimating depression of 1893-97 and declined at century's end, though many of its conditions continued into the Progressive Era, which lasted between 1900 and World War I.
During the later 1800s America changed from a rural agrarian society into a mixture with urban industrial development that greatly accelerated the Industrial Revolution and created fabulous fortunes for the wealthy, and extreme exploitation for working class men, women and children. Long hours, low pay, and miserable living conditions painfully afflicted multimillions of American workers as unrestrained capitalism ran amuck.
Simultaneously, as the U.S. was adjusting to a post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction period of booms and busts (there were three depressions in the Gilded Age), the great majority of former slaves were forced into a new type of oppression under Jim Crow segregation laws (the model for pre-liberation South Africa's apartheid system.) It took 90 years, the civil rights movement, and the 1960s reform period to end formal racial segregation, though racist inequality still exists in America.
The Gilded Age, according to author Steve Fraser in an article for TomDispatch.com April 28, was characterized by "crony capitalism, inequality, extravagance, Social Darwinian self-justification, blame-the-victim callousness, [and] free-market hypocrisy."
In response, he wrote, "Irate farmers mobilized in cooperative alliances and in the Populist Party. Farmer-labor parties in states and cities from coast to coast challenged the dominion of the two-party system. Rolling waves of strikes, captained by warriors from the Knights of Labor, enveloped whole communities as new allegiances extended across previously unbridgeable barriers of craft, ethnicity, even race and gender."
The strikes were militant and massive, and included the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; the 1886 railroad strike; the 1892 Homestead Strike; the Great Uprising of 1886 composed of nationwide strikes and demonstrations for an eight-hour work day, which led to the legal lynching of four anarchists on trumped up changes after the Haymarket Riots; and the 1894 Pullman Strike conducted by the American Railroad Union and led by socialist Eugene Debs.
The new labor movements were the only protection most American workers had against unbridled capitalist greed. The Knights of Labor, one of America's first great unions, was formed in 1869 and played an important role in the working class fight back during the Gilded Age. It faded in the late 1880s. The more restrained American Federation of Labor was formed in 1889. The militant Western Federation of Miners was organized in 1893, and the revolutionary International Workers of the World, the Wobblies, came about in 1905.
The Populist (Peoples) Party was founded in 1890 to put forward demands ignored by the two ruling parties. It received over a million votes in the 1892 presidential elections on a platform calling for direct election of U.S. Senators, a secret ballot, referendums, recall of elected officials, direct primary balloting and opposition to the gold standard. A number of its candidates became governors and members of Congress.
By the next presidential election in 1896, the Democratic Party had adopted a number of the populist demands which it had earlier opposed. The Populist Party then supported Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who lost to Republican William McKinley. That was the beginning of the end for the populists. Their party quickly declined and dissolved in 1908.
The excesses of capitalism were mainly addressed by reforms during the Progressive Era, but some took place in the 1890s, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), which outlawed business monopolies; The Interstate Commerce Act (1887), which protected small shippers against powerful railroads; and the Civil Service Act (1883), aimed at ending corruption, which substituted the merit system for the spoils system in filling government jobs.
The Progressive Era was a period of great reform in response to the extreme exploitation of working families that accompanied swift industrialization and the growth of cities at a time when millions of poor immigrants were pouring into our country. The working people benefited from these reforms, but so did capitalism, of course, the regulation of which was essential to rationalize and strengthen the system, not replace it.
According to a superb college textbook on American history, Who Built America? (vol. 2): "Scholars [of the Progressive Era] have been unable to agree on exactly what Progressivism was. In fact, Progressivism encompassed many distinct, overlapping and sometimes contradictory movements: it was working people battling for better pay and control over their working lives; it was women campaigning for more equality and the right to vote at the same time as African Americans were being disfranchised in the South. It was corporations and their allies pushing to make city governments more businesslike; it was middle class reformers closing saloons and prohibiting the sale of alcohol; it was politicians and presidents extending the power of government to 'bust trusts' and regulate corporate activity.
"Sometimes these various reform forces worked together, sometimes they fought each other. Each responded in some way to the profound economic and social changes of the Gilded Age, but they differed in their interpretation of problems and solutions. As coalitions shifted, these diverse campaigns laid the foundation for modern American politics."
The progressive movement had a number of concerns: the terrible conditions of working class life, from child labor to poor housing and ill health; the abuses of robber barons and business owners; the lack of government regulation of the marketplace; women's suffrage; prohibition; race oppression; direct elections (to the Senate); electoral reform; and anti-monopoly reform.
There was another concern as well, according to the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers: "Fear of the expansion of socialism and Marxism provoked many in the upper class to support more moderate reform efforts as a means to ease the growing tensions between rich and poor and head off more extreme threats to their privileged role in society."
President Theodore Roosevelt, who as vice president entered the White House in 1901 after President McKinley was assassinated, was the foremost reform politician during the Progressive Era. Although a man of wealth, an open imperialist, and staunch advocate of capitalism, he opposed the excesses of the Gilded Age as counter-productive to the interests of the United States and to his own vision of America as a burgeoning world power. TR, as he was known, believed that "the man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government."
Republican Roosevelt left office in 1908 after presiding over the passage of a number of reforms demanded by the progressive movement and the expansion of federal authority. He was succeeded by his own vice president, William H. Taft. Out of office but still riding the progressive wave in 1910, TR outraged his own class be declaring: "I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and… a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes."
Convinced that Taft and the Republican Party had turned against progressivism, Roosevelt unsuccessfully sought to obtain the party's nomination in the 1912 presidential election. He then bolted the Republican Party and, with support from the progressive movement, formed the Progressive Party (known also as the Bull Moose Party) with an extensive reform agenda, the purpose being "to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics." With the GOP split, the Democratic Party's Woodrow Wilson won the election. Roosevelt was second and Taft last. Union leader Debs, running at the candidate of the Socialist Party, came in fourth with 6% of the vote. The Progressive Party collapsed in 1916.
Among the federal reforms of the Progressive Era were the following:
The Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) a conservationist measure; the Elkins Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906 and 1911), making sure that companies label ingredients; the Meat Inspection Act (thanks to writer Upton Sinclair's exposé in his novel The Jungle); the Federal Reserve Act; the Clayton Antitrust Act, opposing monopolies and ruling that labor unions did not fall under antitrust laws; and the Federal Trade Act that established the Federal Trade Commission that is supposed to investigate "unfair business practices."
In addition, laws were passed regulating the drug industry, establishing federal controls over the banking industry, and improving working conditions. Further, two progressive constitutional amendments — the power to tax income and the direct election of Senators were approved in 1913. Another progressive cause, women's suffrage, was passed in 1919.
The Roaring Twenties were hardly progressive. It was a period of extreme Republican laissez faire economics, until the stock market crashed in 1929, plunging America and the world into the Great Depression.
There were radical moments in the 1920s, however, including the resurrection of the Progressive Party, which fielded Wisconsin progressive Republican Sen. Robert M. LaFollette Sr. as its 1924 presidential nominee against conservative candidates from both the Democratic and Republican Parties. LaFollette, whose program included nationalization of large industries including railroads, higher taxes for the rich and lower taxes for working people, and collective bargaining for workers, was supported by labor, socialists and liberals. With nearly five million votes — 16.6% — La Follette came in third. The Progressive Party dissolved in 1946, long after it ceased activity on the national level. During these years in its Wisconsin stronghold the party elected a governor and six members of the House of Representatives.
By the second half of the conservative 1920s the rich-poor gap was reaching Gilded Age proportions. Herbert Hoover, who defeated liberal Democrat Al Smith in the 1928 election, was the third Republican elected to the presidency during the decade. In accepting nomination, Hoover declared: "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. We shall soon… be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation."
Hoover assumed office in March 1929. The Great Depression began seven months later, catapulting most of the working class and middle class into exceptionally hard times. Consistent with his conservative ideology of waiting for the "market" to cure itself, Hoover did practically nothing as the economy crumbled in the three years until the 1932 election, which gave rise to the greatest period of progressive reform in U.S. history.
The Democrats nominated New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fifth cousin to Theodore Roosevelt. He declared in his acceptance speech, "I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people," and his program became known as the New Deal. FDR, as he was universally known, captured 57.4% of the vote against 39.7 for Hoover, and remained in office to four terms. He delivered the famous line, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," in his first inaugural address in 1933.
Roosevelt was under extreme pressure when he entered the White House. Unemployment reached its peak that year — 25.2% — meaning one in four workers was jobless and many others were working for reduced pay and waiting for their jobs to disappear. Millions of families were suffering great distress and relief from Washington barely existed.
From the day he entered the White House, Roosevelt understood that his principal task was to preserve capitalism in America at a time when private enterprise systems around the world were experiencing economic disasters. There were two threats. One was that the downward economic spiral in the U.S. might lead to a total collapse. The other was the fear that the working class might seek to replace capitalism with socialist or revolutionary communist alternatives. At the time, these were quite rational speculations.
The political left had been organizing since the day the stock market crashed. For instance, according to Who Built America?, just weeks after the market crash "the Communist Party organized the first of what was soon a nationwide network of 'Unemployed Councils.' These Communist-led neighborhood groups worked to aid the unemployed with immediate problems of rent and food, to apply pressure for improved relief programs, and finally to recruit new members to join the party. On March 6, 1930, the communists held a series of rallies on what it dubbed International Unemployment Day,' demanding government action. In city after city, the turnout far exceeded expectations."
The Communist Party was active throughout the 1930s, in all the major cities, in the unions, in the South among poor black sharecroppers, in Harlem stopping evictions and fighting for unemployed workers. Near the end of the 1930s CP membership rose to its highest number ever, 100,000. Many other progressive and left groups, including populist farmers, were organizing as well, but the communists were the most energetic.
Unions were active but did not come into their own until late 1935 with the formation of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). In little more than a year union membership in the U.S. rose from four million to seven million. Confrontations between labor and management sharply increased as companies resisted collective bargaining, often engaging in redbaiting in the process. Many in the wealthy class and their minions in corporate management viewed unionization as a red plot.
Company brutality, exercised through local police and private security thugs, increased as labor became stronger. Police shot and killed 10 striking workers outside a Chicago steel factory in May 1937. In the same month, a Ford company guard viciously beat leaders of the CIO's United Automobile Workers union.
The less activist American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded 46 years earlier as a craft union, organizing each craft — such as plumbers, sheet metal workers or carpenters — into separate unions. The CIO organized workers around entire industries — auto, steel, coal, and so on, conveying to each member a sense of mass and solidarity.
The CIO was known for its militancy and spectacular sit-down strikes. Many leftists including communists were CIO organizers and union militants at the time — often the most dedicated and hardest fighters for the union — even as a number of union leaders expressed anticommunist views in response to criticism from the owners. (The CIO purged most of its left militants in the late 1940s when it took a right turn in response to the Washington's anticommunist campaign accompanying the start of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It subsequently merged with the AFL and has generally supported some of the worst aspects of U.S. foreign policy ever since.)
The new president understood that the desperation afflicting American workers and their families, combined with the determination of the political, social, and union organizations demanding that Washington alleviate their plight, obligated him to proceed swiftly, decisively, and in tune with the progressive assumptions of the day.
Roosevelt was not a leftist by any means, but his program of relief and reform was vast, with social democratic implications never before introduced in America. "The test of our progress," he once said, "is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR's wife, was to his political left, and she encouraged him with words and observations from her many fact-finding trips throughout the country to follow a progressive line. It didn't always work, but she never relented.
The right wing and many capitalist ideologues hated Roosevelt for his "socialist" programs. The left was generally supportive but critical when he fell short. The masses appreciated his helping hand. In the end his actions contributed to the preservation of capitalism but it took beginning of World War II to fully end the Great Depression in the United States.
FDR proceeded in two stages, known as the First and Second New Deal, mainly in the six years between 1933-38. The initial New Deal took place in the first two years of Roosevelt's Administration. Hundreds of programs, some quite innovative and most of them welcomed by a grateful nation, took place during the first hundred days. Many of these programs were of an emergency nature to keep the system and its people afloat. The second New Deal, from 1935-38, tended to be more to the left and supportive of workers and their unions.
The Roosevelt Administration's list of programs and legislation implemented during this period was extraordinary, even though some were phased out over the years. Following is a short list of some of the Roosevelt team's key accomplishments, compiled from Wikipedia:
• United States bank holiday, 1933: closed all banks until they became certified by federal reviewers.
• Abandonment of gold standard, 1933: gold reserves no longer backed currency; still exists.
• Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), 1933: employed young men to perform unskilled work in rural areas; under United States Army supervision; separate program for Native Americans.
• Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), 1933: effort to modernize very poor region (most of Tennessee), centered on dams that generated electricity on the Tennessee River; still exists.
• Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), 1933: raised farm prices by cutting total farm output of major crops and livestock.
• National Recovery Act (NRA), 1933: industries set up codes to reduce unfair competition, raise wages and prices.
• Public Works Administration (PWA), 1933: built large public works projects; used private contractors (did not directly hire unemployed).
• Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) / Glass-Steagall Act: insures deposits in banks in order to restore public confidence in banks; still exists.
• Securities Act of 1933, created the SEC, 1933: codified standards for sale and purchase of stock, required risk of investments to be accurately disclosed; still exists.
• Civil Works Administration (CWA), 1933-34: provided temporary jobs to millions of unemployed.
• Indian Reorganization Act, 1934: moved away from assimilation.
• Social Security Act (SSA), 1935: provided financial assistance to: elderly, handicapped, paid for by employee and employer payroll contributions; required years of contributions, so first payouts were in 1942; still exists.
• Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1935: a national labor program for more than 2 million unemployed; created useful construction work for unskilled men; also sewing projects for women and arts projects for unemployed artists, musicians and writers.
• National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) / Wagner Act, 1935: set up National Labor Relations Board to supervise labor-management relations; In the 1930s, it strongly favored labor unions. Modified by the Taft-Hartley Act (1947); still exists.
• Judicial Reorganization Bill, 1937: gave the President power to appoint a new Supreme Court judge for every judge 70 years or older; failed to pass Congress.
• Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S. Code Chapter 8), 1938: established a maximum normal work week of 40 hours and a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour and outlawed most forms of child labor; still exists
From 1941 through 1945 the Roosevelt Administration was totally absorbed with winning the war in Europe and Asia, and many new progressive domestic programs were backlogged until peace returned.
Vice President Harry S. Truman, a former Senator from Missouri, became president when Roosevelt died in April 1945, three weeks before Germany surrendered. Japan surrendered four months later, days after Truman ordered the destruction of two Japanese cities with nuclear bombs. (It subsequently was determined that Japan would have given up relatively quickly without the annihilation of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
Six months after Roosevelt’s death, Truman loyally put forward FDR's progressive peacetime program — a 21-point legislative proposal calling for an Economic Bill of Rights. The program advocated universal healthcare, full “living-wage” employment, adequate unemployment benefits, affordable housing, public works funding for the construction of airports and highways, an increase in the minimum wage, and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee on a permanent basis — all “regardless of station, race, or creed.”
By now, however, the political tide was rapidly turning and progressives soon became isolated. Conservatism was making a big comeback in Washington. The government was launching a Cold War against its former Soviet ally that went on to preoccupy the United States for 45 years. The right wing, supported by big business, most liberals, and the leaders of the AFL and CIO, began a noisy, bullying red-hunting crusade against "domestic communism" that lasted deep into the 1950s, continued at a lower level throughout the Cold War, and in certain ways still goes on today. One of the many casualties of this turn to the right was Roosevelt's economic program. Some its progressive provisions, including universal healthcare, remain unfulfilled 60 years later.
Given the growth of postwar conservatism, the Progressive Party idea was revived again in time for the 1948 elections. Its candidate was Henry Wallace, who had been Roosevelt's vice president since 1941-44, but was not renominated at the 1944 Democratic convention. Anticipating that FDR might not live throughout his fourth term, four key urban Democratic party leaders, backed by the party's Southern racist politicians, conspired to dump Wallace because they considered him too progressive, friendly to the Soviet Union, and an avowed opponent of racial segregation.
The four leaders decided on Truman after their first two choices declined. They then convinced Roosevelt, who personally selected Wallace in the 1940 election, to remain neutral and allow the convention to select the next nominee for vice president. The plan almost backfired when Wallace received great support from the delegates after his 1944 convention speech. The party leaders managed to delay the voting to the next day. Throughout the night they set about informing the delegations that Roosevelt was neutral and that leftist Wallace as president would be a disaster for the party.
Truman was elected. Roosevelt named Wallace Secretary of Commerce as compensation. Truman fired him in 1946. Wallace then decided to run as the Progressive Party nominee. It is interesting to contemplate how history may have changed had Wallace, not Truman, succeeded FDR in the spring of 1945.
Most of the left backed Wallace, largely to halt the developing Cold War and to continue the progressive aspects of the New Deal. The Communist Party also supported Wallace's candidacy. The CP did not control either Wallace or the Progressive Party, though it had some influence within the organization. But most Democrats, Northern liberals and Southern segregationists alike, relentlessly redbaited the third-party campaign, charging it was a communist front. Wallace was neither a socialist nor communist, though accused of being both.
Wallace's program was quite progressive. He campaigned strenuously for an end to Jim Crow segregation and for full equality for African Americans at a time when open racism permeated America. He also called for a continuation of the wartime alliance between the U.S. and USSR, which made him a "subversive" by the standards of 1948, in addition to being a "race mixer."
On Election Day, Truman defeated Republican New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey with almost 50% of the vote. Wallace received 1,157,057 votes, 2.38%. He broke with the Progressive Party two years later when the party leadership did not join him in condemning North Korea for the Korean War. The party dissolved in 1955, and Wallace died 10 years later.
The conservative 1950s gave way to the "Sixties," a decade in which a substantial and diverse sector of Americans rose up against racism, war, stultifying conformity and outdated conventions, taking to the streets and demanding change — not today's quaint "change you can believe in" but a concrete reordering of society.
The Civil Rights movement, with Martin Luther King at the forefront, led the struggle against racism starting in the mid-1950s, then exploding in the early 1960s into dramatic sit-ins, mass marches and demonstrations to end segregation NOW! The movement was also influenced by the important political example of Malcolm X, and by such organizational exponents of black power as the Black Panther Party.
As this historic uprising was unfolding, a huge peace movement developed in opposition to Washington's unjust war against Vietnam. At the same time the left and various communist groups revived and expanded, a radical student movement quickly spread throughout the country, the women's movement erupted in protest, and the gay rights movement was launched.
Today, when the media look back to the 1960s it's often with an emphasis upon the hippies, the music of the time, pot-smoking, long hair, unusual modes of dress, and "dropping out," as though all this was the principal aspect of the decade. Actually, the counter-cultural movement was a relevant expression of dissent against bourgeois conventions, but it was the historic, progressive protest movements and their intense political struggles for change that continued into the 1970s that characterized the era known as the Sixties.
This political uprising created the progressive context for another round of reforms, which brings us to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. His administration was the last in which the Democratic Party really embraced liberalism and thought of itself as an extension of the New Deal.
Johnson was a New Dealer as a young Texas politician in the 1930s/40s and one of the most effective majority leaders in Senate history when he became John F. Kennedy's vice president in the 1960 election. He assumed the presidency when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and won reelection on his own in 1964. Mass opposition to his escalation of the unjust and brutal war against Vietnam deflected him from seeking reelection in 1968.
LBJ's social reforms were part of his "Great Society" program. His most important achievement was in civil rights, the legislative reflection of the movement's sharp struggle against racial segregation. With his way paved by this mass nonviolent rebellion, Johnson used his formidable political skills to bring into law the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, '65, and '68 that in total ended job discrimination and segregation in public accommodations; that safeguarded minority voting against unfair qualification tests; that ended poll taxes; appointed government voting examiners; banned housing discrimination; halted national quotas in immigration; and provided legal protection for Native Americans living on reservations.
Johnson also waged a War on Poverty to end hunger and deprivation. Progress was made, though in the end the "war" was lost. Its main element was embodied in the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), creating the Office of Economic Opportunity. The OEO coordinated a network of local antipoverty programs. The campaign also brought about Food Stamps, Head Start, VISTA, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Job Corps, and Model Cities program.
Healthcare was helped immeasurably by the administration's championing of Medicare (1965) and Medicaid (1966).
In terms of education, the Johnson Administration was responsible for the Higher Education Act and the Secondary Education Act, both in 1965, and the Bilingual Education Act in '68.
In consumer protection, Johnson brought to fruition the Cigarette Labeling Act of 1965, the Child Safety Act and Vehicle Safety Act, both of 1966, the Flammable Fabrics Act and Wholesome Meat Act, both 1967.
The environment was a big winner as well: The Clean air, Water Quality and Clear Water Restoration Acts, Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Preservation Act, National Trails System Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Land and Water conservation Act, Solid Waste disposal Act, Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act., National Historic Preservation Act, Aircraft Noise Abatement Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
Johnson left office in January 1969. Since that time nearly 40 years ago very little else of a progressive nature has taken place in American national politics. It's been a long essentially conservative era to this day.
(As an editor of the leftist Guardian newsweekly during the 1960s, this writer — along with much of the left — was so preoccupied with opposing Johnson's imperialist war that his domestic accomplishments were virtually drowned out amid the shouts of "LBJ, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?" In compiling the facts for this article, after almost four politically dreary decades of the Nixon-Ford-Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush administrations, it was impossible not to be quite impressed by Johnson's progressive legislative achievements.)
Some Democrats point to certain initiatives emanating from the eight years Bill Clinton occupied the White House (1993-2001) to suggest he was a liberal, but the record shows an administration that was virtually indifferent to strengthening or generating social service programs for the people. Clinton's few accomplishments over two terms do not amount to much more than the Family Medical Leave Act (1993), providing unpaid leave to take care of a newborn infant or sick family member; the AmeriCorps public service program (1993); an increase in the minimum wage in 1996; and his support for the Republican welfare "reform" legislation in 1996, which ended the federal welfare system that was put in place when the Democratic Party was liberal. The party has now moved so deeply into the center it considers "ending welfare as we know it" to be a major accomplishment of the Clinton presidency.
After this excursion into America's progressive past, we repeat the question at the beginning of this article: "How can poverty and grave economic inequality be reduced significantly in the United States? Under what conditions might it be possible to bring about a period of significant progressive reform that would address our country's major social problems?"
There are short term and long term responses to this question. We will deal only with the short term foreseeable future and leave matters of social revolution and the complete restructuring of society for another forum.
It seems to us, from the past history of social reform in American, that it's going to take a lot more to greatly reduce poverty and inequality than crossing one's fingers and voting for a centrist politician to lead the country, backed by a largely centrist and rightist Congress. The U.S. has experienced alternating centrist and rightist governments for decades, and they have been the cause of increasing poverty and the widening rich-poor gap,.
We have talked to a number of progressives who are investing hopes for a better America in their ability to work internally to transform the Democratic Party into a replica of its liberal periods of 40 and 70 years ago.
We have mentioned to them that to accomplish this would require the near takeover of a party that is now held in the iron grip of a centrist leadership. This leadership is supported by a solid majority of its elected politicians, the Democratic Leadership Council, the Blue Dogs, the party apparatus, the fundraisers, and the big donors. Then there's the powerful beneficiaries of great corporate, financial and inherited riches — the 5% who control 58.9% of the nation's wealth and assets — who have a huge stake in keeping the two-party system in what their self-interest dictates is the correct political alignment. And they are probably content with the center-right polarities in America today. To put it mildly, they have considerable influence.
We respect the left Democrats who are trying to transform the Party from within, but do not think they will succeed.
In our opinion, to provide a serious antidote to the plague of poverty and inequality — among other grave shortcomings in our society — requires a resurgence of both the political left in America and the emergence of progressive mass movements of people demanding real social change.
Can such a combination of circumstances move the Democrats sufficiently to the left to achieve the objective of implementing high quality social programs? Maybe. It did in the 1930s and '60s. But today's Democratic Party seems quite comfortable occupying the political center, functioning as a barrier to the left in national politics, and prospering as the only "lesser evil" in town, effortlessly capturing millions of progressive votes from people who feel they have no other choice.
A resurgent left could offer other choices, not only in the social movements for change but party politics as well.
Suppose there was to be a revival of the Progressive Party idea — not as a quickly organized national alternative that makes a small dent and fades away. Many advanced capitalist societies have a few mass political parties (not just two) and several smaller but viable parties as well, and at least one of the big parties to one degree or another seeks to represent the interests of the working people. This is why such countries, all within the capitalist orbit, have done a better job than ours in serving their people — from longer vacations to lower infant mortality, from universal healthcare to adequate welfare programs. And in many ways they are more democratic, too, and far less warlike and hegemonic.
Building such a new mass party would take a long time, but if the progressive sector of the labor movement got behind the idea it wouldn't take as long, especially if it was joined by movements for peace and justice, for racial, gender and economic equality, for environmental survival, for cutting the war budget and eliminating nuclear weapons, for immigrant and gay rights, and for ending militarism and imperialism.
There are already a number of small left third parties, some of which might benefit by association with an up and coming, all-embracing Progressive Party (of whatever name) that was seeking to become a viable mainstream party.
Given the awesome complexity of attempting to convince the fractious U.S. left to get behind a major progressive third party will make the expression about "the devil in the details" sound like the understatement of the century.
But the existence of a viable left third party, coupled with progressive social movements in motion, would create a national political environment conducive to the growth of all sectors of the left and their respective parties, clearing the way for further progress.
Liberal economist Paul Krugman, whom we quoted earlier, also speculated in the same article that "it’s much too soon to declare the march toward a New Gilded Age over," meaning things will get worse before they get better, but he concluded: "If history is any guide, one of these days we’ll see the emergence of a New Progressive Era, maybe even a new New Deal. But it may be a long wait."
Or maybe not so long, depending mainly on the future status of America's left and progressive forces, the revival of mass activist movements, and objective economic and social conditions within the U.S., plus on the final disposition of the Democratic Party and on what the progressives within that party will do when they cannot move it toward a new progressive era.
5. CHECK IT OUT
A DIFFERENT KIND OF GENDER WAR: Susan Faludi, author of the important 1991 book "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," has written a most interesting Op-Ed for the June 15 New York Times concerning the contest between John McCain, who quite consciously projects himself as a super macho male, and Barack Obama, who quite consciously and emphatically does not — much to his credit, in our opinion. Faludi traces the history of the macho myth in male supremacist America and its impact on presidential politics. "The attacks are already under way," Faludi says, "as is evident if one enters the words 'Obama' and 'effeminate' into a search engine." In this election, she concludes, "choosing between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain in the general election, Americans will pass a referendum on 200 years of bedrock gender mythology." The article is titled, "Think the Gender War Is Over? Think Again." Don't miss it at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/opinion/15faludi.html?ref=todayspaper&pagewanted=print
GOING STRONG FOR PEACE AT 89: The New York Times printed a feature article June 22 about topical singer Pete Seeger's frequent appearance at the weekly antiwar vigil in Wappingers Falls, Dutchess County. Pete, who lives in Beacon is almost 90, has been fighting unjust wars his whole life. For many progressives in the Hudson Valley, he is considered the region's most precious resource. The article's at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/22/nyregion/22seeger.html?_r=2&scp=2&sq=pete+seeger&st=nyt&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
"McCAIN SHOULD KNOW BETTER": That was the context of a nearly 12 minute video excoriation of Republican candidate Sen. John McCain by Keith Olbermann on his MSNBC program June 12. He was following up on McCain's comment that it's "not too important" when the U.S. Army of Occupation finally leaves Iraq. The senator claimed his words were taken out of context. Olbermann then showed exactly what McCain's words were on this and in many other statements about Iraq over the years, including his declaration six months before the U.S. invasion that "I believe that we can win an overwhelming victory in a very short period of time." The video is available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25126582/.
INVESTIGATION OF U.S. ABUSE OF PRISONERS: The McClatchy Newspapers group has produced some of the best critical reporting out of Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began. Now McClatchy has just completed an eight month investigation into U.S. military abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and those held at Guantanamo. They have just started publishing articles every several days about their findings. A table of contents with links to these articles, plus background material, interviews for former prisoners, videos, and must more may be accessed at http://www.mcclatchydc.com/detainees/story/40334.html. An introductory four minute video about the series is at http://videos.mcclatchydc.com/vmix_hosted_apps/p/media?id=1927337
BLACKWATER'S DOING QUITE WELL: The company that rents mercenary fighters to the U.S. government got a lot of bad publicity last year for shooting first in Iraq and not even asking questions later, but it's doing better than ever, says Jeremy Scahill, the author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army." Writing an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times June 16, Scahill notes that "From California to Iraq, business has never been better for the controversial private security firm." Read why, despite its "deadly record in Iraq and troubled reputation at home,… Blackwater knows its future is bright no matter who next takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." It's at http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-scahill16-2008jun16,0,461221.story.