Thursday, August 20, 2009

the idiocy of crowds

I'm in the middle of Barry Seldes' excellent, provacative book Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of An American Musician. Seldes chronicles how, in the late 1940s, America's collective political testicles shrank in the face of fear and red-baiting. An interesting footnote to history is the failed presidential campaign of George Wallace as a progressive campaigning to the left of Truman in 1948.

What history remembers is the Dewey Defeats Truman headline; what history forgets is how Truman's victory was a victory for political cowardice, narrow-minded provincialism, and a fear of reaching across demographic lines -- (all of which Wallace's progressive coalition attempted to do):

On April 26, 1948, according to an FBI memorandum, [Bernstein] had signed on to a protest against the repressive Mundt-Nixon Communist Control bill. He arrived back in New York and on May 29, signed a statement by musicians claiming that only one of the three national [presidential] candidates was "in the Roosevelt tradition": "[Wallace is for] Peace, Full Employment, Repeal of the Taft-Hartley Law, [for] Equal Opportunities and Civil Rights, 15 Million New homes, Global Reconstruction through the United Nations, National Health Program and a National Cultural Program" [and against] "War, Universal Military Training, [the] Truman Doctrine, Inflation and Depression, all forms of Discrimination and Thought-Control."

By the end of that summer, the Wallace support was in free fall as voters, worried about Dewey's projected victory, started to turn to Truman as the lesser evil. [...]

A more crucial reason for the failure of the Wallace constituency to grow into a massive voting bloc was the issue of communism. Early on, the Americans for Democratic Action [a coalition of more mainstream New Deal Democrats including Eleanor Roosevelt and Harold Ickes] had pounded away at [Wallace's] Progressives for their acceptance of communists within their ranks. This theme caught on among Irish Catholic voters, who followed the church hierarchy and especially Cardinal Spellman in support of Franco and HUAC. Polish Catholics, upset with the Soviets, had also moved to the right. Another factor that helped Catholic and non-Catholic blue-collar workers forgo the Progressives and remain in the Democratic fold was their new, or anticipated, economic condition. Fundamental to the outlook of postwar Truman liberalism was a turning away from the driving forces of progressive New Dealism. The latter had been energized by the idea that the government could ensure a more egalitarian distribution of incomes, upgrade social services and offer universal medical care, and regulate the economy to ensure high employment. But Truman liberals deemphasized many of the progressives' goals and emphasized instead a model best exemplified by steel- and autoworkers unions' obtaining higher wages based on increased productivity in return for leaving the running of industry to managers. In this way, higher-waged workers joined others in the new consumerism that, fed by a combination of pent-up demand and reaction to the Depression and war, had become the regnant outlook of many Americans who no longer were interested in class politics.

We are now paying the price of their concession to corporatist democracy sixty years ago: the continuing battle against the insecurity of boom and bust, no national health care infrastructure (and a crumbling of the infrastructure built under the New Deal), an evaporation of the manufacturing base that provided the foundation of America's half-century of (false) economic stability, and the replacement of communism with terrorism as an amorphous bogeyman that stands for nothing except as an existential Threat to Our Way Of Life.

The economic arguments of today are echo those of 1948, with no more understanding in the interim; the modern-day Father Coughlins of Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck are pale imitations as well; the only missing element is the furtive search for a mysterious fifth column that seeks to tear it all asunder -- but we're close.

When Congress convenes hearings looking for disloyal Americans (rather than throwing only dangerous foreigners into Camp X-Ray), history will have returned as farce.

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