Editor’s Page

Editor’s Page

F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some sound advice to those left-wing Americans unsure whether to support Barack Obama’s campaign for re-election. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” observed the novelist, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

The president has clearly disappointed many of those who hoped he would initiate another New Deal or Great Society and turn conservatives into a defensive, impotent minority. In the Occupy movement, one hears the 2012 contest for the White House described as “yet another stale election between Wall Street– financed candidates” and the like. Yet, the Right that controls the Republican Party views Obama as a “socialist” who, if given the chance, would redistribute wealth, empower unions, and regulate big business more stringently than any president in U.S. history.

The only way to resolve these contradictory thoughts is with a little common sense, bolstered by some historical perspective. Obama, like every other major party nominee, must raise millions of dollars from wealthy Americans and thus cannot alienate all of them if he expects to hold onto the presidency. But Obama has also signed bills that aim to prevent the kind of financial abuses that largely brought about the Great Recession—as well as a major reform and expansion of the health care system. And he has appointed thousands of men and women who, away from the media’s glare, are working to carry out a progressive agenda. One result is that far more Wall Street executives this year are donating to Mitt Romney, who is one of their own, than to Obama.

Since the 1930s, most of corporate America has been battling to keep the federal state from limiting its freedom to operate as it desires and to aid such institutions as unions or regulatory agencies that stand in the way. If Romney becomes president and the Republicans capture the Senate, the entire federal government would be, for the first time since the 1920s, firmly in the control of people like Paul Ryan, the chair of the House Budget Committee who gushes that the uber-capitalist works of Ayn Rand “inspired” him “so much” that he required everyone on his staff to read them.

But Obama’s re-election would represent, if nothing else, a defeat for what Romney calls “severe” conservatives like himself and their profoundly inegalitarian agenda— which includes passing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. It would also offer another opportunity for progressive activists to exert pressure on a president whose rhetoric, if not his practice, often echoes theirs. Without such outside compulsion, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson could not have become architects of our limited but necessary welfare state, which Romney and his party are determined to privatize, if not destroy. Don’t let them do it.

MICHAEL KAZIN


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels