Outsized Hopes, Absurd Fears

Outsized Hopes, Absurd Fears

Beware the historical analogy. When Barack Obama took office, pundits compared the economic crisis he faced to the Great Depression. Naturally, the new liberal president would become another FDR; one magazine even portrayed him waving confidently from an open car, top hat on his head, cigarette holder in his teeth.

The image led to outsized expectations and absurd fears. On the Left, many called for Obama to nationalize the big banks, endorse a single-payer health care system, and reverse every major policy of his miserable predecessor. On the Right, one heard claims that the president was steering the nation toward socialism.

Neither another Great Depression nor another New Deal has come to pass. Millions of Americans are suffering. As several articles in this issue make clear, the brunt has been borne by those who face enduring peril in an economy structured to benefit those with a good education, decent health insurance, and a low-interest mortgage. Others are hurting too, but, as Linda Gordon points out, some of the programs established by the New Deal to benefit the middle class have helped buffer the pain. The United States has not avoided the conditions that led to the economic collapse of the thirties, but it has avoided the kind of systemic collapse that allowed liberals to seize an opportunity to build the limited welfare state that helped create the first nation in world history with a middle-class majority.

There is another reason why Obama has not yet ushered America into a new progressive era. His 2008 campaign, remarkable as it was, did not revive the grassroots Left. Unions do what they can, but most still struggle to survive. And the fragmented nature of the progressive blogs and the nongovernmental organizations cannot generate the visibility or influence of a growing insurgency.

So the conservative assumptions that have kept the nation in thrall for the past three decades retain a good deal of influence: “big government” is always bad, except when it funds those public workers who carry weapons, and “the people” are a self-reliant, traditionalist bunch who refuse to pay higher taxes. Although Republican presidents rarely practiced what they preached, they benefited from the zeal and energy of a mass movement. Despite the Bush debacle, that spirit remains essentially intact, fueled by the falsehoods peddled by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin.

Leftists should never forget that even the most skillful and charismatic politician cannot substitute for a movement. As Eugene Debs, a genuine socialist who made a habit of running for president, once put it, “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.” Without pressure from the CIO and the Popular Front, from farmers angry about low crop prices a...