Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Lance Selfa adds to Baker's Obama-Hoover comparison

Read Selfa's piece here. I posted excerpts from the generally-excellent Baker piece, which appeared in last month's Harper's, here.

Its also worth reading economic historian Robert Brenner's excellent 2006 NLR piece on post-WWII American politics to place all of this in context. Brenner's piece is prescient. He argues, against the excited supporters of Democrats in 2006, that the political shift in 2006 (and now, it might be said, in 2008) represents not a sharp left turn, but a moment of a much broader Rightward trajectory. Although the complications arising from the deepness of global financial crisis have changed things a bit (incidentally, Brenner was one of the few people in the 90s in economics claiming that the 'irrational exuberance' of that era would crash), a survey of the first 100 days of the Obama administration bears out Brenner's thesis.

Although the FDR-Obama comparisons have (understandably) ebbed, the tendency to recall the New Deal in discussing recent events has been frequent on the liberal-left as well as elsewhere in the political spectrum.

As I mentioned in a recent post on wildcat strikes in Britain, the New Deal was hardly a unified, well-intentioned reformist package. It was a strange amalgam of different policies which had, admittedly, some Keynesian coherence. But it was a collage of different policies because of the complex political situation in the US at the time. In the early 30s, unprecedented labor militancy, sit-down strikes and so forth created a formidable political force that could not be ignored.

As Brenner points out, many in the labor movement at the time wanted to create a separate Labor Party (or a Farmer-Labor party) that would give labor an undiluted political arm with independence from the Democrats/Republicans. Despite the fact that many rank-and-file initially voted within their unions to pursue this option (the newly-formed UAW, for example, refused at first to support the Democratic ticket), union leadership ultimately refused to go this route. Labor decided to get behind the Democrats, and FDR and the New Deal coalition got a legion of loyal electoral footsoldiers for more than a generation.

But the Democrats are not called the 'graveyard of american social movements' for nothing. Soon it became apparent that as long as the two-party system was intact, labor would have little choice but to vote for whatever Democrat was up for office. It is unsurprising that after the 1930s, labor consistently lost clout and political influence. By the end of WWII, labor militancy was effectively defanged and the Republicans and conservative Democrats had little trouble ramming the anti-union Taft-Hartley bill through the Congress, overriding Truman's veto. By the 1980s, it wasn't even difficult for Reagan to stomp out and demoralize the Air-traffic controller strike.

Absent the militancy that fomented the watershed reforms of the 1930s, I doubt that we will get any changes comparable to the creation of Social Security, the introduction of the Progressive Income Tax, or the Minimum Wage.

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