Late last year, The New Republic published a pep talk for progressives. It was by John B. Judis and was called “Anti-Statism in America.” Its aim was to explain why President Obama was having such a hard time getting his good and progressive measures through Congress – such warm blankets of progressivism as a mandatory medical-coverage bill, a cap-and-trade bill, and a Consumer Financial Protection Agency bill.
Obama had come into power hoping to do all these things, Roosevelt like, in one huzzah springtime. Eleven months later, all he’d got done was the “stimulus” bill, which was basically a grand bolt of deficit spending on all the usual Democratic stuff. His society-changing reforms were being resisted.
Why was that? There is a tree-versus-the-forest problem in American’s political beliefs, Judis said. If you ask Americans whether insurance companies should be forbidden to reject an applicant because of bad health, they will say sure, let’s forbid that. Should everyone have health insurance? Sure. Feed them the thing in parts, and they1l swallow it. But show them the thing as a whole, and they11 balk: they don’t want a government takeover of all medical insurance, which implies an effective takeover of medicine.
Another writer might conclude that if the people rejected a thing as a whole, their final thought was rejection. Not Judis. He is not worried about the big picture. To him, those worries are like junk DNA, remnants of an old “Lockean liberal” ideology that has produced “today’s free-market conservative or libertarian.”
And these people, Judis says, seem to be slowing down, even blocking, the progressive Obama program.
Judis reminds his readers that this blockage of government goodness has happened before – and that in the past century only a few times has the Left been able to push through big, society-changing reforms. One time (the income tax, the Federal Reserve) was under Wilson; another (Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act) was under Roosevelt; another (Medicare, Medicaid) was under Johnson; and another (the EPA) was early in the term of Nixon.
These cases have several things in common. An important one is ideological strength on the Left: the socialists in Wilson’s time, Huey Long and the Coughlinites in Roosevelt’s, the New Left in Johnson’s and Nixon’s.
Another commonality is political skill. Statist measures were sold in a way so as not to I’raise anti-statist hackles.” Wilson claimed that his Federal Trade Commission would improve market competition. Roosevelt labeled Social Security “insurance.” Obama has followed this path by calling his proposed government medical insurance a “public option” – labeling it “an expansion rather than a constriction of free- market choice” in order “to avoid the impression that they are advocating a federal takeover of the health care system.”
Nowhere does Judis argue that the Right is inaccurate in labeling these measures statist. He is advising the Left to make sure they are not labeled that way.
Obama has done this. And Wall Street has been discredited to a degree beyond what any leftist could have hoped. Obama has majorities in both houses of Congress. But several things block him still. The majorities are not as large as they were under Roosevelt and Johnson. The crisis of capitalism is not dire enough; the economy has stopped falling, the stock market is up, and people are not ‘scared enough. Further, there is a surprisingly “vibrant and unsettling ideological conservatism” as expressed in the tea parties. Finally, there hasn’t been a strong enough push from the Left to “intimidate Democratic fence-sitters” into supporting the president.
“Obama and the Democrats need active, unruly, and independent pressure from the left,” he writes.
All of this is, in fact, very good advice to the Left. For the Right it is valuable as well. It is an affirmation that the tea- party demonstrations and other means of stirring public sup- port – and intimidating Republican fence-sitters – do work.