FDR’s New Deal changed the tone and shape of US politics into a kind of moderate social democracy. Desperate to end the Great Depression nightmare, US voters secured FDR and the Democrats in power. The right wing, in and out of the Republican Party, dove into decline, agonized for years, slowly regrouped, and then revived. With Reagan and then Bush, it could finally redefine the tone and shape of US politics — this time to reverse FDR’s legacy. Today, liberals in and out of the Democratic Party hope to retrace a parallel path to reverse Reagan-Bush. The pendulum of US politics swings while its foundation remains unchanged, thereby alienating citizens from politics ever more deeply.
As FDR rose to dominance, the political pendulum swung left. The right wing recoiled from public life. A period of severe self-doubt broadened into a hopelessness that its political aims would ever again become the top policy goals for the nation. Only after a dozen years of bewildered political limbo would the Cold War and hysterical anti-communism provide right wingers with a slow way back to power. They could then begin to undermine and displace the deep national consciousness that the 1930s depression was a social disaster for which private enterprise was to blame and state intervention the solution. The right wing’s mantra was to play a different blame game: denounce the left for supporting and the liberals for failing to foresee and protect against the “threats” to national security entailed by China’s “fall to the communists,” the Soviet acquisition of nuclear weapons and then space technology, and so on. The revived post-war US economy plus hyped anti-communism offered new possibilities and new resources for right-wing resurgence. At first, businesses heavily funded think tanks to attack and undermine the popular, journalistic, and academic mentalities inherited from New Deal dominance. Then, they branched out to fund efforts to build mass organizations of the right based on global militarism, fundamentalist religion, and reinvigorated racism. The latter evolved into movements using new technologies (such as direct mail) to tap mass funding that could supplement business money. The political pendulum began to move rightward.
To perfect its mechanisms, organizations, and finances, the right needed continually to adjust the demonizations of its enemies (from the John Birch Society’s anti-left witch hunts to Reagan targeting the “evil empire”). When anti-communism lost its usefulness after the collapse of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, effective demonization politics required a new target. This time, patriotism, fundamentalist religion, racism, and militarism — supplemented by anti-gay and then, after 2001, anti-terrorism hysterias — coalesced against “the liberals” directly and explicitly. Before, the right’s attack on communism had only indirectly targeted “liberals” as sympathizers/fellow travelers/dupes of communism and socialism (treated as synonyms). With Bush, the right could more openly proclaim its primary domestic agenda: to reverse the New Deal in a fundamental reactionary switch. What anti-communism had only partially achieved, anti-liberalism should complete.
Culminating in the current Bush regime, the right wing ascendancy plunged the New Deal coalition and its descendants into the same position the right had found itself in by the mid-1930s. The 1980s were years of the liberals’ deepening despondency, self-doubt, and political hopelessness. The Clinton years only briefly masked the desperation of their situation. The right had what seemed to be an unbeatable strategic game plan: an economy redirected to profits and the rich (who provided campaign funds) coupled with fundamentalist religion (that provided solace, meaning, uplift, and hope to the masses ever more stressed by Bush’s economic and social policies).
The more Bush policies benefited business, profits, and the rich, the more those policies cost workers: reduced real wages, deepened debt, longer working hours, disintegrating families, and reduced prospects for their and their children’s futures. Yet, at the same time, Bush’s carefully structured public relations successfully positioned him as the champion of the fundamentalist religion toward which stressed workers were turning in numbers sufficient to give Bush electoral victories. Indeed, liberals were effectively pilloried as disrespectful of religion and thus, by extension, of working people and their problems. The Democrats were exposed as offering no real solutions, no real alternatives to what the Republican right wing was already doing. There was little excitement among non-fundamentalists to vote for Democrats (seen quite rightly as only slightly less harsh Republicans), while there was intense feeling among fundamentalists to vote for Bush as their churches’ best representative and supporter. The Democrats deteriorated into the kind of spineless me-too party that the Republicans had been under Roosevelt.
Just as the post-New Deal right had to wait for the Cold War to offer a way forward, the post-Reagan liberals had to wait for Bush’s exploitation of 9-11-2001 to unravel. And indeed, when it did, the political pendulum began a leftward shift. Bush displaced blame for not having prevented 9-11 by positioning himself instead as the nation’s guardian aggressively “taking the fight to our terrorist enemies.” The invasion of Iraq however failed its purposes by producing foreign opposition, international isolation, and growing US losses. Eventually, Cindy Sheehan put Bush on the defensive. As Bush moved to use 9-11-2001 domestically to speed up his regime’s reversal of the New Deal, mass support for social security also put him on the defensive. Lastly, the spectacular expose of federal government incompetence (or worse) in New Orleans put Bush on the defensive yet again. He had failed as guardian of the people’s security, failed to prevent grotesque incompetence and cronyism from corrupting his administration, and looked like God might NOT be on his side. Not only did Katrina hand the Democrats an arsenal of anti-Bush weaponry, it also revealed (deepening) racial and income divisions. When government officials fail to hide or effectively minimize popular awareness of such divisions, they anger the more comfortable voters who (consciously or unconsciously) expect insulation from the disturbing reality in return for their political support. Such voters become vulnerable to Democratic blandishments — how Democrats will “bring together” — i.e., hide again — what Republicans have revealed as (and thereby get blamed for) a divided society.
So now the Democrats may acquire the minimal courage to keep the pendulum swinging their way by gathering up the strands of Bush failures into a successful electoral presentation of themselves as the necessary antidote and corrective. In this, they seek to replicate exactly what the Republicans accomplished in the decades after 1935. After all, to win in the US electoral system usually requires only a few percentage points of voters to switch parties.
The old and tired oscillations between “liberals” and “conservatives,” between Democrats and Republicans, remain the basis of mainstream US politics. Pendulum swings work now for Republicans, now for Democrats. What the swings leave unchallenged and unchanged is the class structure of the country – the capitalist arrangements of production that divide people and products into workers versus capitalists and wages versus profits. No significant political force connects this capitalist system of production to social problems. No such force advocates changing the class structure as part of a solution to those problems.
When class structures neither change nor even seem open to change, the endless political oscillations eventually convey their superficiality to the public. Politics then loses all contact with basic questions of choosing among alternative social structures and among alternative goals and strategies for social change. At best, politics interests specific sub-groups only if, when, and so long as some specific issue of immediate personal concern is at stake (abortion, gun control, gay marriage, oil prices, etc.). At worst — and worst is what we increasingly experience — politics pits irrelevant tweedledums against tweedledees, cynically advertised candidate #1 vs public-relations-driven #2. People then turn away first from political activism, then from participation and information, and finally even from the passivity of mere voting. A mass alienation from politics altogether deepens, immune to the vapid exhortations to civic duty. Politics descends into a special branch of business where politicians make money and advance careers by mutually profitable relations with other businesses. This alienation — and the caricature politics it both reflects and enables — will remain unless and until a class-based politics emerges to contest for power.
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).