CC safety and happiness.” The mighty Progressive wave peaked in 1912, but the ideas unleashed by it forged the politics of the twentieth century. Like his cousin Theodore, Franklin Roosevelt argued that the real enemies of enlightened capitalism were “the malefactors of great wealth”the “economic royalists”from whom capitalism would have to be saved by reform and regulation. Progressive government became an embedded tradition of Democratsthe heart of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower honored this tradition; he did not want to tear down the house Progressive’s ideas had built, only put it under different managers. The Progressive impulse had its final fling in the landslide of 1964, when Lyndon Johnsona son of the west Texas hill country, where the Populist rebellion had been nurtured in the 1890swon the public endorsement for what he meant to be the capstone in the arch of the New Deal. I had a modest role in that era. I shared in its exhilaration and its failures. We went too far too fast, overreached at home and in Vietnam, failed to examine some assumptions, and misjudged the rising discontents and fierce backlash engendered by the passions of the time. Democrats grew so proprietary in Washington D.C., that a corpulent, complacent political establishment couldn’t recognize its own intellectual bankruptcy or see the Beltway encircling it and beginning to separate it from the working people of America. The failure of Democratic politicians and public thinkers to respond to popular discontentsto the daily lives of workers, consumers, parents, and ordinary taxpayersallowed a resurgent conservatism to convert public concern and hostility into a crusade that masked the resurrection of social Darwinism as a moral philosophy, multinational corporations as a governing class, and the theology of markets as a transcendental belief system. As a citizen, I don’t like the consequences of this crusade, but I respect the conservatives for their successful strategy in gaining control of the national agenda. Their stated and open aim is to strip from government all its functions except those that reward their rich and privileged benefactors. They are quite candid about it, even acknowledging proudly the mean spirit invoked to accomplish their ambitions. Their leading strategist in Washington, Grover Norquist, in commenting on the fiscal crisis in the states and its effect on schools and poor people, said, “I hope one of them”one of the states”goes bankrupt.” So much for compassionate conservatism. But at least Norquist says what he means and means what he says. The White House pursues the same homicidal dream without saying so. Instead of shrinking the government, they’re filling the bathtub with so much debt that it floods the house, waterlogs the economy, and washes away services that for decades have lifted millions of Americans out of destitution and into the middle class. And what happens once the public’s property has been flooded? Privatize it. Sell it at a discounted rate to their corporate cronies. It is the most radical assault on the notion of one nation, indivisible, that has occurred in our lifetime. I simply don’t To be sure, these Progressives weren’t saintly. Their glory years coincided with the heyday of lynching and segre gation, of empire and the Big Stick and the bold theft of the Panama Canal, of immi gration restriction and ethnic stereotypes…. By and large, however, they were conserva tive reformers [who] aimed to preserve the existing bal ance between wealth and commonwealth. understand itor the malice in which it is steeped. Many people are nostalgic for a golden age; these people seem to long for the Gilded Age. That I can grasp. They measure America only by how it serves their own kind, like Marshall housewives, and they bask in the company of the new corporate aristocracy, as privileged a class as we have seen since the plantation owners of antebellum America and the court of Louis XIV. What I can’t explain is the rage of these counterrevolutionaries to dismantle every last brick of the social contract. At this advanced age I accept the fact that the tension between haves and have-nots is built into human psychology and society itselfit’s ever with us. However, I’m just as puzzled as to why, with right-wing wrecking crews blasting away at social benefits once considered invulnerable, Democrats are fearful of being branded “class warriors” in a war the other side started and is determined to win. I don’t get why conceding your opponent’s premises and fighting on his turf isn’t a surefire prescription for irrelevance and ultimately obsolescence. But I confess as well that I don’t know how to resolve the social issues that have driven wedges into the ranks of the workingand lower-middle-classes and divided them from the more affluent, upper-middle-class professionals and highly educated who were once their allies. Nor do I know continued on page 38 8/13/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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