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Is a New New Deal Possible?

George Salamon
October 11, 2016


by George Salamon

“American society is a sort of flat, fresh-water pond which absorbs silently, without reaction, anything which is thrown into it.” --Henry Adams

AT LONG LAST, the silence voluntarily imposed on itself first by the “Silent Generation” of the 1950s and then through the “Silent Majority” in the Age of Nixon is losing its grip on America’s citizens. “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular,’” Cindy Hedges of Paris, Kentucky told the New York Times in a story with that headline on September 11. For her, that was Donald Trump, at least at that moment. Others agree, but their “spectacular” rescuer could not be, and likely will not be, Donald Trump.

And that brings me to the editorial, “Organize, Don’t Celebrate,” posted on this website on September 25. Expecting to see Hillary Clinton inaugurated as president on January 20, 2017, it urges progressive readers “to keep the pressure on the Democratic Party to live up to its supposed ideals.” Those ideals, which the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed into a political if not a social revolution starting in the 1930s, shaped in millions of Americans the expectation that the nation should deal with the great economic questions confronting us and should bear the consequences of its responses to them.

The Jewish Currents editorial called the Democratic ideals “supposed” ones. I would have said “abandoned.” Is a return, leading to a new New Deal, designed to deal with the unsatisfied needs of millions of Americans in today’s economic environment -- after decades of Reaganite economic policies, after the rise of finance capitalism to the dominant sector in our economy, and after our elites evolved into super-professional narcissists -- even possible? Is it even desirable?

That is the question Nicholas Lemann raised in his review of three books entitled “Can we have a ‘Party of the People?’” in the New York Review of Books’ October 13 issue. One of those books is Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, and Lemann, a professor of journalism and author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, observed: “The idea of a Democratic Party that is truly consistent and unified around the fight against inequality -- Frank’s ideal -– is too much to hope for, and it may not even be a good idea. . . . Better to have the Democrats’ prosperous leadership struggling to hold together an unruly coalition of labor, minoritities and social movements than to trust that any group leading a unified party won’t turn into just the kind of self-regarding, self-dealing insiders that Frank so much dislikes.”

Well, entrusting your ideals and the fight for them to any group of leaders is a crap shoot. But is leaving them to rot under the Democrats’ “prosperous leadership” really a better idea? I see and hear nothing to suggest it -- and that has implications for the call to organize after Hillary’s election to the presidency.

Pressing her to move toward the left can be the first step, and it may bring some triangulated and compromised measures and programs that a practical centrist like her may well gain. But it will not bring about a revolution in the economic arena, correcting the maldistribution of wealth in America, ending the economic tyranny of Wall Street and the wealthy. A balance of political power was achieved in the 1930s by the New Deal, and now a balance of economic and social power needs to be struggled for.

What is required is a countervailing power, as the unions once were to our corporatist power, and the struggle must rise to a nationwide or nationalist level, where FDR fought and won much of the fight against “his class.” Since the election of Reagan, his class and the technocratic professionals in its service have waged and won the class war against the middle- and working- class people, eroding the gains made from the 1930s until the last gasps of New Deal philosophy under LBJ in the 1960s. The leadership and core of the Democratic Party have made gestures and issued promises, but have shown neither the guts nor the passion for fighting and overcoming the Republican nihilism of private sector and market Ueber Alles.

ONLY A THIRD PARTY, gaining members and therefore strength over a decade or more, could wage and win such a fight. And today, after thirty-five years of Reaganism, there are signs that many Americans are looking for fighters for their “general Welfare” (from the preamble to the Constitution) outside of the two parties. In this year’s presidential primaries, 57.6 million votes were cast and 27.2 million of those votes, or 47 percent, went to the two party outsiders, Trump and Sanders. The former collected 14 million, the latter 13.2 million votes. Trump, many of his supporters have now realized, is not “spectacular,” just a tawdry spectacle. Sanders remains a may-have-been.

But the obstacles to forming and sticking with a third party, one reviving and battling for economic and social change, remain overwhelming. As Micah White, co-founder of Canada’s Adbusters, has said: “Revolutions happen through a kind of collective awakening.” To awaken millions more, progressive movements must establish an effective and wide communications or media network, reaching and talking to people now tuned into rightwing radio and television. And progressive movements need to march together and embrace the obstinancy needed to succeed. (“Obstinacy,” said the philosopher and writer Ludwig Marcuse, “is a genuine quality of philosophical thought. To be obstinate means to reject the easy reconciliation with society, to keep a sense of reality based on longer time spans, deeper tensions, higher goals than those recognized by fashionable ‘post-modernism.’”)

Can this happen? Only if progressives abandon business-and-political thinking and planning from quarter to quarter or from election to election and think of an American long march toward economic and social democracy. We need to present it to the people as a new kind of nationalism — and begin talking to people like Marie Bolden of Twin Branch, West Virginia, an abandoned mining town that is falling apart and in which the only politicians cared about are John F. Kennedy and Lyndon BaInes Johnson, who visited the county in the 1960s and, respectively, initiated the Food Stamps Program and the War on Poverty after their visits. She was quoted last April in the New York Times describing her son visiting, who told her: ”‘Ain’t that a shame. I’m 30 years old and carrying my life around in a backpack.’ It broke my heart,” she said.

Millions of Americans live lives that never got off the ground. Millions more will follow in Bolden’s son’s sad and terrible footsteps. They and their families and neighbors must be talked into joining the movement, becoming part of those organized for change. Then they or their children will bring about and experience change only talked about and promised for decades. Otherwise, organizing and marching raise consciousness for a couple of media cycles and disappear.

It’s not only bad guys who need to break bad habits.

George Salamon professed German language and literature at Harvard, Haverford, Dartmouth, and Smith colleges, worked as a business reporter and editor, and now writes for the Gateway Journalism Review, the New Verse News and Jewish Currents from the American heartland in St. Louis, MO.