History Says Democracy Will Die if Democrats Don’t Try “Going Big”

Robert Kuttner warns Biden's presidency may be the "heartbreaking interregnum between two bouts of deepening American fascism."

Franklin D. Roosevelt at desk working ca. 1932 or 1933. (Photo by: Hum Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Franklin D. Roosevelt works at his desk in the early 1930s. Hum Images/Universal Images Grou

During the 1930s, a beast called fascism stirred to life and began overwhelming societies across the world. Within 10 years, it was clear this had been one of history’s worst ideas. But the unappealing reality is that during the fascist moment, many, many people thrilled to its appeal — and not just in the places that would become the Axis powers in World War II.

Yet the United States didn’t go fascist. Why? In 1941, the journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote an unsettling article for Harper’s Magazine which asked the question, “Who Goes Nazi?” Based on her time spent in Europe — she was the first U.S. reporter expelled from Nazi Germany — Thompson explained, “Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.” Moreover, Thompson wrote, huge swaths of Americans possessed this type of mind.

Looked at from a distance of nearly a century, the reason the U.S. evaded fascism seems clear. It wasn’t that we’re nicer or better than other countries, thanks to our inherent sterling character. We just got lucky. The prolate spheroid-shaped football of history bounced the right way for the country. And a huge part of that luck was Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

We forgot the New Deal was not a mountain range created by nature but an extraordinary achievement that was erected by humans and could therefore either be extended or destroyed.

Roosevelt was exactly the right president at the right time. The New Deal demonstrated that democracy could deliver unmistakable benefits, both material and emotional, to desperate people, and thereby drained away much of the psychological poison that powers fascism.

Then, over the next 30 years, something terrible happened: America forgot all this. We forgot how lucky we got. We forgot the New Deal was not a mountain range created by nature but an extraordinary achievement that was erected by humans and could therefore either be extended or destroyed.

Robert Kuttner illustrates this eloquently in his new book “Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy.” Kuttner, born in 1943, writes, “I am a child of the New Deal. My parents bought their first home with a government-insured mortgage. When my father was stricken with cancer, the VA paid for excellent medical care. After he died, my mother was able to keep our house thanks to my dad’s veteran’s benefits and her widow’s pension from Social Security.”

The problem, he says, is, “My generation grew up thinking of the system wrought by the Roosevelt revolution as normal. … But this seemingly permanent social contract was exceptional. … Above all, it was fragile, built on circumstances and luck as much as enduring structural change.”

Kuttner has been fighting for the New Deal, and against its ferocious enemies, for his entire life. He started as one of journalist I.F. Stone’s assistants, served as a congressional investigator, was general manager of Pacifica’s WBAI Radio in New York City, and has been a regular newspaper columnist. Perhaps most significantly, he’s co-founded two enduring institutions: the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, and The American Prospect, one of the zestiest liberal publications in the U.S.

During much of this time, Kuttner has been trying to persuade the Democratic Party to care about its heritage and stop collaborating with the U.S. right in undermining the New Deal extended universe. But in “Going Big,” Kuttner makes a scary case that the stakes are now much larger than this. The book’s first words are “Joe Biden’s presidency will be either a historic pivot back to New Deal economics and forward to energized democracy, or heartbreaking interregnum between two bouts of deepening American fascism.” The final chapter is titled “America’s Last Chance.”

“Going Big” is largely the story of how we got to this moment, starting with Roosevelt and ending in January of this year, when it went to press. It’s filled with peculiar and little-known history, such as the fact that at the 1932 Democratic Party convention, candidates required two-thirds of the delegate vote to secure the nomination. This rule was championed by the conservative white Democratic powerbrokers of the South — whose ideological descendants are now Republicans — to give them a veto over who would lead the party. Kuttner quotes a New Deal historian as saying, “Roosevelt came within an eyelash of being denied the nomination” thanks to this; he only squeaked through by allying with the extremely unpalatable Southerners.

Kuttner highlights examples of the 200-proof racism then at the commanding heights of the Democratic Party. At the 1936 convention, the invocation was delivered by Marshall Shepard, an African American pastor from Philadelphia. “Cotton Ed” Smith, a senator from South Carolina, called Shepard “a slew-footed, blue-gummed, kinky-headed Senegambian,” and that was the nicer part. Smith walked off the floor in outrage.

Kuttner identifies this type of racial insanity as one of “two potent undertows” that would hobble the New Deal and make it vulnerable to attacks in the future. But while “racism remains pervasive,” writes Kuttner, the U.S. is not the same place as it was in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the Democratic “failure to deliver economic gains for ordinary people” has “allowed white racism once again to fill the political vacuum.” This is thanks to the second factor undermining New Deal politics: “the residual power of capitalists in a capitalist economy.”

The book’s more recent history features the enjoyable intellectual dismantlement of some of the personifications of this power — particularly two of Bill Clinton’s treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. The 2008 economic collapse can to a significant degree be laid at their feet. Kuttner takes deserved satisfaction in pointing out that they or their followers were regnant in the Obama administration but have largely been marginalized by Biden. Summers in particular was reduced to griping from the sidelines as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act Plan — far larger than anything dreamed of by Obama — was passed in March 2021.

And that’s great. But that brings the book to the obvious, core problem of U.S. politics right now. Biden could try to make the 2022 midterms and the 2024 election a referendum on his Build Back Better agenda, or the PRO Act (which would make union organizing much easer), or abortion rights, or expanding Social Security, or a crackdown on corporate villainy, or any and all of the many popular positions that Democrats theoretically hold.

Biden and the Democrats now seem intent on going small — so “smol” and petite and inoffensive that no one notices or gets mad at them.

Roosevelt would have relished the fight and going big. But Biden and the Democrats now seem intent on going small — so “smol” and petite and inoffensive that no one notices or gets mad at them. One especially dispiriting example of this that Kuttner does not address in the book, but has elsewhere, is inflation. The Biden administration could have gone on the offensive and made the case that inflation is being driven by supply chain issues, corporate price-gouging, and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince — as opposed to rising wages and government spending — but instead has largely settled into a silent defensive crouch. Now Jerome Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve reappointed by Biden, is saying that the Fed’s policy is to “get wages down,” something Americans will enjoy even less than inflation.

The novel “Love in the Ruins” by Walker Percy was published in 1971, just as the energy of the New Deal was quietly dissipating. It begins:

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last? …

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

We’re about to find out whether that luck in fact is over. But part of that charmed existence has always been people like Kuttner. We’re fortunate to have him, and now it’s up to everyone else to take his warning seriously, and try to make our own luck.

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