In Robert Kuttner’s new book, “Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy,” he explains how we got to our present political inflection point, how high the stakes are, and what comes next. Kuttner — who co-founded the Economic Policy Institute as well as The American Prospect — joins Jon Schwarz to discuss.
[Deconstructed theme song.]
Jon Schwarz: I’m Jon Schwarz, a writer at The Intercept, filling in for Ryan Grim on this week’s episode of Deconstructed.
For anyone with a progressive political perspective, this is a terrible moment. The big Democratic initiatives on increasing the minimum wage, making it easier to join a union, starting to deal with global warming, and more, are stalled and seemingly dead.
Roe v. Wade has just been struck down by the ultra-conservative Supreme Court. And most of the Democratic Party’s leadership, including President Biden, seem to have few plans to seriously fight back on any of this.
But when you need to figure where to go next, you always have to start by understanding how you got to where you are. That’s especially true in America, where we’re discouraged from remembering anything that happened before the last ad for Domino’s. And that’s why Robert Kuttner’s new book “Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy” is genuinely important right now.
Kuttner is an prolific journalist, he’s the co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect, one of the zestiest liberal publications in the U.S., he co-founded the Economic Policy Institute, one of the vanishingly small number of think tanks in Washington, D.C. that cares about regular people, and he’s just been generally agitating for a better country for over 50 years, going back to his first job working for I.F. Stone, the muckraking reporter — and we like to think — spiritual father of The Intercept.
Right now, Kuttner is worried in a way he has not been before about what could happen next in American politics. But he also believes this time could be a huge opportunity, if the Democratic Party wants to seize it — and, in fact, that’s probably the only way to prevent the worst from happening. It’s a gigantic crisis and a gigantic opportunity — or, as Homer Simpson would say:
Dan Castellaneta [as Homer Simpson]: Yes, crisitunity!
JS: Bob, thanks for coming on Deconstructed. And thank you for writing your new book, “Going Big.”
If I could, I would make everyone in America read it, especially right now. “Going Big” is essentially the story of American political history from the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt, starting in the 1930s until today, and what that means for this political moment.
And what makes the story, as you tell it, so compelling is: First you excavate a ton of stuff that’s largely been forgotten — forgotten sometimes accidentally, and sometimes on purpose. And second: You live this history close up as an observer and also a participant.
And so to start with, I want to quote a part of your book, so people understand where you’re coming from, which is that you write:
“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 … 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.”
So that’s from your book. And before we get to the history dealt with in your book, I wanted to set the stage with my own understanding of sort of pre-New Deal history very, very, very quickly.
As I see it, from what I know, capitalism didn’t truly get going in the U.S. until the 1800s, particularly after the Civil War. And what became clear pretty quickly is that human beings just cannot coexist with capitalism, unless it was strongly regulated and constrained. And otherwise, you were going to get some extreme political reactions to try to deal with it so that people could just simply live.
And that’s what happened in Europe during this period, there was the rise of communism as an answer to what to do with capitalism. And obviously, the rich people of Europe did not like that answer, but they also didn’t want some middle ground where capitalism was constrained, and so they aided and abetted the rise of fascism. And that brings us to the 1930s: The world economy had collapsed. People around the planet were completely desperate and looking for a solution. And in lots of Europe, that solution was fascism, but it was not in America. And why?
RK: We got very, very lucky. There was an assassination attempt on Roosevelt’s life in Florida in January or February 1933 before he takes the oath of office, and the assassin gets within 6 or 7 feet of the president-elect and hits the mayor of Chicago by mistake who dies. Roosevelt is not struck.
And had the assassin’s bullet been true, the President of the United States in March 1933 would have been John Nance Garner, Cactus Jack, and we would not have had a New Deal.
We also got lucky in that Roosevelt was gradually getting more and more radicalized. He had been a liberal progressive governor of New York but he starts out campaigning against Hoover from the right for deficit spending. And it’s only during that period between the time of his election and the time of his inauguration that he really appreciates how bad things are, and how radical the remedies need to be. And then you have the first 100 days, of course, and a lot more. And you also have people pushing on Roosevelt from his left.
And, miraculously, it all comes together. We have a huge amount of regulation of finance. We have the invention of the modern housing mortgage system; four different New Deal agencies. We have public capital through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. We have social security. We have the Wagner Act, and within the space of a decade, complemented by World War II, when the state is even more powerful, we have the government in league with organized workers acting as a counterweight to capitalism.
And it works. It works. The New Deal gets the economy about halfway out of the Great Depression; World War II does the rest. It’s the very rare circumstance where we don’t have a depression after a war. It’s the very rare circumstance where the war pushes politics to the left rather than to the right. And Jeff Cowie, who’s a historian, calls the New Deal, “the great exception.” He’s absolutely right. And yet, as I write in this book, “Going Big,” even the New Deal was not radical enough, because it was vulnerable to being overturned.
And we see this as soon as the Republicans take back Congress in 1946. One of the first things they pass is the Taft-Hartley Act, making the Wagner Act much less effective. And the whole history from 1946 on, really is the slow evisceration of the New Deal, which really gathers force in the 1970s and, tragically, it is a Democratic president who is as responsible for this — Jimmy Carter — as Richard Nixon is, and the rest of the book really talks about how Democratic presidents buy into neoliberalism, weaken the New Deal model, and set the stage for Donald Trump.
JS: Yes, that is one of the most valuable parts of the book, I think, is the history as it deals with Democratic presidents. And it’s quite a disappointment [laughs] for anyone who hears the standard story from the Democratic Party. But it is undeniable.
And can you talk a little bit more about the history after World War II, and the significance of the end of union organizing that to the degree that it was happening during the ’30s?
RK: Well it’s a long half life. So by 1946 — 1947 is when Taft-Hartley is passed, weakening the Wagner Act — there has been so much organizing in the late ’30s and then in the war. Roosevelt was terrific. Roosevelt basically said to war production contractors: If you want to work a contract, you have to recognize your union. And World War II was even better for unions than the last years of the 1930s were.
So by the time the Taft-Hartley Act was enacted in 1947, labor has organized about a third of the workforce. And because even with Taft-Hartley, the big corporations did not actively fight unions, so as GM, and Ford, and GE, and the big industrial behemoths take on new workers, they take on new workers into union shops.
And so the labor movement really does just fine, right through the 1960s. So it’s a slow decline. And Eisenhower doesn’t really try to reverse the New Deal. You know, the Democrats had tried to nominate Eisenhower before the Republicans did. He’s a general, he’s a war hero, he’s a president above party. So the New Deal era really persists for another 30 years before business takes off the gloves and before Democratic presidents get corrupted.
And the other interesting thing about this period is that if you look at the Bretton Woods system, the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, where Keynes is the chairman of the conference — Keynes having been a scathing critic of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919 — is the rare historical figure who gets a duel over 25 years later. And so Keynes, and Roosevelt’s people, Harry Dexter White, decide that in order to protect the New Deal at home, we need to take the New Deal global. And so instead of allowing laissez-faire capitalism to set the terms of the post war reconstruction, you have the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, there was supposed to be an International Labor Organization to have high labor standards enforced globally, and so you did not have speculation in currencies the way you had after World War I, you had fixed exchange rates, and you had a system — very deliberately created — that allowed countries to pursue full-employment welfare states domestically without being undercut by the demands of private capital.
And if you want to contrast with how that works, after this was all eviscerated when Greece gets into trouble — through no fault of the socialist government, by the way, that was in power in 2009 — because of the sins of other countries, the remedy is austerity inflicted on the Greeks. But no such punishment was enacted on Britain after World War II, because the terms of the global economy were different. So the creation of a global economic order that was friendly to New Deal-style managed capitalism was another great accomplishment. And the unwinding of that, Clinton being the prime villain, is part of the evisceration of the New Deal order.
And what happens is the inertial power of the New Deal pretty much continues until the stagflation of the 1970s, which gives the economic right another turn at proffering its economic theories that the Great Depression was just an accidental mistake. And the varieties of free market economics work perfectly well, after all, and then Jimmy Carter, as just a totally hapless figure, who’s the most conservative Democrat since Grover Cleveland, not a New Dealer at all, is floundering around trying to figure out what to do, decides that one way to get inflation under control is by deregulating all of the industries that had been regulated in the New Deal, and maybe that’ll lead to competition and competition will restrain prices.
So it’s under Carter that we deregulate airlines, we deregulate railroads, we deregulate trucking, and even though Carter had a very strong working majority in Congress, he doesn’t lift a finger to put any teeth back in the Wagner Act, because he views trade unions as instruments of inflation. And he had the votes to pass labor-law reform, to repeal some of Taft-Hartley, and restore the original power of the Wagner Act; he chose not to use that power. And then he turns Paul Volcker loose, to put interest rates up to 21 percent. So just a complete failure [laughs] as a Democrat.
And, of course, this ushers in Ronald Reagan, and then Reagan, knowing full well what he was doing, takes it to the next level. And then, with Clinton, Clinton buys into the whole neoliberal story, aided and abetted by Bob Rubin, former co-CEO of Goldman Sachs, who has a self interest, as well as an ideological predisposition, to wanting to deregulate financial markets. And the other thing Clinton did was he makes budget-balance a kind of Holy Grail. And, unfortunately, that becomes entrenched in the Democratic Party so that Obama, after the financial collapse, after Obama kind of does a half-baked job of trying to re-regulate finance; in January of 2010, when the economy is still in recession, Obama listens to his conservative, Rubinite economic advisors, and decides to pivot to deficit reduction long before the recession is over. And the result of this is the blowout midterm election of 2010.
So the script that Carter, and Clinton, and Obama followed is just fatal to the Democratic Party whose core ideology is that affirmative government can help working people. And when affirmative government stops helping working people, social issues, racism, cultural issues, crowd out economic issues, and Hillary Clinton becomes the fatal instrument of this thinking that if you just go left on cultural issues, and defend transgender bathrooms, that will make up for going right on economic issues. And of course, this was like, waving a red flag at the Trumpies. And it was sort of the final coup de grâce of this series of one fatal neoliberal Democratic president after another squandering the Roosevelt legacy and the Roosevelt formula.
JS: Yeah, it is remarkable, looking at all of these Democratic presidents who seem to see the problems that the Democratic Party faces, and that they face in their term in office, and decide that, you know, the solution is for the Democratic Party to commit suicide.
RK: Yeah, or to become more like the Republican Party.
RK: And I think a lot of this is the influence of finance, Wall Street, in the counsels of the Democratic Party. I mean, with the exception of Bob Reich, and Joe Stiglitz, and Laura Tyson, who later goes on a number of boards of financial companies, the power players inside the Clinton White House are all Wall Street people. And Reich and Stiglitz are kind of the loyal opposition, and they lose a lot more battles than they win. And of course, they turn out to be prophetic — especially Stiglitz. I mean, if you go back and read Stiglitz’s book on the ’90s, every bit of it was prophetic, and yet, Summers, Larry Summers, who screwed up everything he touched, he becomes treated as the Prophet and Stiglitz is still the voice in the wilderness.
JS: Yes. Now, I think we should stop here for a moment, and talk a little bit about Larry Summers, because we both have a strong personal distaste, I think it’s fair to say, [laughs] for him.
Who is Larry Summers? Where did he come from? And what did he do?
RK: Well, OK, so Larry Summers is a wonder kid. He’s a very smart, young economist, one of the youngest economists ever tenured, maybe the youngest economist ever tenured, Harvard. He’s sort of middle-of-the-road economically; ideologically, he attaches himself to some moderate Keynesians; he also attaches himself to Martin Feldstein. And ultimately gets a job at the World Bank, I believe, or maybe it was the IMF.
JS: Oh, it was definitely the World Bank.
RK: The World Bank.
JS: That’s where he wrote the famous memo about dumping toxic waste in the third world.
RK: Yeah, that’s right.
And then he gets plucked by Rubin to a real power position, which is the deputy secretary of the Treasury for international economic affairs. So when I did my long investigative piece about, part of which found its way into this book, one of the things I discovered is that in addition to all of Summers’ other screw ups, he as much as any other public official in the Clinton era, was responsible for Russia ending up with Vladimir Putin. Because Summers, knowing nothing about Russia, passionately believes that the way to bring Russia into the capitalist family is a kind of extreme version of the cold bath cure, where you marketize as rapidly as possible, you privatize as rapidly as possible, and this leads to kleptocrats buying state assets at bargain basement prices, it leads to a depression in Russia, which discredits the small-d democrats, and the inheritors of this are the Communist Party on one side, and the Putin party on the other side. So in addition to anything else that you might have against Larry Summers, he is as responsible as any other American for Vladimir Putin.
So he becomes a protégé of Rubin, and Rubin likes Summers’ brilliance. Summers likes Rubin as a tutor on how you make money on Wall Street. After he leaves he gets connected with an investment bank, makes a lot of money. And Rubin then sponsors him for his disastrous reign as president of Harvard. And then Summers is very eager to go back into government, which he does, when Rubin persuades Barack Obama that Summers walks on water, and Obama makes Summers his top economic guy, where he is loath to be too tough on Wall Street, where he’s loath to see the government have a big deficit, and continues to believe in kind of ultra-globalization.
And then, after this, as president of Harvard, of course, he has another fiasco and Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and a couple of other Democratic senators — Jeff Merkley — get credit for keeping Summers out of the job that he wanted his his career capper, namely chair of the Fed. And it was the Democrats in the Senate who really prevented Obama from appointing Summers to chair the Fed.
But it isn’t just Summers as a person. It’s Summers as a kind of emblematic figure of the kind of Wall Street-afflicted economists who lead the Democrats down the road to hell.
JS: Yeah, and I think to put some dollar terms on what this meant for Larry Summers personally, the extraordinary fact is that I believe this was during the interregnum of the Bush administration. So he leaves as Treasury secretary. And then, even as he was a tenured professor at Harvard, he worked one day a week at a hedge fund and was paid $5 million a year for this eight hours per week job he had.
RK: Yeah. He’s working for D.E. Shaw. And it’s interesting, those figures were briefly disclosed. They have not been disclosed lately. But, yeah, it’s an astonishing story. But it’s interesting not because Larry Summers is a bad guy, but because it’s emblematic of a whole era and a whole trajectory.
JS: Yeah, I mean, I think to normal people, the amount of money you make as a tenured professor at Harvard would probably be enough.
RK: Well, and Summers makes more money than your average tenured professor, I mean a senior, tenured professor might make $250,000 or $300,000. Larry’s easily making double or triple that.
JS: That’s right. But that was not enough. That and total job security was not enough. And he needed more. That’s incredible to me.
It’s also incredible to me that schools like Harvard have no rules, as far as I know, about what professors can do outside of their job. That was my understanding of tenure, it was supposed to be, in return for giving you tenure, you’re supposed to serve as a somewhat disinterested expert to help normal people learn about the world. But apparently, that’s not how it works.
RK: Well, we could spend this whole conversation talking about the corruption of higher education and the corruption of the Democratic Party. I’d like to save at least a few minutes to talk about Joe Biden, and where this Republic is now.
JS: Yes. That’s how we got here. And where are we now?
So Biden is very interesting. I mean, Joe Biden was kind of a standard issue, liberal Democrat, not any kind of a left progressive. But he had this working class Joe side. And he was the accidental nominee, of course, because he was doing terribly in the primaries. And if Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders had not run against each other, one of them would have been the nominee, and one of them probably would have been President. So that’s thing one.
And then thing two, after he went to the South Carolina primary, and there’s this bandwagon effect, Warren folds her campaign, realizing that Biden is going to be the nominee, and I might as well throw in with him. And in exchange for that, Warren has a tremendous amount of influence, both over policy ideas, and over personnel. Warren loves to say personnel is policy. And of course it is.
So a lot of people who were well to the left of who Joe Biden was in his prior life end up with powerful positions in the Biden administration, and Biden himself moves left, under pressure of circumstances. Neoliberalism is finally demonstrated to be a practical failure. And so the center of the Democratic Party has moved left. And so you have this bizarre situation where you have the soul of Elizabeth Warren in the body of Joe Biden. And that’s like one of these mythical beasts. I mean, it doesn’t quite compute. And Biden has done not a bad job of acting out Elizabeth Warren, and even acting out some of Franklin Roosevelt. But of course, the problem is, Franklin Roosevelt had an enormous working majority in Congress, if you leave out race. Now, obviously, he made terrible compromises with Southern racists, but as long as you leave out race, which comes back to haunt the Democratic Party, the fatal compromise the Roosevelt made, he had a working majority to get the New Deal — the fairly radical New Deal through Congress, as long as it did not change racial relations in the south.
Biden doesn’t have a working majority in Congress. And for the first six months, it kind of looks like: Well, maybe he does have a working majority. So he gets, you know, he gets his initial $1.9 trillion program through, he gets all of his nominees with one exception confirmed, and Manchin is not fighting him. And then, by September, Manchin decides that he really doesn’t like some of the Biden program. And Biden looks like a president who can govern and his popularity ratings go South, and then you have inflation and the supply-chain shock, and all of a sudden Biden starts looking like a failed president. So the question is: Where the hell are we now? [Laughs.]
And the ability of the Biden administration to keep Trump at bay, to hold at least one house of Congress — which I think is actually quite possible, I think Democrats have a good shot at holding the Senate, the only thing standing between us and fascism. And what’s interesting about what we learned from the January 6 Committee is that the result of this may be that Trump doesn’t get nominated, but Trumpism without Trump is probably even more dangerous than Trumpism with Trump. Because as we learn how completely crazy out of his mind Trump was, you realize that if somebody who weren’t so crazy, who were a little craftier, or a little more normal sounding, had been president, he probably would have been reelected.
And I would much rather, if I were the Democratic nominee in 2024, run against Trump than I would want to run against DeSantis or Hawley or some of the other Trumpers who are not as crazy as Trump. So that’s one thing.
And I think the other thing, and I cannot stress this too strongly, Joe Biden needs to be more of an economic radical. The pollster Stan Greenberg did some very interesting polling on this. When Biden says: Hey, look at all that I accomplished, the unemployment rate is down, and I did all these great things with the ARPA Act, and the bipartisan infrastructure act, you get a kind of cognitive dissonance where working class voters say: What do you mean, you get all these great things, my life has turned to shit? And my life has been going down the drain for 40 years. And if you’re telling me that you did all these great things for the country, I’m going to vote for somebody else.
So instead of bragging about all the good stuff he did for the country, Biden should be wailing away at the banks, and the corporations, and the platform monopolies, and the oil companies, and identifying himself with the with the aspirations of working families who haven’t really gotten a raise in 40 years, and worse than that, their life horizons and the life horizons of their children are much worse than the statistics suggest. You can’t afford to buy a house, you can’t afford to go to college, your health security is going down the drain, and Biden needs to validate those feelings and be the champion of doing something about it and not just pussyfoot around with: Maybe I’ll cancel some student debt and maybe I won’t, and maybe I’ll save you 19 cents a gallon on the gas tax, and maybe I won’t.
I mean, he could be a much more robust version of where he started. And he could be out in the Midwest crusading for making it in America: Let’s reshore production, let’s deal with inflation by bringing production home and taking good jobs. And I think, Jon, you or I could write that speech. And I think the reason Biden doesn’t do that is he’s whipsawed between his own doubts about whether his popularity ratings would sink the ticket, and the doubts of some congressional candidates who aren’t sure they want him in their districts, and I think Trump is so crazy, as revealed by the January 6 hearings, we all knew how crazy he was but it turns out he was even crazier. And the combination of the attempted coup, the fact that most people don’t agree with the right-wing Republican Supreme Court on abortion, they don’t agree with a right-wing Supreme Court on gun rights, they don’t agree with a coup d’état, and this gives Democrats something to run against.
But the problem is, as I wrote in a column last week, is if the debate is between abortion rights and $5/gallon gasoline, $5/gallon gasoline just might win, meaning the Republicans might use that to deflect attention from these horrible court decisions. And so Biden has to be more of an economic progressive populist, à la FDR.
JS: Yes. And my question is: Why do Democrats seem to be incapable of this? Because as I have experienced politics in my life, the core thing that a political party needs, and individual politicians need, is a story that they’re telling.
JS: About who we are, how we got here, what we’re going to do now, and any story, any good story, needs heroes and needs villains.
JS: And the Republicans are great at telling a story. And their story is false, and pernicious, and dangerous, and frightening.
JS: Apparently, you know, the core danger for Americans now is elementary school teachers. So it’s a terrible story. But any story always beats no story. And the Democrats will not tell a story even when they have this fantastic story to tell, which is the subject of your book. And so, based on your experience, participating and observing in American politics, why is this so difficult for them?
RK: Well, I think some Democrats still have the right story. So Elizabeth Warren certainly has a story. It’s a coherent story. It’s a brilliant story. It’s a well articulated story. Ditto Sherrod Brown, ditto Bernie Sanders. I am certainly rooting for John Fetterman’s pacemaker, because I think he’s the next Bernie Sanders. He’s my candidate for the 2024 nomination to the Democratic Party. So some Democrats have a story.
Then you have Democrats who are corrupted. There’s no such thing as a centrist Democrat; there’s a corrupted Democrat. The so-called centrist Democrats, most of them are in bed with Wall Street. And that’s why they’re centrist. Then you have Democrats who are in swing districts who think that they have to be centrist on some issues to win elections. But, interestingly, most of the worst centrist Democrats are in safe Democratic seats, where their centrism doesn’t do a damn thing to help them get elected. So, you know, it’s a pickup team. It’s not an ideologically coherent party, the way the Republican Party is today.
The Republican Party, by the way, did not used to be an ideologically coherent party. When I worked in the Senate you had 20, not just moderate Republicans, you had liberal Republicans who voted with the Democrats, not just on civil rights issues, but on economic regulation issues, and they voted for trade unions. So it’s only in the last 40 years that Republicans have become an ideologically coherent party. The Democrats as far back as you go, certainly back 100 years, had been a kind of pickup team full of contradictions. In the ’30s, you have southern racists in the same party with northern socialists, and trade unionists and wonky academics — and somehow Roosevelt holds all of this together. But when you don’t have an extraordinary President holding it together, the centripetal force drives the party apart.
JS: Yes. What I see from the outside, is that it seems that it’s not just this kind of standard, straightforward corruption about where you’re getting your campaign contributions from and who you’re going to go to work for after you get out of office. But there does seem to be a truly deep intellectual and moral corruption, where a lot of these people do actually believe that this is as good as it gets, this is as far as we can possibly take things.
And they do fundamentally agree with a right-wing economic perspective. And it’s only very recently, as far as I can tell, that too many, or any fair number of Democratic politicians seem to have broken out of that. And that seems to have been the work of decades of people like you.
RK: Well, let me let me take issue with that in one respect. So in the ’70s, I was a Senate investigator, I worked for William Proxmire, on the Banking Committee staff, and I tell the story in the book: In those years, you could take a drive from Washington State to Pennsylvania, and not pass through his state with a Republican senator, and even better, all of those Democratic senators were progressives, they were labor Democrats. So in that era, right up until 1980, when Democrats lose control of the Senate, most Democrats outside the Deep South were progressive Democrats; they were labor Democrats.
And then what happens is you get this whole new Democrat garbage. And you get the Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas kind of technocratic, post-ideological, let’s use technology to try and break out of these political polarities. And then you get the Democratic Leadership Council, which is sort of one part tactical and one part purely corrupt. Because if you move to the center on this stuff, you can raise all kinds of business money as Al From certainly did. And From was the head of the DLC, recruits Clinton, I tell this story in my book, to be the the DLC candidate for president and triples or quadruples his salary as governor of Arkansas to head the DLC.
So it’s a combination of expediency and corruption and wanting to sample your own smoke.
JS: Yes, I assume — I’ve never had this experience myself — but I assume if you go to a fundraiser with a lot of people from Wall Street, they make a very compelling case. It’si not just that they’re giving you money. It’s also like: Wow. I don’t know how Wall Street works. These people really seem to know what they’re talking about, and I better do what they say.
So as I say, I think that shocking and appalling amount of it is honestly taking these awful, awful positions.
RK: Yeah. But I do think that the congressional Democratic Party has always been to the left of the presidential Democratic Party. You go back to the Clinton era, it was Congress that fought Clinton on NAFTA; it was Congress that fought Clinton on replacing AFDC with his terrible welfare plan, TANF, which is inadequate and demeaning. And you have Ted Kennedy as sort of the lodestar in the Senate, and it’s the Presidential party that finds it easier to just buy into neoliberalism, get in bed with Wall Street; it’s the congressional party that’s very skeptical about so-called free trade, Dick Gephardt and company being very critical of what became the World Trade Organization. But there’s definitely a tug of war inside the Democratic Party. But at least there’s a tug of war, at least there are some progressives.
And the interesting thing about Biden is that he has made more common cause with the progressives in the party than he has with the conservatives. And that’s progress. I just wish he were 49, rather than 79. And I wish that he were more assertive. I wish he were getting out of the office more. And I certainly hope, even though he’s what we’ve got for now, certainly hope he’s not the nominee in 2024.
JS: One interesting thing that I looked up recently, that seems to have some explanatory power to me is that I believe every single Democratic presidential nominee since 1984 has been a lawyer.
JS: And it’s just a fact that being a lawyer, you are trained to, first of all, think that power is all about words. And we just need to pass the right words into law and that will change things.
But secondly, lawyers are the bit players in life on earth. They are the counselors, they are the ones who have clients for whom they are acting, but they are not actors themselves. And I think that that is a real problem with the mindset at the top of the Democratic Party, like they seem to be scared to exercise power themselves and are intimidated by the idea that they might actually be able to change the world.
RK: Yeah. I think Obama’s temporizing will go down in history is one of the great tragedies of the American experience and of the Democratic Party. And that’s a whole other subject, but —
JS: But he’s definitely someone with a lawyer brain. No question about it.
RK: Yeah, there’s a caution. And Biden, at least, at least until he got his glock cleaned by Manchin, and Sinema, and company, was capable of some bold strokes during his first year in office, which is when I wrote this book, which is why had some hope that, you know, he might succeed in standing between where we are now and full-on fascism.
JS: Yeah. And I think that we should for sure, before wrapping this up, talk about how dangerous this moment truly is. The stakes are so high, that it’s a little bit difficult to express. This is, I would say, for me, certainly the most frightening political moment that I have experienced in my life. And what is your perspective on this?
RK: In order for us to be spared full-on fascism, just about everything has to break right. And let me define what I mean by that: Democrats have to hold one House. And I think they do stand a decent chance of holding the Senate. If you break this out state by state, Trump has helped by getting some real lunatic nominees in places like Georgia who are going to be rather hard to get elected in the general [election]. So it would help enormously if they hold one House because that means that Biden can still get nominees through Congress. So that’s thing one.
Secondly, inflation has to begin subsiding; Biden has to have some success in reclaiming supply chains; we have to not be humiliated in the Ukraine. And that unfortunately, probably means a war of attrition is the best we can get because Putin is not going to make a deal with us, even a deal at the expense of the Zelensky and then the Republican crackup has to continue.
And what is encouraging here is that I think the Republican Party is now splitting into not two but four factions. You’ve got the hardcore Trumpies; you’ve got the MAGA people who are Trumpies without Trump — and that’s a wonderful split. You’ve got the kind of softcore, traditional business Republicans who really don’t like MAGA but are willing to work with MAGA as long as MAGA did their bidding in terms of legislation that helped corporations; and then you’ve got a small handful of people like Liz Cheney, and that number is growing given what people are seeing in the hearings.
I would like to see Charlie Baker, my governor here in Massachusetts, run as an Independent, because I think that would peel off 10 or 15 percent of the Republican vote. So the Republican crackup could help. Then we have to have a strong nominee, who is much more effective than Biden in 2024, who is a true progressive, an economic progressive, and that’s probably a category of two or maybe three if we think Warren is still young enough. It’s Sherrod Brown; it’s John Fetterman. And I think either of them would do very well against a Republican. And I still worry that there are Republicans who would be much more effective candidates than Trump. So a lot of stuff has to break right. And probably the single most important thing is the Democrats have to hold the White House in 2024.
And then, of course, you have the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court is doing such incredible damage to what’s left of the Roosevelt administrative state that I think remedies that seem too radical for the mainstream I think now have to be taken seriously. And that means Congress can legislate in area, after area, after area to fence off certain legislation from judicial review. They can do that. Judicial review is not in the Constitution. And I wrote a column; I was very pleased to see Pelosi act on this the next day, although I don’t think I should claim credit for it, because it was an obvious idea. Thomas, in his concurring opinion, puts out this completely lunatic idea that: Hey, let’s go beyond repealing Roe. Let’s repeal Lawrence, and let’s repeal Griswold. Let’s ban gay marriage, let’s ban gay rights, and let’s even ban birth control.
And so what Pelosi did — I wrote a column suggesting this — Pelosi is introducing legislation saying: Let’s make these statutory. We could make these guarantees statutory.
The other thing you can do is you can put a mandatory status change where after you’ve been a Supreme Court justice for 15 years, you have to take senior status, which is done in the rest of the federal judiciary, and then you don’t get to vote. Or you could expand the court. And I think until last week, most people felt that this was just going too far. But now I think if we don’t want every progressive legislation that’s been enacted since 1937 to be eviscerated, another thing Democrats have to do is reign in the court, and if we can elect a president in 2024, and we can elect a majority in Congress, we could actually do that.
JS: Yeah. And I would also encourage people to think in these terms. I think this is kind of the stratosphere of American politics, like how things are functioning way up to the top and a lot of people look at the system, and they’re like: Well, I’m here standing on Earth, and what can I possibly do?
And I would certainly say that people can do a lot, especially with the internet, there are opportunities for people to become leaders locally on a state level, even on a national level very, very quickly. So I would say Ocasio-Cortez is an example of that, Chris Smalls, like people can take a stand somewhere, and all of a sudden be known to a huge amount of people can be leaders in a really significant way, like leadership like this is what is going to eventually push to the purported leadership in Washington, D.C. and in state governments.
So as I say, I’d really encourage people to say: If you think you could be a leader, you’re right! You could be! And now’s the time.
RK: You need leadership in two respects. So look what happened in January 2017: We had these massive women’s marches, which in turn led to massive organizing, which in turn led the Democrats to take back 41 net seats in the House in the 2018 midterms. So you need that kind of leadership and mobilization to keep Republicans from blowing away Democrats in the midterms.
But you also need that leadership and mobilization to push the Democratic Party and to push Democratic candidates to be better economic progressives, because that’s what it’s going to take to win back disaffected working class voters. And you know, when you hear the word “working class,” you think of some guy working in a steel mill. I mean, today’s working class is the service economy. Its warehouse workers and its people working in fast food. And those people are just as oppressed as factory workers were when the CIO organized them with Roosevelt’s help in the 1930s. And Democrats need to stand up for the entire working class, which is most people, because most people are downwardly mobile. And they have to see the Democrats as their champion as they did during the heyday of the New Deal party.
JS: Yes. And I would just like to, to end this if this is okay, by myself reading a passage from the end of your book, which I think speaks to all of this. You say:
“To say that all of this is a long-term project is the mother of understatements. A good shorthand for what we’re trying to recover is the Enlightenment, the ancient arguments of reason versus blind faith. But we’ve learned from our brush with fascism, that history does not move in one direction. Dark areas of regression can last for decades and even centuries. We need to invoke what is best in America and be smarter and more strategic than those who invoke the worst.”
RK: Yeah. Hey, that’s pretty good stuff. I hope people buy the book.
JS: [Laughs.] Yes. As I said before, I would make everybody in America get this book and read it. So thank you again for being here.
RK: Thanks so much. Appreciate it.
[End credits music.]
JS: That was Robert Kuttner, and that’s our show. His book is, “Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy.”
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Jon Schwarz. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.
Finally, if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear each new episode. And please go leave us a rating or a review — it encourages the podcast algorithms to tell people about the show. If you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks for listening, we will see you next week.