Going Green: A progressive’s plea for a new party

October 31, 2012

As it turns out, President Obama was spot-on when he said Mitt Romney wanted to bring back the “economic policies of the 1920s” during their final debate—he’s just not the man to stop it.

This became incredibly clear to me last week, as I read an essay entitled “LaGuardia in the Jazz Age” by Howard Zinn, which was published in his 1970 book The Politics of History. The piece highlights the struggle of problematic iconoclast Fiorello LaGuardia, the socialist Republican congressman from West Harlem who would go on to become mayor of New York. Especially pertinent were his battles with Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Mellon was a Wall Street “Master of the Universe” long before the term was conceived—his vast empire including coal, coke, gas, oil, and aluminum would eventually amass him a fortune topping $2 billion, more than $25 billion in today’s dollars.

Mellon’s policies were unapologetically regressive. As Zinn writes, his “various tax proposals in the Twenties had one basic theme: to lower taxes on high incomes. For instance, his first report to Congress, in 1921, recommended tax cuts, but only on incomes over $66,000 a year.”

Compare that to Republican rhetoric this year—especially Romney’s assertion on 60 Minutes that it is “fair” for him to pay a lower tax rate than someone making a tenth of his income—and you come to some troubling conclusions. First, the conservative economic prescription of low taxes and less regulation hasn’t changed much over a century, even after it delivered us economic catastrophes in 1929 and 2008.

But perhaps more disturbing than the continued influence of this wholly discredited approach to macroeconomics is that there’s hardly anyone around in elected politics today to push back. It certainly wasn’t any easier to be a progressive in the 1920s than it is now; the Klan enjoyed its highest membership ever, and Congress was flooded with legislators of Mellon’s stripe. Even so, once crisis hit, liberals were able to capitalize on the Right’s failings and elect a swath of at-least mildly progressive officials, including FDR. The result was a significant reimagining of the American social contract in the form of the New Deal, effectively killing those right-wing economic myths for over a generation.

This is the opportunity progressives hoped President Obama would seize in 2008, but instead of using the various crises he inherited to transform American politics, he wholly succumbed to the pressure to conform to political norms. Whereas the likes of FDR and LaGuardia looked at the collapse of the economic system in the late ‘20s and decided the country that would rise from the ashes would look markedly different from the one tossed into the flames, Obama sought primarily to get the country back to normal—to restore the pre-crisis status quo.

In that respect, he’s been wildly successful. Corporate profits are back at record levels, stock prices have rebounded, the war on terror continues to trample on our civil liberties and rights, global warming is still an afterthought, and economic inequality is growing at a faster rate than it was even under the previous administration.

Even where the President has proposed reforms, he’s either put forth conservative options or personally undermined them after the fact. His healthcare law, for instance, is the spawn of the Heritage Foundation—a giveaway to insurance companies without a public option. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations were already too modest when they were passed, but then the president supported the absurdly named Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act that eased the few derivative-trading regulations on the books.

There’s a long list of other Obama shortcomings, like record deportations and his failure to support an increase in the minimum wage, but while all are significant they tend to gloss over the most important point—that his temperament makes it impossible for him to achieve progressive aims. Obama is someone who views compromise as an end in itself, rather than a means to get something done, and this naïve desire to bring everyone to a consensus has hamstrung every one of his political efforts.

In the end, the political situation hasn’t changed much in comparison with the ‘20s. Progressives face the same insanity from the one percent on the right wing as they did in those days. But, Obama is no LaGuardia, he’s no LaFollette, and he’s certainly no FDR. He has given us no reform we couldn’t expect out of a moderate Republican, and has only moved the nation further to the right on foreign policy.

We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking Obama will suddenly transform into a progressive in his second term by himself. He’s a soggy, technocratic centrist like the vast majority of our Democratic politicians today. To me, a vote to push the President to the left does much more good than one that simply endorses his policies, and that’s why a true progressive’s ballot in 2012 does not include the President.

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is a former Editor in Chief of The Georgetown Voice

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Liberal, not "Progressive"

Mr. Bade’s grasp of history is as tenuous as his grasp of our present political predicaments.