Some Early 4th Of July Thoughts
In this newest book, Going Big: FDR's Legacy, Biden's New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy, Robert Kuttner one of the founders of the Economic Policy Institute, seems overly optimist that Biden, a lifelong conservative Democrat, is going to find his inner-FDR. He’s certainly aware of the gravity of the moment and he must be aware of Biden’s inability to cope with it. He wrote that “Biden’s presidency will be either a historic pivot back to New Deal economics and forward to energized democracy, or a heartbreaking interregnum between two bouts of deepening American fascism. We are facing the most momentous threat to the American republic since the Civil War.” Anyone who opts for Door #1 is living in a fairytale. Biden is not FDR and Biden is not Harry Truman. Biden is a corporate whore who has never felt much affinity to progressive programs, even if he allowed Bernie to propose a few as a “White House” agenda that Biden ignored and allowed conservative Democrats to sabotage. Kuttner said that the embrace of neoliberalism and Wall Street by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama paved the way for Donald Trump. I’m scratching my head wondering how he doesn’t see this is essential Biden.
Absorb this from Kuttner: “Thanks to the long legacy of Roosevelt’s help to working people, as late as the 1996 presidential election, if you looked at counties that were at least 85% white and below median income, those counties split just about evenly between Robert Dole, the Republican, and Bill Clinton, the Democrat. By the 2016 election, those same counties went 658 for Donald Trump and 2 for Hillary Clinton! And that is the result of not standing up for working people and thinking that you can go left on social issues and that makes it ok to go right on economic issues. On the contrary— you buy the credibility to be avant garde on social issues by delivering for all people on economic issues.” Biden, on the other hand…
A few days ago, my friend Dan sent me a compelling July 4th OpEd from Toronto’s Globe and Mail by one of our McGill colleagues, David Shribman, On this Fourth of July, the ‘United’ States of America is anything but. Shribman wrote that “as the United States prepares for its July 4 celebration of the 246th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, the changes the country has experienced stand in sharp, even stunning, relief. A land founded in idealism is wracked with cynicism. A society founded in boundless opportunity is shackled with a yawning wealth gap. A country that was founded by an insurrection against the Parliament in London is still recovering from recriminations over an insurrection at the Capitol in Washington.”
Recovering? Really? I don’t see it. The split in country is sharper now than it was before the coup attempt. And an elderly hack politician like Biden is not exactly the right person for the moment. His tongue-tied, incoherent VP is even worse. Shribman noted that “A society that in the past three-quarters of a century has broadened its views of rights— for minorities, for LGBTQ people, for the disabled and in the arena of health care— now has a Supreme Court that is restricting abortion rights even as it broadens protections for gun possession and public prayer… In the half-century and more after 1950, the stewards of tradition and the practitioners of prudence largely were Republicans while the rebels and disrupters almost always were Democrats. Now that is reversed. ‘The left is now widely seen as the schoolmarm of American public life, and the right is associated with the gleeful violation of convention,’ Nate Hochman, a fellow at National Review, once regarded as the leading edge of conservative thinking, wrote last month in the New York Times.”
The leading American historian of his generation, Henry Adams (1838-1918), a man with deep roots in the enterprise of making America (he was the great-grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second president; he was grandson of another chief executive and son of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War-era ambassador to Great Britain) was possessed of an unusually trenchant perspective about the country his family did so much to shape. In his most famous work, The Education of Henry Adams, published posthumously and awarded the 1919 Pulitzer Prize, he spoke of how “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created.”
The American ash heap of history is overflowing.
In that ash heap are “bundling boards” that kept men and women apart in bed; schoolhouse hornbooks that educated young children; Conestoga wagons that travelled the Great Plains to the open West; blacksmith shops, all-male suffrage, Prohibition, collegiate goldfish-swallowing, telephone booths and Howard Johnson’s restaurants – all remnants of a fast-receding past.
“In nature as in human society, everything is in flux,” David Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford University, told me. “It is especially true in the United States, for there is no such thing as a constant in American history. It is an illusion to think otherwise.”
…The most visible political element is the change in American civic life— never placid but seldom as full of hostility as it is today, when Americans are divided over mask mandates, vaccinations, the legitimacy of elected officials and even elections themselves.
“Many of these changes are reactions to the previous changes,” said former Democratic representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, whose own life— closeted homosexuality followed by gay activism— itself represents vast change. “The South going Republican was a reaction to the Democrats becoming a party of the left. The change my generation is seeing is no more drastic than the change my parents saw. Things in this country change rapidly.”
…Though the Fourth of July customarily prompts national celebrations, there is little celebratory spirit in 2020s America.
This year there will be no speech remotely like that delivered by Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886), the father of Henry Adams, who in 1876 marked the centenary of American independence by saying, “Let us labour continually to keep the advance in civilization as it becomes us to do after the struggles of the past, so that the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which we have honourably secured, may be firmly entailed upon the ever enlarging generations of mankind.”
Today progressives refuse to buy pillows from a company headed by a Trump supporter. Conservatives are mounting a cultural war against the Walt Disney Company. Today the phrase “civil war” is tossed around in lower-case letters. Today Americans view with sadness and with fear both the prospects for democratic rule in the United States and the notion of “the next civil war” that the Canadian writer Stephen Marche set out with ruthless realism in his 2022 book of that bracing title.
“If the American experiment fails, and it is failing, the world will be poorer, more brutal, lesser,” Marche wrote. “The world needs America. It needs the idea of America, the American faith, even if that idea was only ever a half-truth. The rest of the world needs to imagine a place where you can become yourself, where you can shed your past, where contradictions that lead to genocide elsewhere flourish into prosperity.”
Today Americans who grew up with the catchphrase “greatest nation on Earth” might view with bitter recognition the view of the British historian Andrew Roberts, who in his history of the English-speaking peoples in the 20th century wrote of Americans, “Like the Romans, they would at times be ruthless, at times self-indulgent, and they, too, sometimes would find that the greatest danger to their continued imperium came not from their declared enemies without, but rather from vociferous critics from within their own society.”
But surely the greatest sadness might come from an American who encounters the 1924 novel Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, who wrote of a protagonist’s worship of all things American: “He loved America. When a billet was good he said ‘America.’ When a position had been well fortified he said ‘America.’ Of a ‘fine’ lieutenant he would say ‘America,’ and because I was a good shot he would say ‘America’ when I scored bulls-eyes.”
Today no one would write that. And to many Americans, if not to others elsewhere, that is the biggest, and by far the saddest, change of all.