Wilson, Obama & FDR

Some worrying early signs for the Democrats this year. Polls have shown tightening of the race for the January 19 special election in Massachusetts to elect a replacement for Ted Kennedy. A Democratic loss in this reliably blue state would be a huge fillip to Republican morale. The tightening race in large part reflects the apathy of Democratic voters against a mobilized Republican base. The Democrats will probably rally sufficient of their base to win this one fairly comfortably, but it says much about their current woes. Overall the Obama administration has often seemed to believe that political arguments are purely logical. There has been little attention to developing a progressive base, and a failure to realise that public opinion is often a dependent rather than an independent variable. Obama’s primary campaign displayed some notable weaknesses, he caught Clinton by surprise but once the Clinton camp rallied he was unable to build significantly on his early lead.  There’s little sign that Obama will preside over a redrawing of the political landscape as did FDR. The opportunity to achieve this may never have insisted but there was little sign of any strategy to take advantage of the crisis atmosphere of early 2009. Yet Obama invited support during the primaries as the architect of a potential realignment, he also appealed to those who wanted an alternative to Clintonite liberalism. However his policy record is little different from that which Hillary would have pursued. Interesting here to compare Obama to Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson won in 1912 it was very much against the political trend, the Republican political hegemony forged in 1896 was basically secure. As Elizabeth Sanders argues Wilson implemented a series of significant reforms, that responded to key demands of the Democrat’s southern and agrarian base, but these reforms didn’t build a new majority, and when the political tide turned the Democrats returned to the political wilderness. The situation now is different, the political landscape favours the Democrats who have out polled Republicans at at all but one of the last five Presidential elections, but a Republican victory remains a real possibility in 2016. It is open question as to whether  the Republicans will ever move away from their current hard-right conservatism, but the solidity in opposition of their Congressional contingent is not encouraging. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have shown the Republicans have noteworthy ability to win elections despite their policies being well to the right of public opinion. Each era of Republican governance seems to push the landscape further to the right. Have the policies of the Democrats in power contributed to voter alienation? Some of Obama’s critics to the left liken his record to that of the Wilsonian progressives, thus Frank Pasquale:

By passing this reform bill, Democrats will jettison whatever “populist” credentials they once had, opting instead for an early-twentieth-century “progressive” vision of technocratic alliance between corporate and government experts. However many disastrous missteps the FIRE industries make, this is the only arrangement that the media will credit as responsible governance. We’ll commence an endless argument (read: notice and comment rulemaking and subsequent administrative adjudications) over what constitutes an adequate baseline of coverage, what is the fair share of revenue for middlemen like insurers, and what regulatory infrastructure can best vindicate the entitlements (and impose the burdens) specified by the bill. But the fundamental victory of reform–the national commitment that no one should have to choose between death or bankruptcy when confronted with a serious illness–will also endure. The tragic paradox is that the Democrats can only achieve this great cultural and ideological victory by becoming identified with the very interests that only they are willing to confront.

For an interesting discussion of the distinction between populism and progressivism see Jack Balkin here. His approach aligns with Gretchen Ritter who stresses the divergence between pre and post-1896 reformism unlike Sanders. In part the divisions among liberals about the helath care bill replay older lines of divisions, for one of the early indications of the new left’s rejection of cold-war liberalism was its argument that Progressivsm constituted a ‘corporate liberalism’ that reconciled liberalism with capitalism very much on the terms of the later. Defenders of the health care bill such as Jonathon Chait at The New Republic consciously recall the theory of ‘corporate liberalism’  an exemplar of radical left folly.

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