Friday, September 17, 2010

Why progressive reforms only happen when there are progressives to demand them

David Dayen has an interesting piece in Democracy Journal Fall 2010 Advise and Dissent:

Over time, the reforms put forward by FDR and LBJ only improved. But those improvements did not happen in a vacuum. They happened because passionate, well-intentioned progressives were willing to label the reforms as inadequate and to fight for their amelioration. You can argue with their methods, but not with their success.
Unfortunately, David uses as a major example the 1930s demagogue Francis Townsend, who by David's own account allied with some of the most poisonous rightwingers of his day:

He joined with Gerald L.K. Smith, the head of the Share Our Wealth Society (founded by Huey Long), and the nativist demagogue Father Charles Coughlin to found the National Union for Social Justice, a new political party. The Union’s candidate for president in 1936 grabbed almost one million votes.
The Union Party was in no meaningful sense a progressive party, just the opposite. Liberals, progressives and identifiable leftwing radicals of 1936 (e.g., Communists, Socialists) all regarded them as the rightwingers they were. As the biography at points out, "In 1937 the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted Townsend for contempt of Congress in the 1936 House investigation. However, Roosevelt commuted Townsend's 30-day prison sentence." Edwin Amenta and Yvonne Zylan explain in their article, "It Happened Here: Political Opportunity, the New Institutionalism, and the Townsend Movement" American Sociological Review 56/2 (Apr 1991), Townsend's movement struck a hyper-patriotic posture, while Townsend himself "sported a Hitler mustache."

David's basic concept is right. But his history of the New Deal in this case is flawed. The improvements in Social Security he describes were only tangentially if at all related to rightwing crackpots like Townsend. They resulted from the pressure from the labor movement.

Seriously, I don't mean to discredit David's overall argument, with which I certainly agree. His other examples, like those of the civil rights movement and the recent grim development that "polling never revealed a true majority in favor of torture until six months into the Obama Administration" are sound. His basic argument is valid. It's just that his interpretation of Townsend is poorly constructed.

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