What made Franklin Roosevelt and the Greatest Generation great? Others may tell you it was defeating Nazism in a worldwide war. But Harvey J. Kaye, Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin, maintains that its heart and soul was none other than the Popular Front.
Most of us recall the Front as a short-lived instantiation of “one big Left” consisting of liberals, social democrats, and communists that did not make it past the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Professor Kaye, artfully ignoring that disillusioning ripple through the socialist tide, would revive that “one big Left,” and for a very practical purpose.
To be sure, The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great looks like a history—even an academic history—complete with 60 pages of endnotes. But the publicity packet that its publisher sent along to reviewers reveals, as I said, a very definite practical program, replete with talking points like these:
- “After 35 years of deepening inequalities and insecurities, of declining industries and decaying public infrastructures—indeed, of denying who we are—we need to do what our parents and grandparents did….
- “We need to harness the powers of democratic government in favor of progressive policies and programs….
- “We need to mobilize, organize, and bolster progressives like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Bill de Blasio. We need to make America radical for at least a generation…”
I especially admire that use of the word “need,” reminiscent of its deployment in diners and sub shops throughout Professor Kaye’s (and my) upper Midwest. In drive-through fast-food parlance, “Do you need cheese on that?” really means “Do you want cheese on that?” O reason not the need, Cordelia of The Coney Hut, and slap some right on. To pretend to want less would be to deny who we are.
This hero tale of Progressivism presents a problem of sorts. If we take our moral and political bearings from History—from the course of events, unfolding in a predetermined way—then the most authoritative thing lies not above us in Heaven, nor in and around us in nature, but ahead of us in time. According to Progressivism, the most authoritative thing is the Future. But a history—a narrative of the course of events—looks to the past. What’s a good Progressive to do, especially if, like Professor Kaye, he wants to call us to remembrance of glories lost?
Readers are enjoined to “remember what conservatives have never wanted us to remember and what liberals have too often forgotten”: that “we are the children and grandchildren of the men and women who rescued the United States from economic destruction in the Great Depression and defended it against fascism and imperialism in the Second World War.” We must, he says, set ourselves to seeking the “Four Freedoms” enunciated by President Roosevelt because the United States that the Greatest Generation rescued and defended was the New Deal state, about which FDR’s Attorney General and Supreme Court appointee Robert H. Jackson said, “We too are founders,” and “We too are makers of a nation.”
Now, to charge that conservatives have never wanted us to remember the New Deal or the Progressive ideology that animated it is surely unfair. Conservatives were among the first to revive scholarly interest in Progressivism, as seen in writings at least as far back as Paul Eidelberg’s 1974 book, A Discourse on Statesmanship, and continuing in the work of Paul Marini, Sidney Milkis, Dennis Mahoney, Ronald J. Pestritto, and many others. But such a cavil ignores the obvious, which is that meticulous engagement with the scholarly literature wouldn’t serve the author’s inspirational purposes.
It’s impossible to reproduce the full range of Kaye’s revival-sermon voice, but here are some highlights. The Roaring Twenties were “a time of economic growth and prosperity,” but only “for a certain class of people.” He means the rich, not the middle class or the urban working classes—despite that real wages went up 20 percent in that decade and that mass production of consumer goods during that decade sharply increased Americans’ buying power. No matter. The (talking) point is that, while greedy, bathtub gin-swilling, jazz-age bacchanalians careened toward the Crash of 1929, the soberer souls of Hyde Park—Eleanor and Franklin—steeled themselves for the struggles to come.
And this was most fortunate, in the author’s view, since FDR and the New Dealers “initiat[ed] a revolution in American government and public life” with tighter regulation of capital, “relief on a grand scale,” such that by “pursuing social- and industrial-democratic policies and programs,” what was achieved was a “redrawing the nation’s constitutional order”—and this without a single amendment to the Constitution. The aim was to bring America “ever more progressively toward social and industrial democracy”—in the face of those villains, the “economic royalists” and “Tory Republicans” who sought to defend their “industrial dictatorship” and “economic autocracy.” True, for a short time the nine old men on the Supreme Court stood, palsied, in History’s way, but FDR’s eventual appointment of seven new justices began “nothing less than a Constitutional Revolution.”
In Professor Kaye’s breathless telling, the vast benefits of this revolution endured long past the end of the war and Roosevelt’s administration. America’s postwar decades of economic prosperity occurred by the grace of the prior “investments” in infrastructure by the New Dealers, the GI bill, and “the profits, savings, and technical investments and ‘know how’ accumulated in the fight against fascism and imperialism.”
You may ask: what of America’s sheer physical advantages over bombed-out Europe and Japan, advantages institutionalized in such capitalist structures as the IMF and the World Bank? Don’t be silly. Such stuff deserves no place on the Progressive honor roll.
And alas, “Harry Truman was no FDR.” He began the Cold War, while the labor movement’s purges of communists from their organizations made it “cease to be the militant progressive force it had been.” Just as bad, liberals and Progressives (that is, former Vice President Henry Wallace and his allies) “differed critically over how to handle the Soviets and America’s own communists.” Kaye writes that “the horrors of fascism, Nazism, and communism” led even some Left intellectuals “to question the prospect of giving too much power and authority to the state.”
With that doubt came hesitation, a double-mindedness that made things still worse. President Lyndon Johnson, a loyal New Dealer, nonetheless failed “to break the Cold War’s grip,” instead supporting “the authoritarian and corrupt U.S.-created South Vietnamese state” against “the Communist North and revolutionary Viet Cong”—who, if memory serves, preferred tyranny to authoritarianism and mass murder to corruption. But of course such memories don’t pop up here.
After the “infamous Red-baiter” Richard Nixon defeated “liberal and antiwar George McGovern” (the Henry Wallace of the 1970s), and then fell victim to his own corrupt thuggery, President Carter, though a lifelong Democrat, could think of nothing better than to invoke God’s help—a call “as vacuous as it was ineffectual.” This opened the door for that slow-cured old Hollywood ham, Ronald Reagan, who had the effrontery to praise the Greatest Generation even as he jettisoned “what made the Greatest Generation and its greatest leader truly great”: the social and industrial democracy indicated by the Four Freedoms.
And today? President Obama, after some promising campaign rhetoric, has failed—not because he “ask[ed] too much of Americans” but because “he asked too little,” compromising on the nationalizing of healthcare and expressing worries about the federal deficit. Kaye comes close to characterizing him as Barack Harding Obama. No wonder we “need” to “get radical”—and not just “fairly” radical”—“for at least a generation.” Such a heavy burden of sin will take a long time to unload.
What is the point of this militant nostalgia for a past Future that never quite happened? First you describe how it was: “Communist intellectuals, who had previously scorned liberal democracies and other leftists . . . receiv[ed] welcomed new party directives from Moscow” to “promote the causes of labor and democracy.” (Ah those golden days, circa 1935, when Pete Seeger breathed free.)
Then you try to make it happen again. This apparently requires a correction from Professor Kaye of at least some of the tortured attitudes of the intellectual Left of the past two generations. After all, it wasn’t only conservatives, libertarians, and postwar “vital center” liberals who questioned the Progressive-New Deal confidence in the possibility of combining populism with the science of administration. The New Leftists did, too. Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Stokely Carmichael, C. Wright Mills, and Paul Goodman launched that attack while trying to form a radical Left that made all the components of the old Popular Front coalition exceedingly nervous (and rightly so). Professor Kaye would, by invoking that old-time New Deal religion, overcome the odd combination of cynicism and millennialism that the New Left has left us.
Some of what he says may find its way into the speeches of Hillary Clinton as she finishes off Senator Sanders in the early primaries, watched by at least one earnest democratic socialist professor, his soul in a condition of mesmerized despond. For somehow they have returned to the Democratic Party vanguard, the careerists Bill and Hillary Clinton, those adepts of rearranging the deck chairs on the ship of state. The former Senator and Secretary of State will, as Midwesterners say, need some extra slices of Progressive-tasting cheesiness as she sits in that last diner in Dubuque this month, reassuring the faithful of her lifelong loyalty to the cause of social justice.