Last week, Michael Lind published a thought-provoking article that urges Barack Obama to uncover his inner FDR or Harry Truman. (“Give ‘em hell, Barry?” I’ll take it! H/t to The Daily Howler.) Lind has some interesting things to say about how Democrats today fail to use the compelling power of their own history and of the great movements for social justice in American history to make the case for the main progressive concerns in our times:
Last but not least, you need a narrative in which today’s campaign is not an isolated technocratic attempt to solve a particular public policy problem, but part of the ongoing story of progressive reform in America. In his 1964 Democratic convention speech, Lyndon Johnson invoked American history in laying out the vision of the Great Society: “The Founding Fathers dreamed America before it was. The pioneers dreamed of great cities on the wilderness that they crossed.” It’s hard to make that appeal if you agree with elements of the academic left that the Founders were self-seeking crooks, that the pioneers were genocidal monsters and that great cities on the wilderness are ecological disasters. The consensus liberals of the mid-20th century and the multicultural liberals of the late 20th century have been too busy exaggerating the anti-Semitism of 19th-century populists or emphasizing the racist attitudes of the 19th-century labor movement to invoke the ideals those precursors share with post-racist 21st-century liberals. But we can be inspired by the universal ideals that we share with our predecessors without endorsing or excusing their parochial prejudices.
Now, I seriously think Lind overstates the influence of professional historians, who might in fact be “busy exaggerating the anti-Semitism of 19th-century populists or emphasizing the racist attitudes of the 19th-century labor movement.” After all–with print runs of 800 or 1,000, university press books have a limited audience, and those of us who read (or write) those books aren’t a large or terribly influential part of the Democratic party’s coalition. (I don’t take Lind’s dismissive comments about “multicultural liberals of the late 20th century” or the “college-educated upper middle class” personally–it’s a little tic of his, like Gore Vidal’s sneering asides at the “Assistant Professors.” If Lind and Gore want to establish their populist or intellectual creds by dissing me, well–wev. I get it that I ain’t exactly normal.)
So what’s stopping Dems from portraying universal health care, working to halt global climate change, and putting an end to torture as part of the great American tradition of redefining and extending the protections of citizenship to more people? Huh? Why are Dems alienated from American history, and even the distinguished history of their own party? What’s your theory?
Lind finishes his article with a draft of a speech he wants Obama to deliver:
“They can draw a Hitler mustache on me. They can draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa, for all I care. They are wrong and we are going to defeat them.
“We won the elections and we are the majority. We would like to build the biggest consensus possible, but progress is more important than consensus. Our job is to help the American people, not split the difference between right and wrong by giving a veto to the party that the American people have rejected.
“In this fight, as in earlier struggles, powerful interests are opposed to the needs of the people. In the 19th century, we the people defeated the Southern slave owners, freed the slaves and saved the nation. In the 20th century, while fighting alongside many other nations to save the world from militarism and totalitarianism, we the people here at home tamed the corporations for a generation and fought segregation based on race, gender and, more recently, sexual orientation.
“Today the campaign for affordable healthcare as a right, not a privilege, is opposed by powerful interests in the medical and insurance industries. They seek to deceive and confuse you. And they seek to bribe or intimidate your elected representatives into serving their will rather than the needs of the public.
“They may win this battle. They may win the next. But we will never stop fighting for the needs of the many against the greed of the few. For more than 200 years, from the time we threw off the tyranny of the British empire and established our republic, we have worked to realize the spirit of ’76 on this continent and in the world beyond. The enemies of progress have money on their side. We have history on ours.”
Now that would be a game-changing speech–but I’m not holding my breath. My prediction is that tonight’s speech will be that of the Great Conciliator, once again, and Presidents Max Baucus and Olympia Snowe will rule our world this fall. (I’d like to be wrong, for a change.)