Monday, October 24, 2011

Coxey's Bonus Army Sit-ins Occupy Wall Street

The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box.... The people are demoralized;... public opinion silenced.... homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages... The fruits of the toils of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes: ­ tramps and millionaires. 
I've been trying to make sense of the Occupy Wall Street movement for awhile now, wondering where it fits historically.

The quotation above helped place it for me. It's an American political platform, but not from today's protests. It's from 1892.

Given that we've now had several years of relatively high unemployment, something like the Occupy protests is not at all surprising. When people feel this kind of frustration, when they feel their votes don't matter because the political system seems totally dysfunctional, they take to the streets.

It's happened here before.

During the depression of the 1890s, there was Coxey's Army, a group of unemployed Americans led by Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey. People came to Washington from all over the country (many of them marching on foot) demanding a jobs program. They called it a "petition with boots." Estimates are that at various points many thousands were headed for DC, but only about 500 reached the Capitol. Before the protest could even get under way, Coxey was arrested for trespassing and not allowed to give his planned speech.

Even more relevant would be the 1932 Bonus March. At the depths of the depression, thousands of World War I veterans went to Washington, DC and camped out, demanding that Congress pay out immediately the bonus they were eventually entitled to by law. They spent weeks camped out before they were forcibly removed, first by Washington police and then Army troops under the command of Douglas MacArthur. The spectacle of current soldiers forcibly evicting former soldiers further tarnished President Hoover's reputation only months before the 1932 election.

In both cases, dire economic circumstances prompted demonstrations demanding action by Washington. What strikes me as most interesting about what is happening today is that the focus is not on Washington, but on what the protesters consider to be the true source of our problems: Wall Street. That suggests, I think, a desire to focus not on a specific political solution, but to change the public's perception of the nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. They see the problem as the growing power of an unaccountable economic elite. (Though I also suspect that they doubt the answer is in Washington.)

I find the use of the word "occupy" interesting as well. It invokes the military metaphors of Coxey's Army and the Bonus Army, while also emulating the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement. Despite efforts by some commentators to dismiss the protests, I suspect there is something rather significant going on today, something that has been building not just over the last three years of hard times, but the last thirty years of growing income disparity.

In the words of the old Buffalo Springfield song, "There's something happening here, what is, ain't exactly clear."

But I think it is becoming clearer.

It was easy, and tempting, to dismiss the initial protest. As the movement in New York has grown, and more importantly, has spread, it has become much harder. Those who wanted to stereotype it as a bunch of lazy hippies have had to deal with the sheer growing diversity of it, exemplified by things such as this past week's stirring impromptu lecture to the police by a Marine Sergeant named Shamar Thomas, a veteran of Iraq whose parents have also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the emergence of a group called OccupyMarines.

James Sinclair's diagram from his blog
And then there is the Tea Party. Yes, the agendas are different. But I also agree with this post by James Sinclair, which persuasively makes the case that there is a fair amount of overlap. This venn diagram may not be scientifically accurate, but there is some truth here. There are common sources for the angst each expresses.

The more I think about this historical moment, the more it reminds me of the emergence of the Populists in the late 1880s and early 1890s. They too could be both radically left and radically right. The quotation above is from their 1892 platform, in which they called for nationalizing the railroads (the biggest businesses of the day) and limiting immigration; they wanted a graduated income tax and fiscally conservative government finances; they supported "the efforts of organized workingmen to shorten the hours of labor" and opposed bailouts or "any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose."

Perhaps the biggest thing the Populists had going for them was the sense that neither political party was addressing the most pressing issues of the day--the crushing debt of farmers, the pressures of massive immigration, the growth of the corporate trusts. Their 1892 platform stated:
Controlling influences dominating both ... parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise any substantial reform ... They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the alter of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.
But then they were co-opted by the Democratic Party in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan stole their signature issue, silver coinage, and the Populist Party went out of existence.

But it did not end there. In many ways, the Populists were the John the Baptist of the Progressive Era. By the early 20th century, there was a bipartisan consensus that the nation needed meaningful reform, many of which the Populists had first called for 10 and 20 years earlier. Under Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Republicans instituted their variety of Progressive reform. Then Woodrow Wilson presided over 8 years of Democratic Progressive reform. Together, they created the regulatory state: the idea that the federal government had to play a role in limiting the power of corporations in the economic and political interests of the public.

The Progressives of both parties created the regulatory state because they came to a common, central understanding: that the industrial revolution had created a new form of power--private economic power--that the Founders never anticipated. That power was unchecked. A democracy, to survive, needed to find a way to check that power. For a time, they did.

When the inevitable backlash came and laissez-faire made its return in the 1920s, and the president crowed that "the business of America is business," taxes were cut, regulators became the creatures of the regulated, and the depression came. Then FDR came in, and with the help of progressive Republicans, triumphed over the "economic royalists," and established reforms that prevented another depression for over 60 years--because both Republicans and Democrats supported the regulatory regime.

I would like to think that eventually the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could together create a similar bipartisan commitment to reform on the part of both major parties. Maybe they will. But I am bothered by that diagram. Sinclair focuses on the overlap in the center.

I keep seeing the dichotomy.

The Populists of the 1890s saw business (Wall Street) as an enemy, and politics (Washington) as the solution. There is no such unity today. The Tea Party blames Washington, the Occupy movement blames Wall Street.

Ever since Ronald Reagan demonized the federal government in this inaugural address ("Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem"), the disaffected in America have had competing targets for their rage: both Wall Street (primarily Democrats) and Washington (primarily Republicans).

For thirty years, Republicans have claimed the federal government can do little well, and when they have controlled it, they have done their best to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have diminished not the size of government, but its efficacy. They have reduced taxes to the lowest level in 50 years, all while convincing voters that they are intolerably overtaxed. They have used government to empower and enrich the wealthiest, they have dismantled as much of the regulatory state as they could. And when the lack of regulation led to the economic crash, they of course blamed the very government that their ideology had disarmed. When a Democratic president tried to use government to solve the problem, they obstructed every step of the way and claimed that the continuing poor economy showed government cannot work. For them, government is always the problem, its reduction always the solution.

So it was not surprising last week to hear the new Tea Party favorite, Herman Cain, say both that the poor and jobless have no one but themselves to blame, and that they should blame Washington. We were supposed to have a regulatory system to prevent the financial obscenities Wall Street engaged in, but most Americans probably have no idea that safeguards that worked for decades had been dismantled. So they blame Washington.

And Washington does deserve some blame. For thirty years, both parties have bowed and scraped before the new robber barons, competing with each other to cut their taxes, ease their way, and enhance their riches--Republicans because they believed in it; Democrats because they'd been cowed by Reagan into thinking they had to go along to survive politically. Washington ended the bipartisan consensus that protected the average person. And so some, like members of the Tea Party, therefore see Washington as the problem.

In the current situation, however, the Tea Party has it wrong, and Occupy Wall Street has it right. The Progressives knew that the only way to check organized economic power is through the democratic political process. They knew that more democracy was the answer. The referendum, recall, and primary, were all attempts to break the stranglehold of corporations on the political system. So was the the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of Senators. (These were all also first proposed by the Populists.)

The Tea Party today argues for the repeal of the 17th Amendment. It supports the union-busting efforts of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. It supports the disenfranchisement of voters via these so-called "voter ID" laws that have suddenly sprouted nearly everywhere. In a variety of ways, even if sometimes unknowingly, the Tea Party serves the interests of Wall Street, and undermines the only real hope for lasting change: a government truly responsive to the many, not the few.

Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in changing the political conversation. Changing our politics will be a lot harder.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Huntsman's "America First" v. Romney's "American Century"

My previous post took Mitt Romney to task for his foreign policy address. The crux of my objection was not policy, it was politics: Romney cast doubt on the president's patriotism.

Romney said:
This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President.

You have that President today.
Contrast Romney's language with this line from Jon Huntsman's foreign policy address this past week:
President Obama’s policies have weakened America, and thus diminished America’s presence on the global stage.
Both are critical of the president. But Huntsman was careful to talk about policy, not intention. He talked about results of policies. This is the difference between a statesman and a demagogue.

I think Huntsman is wrong on the substance. But I respect the fact that, unlike Romney, he did not pander to those Chris Christie called "the crazies."

On policy grounds, Huntsman's speech is interesting for the way it tries to negotiate two different strains within the Republican party: cold war era internationalism and pre-World War II "America First" isolationism. Ultimately, I think he comes down more on the side of the latter.

Hunstman offers "five planks which will comprise my administration’s foreign policy." It is more than a little note-worthy that he starts with this statement: "First and foremost, we must rebuild America’s core."

Hunstman does not equivocate here: domestic strength comes first. Not only that, he also uses a phrase few Republicans (beside Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan) have recently uttered: "fixing America first … that will be my most urgent priority."

"America First." I think Huntsman is too smart to have done this inadvertently. He seems to be consciously evoking the group led by Charles Lindbergh in 1940-1941, which opposed active American participation in the war in Europe.

Then, however, Huntsman seems to evokes the rhetoric of the neo-conservatives of recent years: "Today, we need a foreign policy based on expansion." That resemblance, however, strikes me as fleeting only, because Huntsman goes on to explain that this particular "expansion" means "the expansion of America’s competitiveness and engagement in the world through partnerships and trade agreements."

In short, it is rather like the attitude of the early Republic: that American engagement with the world should be primarily economic, not political and military.

When Huntsman goes on to argue that Americans "must right-size our current foreign entanglements," and that "it is time to bring our brave troops home," it is clear that he is for effectively abandoning the neo-conservative democracy-building project of the George W. Bush years:
Only Pakistan can save Pakistan.
Only Afghanistan can save Afghanistan.
And right now we should focus on America saving America.
Finally, much like many midwestern Republicans did the in pre-World War II and early cold war eras, Huntsman focuses on Asia. This is hardly surprising, given that he is fluent in Mandarin and was the American ambassador to China during the first two years of the Obama administration:
I have come to believe that we are embarking on a Pacific Century … in which America must and will play a dominant role. By almost any objective measure – population, economic power, military might, energy use – the center of gravity of global human activity is moving toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Huntsman is undoubtedly right here. Huntsman seems to grasp the larger picture: that we are entering a new era in world history.

By contrast, Romney's vision seems limited to little more than the potential Chinese military threat:
will they go down a darker path, intimidating their neighbors, brushing aside an inferior American Navy in the Pacific, and building a global alliance of authoritarian states?
In this instance, I see a major clear-cut difference between Hunstman and Romney. The former sees challenges in the world, while the latter sees mostly threats. Romney's address is a list of potential dangers (whose main purpose seems to be to create a sense of alarm), the answer to which is disappointingly simplistic: a "strategy of American strength."

Strength is not a strategy. Strength is a means, not an end. And what is Romney's end? Another "American Century."

This is remarkably superficial for someone who wants to be president. While Huntsman correctly notes that Americans already "spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined," Romney talks about a larger navy--without offering any strategic doctrine that explains the need and utility of that larger navy.

Romney gives lip service to the idea that the world has changed since the end of the cold war, but shows no sign that he's thought much about what that means practically. Huntsman sees a need for change:
We still have remnants of a top-heavy, post-Cold War infrastructure. It needs to be transformed to reflect the 21st Century world, and the growing asymmetric threats we face.
Finally, the shallowness of thought in Romney's speech is perhaps best exemplified by this statement: "Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable." Again, this is not a strategy. How would Romney prevent it? He does not say. He simply declares it "unacceptable." Evidently the mere existence of a bigger American navy will take care of that automatically.

By contrast, Huntsman said in his address: "I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would consider the use of American force, it would be that." While I have grave doubts about the utility of force in solving this particular dilemma, at least Huntsman faces the logical consequence of declaring a situation "unacceptable."

This comparison of these speeches by Huntsman and Romney is dispiriting for those of us who believe foreign policy should have a central place in a presidential campaign. The more substantive speech comes from the candidate who can't seem to gain any traction in the polls, while the supposed front-runner's address is a crude mix of demagoguery, pandering, and jingoism. The more thoughtful candidate also seems to want to return to an earlier era in which the United States did not have to pledge to "bear any burden" internationally. The shallow candidate seems to want the United States to play a leading role in the world, but seems incapable of imagining a way for it to do so that entails anything other than more spending on weapons.

If this is the best the GOP can do, President Obama looks better all the time.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mitt Romney and Questioning Belief

Mitt Romney went to the Citadel on Friday to trash the commander in chief.

Romney was ostensibly there to make a major address on foreign policy, a subject which, as the New York Times pointed out Saturday, has been woefully neglected in the Republican presidential campaign. As a student of American diplomatic history, I welcome attention being paid to the subject. A serious discussion of the role of the U.S. in the world is a good and useful thing.

But that's not what Romney was doing Friday. Instead, he was attacking the president. Not his policies--which would be legitimate--but his beliefs.

Romney began with a deliberate distortion of the President's words: "The other day I heard the President say that Americans had gone 'soft.'" This line, appearing in what was billed as a foreign policy speech, being delivered at a military academy, suggests that Obama was talking about the military. He was not.  He was talking about the American economy, saying it had lost some of its competitive edge over the last few decades.

Moreover, Obama went on to say he "wouldn't trade our position with any other country on Earth" because we "still have the best universities, the best scientists, and best workers in the world. We still have the most dynamic economic system in the world."

Romney either didn't bother to find out the correct context of the president's remarks, or deliberately distorted them.  And that set the tone for the whole address.

This is what passes for a foreign policy vision in Romney's speech:
But I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world.
The phrase "American Century" was coined by Henry Luce of Time magazine back in 1941, so it is hardly original. In Romney's hands, it becomes a means of smearing of Barack Obama. Not on policy, but on what Romney believes the president believes: that Obama does not want America to be strong.

Romney says: "As President of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century. And I will never, ever apologize for America."

This is a common refrain for Romney, and it is based on the common right-wing trope that Obama has "apologized" for America. Put aside for the moment the not unreasonable question of whether or not the country might, on occasion, have something to apologize for. Let's assume, as Romney evidently does, that the United States is, and always has been, perfect.

This charge, that Obama apologizes for America, is the subject of an exhaustive report by PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize winning website.  Its conclusion: "There’s a clear difference between changing policies and apologizing, and Obama didn’t do the latter. So we rate Romney’s statement Pants on Fire." PolitiFact has been saying Romney's charge is demonstrably false for months, and he has continued making it.

Another favorite Romney attack is that Obama does not believe in "American exceptionalism."
I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world. Not exceptional, as the President has derisively said, in the way that the British think Great Britain is exceptional or the Greeks think Greece is exceptional. In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.
That too is a deliberate distortion of Obama's words, one Romney has been peddling for months. As Greg Sargent points out, Romney's
statement is a direct falsehood, one that’s founded on a highly dishonest reading of remarks Obama made in April of 2009. In those remarks, Obama did not make the relevant claim about American exceptionalism "derisively" at all.
Romney's claim that Obama thinks "there is nothing unique about the United States" is simply a lie. In the same answer Romney refers to, Obama said:
I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.... we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
That's what Obama actually said. But Romney knows what the president really believes.

Most reprehensible, however, is how Romney ended his address:
An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender.
I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President.
You have that President today.
This is rank demagoguery. It is one thing to argue that the sitting president has pursued policies you find unwise or mistaken. It is quite another to attribute beliefs to him that you know full well he does not have. This is Romney pretending to know what is in the president's mind and heart, and saying he has secret, anti-American beliefs.

Sure, Romney suggests, Obama would never say that he does not want America to be the strongest nation in the world. But I know what he really believes.

Romney's campaign slogan, with which he ended his speech, is "Believe in America."

The implication is clear. Romney believes in America, Obama does not. Romney is a real American, Obama is not--regardless of what he says.

The crowning irony is that on the very same day Romney was smearing Obama, he was himself the victim of exactly this kind of attack. A pastor introducing Rick Perry at the so-called "Values Summit" called Perry "a genuine follower of Jesus Christ" and then, in case anyone missed the point, said Mitt Romney "is not a Christian."

Later that day, when asked directly by Chris Matthews if Romney was a Christian, Rick Santorum said Romney "believes he is a Christian." When Matthews called him on that hedging, Santorum retreated: "I'm not an expert on Mormonism ... if they say they're Christians, as far as I'm concerned, they're Christians."

This is a variation of the Republican weasel words on whether or not President Obama is a Christian. "I take him at his word" is how they tried to avoid directly challenging the president while winking at bigots who insist he is not a Christian. And now the same smear is being used against one of their own. What goes around comes around.

When I heard the smear against Romney, my natural reflex was to sympathize with him. The bigotry of that pastor has no place in our politics. But given what Romney himself had done that day, my sympathy was decidedly limited. He played the same slimy game in his Citadel address.

You reap what you sow, Mitt.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Acting President

I spent much of the month of September playing Franklin Roosevelt in the Spartanburg Little Theater's production of "Annie." Having mimicked FDR for decades, it was great fun to actually play the role.

Of course, the pedantic historian in me had to struggle mightily to refrain from pointing out how absurd the storyline involving FDR is. For those who don't know the story (I didn't before being cast), Annie accompanies Daddy Warbucks to a meeting with FDR in December 1933. FDR and his advisors are in despair over the depression, but Annie's sunny optimism rallies them and inspires the New Deal.

Needless to say, this isn't terribly accurate! The phrase "new deal" was first used by FDR in his July 1932 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president. The famous first hundred days, beginning in March 1933, had already established the tone of the New Deal.  And, as far as I know, an adorable, red-headed, 11-year-old orphan girl had nothing to do with it!

The way the play employs FDR as a dramatic device, however, got me thinking about how we perceive our presidents. At the last performance, one of my Wofford colleagues saw me on his way out of the theater, and said "Good old American optimism prevails again!"

And that really is the message. The ubiquitous "Annie" theme "Tomorrow" is the epitome of sunny optimism. So of course the play uses FDR. The image most Americans maintain of FDR is the one shown here: big grin, cigarette holder jauntily titled upward. It practically oozes optimism.

This is the "character" FDR that we recall. He is, of course, based on reality. "Annie" has FDR twice repeat the most famous line from his first inaugural: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

But more important, I'd argue, is what FDR says before that famous line: "This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today."

FDR's was no mindless optimism. It began with a sober assessment of the real and daunting problems the country faced. It was not mere exhortation, it was a promise: "This Nation is asking for action, and action now." FDR promised action, and delivered. Even when some of those actions failed, people credited him for the effort.

The other hovering presidential presence in "Annie" is Herbert Hoover. He isn't a character, but there is a sarcastic song called "Hooverville." A group of homeless people sing, "We'd like to thank you Herbert Hoover, for really showing us the way... You made us what we are today."

The caricature of Hoover is as complete as that of FDR: he is the dour presence who failed to end the depression. What most people forget is that Hoover was relentlessly optimistic in his rhetoric, too.

In May 1930 Hoover said: "While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover. There is one certainty of the future of a people of the resources, intelligence and character of the people of the United States—that is, prosperity."

In October 1932, as the depression was approaching its worst months, he said: "the tide has turned and ... the gigantic forces of depression are today in retreat."

The American people expect optimism from their leaders, but optimism is not enough. They expect results.

Today, President Obama is trying to capture FDR's optimism, but history suggests that won't be enough to win re-election. Yes, the public likes to hear that "tomorrow, there'll be sun," but optimism is not a good election strategy.

Maybe the Republicans will nominate a candidate too extreme for independents to stomach.

Maybe the public will blame the obstructionist Republicans in Congress for preventing action.

Maybe the electorate will go for Obama again, even if the economy hasn't turned around.


But I wouldn't bet my bottom dollar on it.