Friday, July 29, 2011

I Don't Know What Ethics Are, But If You Got 'Em, They Must Belong To Somebody Else

I couldn't figure out whether to post this as a metaphor for what the House is actually trying to do to the country, or as an incitement to actually...burning down the House. Either one seems appropriate:

And while we're on the subject of Sucking Up The Painful But Necessary Compromise, let's see what example Matt Yglesias is using to buoy our spirits:
Adam Serwer reminds us that “During the so-called ‘age of liberal consensus,’ the massive engine of the federal government was devoted to creating an American middle class, but that was only possible because of the Faustian bargain made between southern segregationists and liberals to ensure that black people were cut off from the opportunities being created.”

Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America is a fantastic book on this.

This is something I think about when I ponder the ethics and pragmatics of political compromise. The conventional progressive view sees FDR has a model of strong leadership and the New Deal as a signature achievement. But it’s clear that these achievements were only possible thanks to massive concessions to the white supremacist elements of FDR’s political coalition. Was that the right thing to do or wasn’t it? Something interesting is that it was during the Roosevelt era that African-Americans in started voting Democratic in large numbers. So even though the Democratic civil rights agenda of the era was puny and the welfare state was deliberately exclusionary of black interests, it at least seems to be the case that all things considered, black voters deemed the New Deal agenda to be in their interests. Of course the ideal scenario would be to say that there would have been some way to enact all the famous programs of the era without concessions to white supremacists. But I don’t see any credible account of how that could have been done. So great leadership, or appalling sellout? Most likely both. Most likely, political leadership just demands a level of cognitive dissonance and self-justification that normal people can’t muster.
I have Katznelson's book, and it is not a paean to compromise. It is an contextual exploration of how black Americans, despite nearly 50 years of Civil Rights actions, and 30 years of progressive programs instituted before then, have remained so mired in poverty and so destitute of wealth compared to their white counterparts. The story of the struggle of black families in America post-slavery is riven with obstacles, setbacks, broken promises, and deliberate subversion by a hate-filled Confederacy cohort dependent on free labor. It's the story of how Roosevelt held his nose and allowed the Dixiecracker caucus to maintain hegemony over the lives of southern blacks by excluding their main sources of income from coverage by Social Security, thus bereaving slavery's grandchildren, who had already been betrayed by the Union after Reconstruction, of a desperately-needed assist out of incomprehensible impoverishment. It's about how the crafting of the G.I. Bill allowed local southern administrators the discretion to deny black veterans the benefits that pulled millions of white vets into the middle class. It's about why blacks are still struggling against the odds, while whites rest on the modest nest eggs and safety nets of a wealth gained over nearly a hundred years. It is NOT about how plucky Roosevelt got the best deal he could and, despite the repulsiveness of the original horse trade, everything worked out for the best. As Katznelson stated in his book, the achievements of Roosevelt and Truman were shaped by the pivotal role southern Democrats were able to play as guardians of racial segregation. It didn't work out for the best for a large and important minority of our citizens. The repercussions of the rot of the deal are effects they, and the rest of us, still live with today.

And as an aside, Yglesias' observation that blacks started voting as Democrats during the New Deal had as much to do with how the Dems (on the northern and national level) were evolving from a party of southern rebellion and slavery into a party of social welfare and inclusion, as it did with their admiration for Roosevelt. If Katznelson's book carries any message it's this: such deals with the devil carry consequences not only for those directly harmed, but for all of us, and those consequences may reverberate down the years for many lifetimes.

So it is with the sad little health care Act. So it will be with Obama's economic choices. You can say in his defense that Obama has far greater obstacles in his path than Roosevelt did (you can say it, but it's not true). But even if it were so, Obama has neither the leadership nor the vision of a Roosevelt. Without those, he has no more chance of besting the enemies of the nation than a rat trapped in a maze. And unfortunately, he's trapped us in there with him.

We're on a road to nowhere, baby.

No comments: