–By Ron Kokish
The current fight between liberals and conservatives goes back to at least the
1640s when Levellers and Diggers unsuccessfully tried pushing Parliamentarians
(who were fighting Royalists) towards policies we now call Communism. Though
conservatives easily won that particular day, socialism remains popular in
Western Democracies, particularly during hard times. In the USA our most
dramatic swing leftward occurred during the great depression when Capitalism
staved off the most radical socialist ideas with compromise social programs
collectively known as The New Deal. Here’s an oversimplified version of what
The Great Depression hit a nadir from 1931-33. President Herbert Hoover was
widely blamed for not doing enough to relieve widespread suffering, leading to
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide 1932 election victory. Political unrest had
reached unprecedented levels by the time FDR took office and many feared that
unless something was done quickly capitalism itself would fall, much as it had in
Czarist Russia less than 20 years earlier. To make things worse, Nazi-style fascism
was also gaining ground. Roosevelt successfully addressed this by instituting
social and economic measures that were popular with voters and effective in
mitigating (though not ending) the Depression’s worst effects. He did this
without dismantling western-style capitalism and he maintained moderate social
policies that seemed promising to minorities without bringing about significant
and rapid social changes. Few were fully satisfied but for a time, FDR was the
most popular President since George Washington. Unlike Washington, he didn’t
step down after 2 terms, inflaming existing fears of big government.
The Depression and FDR’s centralized way of governing changed American
thinking in fundamental ways. Increases in the social safety net to offset hard
times for lower-income people became commonplace. So did Keynesian
economic stimulation to juice up the stock market. Subsidies propping up
struggling farmers gradually expanded to subsidies for practically every industry.
Most Americans now believe that government can manage the economy and
expect the government to minimize their particular (but not the next guy’s)
hardships, like fuel prices, tuition, or contraction in the real estate and securities markets. So widespread are these expectations that we usually forget they only
found their first large-scale expressions during the years between 1930 and the
onset of WW II.
If the Roosevelt era saw America’s first implementation of “big government” as a
solution to big peacetime problems it horrified conservatives, who have been
wanting to rein it in ever since and not entirely without reason. Deficit spending,
previously a wartime exigency, has grown steadily for 90 years regardless of the
party in power. This trend is also reflected in most state and local governments.
The pros and cons can be and are argued endlessly, but the fact is undeniable.
For my part, I think the Roosevelt system worked in Capitalism’s favor. We
averted significant class uprisings. Violence as a response to racial, ethnic, and
class differences has remained subdued enough to keep our country whole in
spite of continuing inequities. Even with massive and often bizarre regulations,
capitalism is alive and well and American-style democracy is still functioning well
enough to keep it that way. FDR’s compromise policies have yielded almost a
century of social stability and economic growth. Could we have done better with
different policies? Maybe. We certainly could have done worse.
But, no matter how you feel about the New Deal and its children (The Square
Deal, Green Deal, Big Deal, Raw Deal) it’s hard to avoid our current generation of
problems. They seem to be growing more dire by the day. The rich have grown much
richer while the middle classes have grown smaller and only a little richer. The
poor are of course, still poor. Homelessness, static from 2007 until 2020, is now
growing at 2% a year. Crime rates, only recently at historic lows, appear to be on
the upswing. Random mass killings are increasing dramatically. The increasing
cost of home ownership has placed this once common stepping stone to wealth
accumulation out of reach for many families. Racial tensions remain high and
appear to be rising, not just in the USA, but throughout the western world. A
growing ecological crisis is already displacing large populations, adding climate
refugees to growing numbers of political refugees, with consequent increases in
immigration pressures on stable countries.
Perhaps most immediately threatening, our democratic republic is hanging by a
thread. Many Republicans are accusing Democrats of “stealing” the 2020
elections while Democrats are accusing Republicans of setting things up to steal the 2024 elections. Can there be any legitimate government under these
circumstances? If the political system that got us through he Civil War and the
Great Depression fails, what will replace it? It seems increasingly unlikely existing liberal and neo-liberal politics will be up to stabilizing the growing
liberal/conservative confrontation. New Deal-style policies and programs that
once preserved our system of government are worn out. Our country (and the
rest of the world) needs innovative new leaders with practical ideas but appears
unready to accept them. The average House Republican is 56; the average
Democrat is 59. The average Senator is 63 in both parties. That’s old because it
means the real power players are usually much older. President Biden is
threatening a second term at 79. His leading opponent, former President Trump
is making the same threat at 76. The House Majority Leader is 82. The Senate
Majority leader 81. Mitch McConnell, Patrick Leahy, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie
Sanders – the list of powerful [old] politicians is long and bi-partisan.
Old people (I’m 81) make good advisors because we have a long perspective. But
we don’t usually have innovative ideas and when others offer them, we often
don’t have enough imagination or energy left to take them seriously, much less
try them. Usually, we keep seeing things the way we’ve always seen them.
Capitalism vs socialism. Immigrants revitalize our country. Immigrants take our
jobs and degrade our culture. Let people make as much money as they like; it
creates innovation and jobs. Tax the rich; it isn’t fair that they mostly inherit
their wealth, the wealth gap is out of control and the only thing that really
produces wealth is work. The United States is the greatest country the world has
ever known. The United States is the devil incarnate. Euro-Americans stole
everything they have. Sliced white bread is the best invention ever. White bread
is a conspiracy to fool the masses into compliance.
Same old arguments led by the same old people going back to the mid-17th
century. I’m tired of hearing them. I’m tired of being part of them. But I don’t
want revolution either because the outcomes are almost never what its leaders
promise or its foot soldiers (that would be you) expect. So, I’m out of ideas. I’ve
hit bottom. Maybe that’s what it takes. Maybe we all have to hit bottom, admit
helplessness, and turn our lives over to that higher power before things can get
better. Who would have thought we’d be looking to Alcoholics Anonymous to
Ron Kokish was born and raised in New York, lived in California, and retired to Carbondale, Colorado in 2008. He is a retired social worker who gained minor notoriety for helping develop more effective ways of persuading child molesters to mend their ways.
Among friends and family, he is noted for his pessimism. He likes pointing to studies showing that pessimists consistently make more accurate predictions than optimists. Locally, he is active in the Aspen Jewish Congregation, Two Rivers Unitarian-Universalist Congregation, and the Carbondale Age-Friendly Community Initiative. He chairs the Board of Senior Matters, a small 501c3. He is a frequent contributor to the Sopris Sun. You can read more of his columns on their web site.