And Another Thing on Obama’s Last Lecture

At the risk of harping on a three-minute video, I want to respond to something from over the weekend. Steve Benen had a look at Barack Obama’s last lecture, and let’s just say he had a different reaction. But he made a point that I wanted to get to in my original post, so now I can just get to it here. Benen writes:

I often think about Social Security at its origins. In 1935, FDR accepted all kinds of concessions, excluding agricultural workers, domestic workers, the self-employed, the entire public sector, and railroad employees, among others. And why did the president go along with this? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to cut deals with conservatives, even in his own party — many of whom were motivated by nothing more than racism — in order to get the legislation passed.

When delivering red-meat speeches in public, FDR saw his Republican critics and “welcomed their hatred.” When governing, FDR made constant concessions — even if it meant occasionally betraying his principles and some of his own supporters — in order to get something done.

Obama’s focus on the Huffington Post is probably misplaced — there are far better examples — but the larger point seems persuasive to me. Wouldn’t FDR have faced a bitter backlash from the left? Wouldn’t Lincoln have drawn howls for compromising on the greatest moral crisis in American history?

Um, they did, and we should fill in the history here. I wrote a pretty long story about this for Democracy Journal. Yes, when Roosevelt came up with a meager Social Security system, many of the activists working on the issue for years were unhappy. Rather than cover this territory again, I’ll just quote myself. “Townsend” mentioned here refers to Francis Townsend, the retired physician who led the movement for old-age pensions, building a grassroots army across the country that claimed 20 million supporters.

Townsend went ballistic–some would say crazy. The Depression-era March of Time newsreel series accused Townsend of leading a “lunatic fringe.” Townsend criticized the Roosevelt plan from the day it passed, calling the benefit package completely inadequate and “suitable only for paupers.” He ramped up the Townsend clubs, which, according to political scientist Edwin Amenta, increased tenfold between the end of 1934 and 1936. He used his Townsend Weekly pamphlet to hammer Roosevelt’s Social Security program and its meager benefits. He joined with Gerald L.K. Smith, the head of the Share Our Wealth Society (founded by Huey Long), and the nativist demagogue Father Charles Coughlin to found the National Union for Social Justice, a new political party. The Union’s candidate for president in 1936 grabbed almost one million votes.

In short, Townsend’s reaction mirrored that of the “professional disgruntleists” cited in (Michael) Tomasky’s piece. Rather than justifying the Social Security Act of 1935 as the product of the art of the possible, he loudly proclaimed Roosevelt a sellout and apostate, and did whatever he could to bring him down, even joining in a coalition with those who mostly shared a vendetta against the President instead of a similar ideology. There’s even evidence that Townsend may have been pushed along by his own vanity and the adulation of his millions of followers rather than seriousness and principle–in his 1943 autobiography, New Horizons, Townsend claimed that FDR only enacted Social Security to “stem the Townsend tide.”

Obviously, Townsend’s activism didn’t topple FDR. But it did help lead to tangible, beneficial changes to Social Security. By 1939, Congress had enacted amendments to the Social Security Act that added survivor and dependent benefits. But, to FDR’s progressive opponents, that wasn’t enough. Various social justice coalitions joined Townsend in agitating for higher benefits. Eventually, in 1950, this relentless advocacy produced another round of amendments that added a host of other professions outside of industry and commerce to the Social Security program, and the first cost-of-living adjustment, so that benefits finally outstripped the miniscule amounts in Old Age Assistance. This dynamic continued apace for 30 more years. Disability insurance entered the program in 1956, early retirement became allowable in 1961, and automatic cost-of-living adjustments were added by 1972. All this happened under Democratic and Republican presidents. It’s difficult to conclude that Townsend’s persistent, forceful critique resulted in negative consequences for the policy–in fact, the result was completely salutary. And Townsend wasn’t alone–pension organizations like Ham and Eggs in California, Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement, the Share Our Wealth Society, and many others pressured Roosevelt in those years, often quite critically, and in the end Social Security became the successful, expansive program we have today.

Similarly, abolitionists were harshly critical when Lincoln compromised on the Emancipation Proclamation. Civil rights leaders were apopletic at early, fatally compromised anti-discrimination legislation. Gay activists went nuts when Obama appeared to squander the opportunity to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. This is part of our politics, too. And the dissenters are almost always a positive force for progress over time. It’s fair to say that progress wouldn’t come in the form it does without dissent.

A man Barack Obama claims as a hero, Martin Luther King Jr., understood this. He famously said:

I made it very clear that I recognized that justice was indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And then there are those who said ‘You’re hurting the civil right movement.’ One spoke to me one day and said, ‘Now Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to agree more with the Administration’s policy. I understand that your position on Vietnam has hurt the budget of your organization. And many people who respected you in civil rights have lost that respect and don’t you think that you’re going to have to agree more with the Administration’s policy to regain this.’ And I had to answer by looking that person into the eye, and say ‘I’m sorry sir but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader.’ [Laughter – Applause] I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

Politics cannot survive on incrementalists alone. It cannot survive with only an inside game, and a political science conception of the art of the possible. Ultimately it needs people on the outside who look at what the incrementalists have produced, and say “No.” It doesn’t make those people juvenile, it doesn’t make them unrealistic. It makes them an integral part of the democratic process.

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