With Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate digging in for political battles to come, you can sense there’s history happening.
It feels a little like a creaking ship changing directions in a choppy sea. Those of us on board are trying to guide the ship even as we try to get a fix on the direction of the wind and the currents – one of which is the perennial resistance in many states to an active role for the federal government. On climate change, voting rights, banking, health care and a host of other issues, liberals see the federal government as a crucial player in achieving progress.
But opposition to the government forms a strand of our history that reaches back to the beginning, and it’s an attitude and a way of life that liberals can’t just wish away. State’s rights has often been code for slavery and racism, but it also underpins a whole point of view about government and the economy.
During the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt was able to beat back resistance to the government’s role in order to meet the crisis, partly because the Depression was already three years old, and it was clear the Republicans had failed. The 1932 election obliterated their resistance, and Social Security, among other programs, was the outcome.
When the Great Recession hit, it seemed Barack Obama might achieve similar results, and in part he did. But he felt the need to tread carefully because he took office at the beginning of the crisis, and he needed to stabilize the system. So he was cautious about taking on bankers and other special interests. And while he achieved important reforms, his caution was answered by fierce resistance on every front.
Because of this, a thorough Rooseveltian answer to Wall Street malfeasance and other challenges never fully materialized, and there was a backlash on both the left and the right.
Maybe our creaking ship is turning toward neo-Rooseveltian economic activism that would address business unfinished after the recession. Let the Democrats in the House think about that.