Michael Tomasky’s Despairing Take on American History

In a recent piece in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, titled “Against Despair: How Our Misreading of History Harms Progressivism Today,” Michael Tomasky notes how The Huffington Post sometimes evokes Franklin D. Roosevelt in its assessment of President Barack Obama, which tells him something about “the way liberals interpret and talk about history.” Tomasky writes:

“We grew up with a set of assumptions. If you were born in the United States between, say, 1945 and 1965, you were raised in a basically liberal political culture when liberalism was the default position. . . . [But] what if all these presumptions I grew up with were wrong? What if Reagan wasn’t an aberration? What if Roosevelt and [Lyndon] Johnson were the aberrations?”

In Tomasky’s typology of American history progressive social movements are deviations from a steady state of deeply conservative “individualism” where private concerns supersede the quest for the common good.

Tomasky argues that many of President Obama’s harshest critics on the left are reacting that way because they don’t want to admit to themselves that the “feelings of invincibility and redemption” after the 2008 election “were misplaced,” and that “the power and euphoria were somehow counterfeit.” So leftists were just swept up in emotion? This pop psychology attempt to explain the “feelings” of Obama’s progressive critics cannot be proven. “We’ve experienced the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s,” Tomasky writes, “and the only mass movement to emerge from that reality is a right-wing populist one.” But might the election of Obama suggest that there’s more than one “mass movement” afoot? Although it was probably not his aim, Tomasky capitulates to a narrative of American history that leans toward delegitimizing social activism from the Left.

Tomasky might see the New Deal as an “aberration” but the historian Liz Cohen (a Bancroft Prize winner), in The Making of the New Deal, along with other historians, has shown that there was a grassroots component to the New Deal that was far removed from the wheeling and dealing among power brokers in Washington, D.C. Indeed, much of what we see as the New Deal came from thousands of ordinary citizens working together to build their local communities after the devastation of the Great Depression. And, yes, there were many communists and socialists and other leftists deeply involved in this social activism. The CIO wouldn’t have been possible without the social organizing skills of communists. “Aberrations?” Or as “American” as cherry pie?

Tomasky tends to overlook the leftist critiques leveled against FDR as well as JFK and LBJ, which helped push all three presidents in a more progressive direction. Contradicting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s view of the “arc” of history, Tomasky cites the historians Nick Salvatore and Jefferson Cowie’s paper in the journal of International Labor and Working-Class History, which argues that the New Deal and the Great Society both represent “abnormal (and extremely fleeting) moments of commonality in an arc of American history that otherwise bent strongly away from any notion of a common good and toward the primacy of the individual.”

But running counter to Tomasky’s new narrative one might note that over a century before the New Deal that the rise of Jacksonian Democracy expanded the franchise to include property-less males, which was a relatively radical innovation. Abolitionism followed as well as the earliest official moves toward winning the franchise for women codified at Seneca Falls. After the Civil War, which freed the slaves and gave us the 14th Amendment, came the era of “Radical Reconstruction” that sought to bring justice to the victims of slavery. Soon thereafter the Knights of Labor were leading railroad strikes and, along with the budding American Federation of Labor, there were repeated attempts at full-fledged industrial unionism evidenced by the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World. Americans could have rejected these reforms, but they didn’t. So were all of these developments prior to the New Deal in Tomasky’s view “aberrations?”

My CSU colleague, Charles Postel, in The Populist Moment, (which won both the Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the Bancroft last year), has reconfigured our understanding of Populism. Postel debunks many of the myths associated with the movement and sheds new light on the Populists’ embrace of science and technology that defined “modern” America. Far from an “aberration,” as Tomasky would have it, the Populists pushed the envelope on issues of social justice even within a rigidly stratified society.

The same could be said of the Progressives going back to Hull House in Chicago. Surely, the movement that gave the nation the direct primary, the initiative, the recall, and the referendum; the 17th Amendment; the scientific planning of water and sewage systems; the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drug Acts; the juvenile criminal justice system, and so on, should not be seen as a set of freak accidents. These lasting reforms were hardly “aberrations.”

Tomasky cites the Cornell historian, Nick Salvatore, to buttress his dreary interpretation of American history. Salvatore, (for whom I was a teaching assistant), wrote a masterful biography of Eugene Victor Debs, therefore Tomasky should be aware that Debs won about 900,000 votes when he ran for president as a Socialist in 1912. The presidential election of 1912 is one of the more interesting of the 20th Century because it effectively pitted two very progressive candidates and a socialist against the incumbent president who had profoundly disappointed those most committed to deploying the powers of government against entrenched private interests.

(One could even argue that the founding of the nation itself deviates from Tomasky’s clean historical pattern of primordial conservatism in American political culture. The men who wrote up the United States Constitution might have been burghers concerned about their own property rights but they invented a system of governance based on high Enlightenment ideals that cut against the grain of every established regime in the Old World. The new experiment in self-government threatened and angered the monarchies in Europe and was a dramatic departure from custom and tradition. They could have established a quasi-monarchical system tied to the dominant Protestant Church with presidential succession occurring only upon the death of the president. The Constitution could have been far less radical than it was.)

I don’t mean to imply that the conservative Right was irrelevant in these earlier periods of reform; quite the contrary. The battles were enjoined and the class struggle and labor conflicts were often bitter and bloody. In fact, the United States has one of the bloodiest labor histories of any industrial democracy. But to see these periods of reform as “aberrations,” as Tomasky does, only denigrates those who sacrificed their lives in those struggles standing up for their ideals and trying to make the United States a more fair and just country. Tomasky’s theory is also bad history because it papers over what is a key engine of social change.

Not to flog a dead horse, but the only way we can really understand the “Red Scare” of the 1920s or the McCarthy era of the 1950s is to see them as backlashes against the huge reform waves that crested and crashed in American society preceding them. Hence, one could just as easily conclude that the periods of right-wing retrenchment were the “aberrations.”

And then there’s Tomasky’s other big “aberration”: the Great Society. But the pressures that gave rise to the landmark reforms passed, not only in 1964 and 1965, but by the 89th Congress had been building for decades. The Watts riot and the social dislocations it exposed needed to be addressed in some active way or the federal government would have lost legitimacy, like ignoring a hurricane or an oil spill. Critics of JFK and LBJ said they didn’t move fast enough or bold enough; and who were these critics that moderate historians more often than not agree with today? They were a bunch of “aberrant” left-wingers!

I only raise these thumbnail historical points to illustrate how defeatist Tomasky’s take on American history is in this piece. Elsewhere Tomasky writes: “To compare unfavorably our time to that one [the mid-1960s] is, unless one installs appropriate caveats, pointless; like complaining about cabbage because it doesn’t taste like ice cream.”  This notion that anything that happened before today cannot be adequately invoked to derive lessons or guidance negates the very idea of looking to history for inspiration, hope, and direction. Why should anyone bother reading about Lincoln, TR, or Robert F. Kennedy if their past examples have no relevance to contemporary America?

In an aside, Tomasky admits that he supports the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. He also cites Michael Walzer who famously declared George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq a “just war.” But he calls progressives (or leftists) who criticize Obama “disgruntleists” and “impatients.” Tomasky provides us with an alternative narrative that offers a sweeping revision of American history but doesn’t tell us why his understanding of history justifies his support for the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

After spending twelve-and-a-half pages in a fourteen-page article arguing exactly the opposite position, Tomasky then concedes that “at certain crucial points” Obama “allowed the liberal base to feel ignored and condescended to, and even if a president can’t and won’t fulfill all the goals the base has in mind, he cannot do that.” These are precisely the kinds of critiques the left has been aiming at the President and the object of Tomasky’s criticism in the piece.

“It is unreasonable to expect him [Obama] to be an FDR or an LBJ, given the far more favorable political waters those two navigated.” Okay, we can give Tomasky that point. But it should also be pointed out that Obama has had majorities in both houses of Congress.

Tomasky also notes that in the Congress “the Blue Dog faction has more power than the liberal faction and probably always will because the moderates hold a stronger trump card – it’s only in their districts that the Democrats can ever expand their majority as we saw in 2006 and 2008.”  Here he is willing to accept Blue Dog dominance as if it is an unalterable fact of nature such as gravity or water flowing to its lowest point. What about the 2010 census and demographic changes? What about primary challenges in Blue Dog districts? What about the Tea Partiers delegitimizing Republican candidates in some seemingly safe districts? What about unforeseen crises like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its local political effects? Are the political consequences of these types of actions and events so easy to predict?

The truth is that historically-speaking multiple “sides” are always deeply involved in an ongoing struggle against each other and duking it out in countless ways: in the workplace, within governmental institutions, at the ballot box; etc.; the powerful against the less powerful, capital against labor, Right against Left.

Although it contains many useful historical facts from both the New Deal and Great Society eras, the thrust of Tomasky’s piece is that the Republican Right owns this country and will retake control inexorably. It’s really a despairing article for anyone on the left, which leads me to wonder what exactly is the point? It’s one thing to tell Obama’s progressive critics to back off through informing them of all the good things Obama has accomplished, most recently the $20 billion “shakedown” of BP, which is one of my personal favorites, but to conclude that everything the Left has accomplished throughout history as little more than “aberrations” inside a solidly conservative polis is just too defeatist to let go unchallenged. Tomasky understands that “despair will produce defeat,” but he states this only after offering us a huge dollop of despair to make his point. “The use or misuse of history as a blunt weapon is a trope that guarantees despair,” he writes. And on this point, he knows of what he speaks.

Joseph Palermo

Crossposted with Joseph A Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on June 24, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).