The Progressive Left Has Always Been Where Democrats Belonged

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Many on both sides are worried about the party’s leftward swing. They say it’s a deviation from the mainstream. It’s not

... The same trajectory was generally true of the party’s commitment to ensuring that every family enjoyed an adequate income. Roosevelt’s initial pledge seemed to augur a government-supported basic family wage. In 1946 the Democratic Congress passed—and Truman signed—the Employment Act, which codified the government’s responsibility to “foster and promote free competitive enterprise and the general welfare; conditions under which there will be afforded useful employment for those able, willing, and seeking to work; and to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.” In its original form, the bill would have guaranteed all Americans remunerative work and required the government to create public-sector or private-sector jobs to meet this mandate. In this way, it would have met Roosevelt’s quality of living standard for many families. Conservatives blocked that provision.

By the 1960s the American economy seemed so manifestly robust that an income or jobs guarantee no longer seemed necessary. During his tenure as assistant labor secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, Moynihan argued for a minimum family income program, to be enforced by means of a negative income tax, but his was a lone voice. Most liberals believed that if the poorest Americans had access to supplementary job training and education, they would be adequately positioned to capture the benefits of shared prosperity. Interestingly, the next major figure to take up the idea was no other than Richard Nixon, who as president attempted to overhaul the nation’s welfare system by introducing a family income program. The idea stalled in Congress, with conservative Republicans opposing it as too generous, and liberal Democrats decrying it as too stingy.

Still, even into the 1970s, Democrats continued to embrace the idea that government should in some way grant every American a good job and, thereby, income. In 1977, Democrats in Congress passed the Humphrey-Hawkins Act—an ambitious proposal reminiscent of the Employment Act. Once again, conservatives watered down the bill such that it lost most of its force.

As was true of health care and income policy, Democrats for the better part of the postwar era supported broad access to education. Roosevelt’s GI Bill of Rights extended free university and vocational education to over 16 million veterans of World War II. Millions more veterans of the Korean War would enjoy the same benefits. While liberals found it politically impossible to create a universal right to higher education, many historians generally argue that the GI Bill was meant to create a foundation for a broader guarantee, and indeed, spending on college grants and loans greatly expanded during and after Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

... To be sure, Democrats never came close to delivering on the promise that FDR established in 1944. It was always an aspirational goal—a North Star that would compete with the gravitational pull of political reality. As well, a booming economy between the mid-1940s and mid-1970s demanded that liberals recalibrate their ambitions and propose a more patchwork system of support for people who had been left behind.

In fits and starts, from the 1970s onward, a new generation of Democratic leaders moved their party closer to the center. From the Watergate babies of the 1970s, many of whom rejected the party’s traditional anti-monopoly stance and big-ticket spending agenda, to the Democratic Leadership Council—whose crowning moment came with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992—Democrats continued to pay homage to FDR even as they trained their sites on a more modest set of policy aspirations.

In this sense, it is true that many Democrats are moving back to their roots. And those roots lead to policies that commanded broad support—and to leaders who commanded broad popularity—in their day.

It’s also ahistorical to decry such policies as “socialist.” To be sure, conservative critics have used the term for the better part of 80 years. In 1936, the chairman of the Republican National Committee warned that America was on a path to become “a socialistic state honeycombed with waste and extravagance and ruled by a dictatorship that mocks the rights of the States and the liberty of the citizen.” In 1952, during his campaign for the presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a relative moderate in the Republican Party, denounced universal health care as “socialized medicine.” In 1961, while speaking on the circuit as a representative of General Electric, Ronald Reagan warned that a pared-down proposal to provide guaranteed hospital insurance for senior citizens constituted “a short step to all the rest of socialism.” “If you and I don’t do this,” he implored his audience, “then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children’s children what it was once like in America when men were free.” (Remembering Reagan’s days as an FDR and Truman Democrat, a liberal skeptic asked him, “How much are they paying you for this shit?”)

But this criticism ignores ways in which the Republican Party accommodated itself to much of the American welfare state. Republican votes were critical in passing and expanding the GI Bill, Medicare and Medicaid, and other social welfare policies—well into the 2000s.
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