Before joining Newt, check the "L" record: liberals historically at the heart of democracy.
But before the conservative onslaught buries the last of us liberals, I'd like to fire off a last-ditch salvo of my own: Liberalism has been and is the heart and soul of American democracy.
Ever since the Mayflower unloaded the first batch of pilgrims, American political history has been a tug of war between embattled liberals and entrenched conservatives. And it has been the sporadic triumphs of the former over the latter that have slowly jostled America from a crabbed Puritan theocracy to a modern multiracial democracy.
History reveals a recurring pattern: First, left-wing agitators challenging the status quo; then, liberal politicians responding with democratic reforms; finally, conservatives grudgingly accepting the democratic advances, later pretending they've always been for them, and then digging in to fight off the next liberal surge.
When editor Horace Greeley called the fiery antislavery crusader William Lloyd Garrison a fanatic, James Russell Lowell retorted: "God sent him into the world with that special mission and none other. ... We would not have all men fanatics, but let us be devoutly thankful for as many of that kind as we can get. They are by no means too common as yet."
Left-wing "troublemakers" like Garrison, risking exile, prison or death, have repeatedly led the way in widening the circle of democracy. Roger Williams pressing for religious liberty against stiff-necked Puritans; Thomas Jefferson, proclaiming freedom for all - and the right to overthrow governments that refused to recognize it; defiant, law-breaking militants like Susan B. Anthony, Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, Rosa Parks, Martins Luther King Jr., storming the conservative bastions of their day to win more freedom for women, workers and racial minorities.
In earlier times, liberals fought more against powerful government as the prime threat to freedom; later, they resorted to a more powerful government as an ally against other tyrannies rooted in economic and social life. Conservatives from the slaveholders of the Old South to the Newt Gingriches of today have railed against the evils of big government.
But it took big government - that's right: big, liberal, central government - under Abraham Lincoln to smash the worst tyranny ever to curse American democracy, the slave system. When powerful industrial corporations later fastened their iron grip on American life, liberals again turned to big government, this time to check big business from crushing workers, consumers and small businessmen in its tentacles.
When workers struggled for their union rights in the 1930s, and African-Americans their civil rights in the 1960s, liberal forces once more enlarged the powers of the federal government to protect the rights of both groups.
The much-maligned welfare state, now at the top of Gingrich's hit list, was launched by President Franklin Roosevelt when millions of Americans were drowning in the floodwaters of the Great Depression. Conservatives are correct when they attack its real flaws@ dead wrong when they turn their fire against the welfare state itself.
We are a stronger, more prosperous, more democratic society today because the federal government for 60 years has reached out to so many groups - workers, farmers, homeowners, veterans, students, the homeless, the jobless, the elderly, the sick, the poor, the handicapped, urban dwellers, women, racial minorities - all in one way or another in need of a helping hand to cope with the turbulent, often treacherous, economic forces and social prejudices convulsing American life.
American politics has been a vast in cycle of liberal struggle followed by conservative reaction. Admittedly, we need conservatives. They give our nervous systems a break from the train of noble deeds and testy reformers, a time to curb liberal excesses and digest new policies. Modern American liberalism has been largely a strenuous, uncertain search for the right balance between government intervention and capitalist enterprise. Conservatives help refine the process. While liberals seek to divide the pie, conservatives remind us that it takes moneyed capitalists - hardworking, imaginative, risk-taking entrepreneurs - to make the pie in the first place.
But don't count on conservatives to do the right thing. They have a knack for doing the easy things while ignoring the tough things in their agenda. When President Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington in 1981, he promptly forgot his long harangue against deficit-spending Democrats. Instead, he went on a reckless spending spree for military hardware while cutting taxes, mostly on the rich. He trimmed programs for the poor but hardly dented the costlier entitlement programs for the better-heeled classes.
The result was a 12-year binge, quadrupling the national debt, turning America from the world's greatest creditor into its largest debtor, raiding Social Security funds to cover some of the soaring debt.
Worst of all, Reaganite conservatives fostered a "spoiled-brat" political culture - a voting public gunning for any politician that dared to cut their own pet programs - or to raise taxes to pay for them. Talk about big "tax-and-spend" liberals! Far worse are the big "borrow-and-spend" conservatives.
Now Reagan's disciples are back in town with more of the same. But this time they're serious, they say, about hacking away at the big middle-class entitlements. But don't figure on anything so radical, such as shelving tobacco subsidies. They've already backed away from one of the most outrageous outlays - the $289,000 taxpayers fork over each year for a couple of clergymen to offer prayers and spiritual guidance to congressmen.
"Get rid of big government, save the taxpayers money" - that has been the conservatives, mantra for decades. In fact, their shrill antigovernment rhetoric is matched only by their ardent support for even bigger government.
Conservatives want more money for the military, more prisons at an annual cost of $30,000 per inmate; more execurtions at $3 million a crack, more resources to fight the drug wars; more funds for the rampant debt run up under Reagan and Bush; more government control over abortions; more prayers in public schools.
And during the Reagan years, while pontificating about the evils of government intervention, many conservatives eagerly supported government intervention - into Grenada to overthrow its government, into Nicaragua to make war on its government (at a cost of 30,000 lives), into El Salvador to sustain its violent military regime (at a cost of 70,000 lives).
Let's face it. Everybody wants big government. What Americans really want is smart government, not small government - programs intelligently administered, dollars wisely spent, taxes fairly imposed, help for minorities without cheating majorities. Surveys repeatedly show that Americans are still liberal on issues even when they reject the liberal label. They still want government help for the needy, including medical coverage for everyone.
According to one recent poll, seven out of 10 Americans would rather devote savings from welfare reform to job training for welfare recipients than tax breaks for themselves.
A popular conservative canard these days is that government never produces real wealth or jobs, it only hinders those who do. I marvel that many of my fellow Buffalonians echo this nonsense. It was a huge government enterprise, the Erie Canal, opened in 1825, that launched Buffalo's rise as a great commercial and industrial center, funneled millions of migrants through the city into the burgeoning Midwest, and then carried their massive farm and factory output back East to help spur much of the nation's economic growth.
Everywhere we see the good things and useful jobs big government produces in its better moments: schools and universities, hospitals and medical re centers; the sprawling network of roads, rails, bridges, sewers, water mains, without which our capitalist enterprise would. screech to a halt The wheels of commerce and industry continue to move because the wheels of big government are already turning.
"Bleeding-heart liberals," taking cash away from hardworking Americans and doling it out to the poor. That contempt-filled charge is a favorite among right-wingers. Well, yes, our hearts do bleed for the underdogs and the unlucky. In my case, it owes something to an Irish-American background, with long memories of the poverty and prejudice that once barricaded immigrants and Catholics from America's bounty.
And there are even longer memories. of the Great Famine when a million Irish perished because potatoes rotted in the fields while British authorities, riveted to laissez-faire economics, opposed famine relief lest it disrupt their delicate free markets.
My bleeding heart also owes something to a Catholic value system that emphasizes sharing the wealth as much as producing it, and has long taught us that God gave us the good things of this earth so that everybody can live decently.
As Pope John XXIII put it, it's up to us to build a political system that guarantees the right to life and the means to develop it, "primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and, finally, the necessary social services." And that holds even "in case of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment or in any other case in which one is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of one's own."
But to tell the truth, it was not religion or morals or bleeding-heart liberalism that powered the welfare state into existence. Quite frankly, Roosevelt's New Deal sprang from a hard-nosed economic pragmatism after an enormously dynamic but chaotic capitalist economy was smashed to smithereens in the Great Depression.
Unfortunately, the enormous wealth of the Roaring '20s had piled up in the hands of a rich few, leaving large masses unable to buy the goods and services pouring out of our turbocharged economy. It was a nightmare world where millions of farmers and workers lost farms and jobs, because millions of hungry people were too poor to buy their crops or goods; a world where the sheer abundance of wealth, poorly distributed, pushed the whole nation into poverty.
That's what drove the New Dealers then and still partly motivates liberals today. Even if we didn't give a hoot for bankrupt farmers, the jobless, the homeless and hordes of other beneficiaries of the liberal state - we all need a government balancing wheel, a mechanism to recycle dollars back into needy hands, just to keep the rest of us at work.
When gaseous gurus like Rush Limbaugh and his army of adoring "ditto-heads" lash out at the antibusiness liberals, they ignore a huge, uncomfortable historical fact. The last time real conservatives were in charge of the White House and the Congress was the 1920s. For 12 years they presided over the most prosperous economy in American history and watched it hurtle into the greatest financial mash-up in history.
But since the coming of Roosevelt's liberal state and its regulated capitalism, we have never experienced - nor even come close to - the sprawling wreckage left behind by the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover Republicans.
The liberal bashers will have their day. But the problems liberals worry about will continue to fester, eventually calling forth new social efforts to deal with them: stagnating cities; inadequate schools; the poverty and joblessness that fuel much of our crime, violence and family breakdown; a chaotic health system that covers fewer people and costs more than any other in the industrial world.
Most worrisome is our fiercely competitive global capitalism, creating new disparities of wealth, eerily reminiscent of the 1920s. In this economy, rife with both opportunity and misery, the top 20 percent are well-positioned to win big. The bottom 70 percent will continue to lose ground as employers, struggling to compete with cheap foreign labor, move operations overseas, replace workers with machines and force the remaining "lucky ones" to work longer hours with lower pay and fewer benefits. Eventually we will recall the great liberal lessons of the past - that our fortunes are tied together and that a generous response to the problems of others is ultimately the path to our own survival.
As a presidential candidate back in 1960 Sen. John F. Kennedy objected to the "liberal" label if it meant being careless less with taxpayers, money. But if "liberals" means "someone" who cares about the welfare of the people - their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights ... if that is what they mean by a `liberal,' then I'm proud to say that I'm a liberal."
My sentiments exactly. And probably America's.
Edward Cuddy teaches in the history and government department of Daemen College, Amherst, N.Y.
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|Title Annotation:||Newt Gingrich|
|Publication:||National Catholic Reporter|
|Date:||Jan 27, 1995|
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