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Lawrence Goodwyn: The Great Predicament Facing Obama

An interview with legendary historian Lawrence Goodwyn on Obama, the larger currents in our political life, and the possibility of a rebirth in our democratic culture.

What happened to the dream of Barack Obama's transformational politics? There's been very little deviation from the disastrous Bush years on the key issues of war, empire and the distribution of wealth in the country.

I turned to Lawrence Goodwyn, historian of social movements whose books and methods of explaining history have had a profound influence on many of the best known authors, activists and social theorists of our time. Goodwyn's account of the Populist movement, Democratic Promise, is quoted extensively by Howard Zinn in People's History of the United States, and also in William Greider's masterpiece on the Federal Reserve, Secrets of the Temple. You can find Goodwyn quoted in the first paragraph of Bill Moyers' recent book, On Democracy, and cited in just the same way in countless other books and essays.

I interviewed Goodwyn from his home in Durham, North Carolina about the pitfalls of recording American history, Obama's presidency in light of previous presidents, and portents of change in our political culture.

Jan Frel: It seems there's quite a bit of disagreement about what kind of president we have on our hands.

Lawrence Goodwyn: Well, Jan, we are in the midst of the shakedown cruise of an historic presidency. If I may risk understatement, it has taken quite a while for Barack Obama and his diverse constituencies to begin to understand one another. I believe both still have some distance to travel. Early on, things were pretty wild, but many people have learned many things and a measure of calm can finally be seen around the edges of the national anxiety that engulfs us all.

In general, it is quite apparent that the politics of the Obama era has been far more volatile than most observers remotely anticipated. But as a historian, I bring to this confused setting the hopelessly long view that is endemic to my calling. Long views are by definition remote, distant and therefore tending toward a measure of calm. They are by no means inoculated against error, but they provide room for engaged reflection not easily found in the heat of battle.

So let me present a calming conclusion. In my opinion, the energy among the democratic faithful to make the journey is still there. While ordinary folks have been put through a lot, do not underestimate the resolve that remains for the long haul. Unanticipated poverty is an enormous energizer -- and most of all for people who understand their own fate to be utterly undeserved. In due course they will see through the sleight of hand and empty content embedded in corporate sound bites. I am talking about millions of Americans, many of whom wavered and many who did not. It will take some more time for this to become clear. But it will happen.

Above all, it will become increasingly transparent in the coming year that the politics of the GOP is absolutely incoherent. Much of the Republican tent is simply flapping in the breeze behind a cascade of public lies. As it now presents itself, the so-called party of conservatism has nothing to bring to the economic crisis except demagogy. So long-term despair is unwarranted for Democrats. They need to harness their poise and undertake to be politically creative not just right now but for the next six years.

At the outset, I think it is appropriate and necessary for us to us to anchor ourselves in the understanding that in the early days of the American Republic, Jeffersonian democrats innocently and sweepingly referred to the colonial yeomanry, from Vermont to Georgia, as "the democracy." That is who we are: the people who work to support our families. Our struggle for a place in the America sun is the central social and political component of our national history. These folks, the great rank and file of the population, can best be understood as engaged in a long uphill climb. In every generation since the beginning, they have been "put through a lot." So that much has not changed.

But we do not, as a society, yet understand how agonizingly hard the climb has always been for each aspiring wave of immigrants: The Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews and the Hispanics and blacks from the South as well as the Caribbean, have all learned how elusive the "dream" can be. In any case, my general affection for the folks also extends to the president himself -- not without some moments of dismay about the staying power of some sunshine patriots. But I think it would be helpful for everyone to acknowledge we have all lately learned a great deal about the country, the world, and the overall economy. This is no time for the faint of heart. The economic fate of America's inherited democratic promise is absolutely on the line in the decade we are now entering.

As if this were not enough on our plate, I have one additional reaction that is so strong it is almost, but not quite, private: What has happened in the 23 months since the 2008 election has simply heightened my lifetime of astonishment at the financial arrogance that long ago matured within the culture of American banking. For all my accumulated indignation over a half-century of unwanted experience, I now must admit that I underestimated the capacity for sheer greed that drives American banking. The evidence is compelling that a great many people within the financial community acknowledge no limits because they have a seriously atrophied loyalty to American society as a whole. I speak here of the cornerstone of the American democratic experiment itself: the sense that a majority of us have had -- have always had -- that we are in this thing together.

Bankers are not with the rest of us on this. Perhaps they never have been. All exceptions freely conceded, but the general reality still holds: they are killing the promise of this republic.

Frel: Where does Obama fit into this?

Goodwyn: There is no reason to believe he is celebrating this development. It locks in the presidency. And the movers and shakers within corporate America know it. They are operating under the settled presumption that they and they alone shall brandish the keys. Their problem is, quite simply, they have way too much blood on their hands. The GOP can't be specific about it, of course, because it is their blood, too. So we have a national campaign that is now fully in place and fully operational. It is also fully fraudulent.

The sequence of events is not debatable: 1) In 2001 Republicans inherited Clinton's hard-earned "balanced budget." 2) They immediately moved to dismantle it by generating a trillion-dollar tax cut for the rich. No more balance in the budget. 3) The GOP then added in a war against the threat of Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" that did not exist because the "evidence" concocted by Dick Cheney was fraudulent. Another trillion more or less. 4) En route, they tossed in a prescription drug benefit that added more trillions, conceivably forever -- or until we get the public option, whichever comes first. 5) An additional inheritance from Clinton was the culmination of the relentless conservative-championed campaign for "financial deregulation" sanctioned by Alan Greenspan, the old Fed chairman, and buttressed by the Milton Friedman-inspired balderdash trumpeting the emergence of a "rational market." (For reasons that have always escaped me, the latter piece of puffery found a home in the American economics profession.) 6) As a sendoff for his final days, Bush's Secretary of Treasury and his Federal Reserve Chairman found themselves saddled with the inevitable post-regulation financial crisis that (inconveniently enough) could no longer be postponed until after the 2008 election. The $800 billion or so embedded in the Toxic Assets Relief Program was the result.

The entire country is now experiencing the GOP's nationwide cover-up in the form of a suffocating blanket of television commercials that warps recent history along the following trajectory of sequential deceptions: 1) Obama promised jobs but thanks to his stimulus program and all his new taxes, unemployment has hit record levels. 2) Your congressman has voted consistently with Nancy Pelosi to raise the debt ceiling that enables this mammoth debt at the very time we need jobs. 3) We therefore must end wasteful spending and save America. Repeat and repeat and repeat in the rhythms achieved by the most expensive off-year political campaign ever. This is the hopeless politics of Herbert Hoover. It is just as hopeless as economic prescription because simply enough, it is a promise to do nothing.

But it is also a new form of internal American political propaganda, anonymous in origin, corporate-financed, and delivered with blanketing determination to every corner of the nation. In size and in substance it is a campaign of deception that is without comparison since the creation of the republic. It is a direct result of the most radical single judicial decision in American history, the Supreme Court's Citizens United offering some 10 months ago in the 5 to 4 vote of the Roberts Court. Long-term, it probably dooms the Republican Party by yoking the GOP to a permanent defense of financial deregulation and the liberation of central banks from a connecting relationship to the surrounding national economy. It says goodbye to the unemployed millions. It says goodbye to "we're in this thing together."

Frel: You present the historical view, and very dramatically. It sounds ominous politically, but in 2010 the Republican disinformation campaign also appears to be working politically. Where is the historical picture that is also optimistic?

The political scenario you call ominous brings into play the post- Citizens United "sound bite" scenario. The year 2010 gives us a politics totally created by ad men and financed by corporate America. Those two mainstays of American finance essentially fund it: big banking and big insurance. It is so illogical and so dishonest that I can reduce the descriptive burden to one phrase: conceptual deception. Indeed, it can be adequately summarized in one word: cynicism. There is a linguistic economy here that only a well-tanned investment banker can admire. For the rest of us, history suggests that we just have to experience it to appreciate its destructive power. In the short run we are going to take a painful caning right across our backs. I know of no democratic defense against organized corporate lying, backed literally by unlimited corporate financing of said lies.

However, a measure of poise reveals that, even in politics, conceptual deception eventually contains self-destructive elements. The 2010 version of GOP sloganeering is so demeaning and even insulting to the sense of self of run-of-the-mill voters that it will generate at least a slight measure of backlash even in the course of a single electoral season. I do not immediately see how it can be sustained for two seasons for it leaves no workable politics for its advocates to advocate -- as incoming Republican beneficiaries will learn in their own good time. The enormous political power behind Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal resided in the overwhelming electoral weight of mass unemployment.