Obama Shouldn't be Above Criticism by Progressives

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Jacob Kramer is Assistant Professor History at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

It has become common for those on the progressive end of the political spectrum to assert that Barack Obama raised hopes for significant political change only to compromise too readily with conservative forces.  Early in his term, Obama was taken to task for passing a stimulus that was too small and contained too many tax cuts, failing to include a public option in his health care plan, and for escalating the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.  New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has made criticism of Obama one of his principal topics, said in October of last year that the political consequences of an insufficient stimulus package were a “catastrophe” and recently accused Obama of “abject surrender” in the negotiations over the debt ceiling.  In the summer of 2010, these criticisms became so intense that the White House Press Secretary, Richard Gibbs, denounced liberal critics of the administration as the “professional left” and said they “wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”

My initial response to these criticisms was to argue that although Obama is not a social democrat, he represents the best, most realistic possibility for moving the country in the direction of European-style social democracy.  But then I realized that this rationale was very similar to that used by progressives to justify their support for President Woodrow Wilson.

In a recent book, the historian James Kloppenberg has argued that Obama can be considered a pragmatist in the same sense as the progressives of the early twentieth century.  According to Kloppenberg, Obama’s liberalism consists not of a rigid set of policy commitments, but rather a belief in democratic compromise.  Obama was shaped by legal schools of thought, such as critical legal studies and critical race theory, that exposed the political assumptions that lay behind formal legal theories.  At the same time, he was influenced by America’s tradition of civic republicanism, which placed the public good over private interests.  What Obama took away from these experiences was a belief in “fallibilism” and experimentation, rather than an insistence on immediate absolute ends. 

Kloppenberg makes a very strong case.  However, there may also be less sanguine comparisons to be made.  It was characteristic of early twentieth-century progressives not only to be pragmatic, but also to be more radical before they got into office than when they had the opportunity to exercise power.  According to Ernest Freeberg in his book Democracy's Prisoner, in the early twentieth century socialism seemed to many Americans to present a very real possibility.  Progressives dealt with their relationship to it explicitly.  In his 1909 book The Promise of American Life, for example, the journalist Herbert Croly said that if readers wanted to believe that his proposed program of activist government was “socialistic,” he was “not concerned with dodging the odium of the word.”  Woodrow Wilson himself was considered to be a radical because of the uncompromising position he took on breaking up monopolies.  Campaigning in Hartford, Connecticut in 1912, Wilson said, “I have acquired the reputation of being a radical....  I don’t think anybody is any longer very much frightened by the word ‘radical....’”

In his first term in office, Wilson produced an impressive record of legislative accomplishment.  He enacted the eight-hour day on the railroads, regulated anticompetitive practices through the Federal Trade Commission, and appointed the Kansas City labor lawyer Frank Walsh to head the Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR) to investigate labor unrest.  In its final report in 1916, the CIR recommended much of what would later become the New Deal, including recognition of labor unions, unemployment compensation, and public works, funded by taxes on inheritances.  But the decision of progressives to support Wilson for reelection and during his second term turned out to be a fateful choice when larger forces compelled him to undertake policies of repression.

Wilson had maintained American neutrality during the First World War, but he had intervened in the Mexican Revolution twice, to push developments in the direction of the “constitutionalist” governor of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza.  In 1916, he sent 10,000 troops under the command of John Pershing into Mexico to track down the agrarian populist Pancho Villa, who had previously crossed the border into Texas.  Herbert Croly’s New Republic had been urging Wilson to declare Mexican sovereignty a “legal fiction” since June.  But for other progressives, such as Jane Addams, endorsing Wilson for reelection despite the Mexican intervention required some awkward maneuvers.  Writing in the Cincinnati Post, Addams described the interventionas:  “Determination, in spite of almost insuperable difficulties and obvious blunders, to permit the Mexicans to work their way to self-government without recourse to the old imperialistic method of sending soldiers into a weaker nation….”  Addams seemed to be denying the obvious, perhaps to maintain her credibility with more moderate forces, as supporters of Obama sometimes feel compelled to do.

The dilemma of Wilson’s supporters was amplified during the intervention in the First World War.  Under the auspices of the National War Labor Board (NWLB), union membership nearly doubled from 1917 to 1920, from 3 million to 5 million, reaching 20 percent of the non-farm labor force.  Yet Wilson also introduced sweeping measures of repression.  Under the Espionage Act and other wartime legislation, most radical publications were excluded from the mail, the leaders of the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World were arrested for obstructing the war effort, and Eugene Debs was arrested for giving a speech opposing the draft in 1918.

Wilson’s supporters were understandably reluctant to speak out against him.  In refusing to sign a petition for funds to defend the IWW in 1918, for instance, according to the historian William Preston, Jane Addams told Roger Baldwin of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, “I am obliged to walk very softly in regard to all things suspect.”  Frank Walsh, who was now leading the NWLB, wrote to the imprisoned conscientious objector Ben Salmon, “The truth seems to be that in a world at war, the dissenting individual, no matter how earnest, logical and brave, will be swept away with the tide.”

After the war the forces of repression unleashed by Wilson escalated into the Palmer Raids and boomeranged upon the institutions of wartime reform.  Employers fought successful battles against striking workers in steel, railroads, and coal, the National War Labor Board was dismantled, and unions entered a decade of declining membership.  In this context, progressives began to rethink their allegiance to Wilson.  In March of 1920, Frank Walsh wrote, “Believers in President Wilson have hoped against hope that he would reassume the vigorous democratic leadership” that he had exhibited before the war.  “But no word comes from him.”

Progressives’ relationship with Wilson raises two important questions for supporters of Obama.  First, was the compromise worth it?  Did progressives’ support of Wilson, in spite of his intervention overseas and repression at home, produce lasting benefits that justified the compromises he felt compelled to make?  There is little question that the reforms and institutions of collective bargaining that Wilson introduced led to a significant improvement in workers’ lives, especially considering the next round of reforms that were introduced in the 1930s.  But does that mean progressives should muffle their criticism of the Obama administration?  I think the lesson of the Wilson administration is very clear in this regard.  While Wilson did produce significant change, it was a costly mistake for progressives to suppress their criticism of his more draconian policies.  Wilson’s repression of radicalism set a precedent that would govern free speech in wartime during the Cold War and the War on Terror.  Repression of radicalism seemed expedient in the short term, but ultimately it undermined the energy of those forces responsible for the emergence of progressivism in the first place, and helped uncork forces of reaction that undermined the institutions progressives succeeded in enacting.

So Richard Gibbs was wrong when he denounced the “professional left.”  The left fulfills a very important function:  it stakes out a wider political field out of which progressive compromise can emerge.

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