Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
In the age of trickle-down economics and unrelenting attacks on the social safety net, there have been few greater champions of progressive values than Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who hosted his final Steak Fry this year as the senior senator from Iowa. Throughout his storied career, Harkin has remained a “prairie populist.” From his landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, to his principled vote against Clinton-era financial deregulation, to his recent sponsorship of the Fair Minimum Wage Act, Harkin has always been unapologetically loyal to the fundamental belief that government can—and should—play a role in improving people’s lives. And for Harkin, who proudly displayed his father’s Works Progress Administration card on his office wall, this brand of progressivism was deeply rooted in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal philosophy.
Indeed, as Ken Burns’s remarkable fourteen-hour PBS documentary The Roosevelts reminds us, we are, in so many ways, living in a country shaped by FDR. “Maybe you know somebody who went to college on the GI Bill. Maybe you’ve flown out of LaGuardia Airport or through the Lincoln Tunnel. Or you can turn on a light switch and have power and build planes at Boeing,” Burns said recently. “That’s all Franklin Roosevelt.” Our modern debate on inequality mirrors “the central questions of Roosevelt’s day,” the filmmaker said in another interview. Burns also noted that Eleanor Roosevelt’s vital legacy of fighting for social justice remains especially relevant now. “She understood the issues of the day about health, about race, about women, about poverty, about immigration, all of the issues that we still grapple with today.”
Our current political battles, as they have been for the past seventy years, are largely defined by the right’s bitter desire to roll back the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society. And as Harkin prepares to retire next year, many have been writing obituaries for his brand of progressive politics. “Today he is seen as one of a dying breed of Democrats,” the Post’s Dan Balz observed. “[H]e remains an unabashedly and old-fashioned liberal.”
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.