“If something is not done shortly, this country is going the way of…Italy, Germany…or Russia, and it is high time we did something,” exclaimed Irénée du Pont, one of the more prominent conservatives of the 1930s. Many of his fellow Americans agreed there was good cause to be alarmed: a new Democratic president was proposing an unprecedented expansion of federal power that would increase taxes on the well-off and dole out benefits to the jobless and other unfortunates. Several spokesmen on the right made more ominous vows: “So help me God, I will be instrumental in taking a Communist from the chair once occupied by Washington,” declared Father Charles Coughlin, who commanded one of the largest radio audiences in the nation.
There is nothing particularly novel about today’s protesters, including one failed vice presidential candidate and the chairman of the Republican Party, who have been screaming that Barack Obama is a closet socialist–or fascist–whose plans for reforming the healthcare system will destroy their freedoms and perhaps kill off their loved ones. They are just the latest representatives of a long national tradition: fear of a strong central government that periodically leads some Americans to make extraordinary leaps of logic and challenge the power of the alleged leviathan.
This tradition is, in fact, as old as the nation itself. During the 1760s colonists along the Eastern Seaboard were convinced that King George III and his ministers meant to abolish their liberties and yoke their economy to the venal desires of the imperial court in London. They made a revolution to thwart this wicked plot, one that historians now agree never existed. Even after the Constitution was ratified, Americans were more comfortable when state and local governments levied taxes and enforced moralistic laws like Prohibition than when the feds tried to do the same thing.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat of conspiracy thinking went on. In 1860 most white Southerners were certain that Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, was, like John Brown, encouraging slaves to murder their masters. This fear helped make secession–and civil war–inevitable. Almost a century later, Senator Joseph McCarthy, then near the height of his popularity, charged that George Marshall, a decorated general and former secretary of state, was enmeshed in “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Some figures on the left have made outsize accusations of their own. In the 1990s Maxine Waters, the liberal Congresswoman from California, charged the CIA with flooding the streets of South Central Los Angeles with crack cocaine. And Oliver Stone’s cinematic exposé of a fanciful civilian-military plot to assassinate JFK did quite splendidly at the box office.
But the habit has always been more common on the right, and with good reason. Most liberals and radicals want the federal government, the only national institution chosen by the people at large, to satisfy social needs that business will not meet and private charities lack the resources to fulfill. Although socialism has never been a very popular faith in the United States, the American left’s call for a stronger, more caring government does echo its more class-conscious counterparts in other industrial and postindustrial nations.
And conservative movements that stoke panic about the designs of big government have often won the day. In the 1870s Democrats who attacked Radical Republicans for imposing “Negro rule” on the South did much to sap Northern white support for Reconstruction; the result was a brutal segregationist order that endured for almost a century. The same fear that white Americans are losing control to blacks and recent immigrants has animated other wild attacks on federal power over the years, one reason it took so long for Congress to pass strong civil rights and voting rights bills. Redbaiting has done effective service as well. In the late 1940s the American Medical Association helped defeat Harry Truman’s plan for national health insurance by publishing an erroneous quote by Lenin declaring that “socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the Socialist State.” If all this be paranoia, the right has certainly made the most of it.
But such mendacious offensives do not always succeed. During Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in the White House, du Pont and other corporate moguls funded a lobby, the American Liberty League, which did its worst to deny him re-election. The league even included two former Democratic nominees for president. But the Depression had made most people suspicious about the laissez-faire dogma of big business, and FDR easily parried its charges.
Father Coughlin seemed to pose a more serious threat. The eloquent priest, who was Rush Limbaugh in a Roman collar, attracted a cross section of disgruntled white Americans, and the New Deal could not have triumphed without the support of his base among ordinary Catholic voters. But when Coughlin spoke at rallies, the pleasantly modulated rhythms of a parish cleric were replaced by the boastful ranting of a demagogue. On newsreels seen by millions of moviegoers, it was he, not the president, who seemed like an American version of Mussolini or Hitler.
Roosevelt, in contrast, exuded empathy for a nation in distress. During one of his earliest fireside chats, he invited Americans to “tell me your troubles.” The cascade of mail he received yielded significant political benefits. One white textile worker from North Carolina told a reporter that FDR was “the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son of a bitch.” Never before had so many wage-earners, small farmers and their families allowed themselves to expect so much from the government. The New Deal didn’t end the Depression, but it did co-opt populist movements–of labor, the elderly and small farmers–that fed off the anger resulting from economic collapse. Votes from those constituencies kept liberal Democrats in the White House for two unbroken decades.
Barack Obama has found it more difficult to turn away the contemporary edition of the fanatical right. Conservative ideology has been in the saddle for three decades now, and the recession began too late in the Bush administration to entirely discredit its free-market dogma or those who speak on its behalf. The abundance of slick, if inaccurate, ads against healthcare reform also shows that businesses afraid of falling profits remain as central to the modern right as they have been since the movement sprang to life in the late 1940s.
Ironically, the very ineptitude of conservative governance in the recent past makes Americans more open to the right’s arguments now that it is out of national power. Why trust the federal state to do anything it promises? The last “big government” program that aided a large number of Americans was Medicare, enacted almost forty-five years ago–so long that some deluded recipients don’t recognize it as a public program at all.
If Obama and his progressive allies hope to defeat the latest assault on federal power, they will need to go beyond the president’s artful ambivalence about the subject. Like FDR, they will have to talk about government as the property of all the people and push through programs that make its benefits palpable to the great majority. The liberal left is larger than at any time in years; but it remains fragmented by age and race and stymied by a lack of coordination between bloggers and NGOs, who speak mainly to the middle-class young, and unions and community organizers, who struggle to serve workers and the poor. For all its flaws, the national state is the only common political ground we have. To make that case does not advocate socialism; it advances democracy.