As I talk to friends on the left and center-left, I find too many people picking up on Bush administration propaganda that Kerry is a “flip-flopping” politician, that his stands on the Iraq war are opportunistic and bad, and that his “weakness” is helping Bush. These are mostly people who will vote for Kerry, if they vote, but they are in a passive political mode, preparing to retreat, which is where the Bush administration wants them to be.
Everything that is being said today about John Kerry was said by sections of the broad left about Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 — he was “an opportunist,” a lightweight, a man from a wealthy family with a Harvard education and an uppity wife who couldn’t be trusted to deal with the Depression crisis. But a closer look showed that Roosevelt was, unlike most American politicians, a “principled opportunist,” in that he had represented in his political career broad progressive positions, whatever his shifts on day-to-day politics (by the 1920s these positions began to be called “urban liberalism”). Clearly he was a lot better than the Democrats who had run for the presidency before him: James Cox, John W. Davis, Al Smith.
Of course, Roosevelt was an odds-on favorite to win the election, and a militant left, led by an activist Communist Party, was on the scene fighting to form unions, create public jobs and unemployment insurance, and establish programs to protect poor farmers and save the cities.
When popular movements reached a critical mass in 1934-1935, Roosevelt did not use his power as president to crush them, as all previous presidents including Democrats Cleveland and Wilson had done in response to great strikes. The courage and intelligence of a CPUSA-led left and the “principled opportunism” of FDR interacted dialectically to bring about a center-left coalition politics that produced Social Security, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, the right of workers to form unions, millions of public jobs for the unemployed, and federally supported public assistance for women with dependent children.
Neither Communists and allied leftists nor New Deal liberals brought this about by themselves. The center-left coalition of the two forces made this far-reaching program possible.
John Kerry’s stands on the major issues of the times, since the 1970s, have been a lot better than those of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, or Bill Clinton. He is a progressive Democratic senator from a liberal pro-labor state, Massachusetts, as Roosevelt was the progressive governor of New York.
Like Roosevelt in 1932, Kerry is saying some ridiculous things. (Roosevelt, for example, criticized Hoover for running deficits and promised to balance the budget. The deficit was not the problem, but a symptom of the Depression. Hoover was spending too little, not too much. After taking office, Roosevelt sharply increased federal spending to provide for people’s needs, which is healthy for society.) But, like Roosevelt, Kerry is articulating broad themes that lead away not only from the sinister nightmare of the Bush administration, but from a generation of right-wing political hegemony in the U.S.
Kerry is condemning the $200 billion already spent on Iraq and saying that money would be better spent for social programs in the United States — the first Democrat to begin to talk about spending more, not less, for people’s needs since the 1970s. He has come out four-square for labor — something neither Carter nor Clinton ever did — and would clearly use his presidential powers as Roosevelt did in the 1930s to advance the labor movement and place progressive judges on the federal judiciary. While his health proposals can be legitimately criticized, they are the first serious proposals to come forward since Clinton’s disastrous failure in 1994 buried the issue of national health “insurance” in the U.S. On civil rights and civil liberties, Kerry, by any standard, has a good record and George W. Bush has a terrible one.
Unlike Roosevelt, Kerry has a difficult fight to make if he is to be elected. What Kerry can learn from Roosevelt is to go after his enemies on the right, as Roosevelt always did, and make it clear that they represent arrogance, selfishness and greed. But everyone on the left who thinks that the U.S. and the world were better off with Roosevelt than Hoover should realize that the U.S. and the world will be much better off with Kerry than with Bush. With Kerry in the White House we have a chance to regain ground lost over a generation. With Bush back in power, we are in the short run digging our own graves, and the graves of people’s movements throughout the world, not the grave of the capitalist system as some ultra-leftists might hope. For those reasons we must not only support the Kerry campaign but work actively for its victory.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at email@example.com.