America’s next great president: Why Obama’s departure paves the way for the next FDR

History explains the real differences between Obama and our liberal icons. Who will be the 21st century version?

Published April 12, 2014 3:30PM (EDT)

Russ Feingold, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren       (Reuters/Larry Downing/AP/Tony Dejak/Joshua Roberts)
Russ Feingold, Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren (Reuters/Larry Downing/AP/Tony Dejak/Joshua Roberts)

Why can’t Barack Obama be more like Lyndon Johnson? The fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, commemorated by living presidents at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas, last week, has renewed interest in comparisons between the two presidents. Critics of Obama complain that he might have been a more effective president had he been less aloof and more willing to bewitch, bully and bribe members of Congress as Johnson did. Defenders of Obama compare the Affordable Care Act to Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid, and point out that Obama after 2010 had to face a divided Congress, unlike Johnson, with his Democratic supermajorities.

The discussion is superficial, reflecting a focus on personalities and short-term electoral considerations. It’s worth viewing the differences between Johnson and Obama in a broader historical context.

In the 1930s, as a young member of Congress from Texas, Lyndon Johnson became a favorite protégé of President Franklin Roosevelt. On becoming president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson saw his task in domestic politics as completing the New Deal (even as, in foreign policy, he sought, with disastrous results in Vietnam, to carry out the liberal Cold War containment policy inherited from Harry Truman). From the perspective of 2014, we can view Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society as a single era of reform, interrupted by the “conservative coalition” of right-wing Southern Democrats and northern Republicans that dominated Congress in the 1950s. From civil rights to universal health care, most of the programs that Johnson managed to get enacted in the 1960s had been proposed in the 1930s or 1940s, if not earlier. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the New Deal-Great Society combination as “the New Deal.”

The New Deal was the American version of the social reforms that transformed other advanced industrial democracies in the twentieth century. All of the other English-speaking countries as well as the democracies of Western Europe at some point adopted worker-protective legislation, social safety nets and — following World War II and the horrors of Nazi racism — the outlawing of white supremacy. In this wave of twentieth-century reform, the U.S. was mostly a laggard, not a leader. In the late nineteenth century, Imperial Germany pioneered workers' compensation and Social Security, and before World War I Britain adopted many reforms that were delayed in the U.S. until the 1930s.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the essential goal of twentieth-century reform was similar: extending the benefits of industrial capitalism to two groups that had been left out of the first wave of industrialization, namely farmers and industrial workers. This historic task was performed in Sweden, for example, by the Social Democrats, on the basis of the “cow deal” — an alliance among industrial workers and small farmers.

In the United States, the situation was complicated by the division of the agrarian population between the small farmers of the Northeast and Midwest and the landowners of the South, who lorded it over first slaves and then tenant farmers. Lincoln’s Civil War coalition united Northern industrialists and Northern farmers against the Southern planter oligarchy. Had history taken a different course, an enlightened, reformist Republican Party might have carried out social and economic modernization in the U.S. Like Theodore Roosevelt, many progressives were Republicans, and the Democrats had long been dominated by Southern reactionaries.

But by the 1920s, the progressives within the Republican Party had been defeated by business-class conservatives. So when the system crashed during the Great Depression, it was rebuilt by the Democrats — who were still the old Jefferson-Jackson coalition of the Northern white working class with white Southerners, enlarged by former progressive Republicans. (At this time, African Americans were mostly disfranchised and the numbers of Latinos and Asian Americans were still small.)

The structure of mid-century reforms was shaped by the fact that they were put in place by neo-Jacksonian Democrats rather than Lincoln-Theodore Roosevelt Republicans. Industry-specific measures — agricultural price supports and pro-union legislation — helped bring family farmers in the South and West and industrial workers in the factory belt into the middle class. Industrial unions often supported employer-based benefits, as opposed to the universal social insurance that many socialist and progressive intellectuals favored. Deposit insurance, a New Deal reform usually attributed to Roosevelt (who hated the idea and signed the bill only reluctantly), was designed to stabilize small Southern and Western local banks, which were protected from being absorbed by large banks by anti-branch banking laws that lasted until the late twentieth century. And the influence of Southern segregationists in the Democratic party led to the initial exclusion of farm workers and household servants (the two main occupational categories of blacks at the time) from Social Security, along with racial discrimination in federal housing programs. Likewise, with the exceptions of Social Security and Medicare, federal social insurance programs like FDR’s unemployment insurance and LBJ’s Medicaid were crafted as federal-state hybrids in part to appease powerful neo-Confederate Southern supporters of states’ rights.

The New Deal and Great Society, then, did not create universalist social democracy of the kind dreaded by the right and favored by the left. Instead, like similar mid-twentieth-century “settlements” in Canada and Western Europe, New Deal era reforms gave white male workers and farmers, in societies still stratified by race and gender, a “piece of the action” of industrial capitalism. New Deal liberalism was essentially a profit-sharing scheme to shore up capitalism among mass constituencies that, in other societies, had responded to their exclusion from the benefits of growth by turning to socialism, fascism or various kinds of illiberal populism.

While there are parallels between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, modern developed countries are radically different in their social and economic structure today than they were 50 years ago during the Johnson era or 70 or 80 years ago during the Roosevelt era. Thanks chiefly to technology-driven productivity growth, and partly to offshoring, the share of the workforce made up by farmers and factory workers has plummeted. College-educated professionals have grown from a tiny to a substantial and influential majority. The most rapid growth in jobs has been in nontraded domestic service sectors like health care and education and government, which in the U.S. (not necessarily in other advanced nations) tend to be low-wage and non-unionized.

The New Deal and similar reform movements in other mid-twentieth-century democracies effected a massive redistribution of income within large industrial corporations, from managers and shareholders to workers in the same firm, who were paid higher wages thanks both to unions and wages-and-hours regulations. But today’s rich and today’s working poor are seldom in the same company — or even in the same industry. Unlike the Big Three auto companies at the height of the New Deal/Great Society era, Wall Street financial institutions and Silicon Valley corporations make enormous profits while employing relatively few people. Meanwhile, many of the firms that employ growing numbers of Americans — say, nursing homes — don’t make big profits, even if the profits they do make could be shared more equitably. A higher minimum wage can help. But if most Americans in the service sector are to share the gains from productivity growth, channels of redistribution other than wages will be necessary, such as subsidies for the private purchase of important goods and services or alternately their public provision.

The political order is also radically different than it was in the age of Roosevelt and Johnson. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, American politics was still organized as it had been since Martin Van Buren and others developed the political party system in the 1830s. The Democrats and Republicans were national federations of state and local political machines, in which millions of ordinary Americans took part not only as voters but also as party officials and volunteers. The political machines were supplemented by other organizations in which rural and working-class Americans had influence, like the Grange, veterans’ clubs and ethnic clubs in immigrant-rich cities.

Today the parties are mostly free-floating labels that are up for grabs by gangs of plutocrats, rather than mass-membership organizations. Most candidates are either self-financed or backed by partisan or ideological organizations. Funded by the rich, these groups could not be further from the dues-paying, membership-based parties of the era of Roosevelt and Johnson. Unless they live in swing districts, most Americans are unlikely ever to be visited by a partisan canvasser, or to have any personal contact of any kind with the Democratic or Republican parties.

This, then, is the situation in all of the Western democracies in the early twenty-first century: a workforce increasingly dominated by relatively poorly-paid workers in the service sector, with a large college-credentialed minority, and a political system dominated by big donations rather than widespread membership. Put this in the context of the ongoing third industrial revolution based on IT and the catastrophic failure of the most recent attempt to create a global economy, and the challenge of achieving something like the results of the New Deal and Great Society by different means in new conditions becomes even more complex.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, following Barack Obama’s departure from office, there will still be an opening for a twenty-first century version of FDR or LBJ. Any candidates?

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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