Radical historian Harvey J. Kaye: Only a progressive president can save America

If Democrats don't embrace their progressive legacy, warns Harvey Kaye, the party is toast — and so's America

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 23, 2020 7:00AM (EST)

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren speaking to crowds at their respective rallies. (Photo by Bauzen/GC Images/Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren speaking to crowds at their respective rallies. (Photo by Bauzen/GC Images/Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

The Democratic Party has a very difficult choice to make. Will it choose a progressive candidate such as Bernie Sanders as the 2020 presidential nominee, in the hope that his populist vision will vanquish Donald Trump?

Or will the Democrats instead choose Joe Biden, a former vice president, a "centrist" and "moderate" who wants to find ways to compromise with Republicans in order to "heal" the nation, and a "calming" presence who symbolizes a return to the supposed state of normalcy that predated Trump's political tsunami in 2016?

Public opinion and other data provide no clear answer. Polls have consistently shown that any of the leading Democratic candidates would defeat Donald Trump on a national level. To point: A new national poll by Reuters/Ipsos shows that Biden and Sanders are now tied among registered Democrats and independent voters.

But of course the United States president is elected not by popular vote but instead state by state, through the Electoral College. There Sanders and Biden are jousting with each other for the lead. Polls show that neither candidate has a decisive advantage in the key battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida that gave Trump the White House. Both Biden and Sanders lead Trump in those states.

A new poll by Hill-HarrisX suggests that Biden is also the preferred Democratic candidate among Republican voters.

In Florida, a recent USA Today poll shows that Sanders, Biden and Elizabeth Warren all lead Trump in a hypothetical 2020 presidential matchup — but that Biden remains the overwhelming choice of Florida Democrats.

Biden is routinely viewed by many political pundits and other expert observers as the most "electable" candidate, because of his obvious experience and that until very recently, he consistently polled ahead of the other potential Democratic nominees among likely voters.

A recent poll from Morning Consult shows that Joe Biden is supported by older voters, the cohort most likely to go to the polls. He is also the preferred candidate among African-Americans (although younger African-Americans prefer Sanders), college-educated white voters and suburban white women. Those are the Democratic Party's key constituencies.

By comparison, Bernie Sanders is far more popular among young people. One should not ignore the fact that Sanders' progressive politics are also truly populist: His proposals to confront social inequality by rejuvenating the middle class and ensuring that the very rich pay their fair share of taxes represent the desires of a large majority of the American people.

Sanders is also the beneficiary of a political logic which demands the rejection of "business as usual" in the Democratic Party. If a commitment to moderate positions and neoliberal economics helped lead the party to defeat in 2016 against Trump, then to continue with more of the same would be foolhardy.

But such logic must confront realpolitik and Sanders' unique vulnerabilities as a democratic socialist who is trying to become president.

In a recent conversation at Salon, former Republican strategist Rick Wilson warned about exactly this:

He's 300 years old. He just had a heart attack. He is every cliché ever, in the history of the free-shit movement. Republicans will turn Bernie into the worst caricature you've ever seen. He is the scary old socialist figure of their nightmares. But in this case, it's not fake. He's actually that guy. He's got an unbelievably thick oppo file. They're salivating over this guy. I still talk to guys in the mafia, in the Republican mafia. They're working their hardest to make sure Bernie's the nominee. They want Bernie to be the nominee. Bernie will lose every single state south of the Mason-Dixon line, no questions asked, including Florida — which, you can't lose Florida.

Historian Harvey J. Kaye does not agree with Wilson, and warns that the Democratic Party now faces an existential crisis and must embrace its most progressive traditions.

Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He is the author of many books including "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America" and "The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great." His most recent book is the essay collection "Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again."

"FDR on Democracy," Kaye's collection of the writings and speeches of Franklin D. Roosevelt, will be published in April.

Kaye argues the Democratic Party must embrace the progressive vision and legacy of presidents like Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson if it is to defeat Donald Trump and create a more democratic, free and just American society with opportunities for all people on both sides of the color line. He also argues that the best of American democracy has always been a radical project that must be renewed, and warns that the Democratic Party may collapse if it fails to nominate a true progressive or liberal reformer in 2020.

As usual, this transcript has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to my full conversation with Harvey J. Kaye through the player embedded below.

How do you explain the Age of Trump and what wrought it?

Whenever people ask me what about what's going on, my mind goes back to the 1970s. The mid-'70s were so utterly different than from when I was in college in the late 1960s. As tumultuous as the '60s were, from assassinations to violence in the streets, it always seemed to me that there was tremendous hope and possibilities.

But then, in the 1970s, I really felt like things changed, the possibilities and hope diminished. There were the beginnings of class war from above in America. So much of what has taken place in America in these last decades really began in the early 1970s, with various corporate leaders and other elites deciding that it was essential to suppress the democratic surge — the people power — of the 1960s.  

At the same time, during these last half-dozen years or so I have seen some very important things transpiring. A whole host of social movements have emerged. We have seen the "Fight for $15" movement, Black Lives Matter, the moral Monday movement, and the teachers' strikes. The 2016 election of Donald Trump did not have to happen. It was a tragedy that Democrats didn't nominate a truly progressive candidate.

For me, that candidate would have been Bernie Sanders. It was the case that in 2016 many Americans wanted to punch the establishment in the nose. Where Trump won, in places such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, proved that people were angry. But it was also the case that had the Democrats nominated someone with a vision, such as Bernie Sanders, I think he would have beaten Trump. Now the question is to what extent we can get this Democratic primary process moving in such a fashion that the most progressive candidate emerges victorious.

If you had to pick a moment or a year, when did things go so wrong in America as to make this moment with Donald Trump possible?

I believe it was 1946 and 1947. Franklin Roosevelt has passed away. The GIs are coming home from the war and they have great expectations. There was a great investment in public life. However, the tragedy was that President [Harry] Truman was not able to avoid the 1946 congressional defeat by the Republicans. That enabled the Republicans to pass the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. That law targeted working people and African-Americans, and in fact was specifically a way of preventing labor from organizing in the South. This meant that the possibilities to mobilize for civil rights were also stymied for many years.

That was not the end, of course. In the 1960s Lyndon Johnson becomes president and he becomes a far more progressive figure than Kennedy. He laid out his agenda for civil rights, voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid and the War on Poverty. Labor union leaders said, "Well, what about reforming labor law? We've got to do something about the Taft-Hartley Act. It stymies organizing, especially in the South." Unfortunately, Johnson fails to break the filibuster on labor law reform.

So there again, possibilities are stymied. Then Jimmy Carter is president — and he is one of the worst presidents imaginable, in my opinion. He turned his back on labor law reforms and consumer rights. Carter turned his back on the very things that Democrats put him in office to lead them on, regarding getting beyond the Nixon years. This continues to the present. The Democrats are supposed to be the party of working people in all their diversity, but the Democratic Party's leaders keep turning their back on that constituency and values. We are in a debacle right now in America because of that betrayal. That is how Donald Trump became president.

In hindsight, how do you assess Carter and his still much-discussed "Malaise Speech" of 1978 and what it foreshadowed?

My only reappraisal is that Jimmy Carter gets worse and worse in hindsight. Here's why. The so-called "Malaise Speech" — if you look not only at that speech, but at a series of speeches Carter gave during those months of 1978 — what one sees is Carter actually using a term that later came to be the favorite term of neoliberals. That term is "austerity." Carter actually talks about the imperative of austerity. Moreover, he talks about the importance of reducing taxes and regulations in order to "liberate" business and capital. In one swift move, President Carter basically turned on not only the FDR tradition but also the legacy of the Greatest Generation.

As a historian, how do you maintain a balance between the here and now and this national emergency with a longer-term view, the big picture?  

Americans are radicals at heart. That doesn't mean that they necessarily act in that fashion. They do require memory. They do require remembrance. They require inspiration. They require effective leaders who are going to speak to what it means to be an American and harness those kinds of sensibilities.

From the founding through the Civil War, the Great Depression and the war against fascism, in spite of all of the things left undone, Americans were able to confront their enemies and transcend the crises by making America freer, more equal and more democratic. This was done in a radical fashion — whether they perceived themselves doing so or not.

Of course, I am not denying exploitation and oppression. But for example, the founding basically created the makings of a democratic republic. For Lincoln to effectively lead the Union in the Civil War required him to be empowered by black slaves who were escaping the plantations in the South and making their way north so they could demand a role in the war effort against slavery. Northern farmers and workers who were in the Union Army confronting the South also had to witness and act upon the way that slavery was a denial of black people's humanity.

President Lincoln is empowered by that and therefore can sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a radical, revolutionary act. And then, in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt ran for president on a very progressive agenda, but his capacity to make things happen depended upon the impulses and the pressures from working-class people.

Now, with Trumpism the American people are in a moment where the question is whether political leaders in the Democratic Party, labor unions and what remains of the civil rights movement are going to be mobilized with the necessary energy to radicalize America and transcend this crisis.

Where is the resistance right now? All over the world people are resisting autocracy and authoritarianism by engaging in corporeal politics. They are out in the streets. Here in the United States, there is little to nothing of the sort on a mass scale. Is it learned helplessness?

I do not think this is a matter of spontaneity alone. Look at what happened here in Wisconsin. We had an uprising in 2011 in response to the Republican governor, Scott Walker, and the Republican legislature stripping public employees of our collective bargaining rights. One hundred thousand or more Wisconsinites marched at the State Capitol. We occupied the State Capitol for weeks. Where were the Democrats? Where was Barack Obama, who had promised to march with the workers who were out on strike?

The possibilities for mobilization and resistance are certainly there. There were also teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and other places one would not have expected. Even though the unions in those areas were weak, the people nevertheless rose up. The people were and continue to be ready to engage in collective action.  

There is a percolation of energy. But where are the leaders who are going to harness all those energies? But I'm not even sure if being out in the streets is specifically the way in which we go about making positive change happen right now. We're entering a campaign year. Let's see what happens in 2020. I don't mean waiting for Election Day either. What I am speaking of is mobilizing people behind a truly progressive candidate. If the Democrats send forward the likes of Joe Biden, then I could readily imagine the Democratic Party breaking up.

What are some lessons from American history about channeling the energy of discontent for positive change in support of a better democracy and society?

What kind of story do we tell about ourselves? Even more importantly, in order to articulate that kind of story, where are the voices that will speak to Americans by responding to the anxieties and the anger that they've been experiencing?

And I think that's what's been missing. Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama appeal to young people. By supporting Obama and Sanders, young people showed just how much they yearned to redeem the American promise. This is different from the American dream. That distinction is very important. The American promise is: What is this nation about? What does it mean to be an American? Sanders and Obama did not speak in those terms.

This is the idea that we have it in our power to begin the world over again. That is part of the American sensibility. But that doesn't mean it automatically gets energized. On one major occasion, Bernie Sanders spoke of Franklin Roosevelt, the better parts of Lyndon Johnson, and Martin Luther King when he described what democratic socialism actually means. Sanders spoke of FDR's call for an Economic Bill of Rights. That was a remarkable occasion. But again, Sanders then let that imperative go. So for example, when he ends up on the primary campaign trail, he's talking over and over again about Scandinavia.

The Clinton machine was so powerful in 2015 and 2016 that I don't think Sanders had a chance to win. But I can tell you this. In the same way that Sanders changed the public discourse and the public debate, he could have cultivated a narrative that would have empowered not only himself to run even more effectively in 2020, but would have given young people a sense of where they stood in American history. Such a story about America might have even appealed to those many people who voted for Trump because they felt abandoned by the Democrats.

It's the curse of centrism and electability. What do we do with those folks who would say, "I'm going with Joe Biden. I like Bernie. I agree with Elizabeth Warren. But they can't win. We got to go with somebody who can win."

All I can do is talk about history. I would tell such people the following: Look, we're in the midst of a crisis here in America. It has been 45 years of the Democrats running from the FDR tradition and the Greatest Generation's legacy, and what have we seen? Their achievements are under siege. You folks on the coasts are so keen on a centrist figure because it means you're not going to lose any of the status and income and wealth that you have. The time now is to speak to the nation as a whole — and out here, in Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, the kinds of things we need are serious, progressive and radical action. Joe Biden represents a dead end politically. The more Bernie can speak to what it means to be an American, I think the better off we're all going to be.

Why are so many in the mainstream news media and the Democratic Party focused obsessively on"white working class" voters? What are the risks of that? The white working class, especially white working-class men, are not the center of American life to the exclusion of so many other people and groups.

I don't see it that way. I'm a labor unionist. I know that the labor union movement today is probably the most diverse movement in America. We bring people today by empowering labor. In fact, I think it's in the midst of struggle that people come to see each other as brothers and sisters. I don't think people sit back in an intellectual fashion and try to determine whether somebody of another ethnic background or racial hue is their brother and sister.

I'm not into the idea of, "Let's just appeal to Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin white workers." I'm thinking in terms of, to what degree African-American and white and Latino brothers and sisters will find themselves in the labor movement and thus create a powerful movement unprecedented in American life.

Historically and to the present, white working-class and poor people choose the psychological wages of whiteness, and ally themselves with white elites, as opposed to standing together with black and brown brothers and sisters who have the same class interests. How do you overcome that reality?

Hence the argument around social democracy, I don't see an alternative to that, OK? I just don't. The working class in all its diversity is suffering the same kinds of troubles and anxieties and difficulties. Back in the 1930s, we heard a great deal about the divisions within the working class, black and white. But it's also worth remembering something.

There was something called the Housewives Movement. It was a phenomenon that the Roosevelt administration was very much aware of. In New York City, Jewish and Italian and black housewives were outraged at local businesses and corporate enterprises trying to gouge them. They organized a movement in which they protested and rallied. It spread like wildfire across the nation, including places like the Dakotas and California. Learning from that example, in many ways the best that we can do is mobilize around questions of economic trouble and social democratic possibilities.

That's to me the best hope we have. Working people, whatever color they are, whatever religion they belong to, whatever church they go to, they've got to confront these questions of food, clothing and shelter, and of trying to provide for what their family needs, trying to provide a decent life.

There's a promise in American life that has been too often hijacked and appropriated by the right. That has happened because conservatives want to deny the degree to which the struggles from below and the leadership of liberals and radicals and progressives and socialists has actually made the United States better. To me that is American exceptionalism. I'm not afraid of the truth. I think the problem is that the truth has been defined all too often by the powers that be, who --include not only Republicans and conservatives. It has included Democrats and "small-L liberals," not the fighting liberals of once upon a time. 

How do you locate Trumpism relative to the American story?

It's not original. We've seen it over and over again. We saw an earlier form of Trump in the campaigns on the part of white supremacists to destroy the advances African-Americans made during Reconstruction. We saw it even in the 1930s in the lynchings of black people. We also saw Trumpism when Irish Catholic thugs beat up Jewish elderly or Jewish kids in the streets of Boston or Brooklyn.

The shocking thing is that we had an election in 2016 in which the anger of many Americans overwhelmed their democratic sensibilities. We saw this in places like Wisconsin, where electing Donald Trump represented everything and then some to the needs of the white working class. Talk about irony and tragedy. The trick is, how do we as a country come back from that? The answer: We don't advance a centrist where most people will respond to by saying, "Don't give us more of the same. We don't want another Bill Clinton. We didn't want Hillary Clinton. What we want is somebody who's going to offer a vision and some kind of promise."

We need to be specific: The anger of white America elected Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton won by nearly 3 million votes. Racially resentful white voters, who on average make about $74,000 a year voted for Donald Trump. Those are not poor people. How does that kind of specificity help to explain how Trumpism captured the White House?

I think we underestimate the degree to which working people have a deep memory of who abandoned them. In the 1990s under the Clinton administration, working people — and I think this is true in not only so-called white working-class areas, but also in African American working-class areas too — the elite liberals of the Clinton administration abandoned working people. We saw it happen with the enactment of NAFTA, which was actually a Republican plan. We saw it in terms of mass incarceration.

We saw it in terms of the economic policies that allowed investment banks and commercial banks to come back together to basically dominate American financial life. Such a thing had not been allowed since 1933, when Roosevelt banned it by way of the Glass-Steagall Act. We saw it with the end of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Repeatedly in the 1990s, we saw the abandonment of working people, which also includes the working poor.  

What is social democracy? And how can the Democrats do a better job of explaining it?

Abraham Lincoln described it as, we create government to do for ourselves what we can't do by ourselves. Social democracy has also been described as "we harness the powers of democratic government to extend and deepen freedom, equality and democracy." And social democracy is a further expression of the very fundamental idea of democracy, whether it has to do with the idea of a civic realm or political democracy. Social democracy is taking those fundamental freedoms that we believe are essential to a good American life and extending them into areas of life where before they were excluded.

When we create a more social democratic America, we create a free and more equal and democratic nation. We also grant people more power in their public voice.

What are you most hopeful for and what are you most worried about, in the present and the near term?

I believe that there's a good chance we can elect, if not Bernie Sanders, maybe Elizabeth Warren. The possibility of a social democratic leader makes me hopeful.

My fear is that the Democrats, and also the American people in their own way, will fail themselves. I worry about four more years of Donald Trump. We are losing touch with what it means to be an American. This is a very dangerous time for America. If we do not find a way to not only push Donald Trump out of the White House, but also turn the House and the Senate blue, we're facing very difficult times, to the point where we in this country may actually lose complete touch with what it means to be an American.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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