So I was about to hijack @madrassoup‘s post, but then I realized I should just make a new one…
I think it says a lot about the way this country operates that the only time in the past near-century that we’ve had a straight-up leftist in the White House
(I don’t really know how to categorize Wilson)
is during a period of national and international disaster, and it was bordering on a democratic version of President-for-life. The New Deal simply would not have lasted beyond a few terms if there was any truly viable opposition – which there couldn’t be, because FDR won four terms during the Great Depression and died during World War II, and there just weren’t opportunities for reactionaries and conservatives to really stem those policies for a couple more decades. All the Democrats that followed as POTUS have been profoundly limited in their liberalism. FDR didn’t want Truman as VP because he was quite centrist, but he was also chosen by the party for that reason; JFK didn’t have a whole lot of policy practice, and won not because of his positions but the overall aura. Then there are the southerners, who are perceived as ‘moderate’ by default: LBJ relentlessly positioned himself as conservative and didn’t expose his liberalism until he was actually in the White House; Carter’s leftist leanings were primarily directed internationally; Bill Clinton of course was far and away the most centrist post-war Democrat nominated for president. Obama, like LBJ, turned out far more progressive in office than as a candidate. FDR, Carter, and Obama all were elected in following times of immense national distress; Truman and LBJ both came in due to the death of the sitting president; Clinton only won because the conservative vote was split.
Progressivism only gets to the point of national impact when the national situation is utter shit. Meanwhile, reactionaries are perceived and treated as moderate, even against all possible evidence. The least reactionary Republican president post-WWII was probably Bush #1, and he came in as VP and was ousted by a conservative split. Somehow, our society is primed for conservativism, so reactionaries come across as… conservative, not regressive.
Ultimately, I think this is because the U.S. is fundamentally far more libertarian than it will ever be liberal. That’s how it was created – by people who didn’t want to pay taxes but also relied on free labor, by people buying ‘freedom’ through genocidal expansion and chattel slavery. That’s the DNA. When liberals and progressives talk about the promise within the founding of the country, that is in fact revisionist interpretation – appealing to the best possible angels, rather than the hard fact of who the founders were and what they envisioned. Progressiveness as a political function in the U.S. is by nature revisionist, and visionary.
Add to which, progressives and liberals as organized bodies alike tend towards the painfully complacent as soon as someone on their side is in power. When was the last time you saw the DNC really putting out for a non-POTUS race during a non-POTUS year? When was the last time the left has engaged in non-stop local mobilization to legislatively change society from the bottom up, the way that the right has? It doesn’t, ever – it unfailingly relies on the labor of oppressed groups who have to fight back against both the oppression and indifference, and then takes that up as a catalyst. The many civil rights movements that have defined ‘the Left’ are not leftist movements, or even progressive, if you think of those categories as political divisions; they are the work of the groups themselves who lack rights. The rest of the left is the indifferent liberal described by MLK, that is only occasionally galvanized to take action, and typically only in limited/incomplete terms (e.g. same-sex marriage, yay! workplace protections for queer people, eh; abortion is still legal, access is frequently non-existent; we have a Black POTUS, but whoops, you’ve got a really great chance of being shot by the police for breathing while Black).
Really, we’ve never had a meaty leftist agenda except during honest-to-God national catastrophes. Emancipation ultimately took civil war; labor victories took children working in slaughterhouses to get started and an unprecedented (and sadly never really recreated) socialist movement to become law; the most basic of social services took the Great Depression; the Civil Rights legislative victories of the ‘60s took the televising of Jim Crow and was enabled in large part by the lingering trauma of a president’s assassination. And there hasn’t been any *new* leftist agenda since the Great Society, only efforts to regain lost ground (even the ACA was only trying to redress losses due to deregulation and whatnot).
A lot of this obviously has to do with our version of capitalism – it’s unavoidable when, again, the basis for the country’s existence is chattel slavery. Neoconservativism and neoliberalism, both of which are expressly capitalist undertakings, have dominated policy for decades; since this type of capitalism is fundamentally anti-society, progressivism has no recourse but to support the lesser of two evils lest the greater evil never be undone. When the Left becomes a place for moderates, everything inches towards the right because the only other options for the progressives (third party, protest voting) are inhumane, putting the most vulnerable of society at even greater risk.
So we’re stuck. Is progressivism even possible as a national principle? We can’t fight against moderacy unless most people can be convinced to fight towards progressivism every day; indifference and regression, the friends of reactionaries, don’t require any effort.