This morning I was reading further into a biography of Frances Perkins*. For those who’ve never heard of her (like me before someone recommended the biography), Perkins was FDR’s Secretary of Labor. She was the heart, soul, and brains behind most of what came to be called the New Deal. For all her uncredited accomplishments, and for all the obstacles she had to overcome and sacrifices she chose to make, I was struck by two things. First, that the New Deal wasn’t some attempt at creating a left-wing, working-class utopia. It was a very sober campaign of creating institutionalized safety nets and long overdue regulatory regimes, and it was only made possible by the catastrophic global failures of the capitalist systems that had been allowed to run more or less rampant through the first quarter of the 20th Century. In other words, Frances Perkins wasn’t some wild-eyed progressive visionary; she was a pious, very conventional middle-class Protestant with an almost apolitical sense of fairness and justice. In a sense, only she had the intellect, and the appropriately liberal sensibilities and somewhat conservative social orientation, to gather in the compromises necessary to make the reforms of the New Deal possible; this was why FDR leaned so heavily on her and gave her so much authority.
The second thing that struck me was the part I got to this morning, wherein Frances Perkins became instrumental in setting up some of the bureaucratic mechanisms that eventually blossomed into the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunts. Kirsten Downey makes clear that Perkins found the whole process distasteful and ripe for abuse (even before McCarthy and his ilk got deeply involved), but her own anti-communist sensibilities possibly outranked her sense of fairness.
I’m left thinking about Chris Hedges’s indictment of what he labels “the liberal class.” The McCarthy witch hunts were neither the first nor the last campaigns of organized political purges of leftist activism in the U.S. According to Hedges, over time the liberal class– academics, theologians, and even some politicians– sold out the communists, socialists, anarchists, and other political and philosophical radicals who’d been the most energetic and creative opponents of the capitalist excesses that had kept the majority of U.S. citizens struggling to stay out of poverty and degradation.
If even one of the most effective liberal policy makers in our country’s history– Frances Perkins– couldn’t leave off or take a solid stand against the commie-bashing that was a flimsy cover for gutting the left of its heart, soul, and spine, then perhaps the liberal class’s fate was inevitable. Perhaps this was never really a progressive liberal nation, at least not in the way ostensibly envisioned by the sort of liberals who have supported the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Perhaps all the liberal hand-wringing over ‘Republican obstructionism’ and ‘holding Obama’s/the Democrats’ feet to the fire’ is irrelevant. This not a progressive country; it’s a reactionary liberal one, at best. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can strategize how to move beyond it, if such a move is possible.
*(I suggest you find a copy of Downey’s book and read it. Her apparently centrist liberal viewpoint was a little annoying to me at first, but the information she very capably lays down is invaluable.)