Written by Col. Tom Snodgrass
It Long Predated Obama
Col. Tom Snodgrass (Ret.), Right Side News
Before liberalism described the leftist politics of the Democrat Party, leftist populism marched under the banner of “progressivism.” The timeframe of the emergence of progressivism in America can be traced to the publication of Edward Bellamy’s socialist novel Looking Backward in 1888. The novel’s story is set in the year 2000 and involves a utopian society that is run by central planners who manage an industrial army of workers with military efficiency. In Bellamy’s fantasy, an idyllic society excelled at fostering productivity and prosperity with a controlled economy that far outstripped free market capitalism. In such an economic setting of plenty, the fantasy society’s population derided the free market and “the age of individualism” of the past. The concepts of centralized economy and class warfare were extolled.
This novel was an extremely influential bestseller that engendered the ideas of “nationalization of industry,” “brotherhood of workers,” and “utopian economy.” The book was so far-reaching that religious preachers caught up in the fever of progressivism suddenly found socialism in Jesus’ teachings. As the 19th-century transitioned into the 20th-century, this leftist religious fervor of progressivism was wedded with the psychological confidence born of the heretofore unheard of scientific and technological advances that swept American society between the 1890s and the 1920s. In this dynamic environment, intellectuals and the political community organizers of the day saw societal flaws as injustices caused by capitalism and its “unfair” distribution of income. Class hatred was fanned to flame by such books as the Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, published in 1899, that ridiculed “acquisition of conspicuous affluence” by a greedy, conservative, leisure class.
The politician who took this class envy and infused it into the Democrat Party as the central and enduring organizing principle was William Jennings Bryan. Since its founding at the beginning of the 19th-century, the Democrat Party had advocated small-government that usually specialized in localized cronyism and crime as practiced by Boss Tweed in New York City’s Tammany Hall, but Bryan changed all that in the election campaign of 1896. In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan laid the blame for society’s ills on the railroads and the gold standard that “benefited the rich bankers.” He demanded economic and social change that would entail egalitarian redistribution of wealth. While there is little doubt that Bryan was a well-meaning individual, by expanding the Democrat Party’s political platform into regulation of national finance and commerce and the redistribution of wealth, he unwittingly opened doors into the potential for stifling governmental control and influence peddling corruption by national politicians. Furthermore, inherent in the wealth redistribution change demanded by Bryan was the abridgement of personal and economic freedom.
Ironically, the next politician to pick up the cudgel of societal progressivism was not a Democrat, but the Republican Teddy Roosevelt. In 1910 Roosevelt gave his famous “New Nationalism” speech wherein he envisioned an American economy extensively regulated by the federal government. He defended expansion of government regulation as “the triumph of a real democracy.” Obviously Roosevelt’s “real democracy” was a clear break with the vision of the U.S. founding fathers like James Madison, who believed that political and economic power should be dispersed rather than consolidated in order for the continuation of the republic to prevail. Additionally, as with William Jennings Bryan before him, Roosevelt came to believe that corporations and railroads concentrated too much wealth in too few hands. The former president believed that government should redistribute wealth in order to provide “a more substantial equality of opportunity.” Roosevelt also championed the graduated income tax on “big fortunes.” (Beware of Republicans like John McCain who hold up TR as the Republican model.) Teddy Roosevelt might be considered the founder of “Republicans in name only – RINOs.” TR formed the Progressive Party in 1912 as his vehicle to again run for president when he became disillusioned with the conservatism of his Republican presidential successor, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt’s entry in the 1912 presidential race split the Republican vote between him and Republican candidate Taft, thereby guaranteeing the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson with just 42% of the vote.
Woodrow Wilson is the next historical character that played an instrumental role in injecting the poisonous progressive ideology into the American political bloodstream. Wilson’s 1912 presidential campaign was essentially waiting for the Republicans to self-destruct; but in the 1916 campaign he had to rely on class warfare rhetoric to appeal to farmers and unions. As a two term Democrat president, Wilson set the federal government on the course of the enormous expansion of regulation of every citizen’s life that continues on to this day. Prior to Wilson taking the oath of office, federal government spending had only exceeded 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. By the time that Wilson left office, federal spending exceeded more than 20% of GDP. Wilson increased taxation to finance the growth of his expansive bureaucratic regulatory government that he largely justified by the “exigencies” of World War I. As America’s experience with the Wilson presidency clearly demonstrated, once government is expanded, whatever the justification, it is difficult to impossible to dismantle the new bureaucracy.
Following the rather austere eight years of the Republican presidencies of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge in terms of government growth during the 1920s, the Republican administration of Herbert Hoover again put the government on the path of growth, ostensibly to reinvigorate the economy suffering from the “Great Depression.” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” tremendously expanded upon the big government programs of the Hoover administration using Woodrow Wilson’s emergency crisis precedent to grow government beyond anything previously even imagined. FDR financed New Deal programs by more than tripling federal taxes between 1933 and 1940 from $1.6 billion to $5.3 billion. Excise taxes that made poor people and the middle class the victims of the New Deal were the big revenue producers for the government. These taxes were levied on cigarettes, matches, candy, chewing gum, margarine, fruit juice, soft drinks, cars, tires (including tires on wheelchairs), telephone calls, movie tickets, playing cards, electricity, and radios. Although FDR made no secret of his class-warfare-desire to “tax the rich,” his excise taxes on the poor and middle class exceeded the revenue from personal and corporate income taxes on “the rich” during FDR’s entire first term, and it wasn’t until the middle of World War II, ten years into FDR’s presidency, that individual income taxes finally surpassed excise taxes in generating government revenue. The New Deal should have brought home to those claiming to help the common man with government welfare that it is always the common man who ends up paying the bill. But the myth of New Deal efficacy in administering government “fairness” was made “conventional wisdom” over the decades by a “progressive media,” in spite of a mountain of countervailing economic evidence. The end result was that the New Deal firmly established class warfare rhetoric as an accepted tactic in Democrat political campaigns.
In his book The Last Campaign, Zachary Karabell writes: “It was a campaign of us and them, of anger and bitterness, of the haves and have-nots. Truman fought to lead the country for another four years, and to achieve that victory he was willing to sow dissension, stir up fear, and slander his opponents.”
As a politician, Harry Truman was characterized as “the nasty virtuoso of crude populism.” He played on that populism to continue to build on FDR’s social welfare state with his “Fair Deal” programs. However, to the relief of most Americans during the terms of the two presidents succeeding Truman, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat John F. Kennedy, there was a welcome hiatus from class warfare.
Leftist “Progressives” Become Leftist “Liberals”
It was in the period of the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies that the terms “progressive” and “progressivism” were discredited with the American people because of their association with Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party. Wallace formed a “Progressive” third party in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt in his unsuccessful bid to defeat Truman for the support of the U.S. political left in the 1948 presidential contest. Wallace had been FDR’s Vice-President in FDR’s third term, but he was dumped from the ticket and replaced by Truman in the 1944 election because of his unabashed support for Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. By 1948, the Cold War had heated up to the point that it was clear to the American people that the Soviets were our new existential enemy, and it was also clear that Wallace’s Progressive Party, a creation of the Soviet Communist Party, was in being solely to oppose rearmament of the U.S. military in the face of increasing Soviet Communist aggression. In order to escape odious association with America’s Soviet enemy, U.S. leftist “progressives” now became “liberals.” But the only thing that really changed was their name, not their ideology of large-scale government intervention to manage the American citizens’ daily economic and social lives. Hence, American leftist liberalism was born to hide leftist progressivism’s affiliation with Stalinism. The Democrat liberalism of today bears absolutely no relationship to 19th-century classical liberalism and the liberties it embodied.
“Liberalism” emerged as a political term in the early 1800s and was characterized by belief in individual rights that encompassed political equality, civil liberties (franchise, speech, assembly), freedom of conscience and thought, rule of law, limited, pluralistic government, private property, and free-market economics. This body of thought was actually what is termed “classical liberalism,” and its underlying theme was constant, orderly “progress.” Classical liberalism of the 19th-century can be intellectually attributed to ideas of the 17th-century Age of Reason and of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment. In terms of economic intellectual heritage, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was central to liberalism’s concept of commercial freedom and free market economics. Obviously, classic liberalism is the exact antithesis of today’s leftist liberalism.
In other developments related to the progressive to liberal name change, the term “New Left” was adopted in the 1960s for the same reason, that is, to disassociate U.S. leftists/ progressives/ liberals/ socialists/ communists/ marxists from the “Stalinist Old Left.” And in an ironic postscript to history, when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Henry Wallace renounced the Progressive Party and the Soviet Union, backed the U.S. Korean War effort, supported Eisenhower’s presidential candidacy, and admitted his misplaced trust of Stalin in his book, Where I Was Wrong. In effect, Wallace rejected both progressivism and the follow-on red herring liberalism.
Class warfare and its attendant growth of social welfare programs and taxes resumed with a vengeance during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ had studied class warfare as a congressman in the 1930s and 1940s at the knee of the master, FDR, and he made his “War on Poverty” a crusade based on class envy and wealth redistribution. Between 1964 and 2010, War on Poverty spending on means-tested welfare has amounted to $16.7 trillion in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars. In contrast, all military wars in American history have totaled $6.4 trillion, also in
inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars. Federal spending per poor person has risen 900% from $1,625 to $14,848 in constant dollars since LBJ initiated the War on Poverty. Clearly poverty is winning. Were the War on Poverty an actual shooting war, Democrat liberals would have already declared defeat and would be clamoring to surrender.
The presidential administrations between LBJ and Bill Clinton, 1969-1993, were largely consumed with international crises and developments like the Vietnam War, the Arab oil embargo, the Panama Canal Treaty negotiations, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage ordeal, the increase of Islamic terrorism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Desert Storm. Consequently, there was not a great deal of attention or political space available for class warfare and expansion of the welfare state beyond the automatic increases built into the system through baseline budgeting (in baseline budgeting, the next year budget is computed using the current year budget x the inflation rate x the population growth rate – obviously an insane way to do financial planning).
Bill Clinton ran for president as an anti-class warfare “new Democrat” who promised to cut middle class taxes, reduce domestic spending, end welfare “as we know it,” and support capital punishment. Clinton was held to his welfare reform campaign promise when he did finally sign a welfare reform bill on the third time it was sent to his desk by a Newt Gingrich led Republican congress. In truth, it was the coming 1996 election that convinced Clinton it was in his best political interest not to veto welfare reform yet again. On the other side of the ledger, his principal foray into class warfare territory was unsuccessfully attempting to pass a universal healthcare bill, AKA “Hillarycare.” While Clinton might not have been an avid class warrior, he was an ardent culture warrior who advocated for abortion on demand, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, and women in combat, to name a few. These controversial cultural warfare issues proved every bit as divisive as class warfare issues. Cultural warriors tend to divide along the same lines as they do in class warfare.
After the 2012 presidential election there is little need to reiterate the class warfare record of President Barack H. Obama for anyone who has been paying attention. Suffice to say that BHO is a vicious Democrat Party class warrior in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, and LBJ.
Class warfare has been a winning campaign tactic and issue for the Democrat Party for the past one hundred years since the election of Wilson in 1912. Consequently, there is no reason to expect any change in the Democrat Party’s practice of class warfare in the future.
Class warfare is motivated by malicious envy, which is not a difficult emotion to provoke in the human psyche. “Fairness” and “social justice” are the terms the Democrats use to make their minions feel that their hatred is justified and actually virtuous. Because the tenets of leftist liberalism cannot stand up to intellectual examination, e.g., taxing the rich creates prosperity for everyone, liberalism (and progressivism before it) must frame arguments in terms of “good and evil,” not in terms of logic and results. Conservatives believe liberal principles are wrong, liberals believe conservative principles (and conservatives) are evil.
Envy is probably the most demonic emotion because it can cause such nihilistic thinking as, “If I can’t have what you have, then you can’t have it either.” An envious person is not just resentful of others, an envious person also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Finally, envy is a passion that is not difficult to sustain because once a person is infected with envy, it yields no satisfaction, no security, and no peace. There is no end to envy, and so there will be no end to the Democrat Party’s class warfare.
Col. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired), earned a Master of Arts degree in history, with minors in political science and anthropology, at the University of Texas, Austin, on an Air Force Institute Of Technology Civilian Institutions scholarship. Subsequently he taught history and political science at the Air Force Academy, CO, Air War College, AL, Troy State University, AL, University of Miami, FL, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, AZ.