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ISR Issue 51, January–February 2007

A historical perspective
Where have all the liberals gone?


I welcome their hatred.
—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, commenting on corporate hostility
toward New Deal reforms in his 1936 reelection campaign.1

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
—President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union Address, declaring a “war on poverty” that led to the creation of such social programs as Head Start, food stamps, work/study, Medicare, and Medicaid.2

[T]his legislation provides an historic opportunity to end welfare as we know it and
transform our broken welfare system by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and family.

—President Bill Clinton, while signing the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, ending “welfare as we know it.”3

It’s absolutely the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
—Presidential candidate John Kerry, responding to a moderator who accused him of being a liberal during a Democratic Party candidate debate on February 29, 2004.4

THE QUOTES above illustrate the chronology of the rise and decline of liberalism as a political force in the United States since the 1930s. This article aims to examine the dynamics of that history.

“Liberalism” itself is an amorphous term, encompassing a broad range of political and economic currents. Whereas liberal reformists in Europe built social democratic and labor parties to fight for structural reforms, including nationalized health care, the brand of liberalism practiced in the U.S. has never been nearly so ambitious. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, U.S. liberal organizations have remained firmly tied to the coattails of the Democratic Party, a self-proclaimed capitalist party—traditionally straying no further left than the Democrats are willing to permit. And like the Republicans, the Democratic Party has always been hostile to a genuine welfare state.

The Democrats represent one of two wings of ruling class opinion, but for the last century have maintained the loyalty of liberals as a “lesser evil” to the Republicans. But without the pressure of a labor or social democratic party to its left, the Democratic Party remains in political competition only with the Republican Party, to its right.

Liberal support for the other war party

Moreover, liberalism in the U.S. has never forged a principled opposition to U.S. imperialism, given its fealty to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, like its Republican counterpart, is a prowar party. The Democrats have never wavered from principled support for the aims of U.S. imperialism—whatever weak-kneed rhetoric they offer to the contrary. Indeed, most of the United States’ twentieth century wars were initiated by Democrats, not Republicans.

As Democrat John F. Kennedy commented on receiving the New York Liberal Party presidential nomination on September 14, 1960,

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.”5

Democratic President Woodrow Wilson campaigned against U.S. involvement in the First World War, winning mass liberal support when running for re-election in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Once re-elected, however, Wilson adopted a new slogan: war would “make the world safe for democracy.” He declared war against Germany in April 1917.6

On October 30, 1940, on the eve of his third-term election, Roosevelt promised, “And while I am talking to you, fathers and mothers, I give you once more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again, and again, and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”7

By the time of that impassioned speech, Roosevelt had already set the U.S. war machine in motion. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson noted in his diary on November 25, 1941, “The question [at the White House] was how we should maneuver [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing danger to ourselves.”8 Less than two weeks later, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provided the immediate justification for the U.S. to enter the war. The Second World War killed fifty-five million people, the majority civilians.9 Yet both the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) agreed to no-strike pledges to support the war.

The first significant presidential act of Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, was to order two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing an estimated 200,000 Japanese. Truman went on to launch the Korean War in 1950. As early as 1951, a Gallup poll showed 66 percent of Americans wanted U.S. troops to pull out of the Korean War. In 1952, 51 percent agreed that it was a “mistake” to intervene in Korea at all. Nevertheless, no movement materialized against the war, which killed roughly five million people—four million of them Korean civilians.

Campaigning for election in 1964, Democratic candidate Lyndon B. Johnson pledged, “We are not about to send American boys 9,000 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”10 Within months, Johnson escalated U.S. troop involvement in the Vietnam War. Yet the 1965 AFL-CIO convention passed the following resolution: “The labor movement proclaim[s] to the world that the nation’s working men and women do support the Johnson administration in Vietnam.”11 Only in 1970, after the rise of a mass antiwar movement and continuing bloodshed in Vietnam did Walter Reuther, the AFL-CIO’s vice president, finally urge Nixon, “We must mobilize for peace rather than wider theaters of war.”12

The administration of George H.W. Bush initiated the first major twentieth century wars under a Republican president: the invasion of Panama in 1989, followed by the much larger invasion of Iraq in 1991.

The election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 did not mark a departure from, but a continuation of, U.S. imperial aims set by the first Bush administration. By December 1991, Clinton the candidate had made it clear he would not hesitate to use military power to advance U.S. interests: “To protect our interests and our values, sometimes we have to stand and fight.” Historian Andrew J. Bacevich remarked, “On this point, Clinton proved true to his word; as president, he intervened with greater frequency in more places for more varied purposes than any of his predecessors.”13

Before launching the U.S./NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999, Clinton had already sent U.S. forces into combat situations forty-six times. This figure compares to twenty-six times for Presidents Ford (four), Carter (one), Reagan (fourteen) and Bush I (seven) combined. Clinton’s foreign policy picked up where Bush left off. His administration continued Bush’s 1992 invasion of Somalia, invaded Haiti in 1994, bombed Serbia in 1995 and 1999, and Sudan and Afghanistan in 1997.14

Clinton’s approach to Iraq, likewise, differed little from his Republican predecessor (or successor). Under Clinton’s watch, the U.S. (and Britain) bombed Iraq’s “no-fly zone” regularly for eight years, killing many hundreds of Iraqi civilians. And the U.S.-sponsored sanctions against Iraq killed well over a million Iraqis in the decade after 1991. On May 12, 1996, on a rare occasion when the media reported the sanctions’ death toll, Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked by Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And—you know—is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”15

In 1998, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, advocating regime change: “It should be the policy of the United States to seek to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace the regime.” That regime change would be carried out by his successor, George W. Bush in 2003.

Clutching the coattails of the Democratic Party

At virtually every major historical crossroad in the last century, the political direction of liberalism in the U.S. has been determined by both the immediate and long-term aims of the Democratic Party establishment. Liberals in the U.S. are, by and large, “liberal Democrats,” beholden each election day to voting for the “lesser evil”—even if they must hold their noses to do so. Thus, the political parameters of the Democratic Party define those of U.S. liberalism at any given point.

It is therefore necessary to understand the major political swings of the Democratic Party—which reflect the consensus of the entire ruling class—in order to appreciate the political evolution of liberalism that has led to its current demise.

Despite numerous twists and turns, there have been only two sweeping realignments among U.S. rulers since the 1930s: 1) the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition that emerged during the Great Depression and remained the dominant political ruling coalition for the next four decades; 2) the rise of neoliberalism in the mid-1970s, which continues today, in which Democrats compete with the dominant Republican Party in dismantling the remaining New Deal reforms.

The New Deal Coalition

The 1930s marked a turning point in U.S. history. The wave of class struggle that built the labor movement during that era also finally forced U.S. capital to grant its first major legislative concessions to the working class. When Roosevelt faced re-election in 1935, he did so in the context of the rising CIO, a product of a rapidly spreading strike wave. Roosevelt responded by granting two far-reaching concessions to workers in 1935. He pushed through the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), finally making it illegal for employers to refuse to bargain with unions. He also secured passage of the Social Security Act, by which the U.S. government agreed to provide a minimal standard of living for the poorest families and for the elderly.

These concessions earned Roosevelt his legendary status as an ally of the working class. But these reforms, while important, were a calculated move to capture the loyalty of the ascending labor movement for the Democratic Party.

Nor was the New Deal Coalition a primarily “progressive” formation. From the beginning, its Southern wing was composed of die-hard segregationist Democrats who participated only on the condition that the system of Southern white supremacy was preserved. To appease the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, Roosevelt allowed the National Recovery Administration to legalize racial discrimination in jobs and wages practiced in the South, and to generalize it to all U.S. industry.16

As historians Joel Rogers and Thomas Ferguson described,

At the center of [the New Deal Coalition] were not millions of farmers, Blacks and poor that have preoccupied liberal commentators, nor even the masses of employed or striking workers who pressured the government from below (and later helped implement some of the New Deal’s achievements) but something else—a new power bloc of capital-intensive industries, investment banks, and internationally oriented commercial banks.17

The New Deal Coalition, however, did represent a new consensus among America’s rulers that preserving social peace required the government to maintain at least a minimal commitment to curbing the worst excesses of class inequality that characterized U.S. capitalism until that point. This involved acknowledging the government’s responsibility to aid the poorest of the poor through welfare relief; to provide a minimum standard of living for the elderly and disabled through Social Security; and finally accepting (however grudgingly) the existence of labor unions.

As such, the working-class upheavals of the 1930s succeeded in shifting the balance of class forces for the next four decades. The New Deal Coalition recognized this fact and understood that the reforms of the 1930s could not be dismantled over the short term without provoking another rise in struggle. Indeed, the top income tax rate rose to 91 percent during the Second World War and stayed there until 1964.

Liberals and the New Deal Coalition

CIO leaders embraced the opportunity to organize the unorganized when the Democratic Party shifted left in the 1930s under the auspices of the New Deal—but also actively obstructed the rise of a labor party to represent working-class interests in opposition to both corporate parties.

In 1936, as Roosevelt faced reelection, the sentiment for a labor party was strongest among those workers at the forefront of the union struggle. The 1936 United Auto Workers (UAW) convention, for example, voted overwhelmingly to “actively support and give assistance to the formation of a National Farmer Labor Party.” Even more significantly, after a heated debate, UAW delegates voted down a resolution supporting Roosevelt for President.18

Facing a mutiny in their ranks, CIO leaders reacted quickly and decisively. Adolph Germer, CIO president John L. Lewis’s personal representative, simply pulled the UAW leaders aside and explained that either the convention would agree to support Roosevelt or the CIO would revoke the UAW’s funding to organize the auto industry. Once UAW president Homer Martin explained to the delegates that the vote would have to be reversed “because of the effect it may have on the future of our Organization,” the convention quickly passed a new motion in support of Roosevelt.19

CIO leaders were equally devious in gaining working-class votes for Roosevelt’s re-election. Worried that socialist traditions among the thousands of New York’s garment workers would prevent them from voting Democrat, the CIO formed a pseudo-labor party in 1936. Its name, the American Labor Party, implied it was both national in scope and non-partisan. But it was neither. The American Labor Party existed almost exclusively in New York; while running its own local candidates, the party channeled all its votes to Roosevelt’s campaign.20

Just one decade later, at the end of the Second World War, Democratic President Harry Truman launched an anti-communist witch-hunt to purge radicals from mainstream U.S. society—a crusade that lasted more than a decade. Liberals did not resist, but instead joined, the anti-communist crusade.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—created to defend the right to free speech and individual liberty—was one of the first liberal organizations to conduct its own internal campaign against communism. In 1940, the ACLU’s Board of Trustees expelled veteran labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from her elected position on the board—simply for being a member of the Communist Party. Just one year earlier, the ACLU had published the pamphlet, Why We Defend Free Speech for Nazis, Fascists and Communists. Worse still, leading members of the ACLU played the role of informers throughout the 1950s, tipping off the FBI about anyone who approached them to express hostility to McCarthyism.21

The labor movement equally embraced Truman’s anti-communist crusade. At the 1949 CIO convention, leader Philip Murray called communists “skulking cowards...apostles of hate...lying out of the pits of their dirty bellies.”22 By 1950, the CIO expelled eleven communist-led unions, amounting to roughly 20 percent of its membership—nearly 250,000 workers.23

Expanding the New Deal in the 1960s

The political winds began to shift leftward by the 1960s. Facing the pressure of the rising Civil Rights movement, President Lyndon Johnson aimed to expand the New Deal reforms begun in the 1930s. As journalist Laura Flanders wrote,

“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty but to cure it, and above all to prevent it,” declared President Lyndon B. Johnson in his State of the Union address, Jan. 8, 1964. The Economic Opportunity Act that followed established the Office of Economic Opportunity [OEO-eds.], which coordinated Head Start, a national job corps, legal services, family planning, community health centers and many of the other poverty-fighting initiatives signed into law by LBJ.24

Indeed, when right-wing Republican Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he faced the pressures of radical social movements—the Black Power movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s and gay liberation movements—alongside a rise in class struggle. The New Deal Coalition—and Johnson’s commitment to fighting poverty—remained Washington’s modus operandi.

As Noam Chomsky observed, “[W]hen Richard Nixon—in many respects the last liberal president—declared a drug war in 1971, two-thirds of the funding went to treatment, which reached record numbers of addicts; there was a sharp drop in drug-related arrests and number of federal prison inmates, as well as crime rates.”25

Nixon was unable to immediately dismantle the war on poverty in the political climate inherited from Johnson and was instead forced to continue it. Nixon chose Donald Rumsfeld to play a key role not in the Vietnam War but rather in federal anti-poverty programs—in the hope that he would undermine them. As Flanders explained,

No one disliked the program more than then-President Richard Nixon, who saw the whole apparatus as a government way to fund the left. Upon his election, Nixon appointed Rumsfeld to direct the OEO. Rumsfeld, in turn, hired Dick Cheney. It was at OEO that they worked together for the first time.26

Reversing course: From New Deal liberalism to neoliberalism

Democrat Jimmy Carter did not resurrect the war on poverty when he was elected president in 1976. Instead, his administration began to dismantle it in ways Nixon could only have imagined. No sooner had Carter taken office than he endorsed the Hyde Amendment, cutting off federal funding for poor women’s abortions—which has never been restored.

Carter defended the Hyde Amendment as a necessary consequence of class society: “There are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t. But I don’t believe the federal government should take action to try to make these opportunities exactly equal, particularly when there is a moral factor involved.”27

The Washington consensus was changing—dramatically. The year 1974 witnessed a political crisis for U.S. rulers, when Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment for his role in the Watergate burglary scandal.

By the mid-1970s, the U.S. ruling class had reached a critical turning point, extending far beyond the depravities of Richard Nixon. The world’s largest military power had been defeated in Vietnam, a war that killed two million Vietnamese and 58,000 U.S. soldiers, and was humiliated by a massive antiwar movement at home.

U.S. rulers also faced a crisis of falling profits for U.S. corporations. While the U.S. had been pouring investment into producing weaponry, its economic competitors, Japan and Germany in particular, had been investing in manufacturing—outstripping U.S. manufacturing productivity by the 1970s. The recession of 1973 signaled the onset of economic crisis for U.S. capital, as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers described:

At the bottom line, profits of U.S. firms declined after 1965 and failed throughout the next 15 years to regain their early 1960s levels. Annual net investment in plant and equipment followed suit, falling from an average 4 percent of GNP during 1966–70 to 3.1 percent over 1971–75 and 2.9 percent over 1976–80. Productivity suffered in turn, as the annual growth of output per worker employed in non-residential business fell from 2.45 percent over 1948–73 to 0.08 percent over 1973–79.28

In 1974 and 1975, a group of CEOs assembled under the neutral auspices of the “Conference Board” to brainstorm for the future. One corporate leader summed up the sense of the attendees when he said, “We have been hoist with our own petard. We have raised expectations that we can’t deliver on.”29

The consensus was that business interests should unite to shift the balance of class forces back toward capital by aggressively lowering working-class “expectations.” This required dramatically lowering working-class living standards—that is, increasing the level of class inequality. Democrats joined Republicans in embracing a neoliberal agenda—which was “liberal” only in economic terms: promoting the freedom of capital from government regulation and union restraints, in the U.S. and around the world.

In the mid-1970s, BusinessWeek summarized the challenge that lay ahead: “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that business can have more…. Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality.”30

Wages had risen steadily throughout most of the 1960s. By 1974 real wages began to fall. By 1980, the downward trend began to accelerate. The gap between rich and poor had continued to close until 1973, when trends started to reverse.31 They have been in reverse ever since.

In inflation-adjusted terms, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) payments fell by 29 percent between 1969 and 1981, the year Ronald Reagan took office.32 Taxes followed a regressive route over roughly the same period: between 1965 and 1975 corporate income taxes declined as a percentage of gross federal receipts from 21.8 percent to 14.6 percent, while personal income taxes for the bottom tenth of the population tripled and the next lowest tenth more than doubled.33

The New Deal Coalition imploded in the mid-1970s, when Democrats joined their Republican counterparts in clamoring for a social program that would openly attack workers’ living standards and organization, while conjuring up images of overpaid union workers and freeloading poor people. An employers’ offensive against workers was underway years before Republican Ronald Reagan took office in 1980.

Yet union leaders continued to cling to familiar collaborationist methods honed in the New Deal era. In 1979, the Carter administration intervened to rescue the smallest of the Big Three automakers, Chrysler, from bankruptcy. Although the UAW agreed to concessions amounting to $200 million, Congress refused to give Chrysler its $1.2 billion loan guarantee unless workers gave concessions totaling $462 million. This included a wage freeze and giving up seventeen days paid vacation. By the next contract Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca was back demanding more concessions, which this time totaled $673 million—including a pay cut of $1.15 per hour and the loss of three more vacation days. By 1985, when Chrysler had been restored to profitability, Iacocca had risen to the second highest paid U.S. executive, with a salary of $11.4 million.34 All told, Chrysler cut 50,000 jobs.35

The Chrysler bailout marked the beginning of a new era in collective bargaining—and union membership has been in a downward spiral ever since, falling to less than 8 percent of the private sector workforce in 2005.

The employers’ offensive could not have succeeded in its aims without an ideological assault on the social movements that had shifted the political climate so far to the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Carter administration oversaw the first attacks on the right to abortion and affirmative action, firing the opening shots in what would become a relentless pursuit under Ronald Reagan.

The neoliberal Democrat dismantles the New Deal, and liberals follow

Class inequality predictably escalated during Reagan’s eight years and the four years of his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush. But Democratic President Bill Clinton, elected in 1992, hammered the nail in the coffin of the New Deal Coalition.

Clinton pledged to ”put people first” and end the misery caused by “12 years of trickle-down economics” while on the campaign trail in 1992. But Clinton was a new breed of Democrat, at the helm of a conservative Democratic Party faction that formed the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in 1985 to break the Democratic Party’s identification with so-called “special interests”—organized labor, civil rights, and other traditionally liberal causes. Clinton sought to dismantle the New Deal, once and for all. As he assured BusinessWeek while campaigning, “I want to generate a lot of millionaires.”36

One of Clinton’s first accomplishments as president was the successful ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. Deregulation and open markets were the watchwords of the Clinton administration, and protests from labor and environmentalists did not get in the way. “NAFTA established ‘free trade’ as the holy writ of the Clinton-Gore foreign economic strategy,” Lance Selfa noted in the International Socialist Review.37 Clinton went on to pursue other free trade initiatives—including the 1994 ratification of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the 2000 approval of “permanent normal trade relations” with China, further advancing the cause of unbridled corporate greed around the globe.

But welfare reform was Clinton’s domestic trump card, as he made good on his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” In 1994, he transformed AFDC into a temporary program requiring all able-bodied recipients to go to work after two years. In 1996, facing reelection, Clinton signed the Republican-sponsored Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, extinguishing the hallmark of the New Deal by relieving the government of any responsibility to care for the poor, limiting poor women and children to a five-year lifetime limit.

Clinton succeeded in shifting the political parameters of mainstream discourse, as the Democratic Party lurched rightward in the 1990s. Yet liberal organizations continued to support Clinton as he embraced a range of conservative domestic policies.

The feminist movement never protested against Clinton, even as he allowed the erosion of legal abortion and dismantled welfare for poor women and children. Most gay rights organizations maintained their loyalty even after Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, banning same-sex marriage. The collapse of liberalism as a force during the Clinton era allowed mainstream politics to shift rightward in the years before Bush took office in 2001. The Defense of Marriage Act paved the way for Bush’s more draconian proposal for a federal ban on gay marriage, while the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made more palatable the more repressive Patriot Act passed after September 11, 2001.

Likewise, no significant antiwar movement materialized to protest Clinton’s so-called humanitarian invasions that paved the way for U.S. imperialism’s post 9-11 wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Liberalism was extinguished as a political force well before George W. Bush took office in 2001. The Democrats’ failure to offer an aggressive opposition to the corruption of the Bush administration enabled all of Bush’s post 9-11 policies.

Even after the voter rebellion of 2006 that swept Democrats back into the majority party in Congress, there is so far little indication that the party’s powerbrokers have plans to shift their neoliberal course.

In a November 30 interview on CNN, former (and possibly future) presidential candidate John Kerry called for a “bipartisan” solution when asked by news anchor Wolf Blitzer whether the Democrats would seek to obstruct Bush’s Iraq War policies, “I’d really prefer to see all of us come together and work with the president in a cooperative way if we can, to sort of have a good discussion about this. Let’s not get locked into positions that are just so intractable that we can’t advance American interests.”38

On the domestic front, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank assured business interests soon after the November 7 election that swept his party to victory, “I’m a capitalist, and that means I’m for inequality…. But you reach a point where you get more inequality than is healthy, and I believe we’re at that point. What we want to do is to look at public policies that’ll get some bigger share of the increased wealth into wages, and in return you’ll see Democrats as internationalists.... I really urge the business community to join us.”39

Politics and struggle

The ideological divide between the mainstream “Left” and “Right” is typically regarded as one between the competing agendas of Democrats and Republicans. But history shows otherwise. In eras of social struggle, mainstream politics adapts leftward—and both parties adapt in that direction, to preserve the interests of capital. In the absence of mass struggle, both parties race to the right to advance the interests of capital.

The competing agendas of Democrats and Republicans have much more in common than they have differences. Election cycles do not single-handedly determine the direction of mainstream politics. Mass consciousness and mass struggle play a far more important role—and politicians seeking votes hold their fingers to the wind and adjust accordingly.

The political climate can change rapidly whenever a grassroots movement starts to fight back. The mass working-class upheaval of he 1930s, which ushered in the New Deal Coalition, remains the most important turning point. But other examples demonstrate this dynamic.

Between 1969 and 1973, tens of thousands of women and men demanded abortion rights across the U.S., making women’s right to choose a central demand of the women’s liberation movement. The first state to grant legal abortion was California in 1970—when right-winger Ronald Reagan was governor. In 1973, Richard Nixon—an abortion opponent much like George W. Bush—occupied the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court was packed with conservative appointees. But under pressure from the women’s liberation movement, the Supreme Court made abortion a legal right in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Clinton felt no such pressure by the 1990s and succeeded in dismantling the guarantees of the New Deal in one fell swoop.

Thus, today’s Democrats stand to the right of 1970s Republicans on key social issues. A case in point: George H.W. Bush was an ardent proponent of birth control clinics for women in the late 1960s—and was committed to legal abortion—until he experienced an apparent crisis of “conscience” upon becoming Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980. Bush Sr.’s evolving position on this issue of “morality” reflected the shifting political winds, from the turbulence of the 1960s to the decline of radical social movements in the late 1970s.

After the 2006 elections, activists stand at a turning point. The victorious Democrats appear ready to continue the race to the right in implementing the neoliberal program. Only pressure from below will force them to change course. And liberal Democrats solely focused on the Democratic Party’s machinations from above could well be missing the real rebellion brewing below.

Sharon Smith is author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States.

1 Bert Cochran, Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 156.

2 Lyndon B. Johnson, State of the Union Address, January 8, 1964, available at


3 “The 1996 welfare law and the plight of the poor,” available at

4 Quoted in Elizabeth Schulte, “John Kerry: The me-too candidate,” ISR 36, July–August 2004,


5 “Acceptance of the New York Liberal Party nomination,” September 14, 1960, available at


6 Philip Yale Nicholson, Labor’s Story in the United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 180.

7 Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 134.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., 417–18.

10 Sidney Lens, The Forging of the American Empire (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971), 421.

11 Peter B. Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 47–48.

12 Ibid., 60.

13 Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism; How Americans are Seduced by War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 120.

14 Robert L. Borosage, “Money talks: The implications of U.S. budget priorities,” in Martha Honey and Tom Barry, eds., Global Focus (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 12.
15 Edward Herman, “The price is worth it,” Znet, September 30, 2001, available at
16 Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619–1973 (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 2000–01.
17 Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 46.
18 Eric Leif Davin, “The very last hurrah? The defeat of the labor party idea,” Staughton Lynd, ed., We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 140. Eric Chester, Socialists and the Ballot Box (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), 68–69.
19 Davin, 140. Chester, 69.
20 Preis, 47–48.
21 Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), 48–51.
22 David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 353.
23 Nicholson, 254.
24 Laura Flanders, “Same folks, different strokes,” January 12, 2004, available at
25 Noam Chomsky, “The Colombia Plan: April 2000,” Z Magazine, June 2000.
26 Flanders.
27 Laurence H. Tribe, Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 154.
28 Ferguson and Rogers, 79–80.
29 Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein, Washington Babylon (New York: Verso, 1996), 8.
30 Ibid.
31 Philip Mattera, Prosperity Lost: How a Decade of Greed Has Eroded Our Standard of Living and Endangered Our Children’s Future (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1991), 15.
32 Barbara Ehrenreich, Karin Stallard, et al, Poverty in the American Dream: Women and Children First (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 31.
33 Ferguson and Rogers, 67.
34 Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988), 155; 165–66.
35 Nicholson, 297.
36 Alan Maass, “Anybody But Bush?” International Socialist Review, Issue 30, July–August 2003.
37 Lance Selfa, “Eight years of Clinton-Gore: The price of lesser-evilism,” International Socialist Review, Issue 13, August–September 2000.
38 Transcript available online at
39 Michael Kranish and Ross Kerber, “Rep. Frank offers business a ‘grand bargain,’” Boston Globe, November 19, 2006.

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