I wonder if contemporary progressives -- and Democrats -- aren't behaving like "elitist," "ivory-tower" know-it-alls who, when the currents of American discontent are examined, will be seen to have ignored a populist movement before it sold out to an increasingly radical-right, corporatist political force.
It's something that bothered me since watching the very beginnings of the as-yet-unnamed Tea Party movement from a rural angle here in Texas before Obama even moved into the White House. The local Democratic parties (county by county) seemed blind to the potential. As the corporatists took control of the newly-named "tea party" agenda, the White House remained cut off from reality, choosing to accomodate rather than attack. So we'll pay the price.
That's what I was thinking when I read Frank Rich's reminder that the "tea party" existed in Roosevelt's day. FDR knew how to play it.
As the historian David Kennedy writes in his definitive book on the period, “Freedom from Fear,” Roosevelt “had little to lose by alienating the right,” including those in the corporate elite, with such invective; they already detested him as vehemently as the Business Roundtable crowd does Obama.
Though F.D.R. was predictably accused of “class warfare,” his antibusiness “radicalism,” was, in Kennedy’s words, “a carefully staged political performance, an attack not on the capitalist system itself but on a few high-profile capitalists.” Roosevelt was trying to co-opt the populist rage of his economically despondent era, some of it uncannily Tea Party-esque in its hysteria, before it threatened that system, let alone his presidency. Only the crazy right confused F.D.R. with communists for taking on capitalism’s greediest players, and since our crazy right has portrayed Obama as a communist, socialist and Nazi for months, he’s already paid that political price without gaining any of the benefits of bringing on this fight in earnest.
F.D.R. presided over a landslide in 1936. The best the Democrats can hope for in 2010 is smaller-than-expected losses. To achieve even that, Obama will have to give an F.D.R.-size performance — which he can do credibly and forcibly only if he really means it. So far, his administration’s seeming coziness with some of the same powerful interests now vilifying him has left middle-class voters, including Democrats suffering that enthusiasm gap, confused as to which side he is on. If ever there was a time for him to clear up the ambiguity, this is it.
The only person associated with the Obama administration who appears to understand what America is going through is Elizabeth Warren. Corporatists fear and hate her because she knows where the bodies are buried, and because she is at least one engine in the working machinery of genuine populism.
Surely those attitudes also play a part in the White House's carefully-maintained distance from her. Simon Johnson says: "She would represent the Obama administration’s serious attempt to rein in financial misbehavior – at the same time as keeping the economic recovery on track. Anyone who thinks she would be bad for American families has not been paying close attention. And best of all, she is very good at explaining what she is doing and why that makes sense."
If you believe the administration is indeed "making a serious attempt..."