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As It Ever Was


Bill Scher has an important article distinguishing the fantasy FDR and LBJ from the real ones:

The necessity of corporate support for, or at least acquiescence to, liberal policies is not a new development in the history of American liberalism. Indeed it has been one of its hallmarks.

Roosevelt may be remembered for his combativeness toward corporations; he famously said, “I welcome their hatred.” But he said that in 1936, only after key New Deal legislation had passed with the help of the United States Chamber of Commerce and the American Bankers Association.

Early on, Roosevelt was quite adept at bargaining with corporations. In his first 100 days, to attract corporate support for the National Industrial Recovery Act, he won collective bargaining, minimum wages and maximum hours in exchange for a temporary suspension of antitrust law, so businesses could fix prices. To establish the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934, he made concessions to Wall Street that scrapped statutory requirements in favor of regulatory flexibility. The following year, to allow the Federal Reserve to better conduct monetary policy, he gave bankers representation on the policy committee.

Johnson also found little value in warring with corporations. He won a Keynesian tax cut in early 1964, defeating budget-conscious conservatives, thanks to a broad coalition that included corporations. He attracted business support to back his first antipoverty bill by junking plans to promote family farming and push businesses to hire long-term unemployed people. He created the Transportation Department, in 1966, only after exempting resistant shipping interests from its jurisdiction. He incited a new era of environmental protection, increasing federal responsibility for cleaning air and water, while defusing corporate opposition by trading away federal pollution standards.

Major economic national reform in this country has always required buying off entrenched interests that enormously influence the multiple veto points that can derail legislation. This is nothing to be happy about, but direct your complaints to James Madison.

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  • Erik Loomis

    The timber industry was pretty pleased with the NIRA and felt betrayed by the Wagner Act. What this necessary relationship between presidents and corporations also suggests is that real change must and almost always has come from grassroots pressure from below, not politicians.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yup. And also note that, even with Truman in the White House and willing to veto, they mitigated the Wagner Act with Taft-Hartley anyway.

      • Q

        Why should we trust anyone who believes in the magical bully pulpit?

        Also, Scher does not seem to realize President Obama’s ‘ability to enact any other progressive reform’ has also been severely crippled despite his conciliatory approach toward corporate power.

    • Holden Pattern

      Except apparently, anyone to the left of the Dem ruling class is prohibited from criticizing the Dem ruling class, on penalty of being blamed for their next defeat. So as long as the grassroots are precisely in line with the Dem ruling class, we’re all good.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Except apparently, anyone to the left of the Dem ruling class is prohibited from criticizing the Dem ruling class, on penalty of being blamed for their next defeat.

        On the Planet Strawman, yes.

        • amok92

          Wow I didn’t know Joe from Lowell was from another planet.

          • And could there be a graver threat than being blamed for something by joe from Lowell? I can see why that would strike fear into people’s hearts.

            • victory

              jfL ranting is more likely to induce laughter than fear. The frightening moments are when he agrees with you or you agree with him. One of the more entertaining blogflies in all the internets.

          • elm

            Has joe ever actually said criticism leads to defeat? Typically he just tries to argue the criticism is wrong.

            • Scott Lemieux

              Elm — you don’t understand the strawman. To HP, responding to the content of criticism must mean that the responder wants the criticism silenced. It’s sort of like Sarah Palin’s First Amendment.

            • joe from Lowell

              Has joe ever actually said criticism leads to defeat?

              Seeing as how I’m the one who uses the phrase “couldn’t swing a state senate race in Montana” to describe the political puissance of firebaggers, I’m going with “no.”

      • Sharon

        No Holden, the real shorter is that corporate power and influence will always be with us, so take your half a loaf and STFU.


        • overlords

          In this economy you should be happy with a few slices. Do you want the Republicans to win and your family to be reduced to subsisting on grass and the occasional rat?

      • Murc

        There’s a long leagues worth of difference between “criticizing the Dem ruling class” and “having fantastical notions about what is actually possible.”

        Criticizing Dem elites for not realizing that a sledgehammer really needs to be taken to some parts of our Madisonian monstrosity of a governing system is both necessary and to be lauded; lambasting them for failing to use legislative strategies that will totally fail under the system we actually have is kinda dumb.

        • If the lambasting were an effective signalling/rallying mechanism, then it would be ok.

          I doubt that it is, but that’s an empirical matter.

          Believing that there’s a betrayal because of a failure to use legislative strategies that will totally fail under the system we actually have is cognitively nuts. It may be instrumentally helpful, but I kinda doubt that, even on the right.

          • More precisely, it’s pretty clear that it’s useful, in combination with other tactics, for enforcing ideological conformity. Whether it’s enormously helpful for effecting the desired policy is a bit harder to say. Obviously, it has some benefit, but it also is counterproductive to some degree (e.g., avoiding compromise, losing wavery seats, generating backlash, etc.)

      • joe from Lowell

        Except apparently, anyone to the left of the Dem ruling class is prohibited from criticizing the Dem ruling class, on penalty of being blamed for their next defeat.

        Grow a pair, Hildegarde.

        Oh boo hoo, what if someone says something mean to me? What is this, the Sarah Palin Theory of the First Amendment?

    • Murc

      What this necessary relationship between presidents and corporations also suggests is that real change must and almost always has come from grassroots pressure from below, not politicians.

      Er, really? Because it suggests to me that radical, destructive change regarding how we structure incorporated entities is needed, and that many if not most of our politicians are either cowards, or dirtbags.

      I mean, yes, it is indeed entirely obvious that in the current political environment change has to come from grassroots pressure from below. This is right and proper to an extent; we live in a republic. But… well, politicians jobs are to govern us well. If I tried telling my employer that my failure to work properly was due to him not riding my ass 24/7, and that I expected him to do so in perpetuity, and that the instant he let up I’d start selling company secrets and vandalizing equipment, I wouldn’t just be fired, I’d be in jail.

      • Anna in PDX

        Yes, this. This is why this reality of American politics, true as it might be, is so infuriating.

  • Linnaeus

    From a Josh Eidelson tweet:

    [email protected] frames his NYT piece as a defense of Obama, but you could also read it as an indictment of American politics…”

    It’s a somewhat muted point in the article, but I think Eidelson’s right and I would hope that the latter interpretation gets a little more attention. I agree that presidents have to deal with the reality of corporate power, but I think the frustrating thing for a lot of liberals/progressives is that the centrality of corporate power hasn’t changed all that much and they see that power as one of the root problems in American politics. So as corporate power continues to hold sway, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that even liberals don’t see dealing with corporations as a necessary evil, but are in fact quite comfortable with corporate power. That might not be a fair judgement, but I see where it comes from.

  • firefall

    I dashed an email off to Madison, havent had a reply yet

    • Desert Rat

      Let us know what he says. I’m particularly curious about his response to this radical notion that corporations have the same or more free speech rights as ordinary citizens.

      • firefall

        I’ll have to get him to stop spinning at high speed, first

    • Bill Murray

      Did you try Jimmy Madison. I knew him when he was in college playing hoops at Utah

      • rea

        He played college hoops? Not bad for a guy 5’4″ tall . . .

        • Lee

          Practically everybody was shorter back then so being 5’4″ was average. Playing at the height would be no disadvantage.

          • Mike

            He was known as the Muggsy Bogues of the founding fathers intramural hoops league. He cemented his reputation with a one handed dunk over George Washington in the championship game of the 1776 season.

  • Desert Rat

    Great points, Scott. I’ve always thought the fantasy ideal of FDR in particular by large segments of the left as the man who warred with entrenched interests wasn’t realistic.

    I’ve always viewed FDR as somebody who in the mid-1930’s, pretty much did the minimum required to save capitalism from its own worst excesses. He certainly wasn’t a radical, not when you consider that most of what the US did in the 1930’s had been around in other industrial countries as far back as the late 19th Century in some cases.

    The same could be said of LBJ with the Great Society.

    • Davis X. Machina

      This is the Left, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I essentially agree, although I think this is too focused on individuals and not enough on institutional structures.

      • LeeEsq

        Speaking of institutional structures, is there anyway that our system can be moved into a more parliamentary one without amending the Constitution or writing a new one? Eliminating the filibuster will help but there are probably some reforms that I’m missing.

        • Scott Lemieux

          No, we’re pretty much stuck with it. Even if there was a constitutional convention it would probably end up with a bicameral system; 49 states have it although there’s no requirement that they do so.

          • elm

            There are bicameral parliamentary systems, and even ones where the upper house has more than token influence (as they do in Britain in Canada.) It can often get complicated who the PM is responsible to and how the two houses work together, but bicameralism isn’t an inherent obstacle to parliamentarism.

            The real obstacle is that I doubt a new convention would get rid of the President as an independently elected office (all the states have governors seperate from the legislator.) I could see us plausibly moving to a different electoral law for Congress, introducing some for of PR which could allow for more parties, but Latin American countries (as discussed here just last week!) demonstrate the dangers of combining Presidentialism with PR.

            The best we could do, I think, is a dual-executive system like in France and even that is highly, highly unlikely (not least because it’s hard to imagine us adopting something French…)

            So, I fear we’re stuck with what we have from a constitutional perspective. Eliminating the filibuster would help quite a bit, though, as well as all the other anti-majoritatian elements of Congress, like holds on nominations.

            • LeeEsq

              Yes, the best we can probably do to make our system more functional is to get rid of the ability of Congress, especially the Senate, to hinder legislation. Make everything an up or down vote.

              • Desert Rat

                This alone would make a world of difference.

                It would remove cover that the filibuster rule gives to scoundrels on both sides of the aisle to cause legislation to fail.

  • scott

    Least they got something for whoring themselves out. Our “leaders” do the same thing and don’t get anything comparable.

    • Scott Lemieux

      By the standards by which the ACA is “nothing,” FDR didn’t get anything either.

      • Sharon

        The ACA is a start toward making the private insurance market less predatory and the Medicaid expansion is a significant win for people who’ve relied on emergency rooms, a minimal public clinic system and luck for health care, but we can do better.

        I have a friend who ran out of luck in early March this year. He died of something that’s preventable and at worst manageable, but he was just a guy who worked 40 hours a week for something north of minimum and no health insurance.

        So yes, better than nothing, but we can do better.

  • bob mcmanus

    FDR asked for CCC authorization 17 days after inauguration.

    By July 1, 1933 FDR had more than 300,000 hungry desperate young men in 1463 camps spread all around the nation. They had military leaders, were getting physical training and discipline, and were supplied with tools, axes, picks, shovels. Of course food, shelter, work, money to spend and send home to their families, and later, education.

    There were several examples overseas of the potential of such programs.

    The recalcitrant suddenly became cooperative.

    • bob mcmanus

      March 4, 1933

      I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption. But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

      And if he didn’t get the “Broad Executive Power?” The clear course of duty would remain.
      Think FDR would have resigned?

  • John Emerson

    One difference was that Roosevelt had an active movement on his left which did not listen to the Scott Lemieuxes of the day. He had the support of one part of the plutocracy against the other part, which really hated him, but the suypport he got was motivated by fear.

    It is a fact that there is no left movement today for anyone to be afraid of, but I don’t think that that’s Scott’s point.

    • LeeEsq

      FDR’s left flank participated in electoral politics in addition to theatrical politics, had substantive reforms and advocated for them, and got behind FDR when it counted.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Yeah, I must have missed the third party campaign in 1932 that forced FDR to the left by electing Hoover…

        • John Emerson

          Third parties controlled MN and WS, in effect a third party controlled ND, and there were plenty of restless maverick Democrats. There was a national third party in 1936 which got about 2% of the vote. Roosevelt knew they were there, and 1934-1935 were his best years. Once they were no longer a threat, Roosevelt offered an austerity budget and initiated a recession.

          Negotiating with your own party while at the same time keeping the opposing party in mind is a very tricky business. Steamroller realists don’t bother to try.

          Yes, you do miss a lot. it’s not all about Nader any more.

    • Pseudonym

      Yes, the problem with politics today is that too many people listen to Scott Lemieux.

  • Superking

    Scott, the thing that’s frustrating about your positions on this stuff is that it leaves us without an operating theory on how to accomplish anything. Your position encompasses at least the following: a). Public rhetoric is stupid. b) vague strong-arming is stupid (lbj on a toilet stories). c) FDR and LBJ didn’t lead against powerful interests. d) in some way, leaders must identify obstinate other leaders occupying positions where they can exercise their veto over policy, and then find ways to remove them as an obstacle.

    This last part is a bit cute in the current environment since there is literally nothing that will satisfy House leaders and allow progressive legislation to move forward. So, your theory works just as well as anyone else’s. The only thing that works right now is electoral politics. We have to get the republicans out of the house and senate. And doing that requires things you hate like the bully pulpit. You really need to clarify your thinking and separate things like the much-hated bully pulpit from campaigning, which necessarily involves presidential rhetoric.

    • Scott Lemieux

      that it leaves us without an operating theory on how to accomplish anything.

      No, it doesn’t, unless the thing that you want to accomplish involves, say, “completely destroying a powerful industry with no other elite support.” FDR and LBJ accomplished plenty. Obviously, I have no theory for how to get a Republican House to sign on to good legislation because this is not, in fact, possible.

      I’ve also never said that presidents shouldn’t campaign. I’m saying that presidents generally can’t use rhetoric to make particular positions more popular.

      • elm

        I’m constantly amazed how much (I have to imagine) willful misunderstanding of your position occurs here.

        As far as I recall, this whole debate started when you said that Obama (or any President) lacked the ability to force Congress to pass a better health care bill. Some people said he should use the bully pulpit to move public opinion which would change the votes of Bayh, Nelson, et al. You responded that, 1, this was unlikely to change Bayh’s and others’ votes, and, 2, the bully pulpit doesn’t tend to move public opinion on issues anyway.

        From this, we have heard for months that you believe the President is powerless (sometimes accused of only believing that during Democratic presidencies), that messaging is meaningless, and that Presidents shouldn’t campaign.

        Is your actual point so dificult to understand? I’m honestly mystified.

        • I think it is because it goes against 1) what’s intuitive and 2) an overwhelming dominent narrative that we imbibe with our mothers’ milk.

          It’s like the irrelevant of gaffes…I know what the literature says and I believe it, but I still feel happy at a Romney gaffe and sad at an Obama one. (And it’s the sort of happy/sad of “this is good/bad for the november chances!”)

          I mean, consider how republicans felt the victim narrative even when they controlled all branches of government. It wasn’t just cynical playing…many genuinely believed it.

          One thing I think is underestimated is how things like motivated reasoning don’t just alter what conclusions and evidence we accept, but seriously derange our cognitive functioning. It doesn’t just change the *weight* of the evidence but also changes the evidence itself. So people read more into Scott’s claims because it’s necessary to do so to maintain the state of their cognitive economy.

          • Lee

            This makes a lot of sense, I also feel that a lot of American liberals/progressives/leftists feel very frustrated with the American political system. As noted by many others, the Madisonian system doesn’t usually allow majorities to perfectly implement policy desires. It creates a two-party system that leaves lots of people unsastified with their options at the voting booth.

            The only thing that could change this is a constitutional convention to turn the United States into a pariamentary republic. This is not going to happen. People latch onto bully pulpitism because they want something that will bring the change that they desire into American politics.

        • Superking

          The problem, elm, is that Scott has actually said those things at various points. Specifically, a few weeks ago, he argued that some democrats in congress were missing the point on an issue because they said they thought they could help themselves in the election through appropriate messaging. Scott dismissed this out of hand as absurd bullypulpitism. Scott isn’t staying within the bounds of a narrow historical example and presidential rhetoric being used to move voters in congress, that may be the core of his positions but it is by no means the whole of it,

          • Superking

            This http://lawyersgunsmon.wpengine.com/2012/06/messaging-fantasies-grand-bargain-edition

            Is fucking stupid, because it just means that the president does nothing right now and however long we have a republican majority in the house. ‘Cause according to Scott you either got the votes or you don’t and nothing else matters. We don’t got e votes, so the president might as well not work on policy over the next four years.

          • elm

            I think Scott’s argument is that messaging doesn’t move public opinion on particular issues (idk if he’s right here or not), but what I meant is messaging as part of a campaign to win election.

            Scott does seem to believe that once the elections are over, there’s little that can be done to change policy outcomes until the next election. In other words, policymaker preferences are fixed and negotiating tactics have little influence on the outcome. I think this view oversimplifies things (preferences are not fixed, especially on low-priority issues but even on the bigger ones, though I’m not sure what the President alone can do to change others’ preferences) but isn’t that far off from being true.

            • Scott does seem to believe that once the elections are over, there’s little that can be done to change policy outcomes until the next election. In other words, policymaker preferences are fixed and negotiating tactics have little influence on the outcome.

              I don’t see that Scott seems to believe this.

              He obviously believes, for example, that the decision to coddle Lieberman was causally helpful in producing legislation. (I believe this too.) I bet he agrees that the decision not to abolish the filibuster at the start of the term changed lots of things about the session. (Now, there may not have been any will to change the filibuster at that time, but that’s precisely deciding not to change it. Obama had little to no ability to change it, of course.)

      • Superking

        Then who the fuck cares, Scott? Look, regardless of whether it works or not, presidents are still going to go out ands give speeches, sometimes it’s going to be to campaign for an election and sometimes it’s going to be to campaign for a policy. Who fucking cares whether it works or not since they’re going to do it in any case? You still haven’t proposed anything that will help us get stuff done. What is your governing theory?

        • elm

          As I say above, Scott’s governing theory seems to be “win elections.”

          But it’s an odd complaint to make to Scott to demand a governing theory of how “we” can get stuff done. If by “we,” you mean internet commenters, I’m pretty sure he would say “there’s nothing we can do.” If by “we,” you mean progressives, again, I think he’s say “there’s little we can do as long as Republicans control Congress.”

          Yeah, if he’s right, that’s depressing. But, if he’s right, he’s right, and demanding that he tell us how to get things done when nothing can be done is unrealistic.

          • Superking

            Elm, the problem isn’t that Scott is saying you can’t get anything done. The problem is that he is saying, “don’t even try.”

  • insightful

    The necessity of corporate support is hallmark of American liberalism.

    Roosevelt and Johnson were good at bargaining with corporations.

    Confrontational Carter and lobbyist resisting Clinton had their bully pulpits diminished.

    The Obama administration has cut many deals with various industries.

    Therefore, business as usual is better than change.

    • Hogan

      lobbyist resisting Clinton

      Dah wha? NAFTA supporting, Glass-Steagal repealing, insurance company negotiating Clinton?

      • BFD

        I do not blame you for not reading Scher’s since it is such a mess.

  • Lee

    I think there is also a grass-is-greener thinking going on. The Madisonian system might give corporate power more of a say in governance and politics than parlimanetary systems but parliamentary systems aren’t completley immune. Especially during times when a center to far right coalition is in power. I believe the UK under Blair, Brown, and Cameron had more than few instances of negative corporate influence on government.

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