Understanding your limits can often be more significant than understanding your capabilities. For all his shortcomings, Franklin D. Roosevelt knew what it meant to be the president of the United States, and more importantly, he knew its limits. His response to a reform delegation should clarify his understanding: ”Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me!”
FDR has garnered a certain level of reverence among modern day liberals, and regardless of how well intentioned he was, it’s clear that he was riding the crest of a massive populist wave. The 1930′s were a period of intense, high profile labor organizing. The CIO and the Unemployment Councils were hosting vibrant sit-down strikes, a chilling move that stunned the business community, who knew exactly what could potentially follow.
This period of substantial labor organizing led to the FDR-championed legislative victories, namely the right to organize under the Wagner Act and bringing elements of democracy to the American workplace. No longer did the political atomization of the 1920′s plague American workers; it was becoming possible for functioning democratic institutions to exist.
With the vast support of the business community, which at the time was dealing with a newly politicized citizenry because of elemental community organizing, FDR swept into office and brought a balanced-budget agenda with him.
But to meet the growing demands of the organized movements that were causing so much trouble for American business, the government had to respond with something other than budget-balancing reforms, and it’s worth remembering that it had substantial support from the business community: The New Deal. Originally a centrist program with typical Keynesian measures, it was pressured by a social-democratic population into what’s now viewed as a major working class achievement.
Meanwhile, the business community was deliberating on a plan to counter the democratic deviations that were emerging as a result of the enormous labor organizing. The New Deal had business support for a simple reason: it was a patronizing and last-resort alternative to major systemic reforms, which the powerful organizing was championing. Populous pressure coming from hunger marches (such as the 1932 Ford Hunger March), racial boycotts, and massive strikes was pushing the country toward a more social-democratic attitude.
Much of the business community made the decision to compromise, fearing the participatory capabilities that the now energized American public had acquired, by supporting the New Deal social programs. As historian Howard Zinn noted, the New Deal was an important step forward for the country, but ultimately “tentative, cautious, bold enough to shake the pillars of the system but not to replace them.”
The 1930′s were a decade in which community organizing won impressive victories for a public that had previously undergone a stretch of inhumane inequality, the Booming Twenties. Why the progressive organization of the 1930′s that developed couldn’t sustain itself is historically obvious; corporations controlled the media, the country’s resources, and the decision-making that comes with these crucial aspects of life.
A period of powerful, well funded anti-labor propaganda ensued, and continues up until today. As the editor of Forbes (the business press), Daniel Bell, explained in 1954, “It has been the industry’s prime concert, in the post war years, to change the climate of opinion ushered in by … the depression. This ‘free enterprise’ campaign has two essential aims: to rewin the loyalty of the worker which now goes to the union and to halt creeping socialism.”
What’s not obvious is FDR’s response to the organizing which, in retrospect, had penetrated the politically marginalizing doctrines that the country had previously followed. We can establish that the power-building that the CIO and other organizations initiated was crucial to any populist measures FDR pushed through. He clearly understood that popular pressure was the way to democratize and socially reform the powers of the presidency. The outcomes of his populous economic policies, though modest, are the evidence.
Modern times display no evidence to the contrary of this understanding. Barack Obama once worked as a community organizer, and has written that he wanted to work “at the grassroots level to make change” immediately following his graduation from Harvard. This was a striking personal choice that he made, and was notably influenced by Chicago-brand organizers such as Saul Alinsky. He had to “infiltrate the system,” as Alinsky would write in Rules for Radicals, and was eventually elected as a state senator in Illinois, followed by defeating Alan Keyes for a federal Senate seat.
His campaign to become president was widely considered extraordinary, as it won numerous public-relations awards while simultaneously beating the ‘Clinton machine’ in the primaries. Following his victory in 2008, in which the public was heavily supporting Democrats and progressives across the board, he converted his campaign and generated ‘Organizing for America.’
Therefore, Obama knows the importance of public pressure. He must know if he purposely brought community organizing, which is just populist code for ‘pressure’, to the national level. Obama clearly understands what FDR knew, but does he know how to use it?
Despite Organizing for America going almost entirely ignored by the mass media and the liberal press, Obama (to his credit) managed to create a powerful, well funded, expansive, and energized organization. OFA’s national presence includes thousands of mobilized volunteers, which have been dispatched for a variety of progressive causes.
Meanwhile, as OFA is organizing in support of Obama’s political agenda, over 70,00 working-class protestors gathered in Madison, Wisconsin to oppose the state’s pending anti-union law. In Columbus, Ohio, local papers reported that has many as 10,000 citizens were participating in protests directed at Governor John Kasich’s attack on public-sector workers. Despite telling his supporters in a 2007 campaign speech to understand that “I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president…” if “American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain…,” the Obama administration actively tried to avoid “meddling in state issues.” This raised serious questions.
Hundreds of thousands of tea party attendees weren’t just demonstrating their disapproval of entitlement spending, they were expressing fury over the massive financial bailouts that the Obama administration oversaw in 2009. Howard Dean’s ‘Progressives United’ PAC has been organizing for months in an effort to end the war effort in Afghanistan, which the Obama administration has escalated. More than 5,000 protestors gathered in Manhattan to protest Wall Street, calling themselves the 99% movement and fighting a media culture that perpetually demonizes them.
This kind of organization is real. It may not be at the level of the counter culture’s organizing in the 1960′s or the CIO’s political clout in the 1930′s, but the public’s grievances are no less legitimate, and may be even more significant. Why isn’t the organizing having a more profound effect, or more precisely, the desired and even expected effect on the President and other leaders in Washington?
Although it might be convenient to think that American democracy is at a level in which public pressure can impose its will on the leadership in Washington the same way that gigantic private institutions can, the reality is that deterrents to democratic participation are simply too strong. One of those deterrents is Obama, who hasn’t risen to the challenge of being receptive to the current level of organizing and the tenor of the times.
Organizing in the American political system can only produce powerful outcomes under a particular circumstance. It requires that the far-removed leadership, no matter how aristocratic it seems, is sincerely receptive and mindfully responsive to the popular movements and their agendas. FDR didn’t have to seek out public pressure to encounter and understand it, he found pressure at his doorstep. Obama may not have that luxury, but if he pushes against the desensitizing forces in Washington and takes a brief look at the social developments that have organized and formed, he might discover a more politicized and progressive electorate than he knows.
If he closes his consciousness to public pressure, Obama will have overseen the failure of organizing to produce higher levels of democratic participation. In and of itself, he will have done a disservice to his former vocation, and political democracy in America. However, we are fortunate that history has shown that Obama can respond and become great, just as Lincoln became great through an empowered abolitionist movement and Roosevelt became great through the work of the insistent organizers of his time.