Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College who writes a daily Letter addressing many of the subjects covered in this blog. Given her background, it isn’t surprising that she sees historical parallels; in one recent Letter, she analogized the current political situation to the latter part of the Hoover Administration.
After describing aspects of Trump’s disastrous non-response to the Coronavirus, she wrote
In all of this, the administration sounds much like that of President Herbert Hoover who, when faced with the calamity of the Great Depression, largely rejected calls for government aid to starving and displaced families, and instead trusted businessmen to restart the economy. To the extent relief was necessary, he wanted states and towns to cover it. Anything else would destroy American individualism, he insisted.
But by 1932, the same Americans who had supported Hoover in 1928 in a landslide recognized that his ideology had led the nation to catastrophe and then offered no way out. They rallied around Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who worked together with Congress to create an entirely new form of national government, one that had been unthinkable just four years before.
Ironically, Trump’s disastrous administration and the Republican fecklessness that has enabled it, may have created an opening that Biden, with his deep knowledge of the Senate and his non-polarizing persona–is especially well-situated to use.
Biden has previously been considered moderate, rather than “left” or progressive, but he clearly understands that the times call for significant change.
News and Guts has reported that Biden worked with Bernie Sanders on a recently unveiled plan that would both create jobs and combat climate change, and that the plan was far more ambitious than anything he had discussed during the primary.
Biden’s campaign has characterized his overall economic proposal as the “largest mobilization of public investments in procurement, infrastructure, and R&D since World War II.” It calls for desperately-needed investment in infrastructure and R&D, incentives to revive trade unionism, higher wages, and higher taxes on corporations. It makes environmentalism a high priority, and includes a public option for health insurance that would be a huge step toward universal access. It would also reverse Trump’s horrific approach to immigration.
But the ideas put forth on Wednesday are also indications that progressives succeeded in pushing some proposals leftward, influencing Mr. Biden’s policy platform as he prepares to accept his party’s nomination for president next month.
Richardson notes that the document is strong politically, “undercutting both Trump’s “America First” language and promising concrete policies for voters suffering in the Republican economy.” She also points to an underlying philosophical shift– “a return to a vision of a government that stops privileging an elite few, and instead works to level the economic playing field among all Americans.”
That philosophical shift is reflected in Bernie Sanders’ approving remarks about the campaign’s economic plan; it is also reflected in the decision of the progressive organization MoveOn.org to endorse Biden and the overwhelming vote of its members to do so. (Biden won 82.4% of votes cast by MoveOn members.)
Too many Americans think progress requires revolutionary leadership–that it is the product of extraordinary people who have spent their lives on the ideological barricades. But social change (like so much else) is a complicated process; often, it is the result of a fortuitous combination of factors: when emerging imperatives of a particular time produce leaders who recognize the degree of change required, and possess the personal and institutional skills to make change happen.
Before his election, FDR didn’t look like a revolutionary, but he met the imperatives of his time. Whether Joe Biden can meet the imperatives of ours remains to be seen–but the prospect shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
The signs are encouraging.