We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, September 21, 2013

FDR's Long Shadow

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the American people to the welfare state as he sought to bring the nation out of the Great Depression.  The counter-intuitive economic principle was that we solve depressions at the national level by spending more not less.  The counter-intuitive social principle was that poverty is not a personal moral issue but, rather, a national moral issue.  The poor, as a class, are not poor because they are lazy (laziness being a quality we find in people of all classes).  The poor are poor because of a lack of opportunity and freedom.  FDR built his New Deal out of forces already at work in American society, but it was he who wove them into the welfare state.

The obvious thing is that large swatches of the American public still cannot or will not think counter-intuitively concerning economics and social classes.  They still believe that in hard economic times the nation must behave "rationally," that is pull in its belt just as any sane family would.  And they still believe that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.  Even among the poor, many simply do not accept the fundamental premises on which the welfare state is built.  It does not help matters that the welfare state is also a bureaucratic state and has inevitably introduced new forces of greed, injustice, waste, and just plain stupidity into our lives.  The thing is even in  its bureaucratic guise, it has also managed (until recently) to lift millions of people out of poverty and give them new lives and hope.  It has also employed many of those who have lived in poverty, thereby becoming a direct means of providing jobs for lower income folks.  Bureaucracy, like most things human, cuts both ways.  So does welfare.

Republicans and Democrats represent two sides to the ongoing debate over the welfare state and the bureaucratic state.  Both believe in the fundamental, central American value of personal freedom.  In a manner that is itself counter-intuitive each rightly presses its own "agenda" forward.  One seeks to maintain and even expand the welfare state so that all may be free.  The other seeks to limit and even reduce the welfare state so that all may be free.

The Tea Party introduces a note of discord.  It wants to kill the welfare state.  It has transformed "common sense" (cut spending in hard times & the poor deserve their poverty) into hard and fast ideology.  Tea Partiers want to end the debate and take us back to the golden summer of 1929.  However it all plays out, it is impossible to believe that we will go back.  FDR's shadow is too long.  So long as we remain a democracy, we will keep working at the task of balancing personal freedoms with social justice.  We will keep working on (as Democrats) and wrestling with (as Republicans) the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society.  Only when we cease to be a democracy will that fundamental debate of American society come to an end.

To the extent that the Tea Party seeks to bring the Great American Debate to an end, it is an anti-democratic force for repression.  That is not surprising.  As we listen to its voices what we hear is anger, fear, and a profound ignorance of how society actually works.