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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

POLITICS: NOMENCLATURE

Every so often, the language of politics irks me. This fall, the source of aggravation is the way that not only Republicans but also Democrats & even journalists refer to the political orientation of the two major parties. They still cling to the notion that the Democrats are liberals and the Republicans are conservatives, but I go back to what I learned at a very progressive little school in the Adirondacks when I was a child. In those days, it was explained to me that “liberals” were those who wanted to change life for the better—by moving further forward in the same direction of recent history (which included at the point the gains made by labor unions in the 30s and the political accomplishments of the New Deal). “Progressives” were like the liberals, only more so. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, were those who wanted to conserve the status quo, and “reactionaries” were those who wanted to turn back the clock. In the 1940s, when I was learning all this, the Democrats were indeed liberals. Socialists & especially Communists liked to call themselves “progressives.” Republicans were conservatives, but only fascists were reactionaries – in the sense that they wanted to do away with democracy & go back to the autocratic rule once practiced by kings and emperors. Fortunately, whatever reactionaries we had in this country were not even blips on a radar screen.

In the 21st century, however, the Democrats (or at least the most democratic among them) are fighting desperately to preserve Medicare and Social Security --- in other words, to conserve the status quo. They are conservatives, not liberals. The Republicans, on the other hand, are now reactionaries, wanting to turn back the clock to the days when old people had to pay their own medical bills (before Medicare) and even further, to before the days when the government helped to ensure the very survival of senior citizens (with Social Security). In state after state, Republicans especially (but also Democrats) are forcing unions to "give back" gains they had made,not only in wages and benefits, but sometimes even in the rights to negotiate for their members--a privilege they had enjoyed since at least the 1930s. To top it all off, Texas Governor Rick Perry wants to turn back the clock even further—to before the 16th Amendment (ratified in 1913), which established the legitimacy of the income tax, and before the 17th Amendment (ratified the same year), which instituted the direct election of US Senators (instead of leaving it to the state legislatures to come up with their “suitable”—i. e. carefully vetted---candidates). The progressive income tax subsequently enacted helped to level off the excesses of wealth & poverty in this country, while it was always easier for big business to buy state legislatures than it was to buy the Federal government in Washington. But to Perry, evidently, the 19th century, with its robber barons and masses of threadbare farmers & factory workers, desperate to accept any job, no matter how badly paid it was, represents nirvana.

At this stage of the game, the only true “liberals” around (and they mostly prefer to call themselves “progressives”) are the lunatic fringe like MoveOn, who desperately keep on trying to persuade President Obama to do something – anything --- to help the working classes. Alas, they reckon without the climate of an economy in which, according to a NY Times article on 9/11, manufacturing is falling off the radar---accounting for only 11.7 percent of the gross domestic product, while finance, insurance & real estate account for 21.1 percent. What a reversal of fortunes since 1950, when the proportions were almost exactly reversed (manufacturing, 25.6 percent, finance, insurance & real estate, 10.5 percent)! The Times, of course, was only concerned with the economic significance of this shift, but for me, it also tells why the political spectrum is moving so far to the right---because the blue-collar workers employed in the manufacturing sector back in the 1930s, 1940s, even the early ‘50s favored the more liberal side of the issues, while realtors, insurance salesmen & stockbrokers belong to the white-collar work force that has either been neutral or historically has favored the more conservative – or should I say, reactionary, side. We tend to forget how poor most Americans were in the early part of the century, but I’ve seen the statistics on how many refrigerators & how much electricity & so on were enjoyed by most of America, even in the supposedly flush 1920s. None of it was enough to cushion the stock market crash in ‘29. If America was blighted by the Great Depression in the ‘30s, a large part of the reason was this hidden poverty of the 1920s. Do we really want that to happen again?
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