Consequently, ever since the industrial revolution, the United States has typically trailed other developed nations in establishing a basic social welfare system. It has never fielded a competitive socialist or labor party. It was the last major nation to implement an old age pension. More recently, ObamaCare made it the last major nation to mandate that all of its citizens receive some sort of healthcare coverage, even if it’s quite wanting in many cases.
Amid its overriding conservativism, the United States has had only three presidents with any real socialist tendencies: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45), Harry S. Truman (1945-53), and most recently Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose presidency (1963-69) ended before half of current Americans were born (median age 37.9)
The election of Donald Trump as president and, just as important, the impending Republican dominance of Congress, make certain that the United States will not correct its social welfare shortcomings anytime soon. Indeed, the nation may take significant steps backwards.
However, a quick review of America’s stunted progressive history suggests that the opportunity for a progressive counter-revolution may be closer than it appears at this dark moment. And not because Trump’s victory represents the last gasp of an aging generation or the violent undulations of a shrinking white electorate. But rather, because Trump and his Grand Old Posse have the potential to wreak so much damage and engender so much ignominy upon the national consciousness as to generate the kind of rare and extreme circumstances that have previously led the United States to make genuine progress in developing modern social welfare. The chaos and horrors of a Trump presidency may yet produce opportunities for improving the nation.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) were avowed Progressives during the early 20th century, but that’s quite a different thing from being a modern progressive, much less trending socialist. For starters, as white men of their era, TR and Wilson were openly sexist and racist. In fact, their views particularly on people of color and women weren’t that far off from Donald Trump’s in some ways, although their expressions of racism and sexism were much more erudite, articulate, and polished. And economically, the two Progressive Era presidents were more concerned with regulating big businesses and mitigating abuses against labor than they were with creating anything we might recognize as a 21st century social welfare system.
Both men were also rabid expansionists who eagerly used U.S. military might abroad to build imperial prestige, plunder other nations’ natural resources, and open foreign markets to rapacious U.S. business interests. T. Roosevelt and Wilson viewed what we today call the Developing World as little more than a mass of inferior, dark people ripe for uplift via exploitation.
Of course Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were hardly immune from racism, sexism, and imperialism. Roosevelt, it must never be forgotten, dispassionately signed Executive Order 9066 in early 1942, authorizing the rounding up of about 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West coast, many of them U.S. citizens, and banishing them to concentration camps. He also shirked civil rights at nearly every turn and did practically nothing to dismantle the South’s Jim Crow apartheid system because he relied on the solidly Democratic South to gain office and push through legislation.
If FDR’s supporters tend to overlook his racist policies while celebrating his economic reforms and his prosecution of the second world war, then supporters of LBJ are wont to downplay his unconscionable expansion of the Vietnam War, while highlighting both his economic reforms and his hard nosed push for civil rights.
In other words, both Johnson and the younger Roosevelt were full of contradictions; they were complex and highly flawed men and politicians who did some unspeakably awful things while inhabiting the White House. But they’re also among the only presidents who ever substantially build something approaching a modern social welfare democracy.
Roosevelt’s New Deal brought us social security, the minimum wage, tax reform, housing reform, aid to farmers, public works programs ranging from environmental conservation to the arts, the rise of labor unions, and major banking, financial, and monetary reforms that reigned in the worst abuses of capitalism.
Johnson was a protegé of Roosevelt and an enthusiastic advocate of the New Deal, which he sought to expand and update through his Great Society programs. These included the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, and modern welfare; or at least what passed for modern welfare in the United States before it was gutted during the Clinton presidency.
LBJ used his multi-faceted War on Poverty to directly attack the lingering shame of indigence in the world’s wealthiest nation. Community based anti-poverty programs supported everything from education (from Head Start pre-schooling to higher ed) and job training to legal aid and an expansion of food stamps. These many programs had mixed results, but the effort was at least there, and the U.S. national poverty rate subsequently reached its historic low.
Johnson also went beyond the economic aspects of social reform, becoming arguably the only president to put his full weight and power into dismantling America’s legacy of racism. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 effectively ended legal segregation and racial discrimination in jobs and housing. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped restore the franchise to African American citizens. And his immigration reform bill of 1965 ended racist national quotas that had been established in the early twentieth century.
As if all this weren’t enough, Johnson also supported a wide range of social reforms, creating modern consumer protections, public broadcasting on TV and radio, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and signing no less than a dozen major environmental acts.
The legacy of Harry Truman, is more constrained because of his political circumstances. Whereas Roosevelt and Johnson had tremendous popular mandates, uncanny political savviness, and a supportive congress, Truman was never as popular, as skilled, or as fortunate a politician as either at their peaks; he spent his first term dealing with World War II and its aftermath, and his second term dealing with a hostile, conservative Congress determined to reign in the New Deal instead of expand it.
Truman’s version of the New Deal, which he called the Fair Deal, was an ambitious 21 point program, much of it dedicated to upgrading and making permanent various New Deal reforms. While there were many accomplishments, much of the Fair Deal is marked by what it attempted but failed to achieve.
Truman’s efforts to create nationalized healthcare, radically expand social security, expand aid for education, and prevent then repeal the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 were all largely thwarted. At his own political peril, he championed a broad civil rights agenda, but was unable to overcome resistance from white Southern Democrats.
Less adept at passing legislation than FDR and LBJ, and suffering through less favorable political circumstances, Truman often had to settle for more minor measures, such as issuing an executive order to end segregation in the U.S. military.
And so the tally stands: There has been all of three presidents in U.S. history who worked to create a modern welfare state, and only two of them had numerous. major, long lasting success. Furthermore, both of those presidencies were only made possible by the tragic accidents of history.
Franklin Roosevelt was able to forge his New Deal because the worst economic calamity in world history had so thoroughly discredited the long ruling Republicans. As he assumed the presidency 1933, becoming only the second Democrat to win that office since 1853, his party also earned a massive majority in both houses of Congress and in most state legislatures amid the backlash of the Great Depression.
Upon Roosevelt’s death, Truman inherited the White House. But after a dozen years of FDR and several years of world war, the nation’s political will to keep building upon the New Deal legacy was spent.
Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson would likely never have been president had he not inherited the office when the much more moderate John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
In other words, as much as we like to believe that great achievements are brought about by great people, they’re often actually brought about, or at least made possible, by the horrors and unpredictablities of history.
And the Donald Trump presidency is looking to be nothing if not horrific and unpredictable.
Of course, there are no guarantees. Donald Trump could surprise many observers and manage a competent and relatively uneventful presidency.
However, more so than any incoming president since perhaps Abraham Lincoln, Trump is now poised to enter the White House with the nation sharply divided over his very election, and the political air thick with uncertainty. It’s possible to envision several radical scenarios that could lead to a counter revolution in the upcoming electoral cycles that culminates with the first president in more than half-a-century who is committed to improving America’s social welfare system. Here are some possibilities.
Republican Overreach: Perhaps the quickest and simplest path to a counter revolution, ironically enough, comes from a national backlash against the Republican Party’s impending attack on the established welfare state. During the past 36 years, Conservatives have done a masterful job of convincing their followers that big government is the legitimate focus of their rage and the reason for their various woes. But people’s day-to-day lived reality can be another matter entirely, and tens of millions of Republicans actually depend on various elements of the very same social welfare state they so readily decry. It’s one thing to launch a coded racial uprising by screaming about “welfare queens,” and affirmative action. But far too many middle and working class Americans of every color rely social security and Medicare for them to be dismantled without a backlash. Yet, Trump hasn’t even been inaugurated yet, and already House Ways and Means Committee Chair/walking ghost Samuel Johnson (R-TX) is pushing a plan for massive cuts to social security.
The Republican Senate is likely wise enough to smell the electoral disaster that will ensue if they oversee major entitlement cuts. But if it does happen, watch out.
Economic Downturn: It won’t take a full blown depression, or even a major recession. Things could simply stop improving and then get a little worse. Millions of Americans have been scared about and disappointed in the economy for nearly a decade. Trump cleverly capitalized on that to win the electoral college, offering empty promises to make America great again.
But of course those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. And of course those tax breaks for the 1% will mostly just line rich people’s pockets instead of helping the mass of working Americans. So if the economy’s slow recovery from the Great Recession makes even a mild reversal, outrage could become rampant as millions swing voters who went for Trump come to realize that he’s little more than a charlatan and they’ve been had.
Dangerous Foreign Policy: Foreign policy rarely drives U.S. elections; things have to be pretty dire, as Americans tend to be fairly insular lot. But Donald Trump looks to have what it takes to make a serious mess of things. During the campaign, he displayed not only stunning ignorance about and even disinterest in foreign affairs, but also an irresponsible degree bravado. And now he’s only taking national security briefings once per week instead of everyday. It could all add up to foreign policy major blunders that put the United States in dangerous and unpopular situations. Vietnam undid LBJ’s presidency. Iraq helped submarine George W. Bush’s popularity. What politically devastating chaos might President Trump unleash?
The Russia Crisis: The story of Russia’s tampering in the U.S. election is unfolding as I write. It’s hard to know where this is all headed, but it seems unlikely to go away anytime soon, and if this scandal morphs into a full fledged crisis of democracy, it could have Watergate-like repercussions. Democrats seem to be soft pedaling for now, leaving it to sane Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham to push for a fuller accounting of Russia’s actions. It is not inconceivable that this all ends up with Trump out of the White House.
Trump Vacates the Office: Even if the Russia crisis and various other scandals don’t prove fatal to Trump’s political career, his own personality might. I know of one bookmaker who is already taking bets that Trump will resign before his first term ends. The reason(s)? That he gets bored; that his ego can’t handle the ongoing bad press; or that he gets tired of actually doing the job, which is probably a fair bit more work than he signed up for. In other words, egomaniacal Tump likes the idea of being president, but doesn’t actually want to do everything it takes to actually be president, he will soon realize this, become unhappy, and quit. Or he could also simply die. It wouldn’t be a shock. He’s seventy years old, doesn’t look to be in great shape, and reportedly eats a lot of shit and rarely exercises.
Should Trump vacate the office, either upright or prostrate, the instability that follows wouldn’t be fatal to Republicans, but they could greatly compound other issues, such as those listed above. Indeed, a Mike Pence presidency could push Republican overreach to scary places.
Racism and Sexism: Sadly, a backlash against racism and sexism by Trump specifically, and the GOP more generally seems the least likely factor to bring about a counter revolution. After all, 62 million Americans just voted for Trump despite (in some cases because of) his open sexism and racism, which was augmented by an endorsement from the KKK and endless plaudits from virtually every white supremacsist organization in America.
America’s track record of building social welfare systems is not good. Despite being the world’s wealthiest nation for more than a century, or perhaps because of it to some degree, the United States in many ways is a land of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential. It suffers from vast disparities in wealth and still lags behind many other developed nations in statistics like poverty rate, life expectancy, infant mortality, and a bevy of quality of life indexes. Most alarmingly, perhaps, it has far surpassed even totalitarian regimes such as China and North Korea in its rate of incarcerating citizens. All of this speaks to its failure to build and establish a wide range, sufficient, modern social welfare system.
Under normal circumstances, there is no reason to believe that this will change anytime soon. However, Americans are not now living under normal circumstances. The election of Donald Trump signals the potential for great undoings. And those undoings in turn may lead to new opportunities for a progressive counter revolution.
This essay originally appeared at 3 Quarks Daily.