Tuesday, December 21, 2004

On revolutions

Thomas Jefferson famously claimed that a revolution every twenty years is good for the nation. Conventional wisdom interprets “revolution” as the change of parties controlling the White House, or a shift of control in the House or Senate. In this view, every political campaign is either an insurgency or an attempt at counter-revolution.

I suspect that Jefferson may have meant something more rigorous by “revolution.” J. Edgar Hoover waged what can only be considered a counterinsurgency regardless of changes in the party controlling the Executive or Legislative branches. The “revolutionary” force at the time was the civil rights movement, and Hoover's side lost a series of battles, including the integration of the military and schools, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. The aftershocks of that revolution still reverberate, as can be seen in President Bush's snubbing of the NAACP, and Ronald Reagan's kicking off his campaign at Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of an anti-civil rights lynching. Nonetheless, civil rights won a revolution, but victory didn't coincide with a change in political power. Changes in power facilitate such revolutions, but they don't constitute a revolution.

When Newt Gingrich and his merry band took the House in 1994, I was skeptical that this represented some grand “Republican Revolution.” At the time, it seemed like a host of factors explained the loss of the House. Poor strategic leadership by the DLC faction of the Democratic party weakened the party's message, The Contract with America strengthened and nationalized the Republican campaign, and gun control legislation shook a few people up. All bad, but nothing inherently revolutionary. On the issues, people reject the content of the Contract, and therefore reject any claim to revolutionary mandate.

Ten years later, the revolution is emerging. Like all modern Republican inventions, its agenda is backward looking; it focusses on rolling back Roosevelt's Depression era revolution in the role of the federal government in the economy.

Consider this, from a soon to disappear editorial observer column in the Times: What's New in the Legal World? A Growing Campaign to Undo the New Deal:

Although they are unlikely to reverse Wickard soon, states' rights conservatives are making progress in their drive to restore the narrow view of federal power that predated the New Deal - and render Congress too weak to protect Americans on many fronts. We take for granted today the idea that Congress can adopt a national minimum wage or require safety standards in factories. That's because the Supreme Court, in modern times, has always held that it can.

Adam Cohen goes on to point out that the revolution being assailed grew out of a judicial revision of the notion of “freedom of contract.” This was a doctrine, dominant before the New Deal, that government intrusion into contracts would make the market less efficient and effective. The consequence of this doctrine was that there could be no national minimum wage law, no social security program, no worker safety regulations.

Cass Sunstein's recent book, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR'S Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever discusses the legal revolution that enabled the New Deal, and – if conservatives are to be believed – exiled the Constitution.

In 1923, the Supreme Court struck down a minimum wage law for women and children, holding

To the extent that the sum fixed [by the law] exceeds the fair value of the services rendered, it amounts to a compulsory exaction from the employer for the support of a partially indigent person, for whose condition there rests upon him no peculiar responsibility, and therefore arbitrarily shifts to his shoulders a burden which, if it belongs to anybody, belongs to society as a whole.

Even today you hear similar arguments against marginal increases in the minimum wage. In essence, this line of reasoning holds that the government has no role to play in labor contracts because to do so inserts society into the private dealings of citizens, and obliges private actors to bear responsibilities for society's problems.

Fifteen years later, the Court found a minimum wage law for women to be within Congress's powers, because Congress could protect citizens whose “bargaining power is relatively weak, and [who are] the ready victims of those who would take advantage of their necessitous circumstances.” Furthermore,

the exploitation of a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power and are thus relatively defenseless against the denial of a living wage ... casts a direct burden for their support upon the community. ... The community is not bound to provide what is in effect a subsidy for unconscionable employers.“

The legal reasoning that led to the first ruling could never produce the second, and vice versa. The point Sunstein draws from this argument is that the Rooseveltian ”revolution“ took place not through Roosevelt per se, but through the slow action of the courts. He draws on a series of court rulings, extending through Nixon's election, in which the Court broadens its understanding of economic rights of citizens, arguing that the revolution happened as much through legislative action and judicial interpretation, across changes in party power.

This assault on 70 years of legal progress, more perhaps than Roe v. Wade, will be the litmus test applied to nominees to the Supreme Court. We have to remember, as we gear up for the coming battles over Social Security and then progressive taxation, that the progressive vision of society will be under sustained and systematic assault from every angle. The only response to this multi-pronged attack will be a single-minded defense of the progressive viewpoint.

Why do we want progressive taxation? Why do we want social security? What are we securing? Democrats shouldn't campaign against privatization. As in every single debate, Democrats should be for something, not against. I've chatted with smart people (Democrats, of course) who think that George Bush has made the Republican party into the party of big ideas. Renewed commitment to space, immigration reform, a hard push on tax reform, fixing Medicare and Social Security – these are big agendas. Democrats, in contrast, have opposed these big, bold programs for reasons that appear to non-wonks to be niggling.

Talk about Social Security as the traditional practice of the younger generation looking after it's elders. Don't say Social Security doesn't need to be fixed – Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry convinced us there was a crisis. Propose solutions. Since the problem is modest (benefits will be reduced to 75% of their projected values 50 years from now) the reforms can be modest, but meaningful. Eliminate the cut-off in payroll taxes, so that the wealthy pay their fair share for the benefits they'll receive. Talk about the benefits of the existing system. Talk about expanding the program. Talk about using Social Security to cover more people, like uninsured children. Make the Republicans seem obstructionist.

Progressive values include, to quote FDR, ”not only physical security, ... [but] also economic security, social security, moral security.“ Let's stand up for them.