By Glenn Young
In 1920, Warren G Harding’s campaign slogan for the presidency was “a return to normalcy.” He never defined the term and won in a landslide. This failure to define normalcy in the US continues, leaving ever one more or less free to determined their own definition of what is normalcy in the US. This is quite a dangerous situation because we are mostly always driving in our political campaigns for exactly that, one form or another of a definition of normalcy, (Reagan’s Morning in America, Bush’s 1,000 points of light, Nixon’s silent majority, etc.) which results in a real lack of determining normalcy based on facts and scientific approaches such as real data, and not on images and fantasy.
To many this fantasy sees a “normal America” as a progressive one, with great services, schools and jobs for all, and opportunities for education and advancement for all. We see ourselves in some image of the view of the 1950’s black and white TV image of Father Knows Best, or Ozzie and Harriet or Mayberry RFD as what was and always has been normal. However, with a real review of real American history, based in facts and solid research, see that this image is as false and empty as the previous political rhetoric that tried to define normalcy.
Where did this fantasy of the US being a progressive country come from? It mainly came from our efforts to sell ourselves to the world, to get immigrants to come here (as cheap labor), and later to create a counter image against communism. However, like most ad campaigns, the premise was and is mostly overblown. if not outright false. The United States almost from its beginnings has been a center-right to far-right wing country unable to accept progressive ideas and forces except under very unusual situations and only after titanic struggles and massive resistance from the political right, as it was defined at the time, and in different labels based on the point in history.
A great deal of time in the US, the “right” was based on two major issues; race and labor rights. Of course, these two issues interwove in the issue of slavery. In addition the issue also interwove in the right wing focus on immigration. Another critical issue of the right has also been control of the “means of production” whether it was land or industry (based on the time of history) or who could fully have a say in the discussion, in other words who could vote. Again, there was much interweaving of the issues of enfranchisement with that of race and immigration. And interwoven into all of this were the rich and mega rich trying to protect their wealth from taxation and controls. These have been and continue to be the normal battle ground of the American right.
Therefore, at certain times of our history the “right” manifested itself under different names focusing its energies on one or several of these areas of concerns. Sometimes they used the term “states rights” and sometimes “secessionist.” Some times they were the Know Nothings, and sometimes the Ku Klux Klan. And some times they were the Liberty Committee and sometimes they were a variety of anti-communist groups. Sometimes they focused on values and the need to be more Christian or more sober. Now, they come at us in a variety of softer names, and act collectively in the name of being anti-tax and anti debt. But consistently, whether overtly, or covertly they have been racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic at its core.
And with this right agenda being so normal in the US, in comparable evaluations between the US and the “developed world” we really have been a laggard in almost every social effort in the world, and have been unable to address basic human needs in our own country. With the right being the norm we have denied freedoms and opportunities to peoples in this country for generations at a time.
We should not be surprised by the ongoing efforts and actual successes of the relatively far right in the US in recent years since in fact this is normalcy in the United States. If we take an honest look at ourselves, we would see a nation in which the right has dominated the political agenda at almost all times; but we maintain the rhetoric that we are a nation of freedom and progressiveness. But that’s it --- it is rhetoric and an American fantasy.
In fact, normalcy in America consist of domination by the right in Congress, and right wing terror and right wing press making sure that efforts at progress are meet with intimidation, overblown accusations and out right mayhem and death. And of course, the right wing super rich; whether it was the cotton plantation owners, the railroad “robber barons,” the Gilded Age tycoons of industry, the military industrial complex, or the super rich of the banks and stock market hedge fund managers of today funded the right wing to keep America “right” for them.
We have almost always been a country were the mega rich of what ever time dictated the policies to their own benefits and avoided “their fare share.” Again, this is normalcy in the US, the only difference in the US from other countries is that the mega rich often changed from generation to generation, rather then being passed along by nobility. So we have the mentality that anyone in the US can eventually join the mega-right. And while it has and does happen, the rages to riches story, for the vast majority of people in the US, it was always that, an aspiration story that helped feed the myths of America and helped keep the mega wealthy protected.
Our mistaken memory of some dream like period of the perfect America is exactly that, mistaken memory. Normalcy in America is not that brief period when we had safe unions and extensive support for higher education (mainly established through the GI Bill) and newly developed public schools for the children of the returning World War II veterans, its not that brief period with the United States had close to 85% of the industrial capacity of the world (because the world had blown itself apart in World War II) and all the world bought from us because we were the only ones able to produce.
No normalcy in the United States throughout its long history is exactly what we are getting back to ... super rich and lots of poor working class people just making it if at all. Yes, we were better off for a while in some areas such as farming then Europe, but that was only because there was far more land available. Lincoln created the middle class of his time by giving away much of the farm land (the Homestead Act) But in fact the farmers did not do well as hoped, due to the control of the access to the markets by the railroad tycoons. The farmers failed dramatically in the US when the “robber barons” took control of the railroads and controlled the pricing for getting grains to market. The farmer went bankrupt time and time again as the monopolistic railroad companies took every inch of profit they could with their absolute control of transportation. Coupled with natural disasters such as the dust bowl, and by failure of the government to create appropriate infrastructure for the farmers (irrigation, alternative transportation, etc), most American farmers either failed or remained highly isolated and very poor. This was normalcy in America for much of out history.
Now the vast majority of the farm land has been taken over by the corporations; most farm workers are no more then laborers and what little remains of the US family farms can not compete with the monopolies of the mega farms. From a historical view, we are back to the plantation systems of the pre-civil war period, but not just in the South, but now across America. So, the brief periods of progressive support for farmers (the Homestead Act and later New Deal efforts) have failed.
However, the industrial workers in the US were always far worse off then their European counter parts. In Europe, the guild system evolved into the unions and since there was only the local population, labor was treated relatively well in Europe, as the economy became industrialized (after the initial rough start portrayed in Dickens and else where). However, base on the constant flow of new cheap labor from of Ireland, Eastern European and Chinese immigrants, and then later Blacks from the South, there was always too much competition to make unions successful here. The whole period could be summed up in a noted member of the Gilded Age saying, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” And in fact, the tycoons often did as much as they could to kill labor organizers, they even had a private army employed to do just that (the Pinkerton agency).
So, if we really look at America, what was normalcy for most of the history of America was that the farmer in the dell never really did to well, and the industrial worker was working for near starvation wages and had no benefits at all. When they tried to organize a union they were fired (at best), and when a panic or depression hit the markets the workers starved and often driven out of towns but a host of organizations under a host of names, such as the liberty committees. This was what normalcy really was for the white poor worker throughout most of American history, for the Black poor, in both farming and labor, it was always far worse.
In part, this normalcy of America, mega rich, poor and disorganized farmers and workers, unable to make major impact on the government can be seen in the establishment of the very nation. Even our revolution, which is often held as beacon to the world for the creation of a free republic, with equal justice for all accepted the enslavement of 1/3 of the population of the time; never mind the limiting of the enfranchisement to something like 5% of the population. The revolution was a war basically of a local elite fighting against the “other” elite of England, not truly a social revolution in any progressive mindset. One of the key issues of why the revolution was begun was the fear of the slave holders that the new rulings of the courts of England (the Sullivan case) saying that there was no slavery allowed in England, would be extended to all British lands. In fact, the major reason for support of the Revolution in at least five of the colonies was not for freedom or social justice but to protect slavery.
Therefore, it is no wonder that our constitution allowed for the continuation of slavery and created an oligarchy of the land holding elite that had no direct election of the president or the senate, no income tax and virtually no controls over the lifestyle of the rich. The rules (the Constitution) had to be modified and changed extensively to allow for more direct participation of “the people” and to recognize the rights of what became the middle class. In fact, the original version that came out of the committee’s work met with such rejection it was seen as a political ”bomb.” The only reason it passed was the inclusion of the first ten amendments, and even with those it nearly failed the ratification process. (Read both the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers to get a more complete view of the conflict).
None of these extensions of rights were easy fights, and faced extensive and for a long time successful “right wing” opposition. For example, the vote was expanded slowly and it took wars and near revolutions and decades of extensive struggle to allow for landless, and Blacks and women to win the vote. And up until sixty years ago, we had poll taxes, literacy tests and the “grandfather clause” and so much more that denied voting rights to so many legally entitled to it. Now, today, states again are enacting extensive legislation to “limit the franchise” – this is nothing new in American history, the right has always tried to limit the franchise, and when in power does so successfully.
We need to remember that normalcy for a good period of the time in the US was legal slavery, and completely unlawful for anyone to help a runaway slave. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made felons of thousand of citizens who feed and help transport runaway slave to Canada. This was the law of the land demanded by the right wing and passed by Congress. They won their demands by threatening succession, and putting the nation through multiple long decades of a dysfunctional congress, not just a few weeks of the latest tantrum of the right (Debt ceilings).
Slavery and the preservation of slavery was not the only right-wing agenda item that dominated the countries politics. In truly looking at our history we have been a nation dominated by one right wing effort after another. These groups include but by no way limited to:
- Indian-hating Jacksonians,
- Emancipation hating slave holding Southern States,
- Immigrant hating Know Nothings,
- African-American hating Ku Klux Klan (include Jews and Catholics here too),
- Labor hating Liberty Committees,
- Lefty and Jew hating House on Un-American Activities Committee,
- Everyone hating Joe McCarthy,
- Equal rights hating Racist Southern Senators,
- Rationalist and science hating the Religious Right, and;
never mind the likes of J Edgar Hover, and Father Coughlin (who makes Rush Limbaugh look down right tame) and now Tea Baggers. This was and is American normalcy.
So where was this “progressive time” that people tend to think as the American normal? There has never has there truly been a progressive force that dominated the discussion in the US, throughout its entire history, except in those rare occasions were the Right was almost eliminated. At best, there was organized efforts to fight against such things as the Viet Nam War and institutionalized racism, the right to organize unions, women’s right to vote and to choose, but they always seemed to be a minority fringe, never able to win major elections or create a coherent national force; more of a social conscience rather then a real political force. Only the People’s Party of the 1870’s and 80’s came close to being such a force, but they were extensively racist and anti-unban life to really become a “progressive” force in the US. And, in the mists of the “free” times of the sixties and seventies this nation elected Richard Nixon twice.
And Teddy Roosevelt’s “Progressive Party” was more an ego trip for the out maneuvered ex-president who wanted back into the White House (in the 1912 election). The force was more dominated by Roosevelt then by a real progressive movement. While some reforms were enacted in that period of the first two decades of the 20th century, they were quickly limited by lack of regulations and Supreme Court rulings that mostly favored the mega rich. And great “progressive” TR only became president because of McKinley’s assassination, not by the will of the electorate. Our recent court rulings about corporations being people and other pro mega rich rulings comes straight out the American normalcy that at first ruled that slaves were not people, and then later ruled that “separate but equal” or the right to establish an American apartheid, was legal.
However, there is no doubt that the US has taken some progressive steps to address overt problems and political and economic corruption; but we are always acting after the crisis. We only act progressively when disaster strikes.
- It took literally our rivers catching fire and our rain turning to acid before we passed environmental legislation. And it took a near “China Syndrome” to put some kind of meaningful controls over nuclear power.
And the so called progressive agendas have won only in time disaster or of national trauma – the Civil War, the Great Depression, the aftermath of World War II (with seven million solders wanting to get paid off for losing the “best years of our lives”, following the assignation of Lincoln, Garfield or JFK, or when 165 American cities were burning, or on those occasions when the Republican part splits ---- Wilson and Clinton only won in three person races; Carter barely won even with the disgrace of Nixon.
In fact, what appears to be the great passing of progressive legislation only happened when the Right was out of the picture or too scared to resist, or when a President is shot and the nation demands respect for the fallen leader. This is really the American normalcy; progressive action in hindsight and in tragedy. .
- The free distribution of land under Lincoln (the Homestead act) only happened because the Southern politicians were not in Congress,
- The passage of the 13-15 amendments was the price to the South to re-enter the Union.
- The ending of selling every governmental job (with the creation of the Civil Service) only happened as tribute to the assassinated Garfield.
- The Square Deal and the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the civil rights and anti-poverty laws of the 1960’s were attempts to buy off people and prevent a real social revolution from occurring, and the possibilities for such real revolutions were at least somewhat possible in each of these time (As with Radical Labor in the early 20th century, in response to the Great Depression of the 30’s, and in response to the urban risings of the Black populations with the “long hot summers” that saw as many as 165 riots in one year in the early and mid -1960’s)
- Also, with the sweeping success of Johnson in the 1964 election, the Right had lost control of both and Senate, including losing its 40 vote in the Senate needed to keep from blocking Filibusters. It is in this brief period we see the major health, education and welfare reforms of the 1960’s)
And our external politics and policies have almost always been --- well not progressive.
- We ethnically cleansed the Eastern part of the nation of Native-Americans,
- We conquered half of Mexico,
- We created wars (with Spain, and Iraq) to get our colonies and pseudo-colonies.
- We supported European colonialism and even the re-instatement of colonies throughout the world after World War II, leading to endless tragedy and millions dying in anti-colonial wars.
- We had our own colonial wars and killed millions in the Philippines and Viet Nam to prevent their national independence.
- We supported endless right wing military and monarchal dictatorships and paid for and planned huge numbers of coups against legally elected left leaning governments.
- For a century we treated the Caribbean as our private lake and intervened with our military dozens of times. We even created our own country (Panama) when we couldn’t bully Columbia into giving us land for a canal.
Despite our rhetoric ... this was our normalcy in foreign affairs; not progressive and often down right reactionary. The Bush war in Iraq, despite its “preemptive nature” actually fits quite well into what is considered normalcy in our foreign policy approach to the world; instead of a covert coup it was simple an overt coup.
And as far as social justice and access to core elements of what are considered as elements of a “liberal society,” we again lag far behind so many other “modern countries.” We can simply look at our history and compare it to other nations to see how un-progressive we really where and in fact continue to be. .
- We were the last of the “major powers” of the time to eliminate slavery (and it took a civil war to do so) France did so some seventy plus years before the US, England thirty plus years, and remember one of the goals of the Texas revolt against Mexico of the 1830’s was to reinstitute slavery which Mexico had banded in the 1820’s (Only Brazil held on to slavery longer then the US.)
- We were the last of the major powers to legalize the right to organize unions … We only did so in the mist of the Great Depression; Germany had done so some fifty years before, and prior to Hitler, the Socialist party of the labor unions was the largest party in Germany. Even Spain had legalized unions some decade prior to the US. The US mega rich smashed the Knights of Labor, and the IWW and tried had to smash the CIO with little government interference. In fact there was often US governmental support of the Anti-union efforts with direct military interventions (the Pullman Strike of 1896, and the miners’ strikes throughout the West in the late 1800’s and early twentieth century).
- Although the demand started in the US, we were the last of the industrialized states to grant workers the eight hour day. The world celebrates the US effort that started the demand for an eight hour day with a strike on May 1st 1886. Till this day May Day is Labor Day across the world, while in the US, May Day is now designated as “Law Day.”
- Prior to WW I, Germany and France both had state funded unemployment and retirement pensions, something that it took the Great Depression to get some of it through in the US.
- We clearly were not among the first major Western nation to allow women to vote. Women in Germany, Canada, Russia, Finland, Denmark, the United Kingdom and even Azerbaijan could vote before the woman of the United States, and;
- We are the last major country in the West without some form of Universal Health Care.
And we are also the only major country in the West that allowed one third of the country to completely disregard our basic laws concerning equal justice and the right to vote. We allowed Jim Crow to last almost 100 years with almost no challenge by the central government. We not only allowed Jim Crow, but allowed tens of thousand of outright murder of citizens to go unpunished (lynching). South Africa did not start apartheid until 1947; we had it in place starting in some places right after the civil war, but were fully in place in the vast majority of states, not just the South, by the late 1880’s and lasting till the 1960’s. Hitler’s Nuremburg laws lasted a little over a decade. Our Jim Crow laws lasted almost 100 years.
We were also the last major power in the West to enter the fight against Fascism and only did so when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. Up until that point the vast majority of Americans were unwilling to fight Hitler, or Japan and were willing to let the Fascist win the war. Roosevelt broke law after law and circumnavigated many more, just to try and keep England and Russia afloat, because the majority of the people of the US were against becoming involved. Massive pro-Hitler meetings took place in the 1930’s and early 40’s in the US, with the American Bund winning 100,000’s of members.
So I still ask; when was this progressive time in the US?
· Under the New Deal, which mostly failed (since the Great Depression continued until WWI) and was mostly declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?
· Under Kennedy/Johnson, when we got laws past only based on the martyrdom of Kennedy, and the Guns and Butter policy of Johnson while American cities went up in flames every summer? (And it was the Courts that started the process (Brown V Board of Education) when nothing could pass the US government with its racist Southern Senators blocking all efforts at reform)
· Under Clinton, who in his third year completely caved to the Republicans on welfare reform and free trade and also declared the “era of big government is over”?
I am sorry, but as a historian, I am at a lost to see anytime when the US truly had a progressive agenda that was truly in power and dominate, except perhaps during the Radical Republican era of the late and post civil war, during the 100 days of FDR and through his first two years, and during the first two years of Johnson election. Each time a two year window created by the absence of the Right, either thought them opting out of the country or by their total defeat at the polls. In all cases, the window lasted a very short time and the Right came back with a vengeance.
So we can see that our normal state is in this country is that of a country dominated by the right and far right, with only with occasional surges of progress in response to near total disaster, and then with equal if not more equal reactions from the right. When the progressive seem to be in power, the Right is constantly attacking and wining the battle to define the debate – since the right has and continues to controls the media in the US. So what we see in Congress now with the Tea baggers and the right dominating is actually normalcy in the US. And on the rear occasion when the right is not in power, they take revenge through every means they can.
- After Roosevelt, the New Dealers were purged from government
- After World War II the Anti-communist movement with its support in Congress black listed those who were anti-fascist
- After Roe V Wade, we have seen clinics bombed, doctors murdered and endless right wing sponsored legislation attacking a right to an abortion, and
- After the progressive win of Obama, we have the endless race based unprecedented attacks on a sitting president as the enemy of the nation and something “un-American.” (Only Lincoln received such ridicule in the past, by a pro-slave and secessionist South.)
And through their revenge, the right wing has often brought the nation to the point of destruction (the civil war, the great depression, the violence and near revolution of the 1960’s the economic collapse of the recent times). They have and will again actually take us off the cliff at some point and disaster will follow and then we will be able to possible have a brief period of progressive efforts that will lead to the passing of some of the real modernizations we need.
What is also normalcy in the US is that we will tend to forget the long periods of social nightmares caused by the right (Slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Clan, McCarthyism etc) and the anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-woman anti-enfranchisement, anti-civil right, anti-social services, anti-social insurance, anti-equal protection nature that our government had during the periods of right domination. We seem to only remember that time of a brief surge of progress where slavery was ended, land given away, Jim Crow ended, social insurance passed, unions legalized, women and Blacks enfranchised and courts were free to apply equal protection under the law. We live with our own delusion of progressiveness being the norm, when in fact, it’s truly is a fantasy. But then again living for a fantasy is again what is normal in the US history.