What Frightens The Right Should Empower Progressives

Harvey J Kaye

If you ever doubt the powers of the past, just consider how much the Right fears them.

It is a fear that drives them to continuously try to control the past and our memory of it: They try to deny history. They try to manipulate it. They try to suppress it. Indeed, when necessary and possible, they try to appropriate it. And as the new conservative manifesto published by the Young Guns Network – “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class” – attests, the “reform conservatives” (a k a “Reformicons“) are no different from their right-wing elders and peers in that respect. Which is all to the good, for what frightens them should empower us.

Liberal and progressive pundits and policy writers have been quick to dismiss “Room to Grow” – some by simply pointing out that it doesn’t really matter what the Reformicons have to say because, given the Tea Party’s hold on the GOP, their ideas will be dead on arrival – others by showing that the Young Guns’ policy proposals are not only flawed, but dangerous.

My own reading of the work led me to ask “What’s new?” Admittedly, the Young Guns are smart intellectuals. But even if they do not dress up like Tea Partiers or rant like “RWNJs,” they remain right-wingers. And the 13 chapters of “Room to Grow” clearly register their shared desire to reduce taxes, deregulate business and do-in unions.

No Room For Some Truths

But the most telling thing about “Room to Grow” is not what it says but what it does not say.

The Young Guns declare that they want the middle class to thrive. They say they want to “empower working families” by fostering policies and programs that will not only bolster the middle class, but also enable poorer families to become middle class. Very nice. And yet, for all of their talk of empowering and enabling, the Young Guns make absolutely no mention whatsoever of how the middle class was actually made or of how it is truly being undone.

To be fair, the Young Guns do occasionally talk in a seemingly historical fashion – but what they say obscures the past and the making of the present far more than it reveals truths about them. Young Gun Peter Wehner, who served in three Republican administrations, writes of “The Anxieties and Worries of Middle America”:

“There’s no simple answer to what ails America’s economy. As many observers have noted (and as President Obama frequently reminds us), our economy has gone through some massive transformations in recent decades, including huge advances in technology… In addition, jobs, including even higher-skilled jobs, are being outsourced [abroad] as the economy grows more globalized.”

Forget history, forget human agency, forget power and profits. Simply put, we are led to believe by the technologically and economically deterministic narrative of the right – and, sadly enough, a Democratic president – that bad things just happen.

Suppressing History

No doubt worried that Americans might actually remember who they are and come to see that things don’t just happen but are made to happen, the Young Guns, despite the bravado of their name, fear the past and feel compelled to deny or suppress history just like the Old Guns of the Right have done.

At no point in the course of the 13 chapters of “Room to Grow” do the Young Guns ever recall how a president and a people – our parents and grandparents – harnessed the powers of democratic government and carried out a progressive 30-year revolution that didn’t just expand the middle class, but actually created the first ever Middle-Class Nation.

The Young Guns fail to note how a generation of Americans rescued the United States from the Great Depression in the 1930s by subjecting big business to public account and regulation, by empowering the federal government to address the needs of working people, by organizing labor unions, consumer campaigns, civil right groups, by establishing a social security system, by expanding the nation’s public infrastructure and improving the environment, by cultivating the arts…

They fail to note how those whom we have come to call the Greatest Generation and its Greatest Leader articulated their accomplishments of the New Deal years in the Four Freedoms – Freedom of speech and worship, Freedom from want and fear – and once again harnessed the powers of democratic government to not only defend the United States and beat the hell out of fascism and imperialism in the Second World War, but also further extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy in the course of doing so.

And they fail to note how that same generation – empowered and encouraged both by the public investments and progressive labors and struggles of the New Deal and the War Effort and by the GI Bill of Rights, the greatest social-democratic/social-welfare program of the postwar years – not only proceeded to turn the country into the strongest and most prosperous nation in human history, but also renewed the promise of the Four Freedoms in the 1960s by harnessing the powers of democratic government anew to enact the civil rights and voting rights acts; expand Social Security to include Medicare and Medicaid; empower public-employee unions; reform the nation’s immigration law; enhance educational and cultural opportunities; and protect the environment, workers, and consumers.

Remember How History Is Made

Moreover, the Young Guns make no mention of how in the 1970s conservatives and the corporate elite launched a class war from above on American working people. They make no mention of how the right and conservative rich set out to “liberate capital” from regulations, taxes, and industrial democracy – no mention of how in the pursuit of power and wealth they exported industries and jobs overseas, hollowed out communities, defunded public services and education, and allowed the country’s public infrastructure to decay – no mention of how their politics and policies have threatened the rights of workers, women, and minorities and, in places, actually suppressed them.

So yes, let’s answer “Room to Grow” and its arguments. But beyond that, let’s appreciate the Right’s persistent fears. Let’s recognize that if we are going to redeem the America that our parents and grandparents built we have to do more than criticize the policy proposals of the Right. We have to remind our fellow citizens of how history is made, of how our parents and grandparents made history progressively, and of how we too might yet make history – indeed, how we too might make a Middle-Class Revolution.

We need to mobilize, organize, and harness the powers of democratic government and make America freer, more equal, and more democratic.


Harvey J. Kaye is professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the newly published “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.

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