Undoing the New Deal: Clinton Rolled Back the Deal, Obama Blew a FDR Moment (pt7)
Historian Gerald Horne says that President Clinton’s “reforms” were a staggering blow to the social saftey net; President Obama had a rare political moment where he could have created a modern New Deal, but he wouldn’t do it
Paul: Welcome back to the Real News Network, we’re continuing our series of discussions on Undoing the New Deal. Before we get into it, please remember: we’re in our winter fundraising campaign. Every buck you donate will be matched and it’s a critical time for us; we’ve gotta raise a significant piece of our budget or we can’t keep doing Real News and we can’t keep doing shows like the Undoing of the New Deal. Please, if you haven’t donated yet, click. If you want to donate again, click again.
Paul: If you have donated, you’ve done as much as you can. Thanks very much. Okay, we’re going to get right into it. If you haven’t watched the lead up to this, it’s really worth doing, because the whole thing is kind of chronologically proceeding from the 1930s on. Now, joining us to continue this discussion is Gerald Horn.
Paul: Gerald is the John Jay and Rebecca Morris Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He’s the author of the Counterrevolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the united states of america. Thanks for joining us again, Gerald.
Gerald Horne: Thank you for inviting me.
Paul: So, before we kind of pick up again a bit of Reagan and then move into Clinton. You wanted to make a comment about FDR. Go ahead.
Gerald Horne: Well, I think that in our previous analysis, we were relatively charitable toward FDR, and I don’t think that was necessarily misplaced. What I mean is we were trying to explain how and why it was that so many New Deal programs tended to exclude black workers, and can you lay that wholly at the doorstep of the occupant of the Oval Office or should you do a broader analysis of the race and class forces that he was confronting? That is to say, the opposition in Dixie, not only by Dixiecrats, that is to say political leaders within his own party, but also a mass movement amongst many white workers, who were upset about any uplifting of black workers.
Gerald Horne: What was interesting about FDR, what he was trying to do and run around that, by having a dual partnership with his spouse, Eleanor Roosevelt, who in many ways, was saying many progressive things that the president himself felt he was not able to say because of this relationship with the Dixiecrats. And I think that that same kind of political configuration that we’re confronted with, which is really screwy in the United States, that is to say, we don’t have a Labor Party that represents labor. Black, white, brown, etc.
Gerald Horne: We have these parties of mixed-class formations, a Democratic Party that unions at its base and has, at the elite level, has many Wall Street elements, who are not necessarily dependent upon an organized labor force, and then you have a Republican Party that has many white, working class and middle class folk at its base, but then has at its apex many bosses who are dependent upon a broad swath of working class labor.
Gerald Horne: As long as you have that rather dysfunctional class and political party configuration, you’re gonna have difficulty pushing through any kind of social democratic measure.
Paul: Okay. So, let’s move into … in terms of Reagan, we talked about he takes advantage of this moment that the legislation of the 1960s sent a lot of what were Dixiecrats, southern racist members of the Democratic Party over to the Republican Party. There’s resentment in the white working class about many of these reforms; Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, which did benefit black workers, certainly more directly than New Deal measures in the 1930s. And in a time of globalization; it takes a great big leap, to my mind, it’s a whole other conversation, but it has a lot to do with the development of digitization.
Paul: You can now rationalize international production in a way that you never could and in the 1980s, this really starts to take off, weakening the power of American workers and American unions. But big government, to a large extent, actually really means, undo social programs. When Reagan says, “Let’s have smaller government,” he doesn’t mean let’s have a smaller military. He means, let’s get rid of social programs, those from the 30s and the 60s. And that message tends to resonate in his favor.
Gerald Horne: Well, the signature issues of the Reagan administration from my point of view, is first of all is the attack on the air traffic controls, go out on strike and the union is destroyed. That sends a signal to organized labor, with regard to what they will be capable of doing.
Paul: Yeah, just quickly, for people that don’t know the story, just give us like 30 seconds on what happened.
Gerald Horne: Well, the air traffic controllers were the people at airports who help to make sure that planes take off and land safely. They went out on strike in the early days of the Reagan administration and rather than engage in collective bargaining, what Mr. Reagan did is basically hire scabs.
Paul: And let me just add, they actually endorsed Reagan in the election, because they had a letter from him, where he promised not to do this, and then he went ahead and he exactly did it, which is he hired scabs. There’s an actual letter on file where Reagan promises the union that he’ll respect their right to strike.
Gerald Horne: So, that sends a signal to the AFL-CIO, to the labor movement. And this comes in the wake of decades of counter reaction, counterrevolution to the New Deal programs of the 1930s, speaking of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, which was a Magna Carta for the organizing of the United Auto Workers.
Gerald Horne: The first blow in the counter-revolution struck in 1947, with the Taft-Hartley Act. The second blow is struck in regard to the purging on spurious grounds of anti-communism of some of the most militant and left-wing labor leaders, one of the few to survive was Harry Bridges, of course, of the San Francisco Longshoreman’s Union. But he was an exception.
Gerald Horne: The other aspect of the Reagan years, other than the attack on organized labor, is the trope of the so-called “Welfare Queen,” that is portrayed and depicted as a black woman who comes into a grocery store with food stamps and buys steak and champagne, while some poor white working class people, person, stares agape.
Paul: Eating with cans of spam, because they can’t afford real meat.
Gerald Horne: Right. Obviously, it’s wholly fictitious. You can’t buy champagne with food stamps. But in any case, it was very effective, because it was tapping into an underlying racist sentiment. And then, we know that Mr. Reagan’s anointed successor, George H.W. Bush carried that forward, with this Willie Horton trope, used so effectively against his Democratic competitor, governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, which was this effective commercial about a black prisoner who gets a leave from Governor Dukakis and then goes out and creates and commits havoc.
Paul: The Willie Horton commercial.
Gerald Horne: Exactly. This helps to soften up the working class on a racist basis and that prepares the ground for the rise of William J. Clinton and I think that the signature aspects of his administration was not only NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which helps to send many auto plants south of the border into Mexico, is not only so-called welfare-reform, ending “welfare as we know it,” as he put it, which was another staggering blow against the social safety net.
Paul: Before you move on, Gerald … talk a bit about welfare reform, because it’s a very significant undoing of the 1960s legislation.
Gerald Horne: Well, welfare reform is fundamentally an effort to restrict what was called aid to families with dependent children. That is to say, once again, it played upon these racist stereotypes of black women having children out of wedlock if I may be permitted to use that phrase and lazy black men who were not taking care of their children, and therefore, the government has to step in to fill the breach.
Gerald Horne: Mr. Clinton admittedly under pressure from the Republican right-wing, surrendered and capitulated and tried to restrict the AFDC program, which was part of an overall retreat with regard to constructing a reasonable safety net, and then was complimented, if you like, by his initiatives with regard to crime, the so-called Crime Bill, which opens the door for the acceleration of the so-called prison industrial complex.
Gerald Horne: You have this great acceleration of the imprisonment of black men in particular and increasingly, black women, during the Clinton years, ironically enough. You may recall that the confrontation that Hillary Rodham Clinton encountered when she was running for president in 2016 with young black activists who were trying to get to walk back some of the statements she had made during her husband’s administration that helped to give momentum to this so-called Crime Bill and the acceleration of the prison industrial complex.
Paul: And I think it’s an interesting thing, if you read Chuck Schumer’s biography or his book, he talks about this as an actual straight-forward political calculation that the Democratic Party had to look tougher and stronger than the Republicans, so they had to be tougher on crime. They had to be tougher on welfare, because it’s a political positioning they thought would be popular for them.
Paul: Which again, always has an underlying racist card underneath it, as part of the support for this. I think we should talk a bit about this. It’s a moment where finance, which is always powerful, but in the ’90s, finance took on enormous strength in terms of their political influence, the concentration of ownership and you have the elimination of Glass-Stiegel, which is the legislation that mitigates how much banks can speculate with people’s money and such.
Paul: And I think what’s important here is the Democrats and Clinton very much embody this moment. It’s not just under pressure of the Republicans, it’s under pressure of Wall Street, who pay for their political campaigns.
Gerald Horne: Well, absolutely. I mean, once again, you get into the screwy political configuration of these parties, the Democratic Party not only being a party of organized labor, not only being a party of black workers, which has just been exemplified in the vote in Alabama just a day or two ago, but it’s also the party of Wall Street. That is to say the party of the elite that is not as dependent upon masses of workers, particularly organized workers.
Gerald Horne: And their campaign donations help to fuel the Bill Clinton campaign, and subsequently, the Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign, but in turn, they asked for a loosening of financial regulations, which helps to turn the US economy into one grand casino, which then comes crashing down in 2007, 2008, which impoverishes many, the black working class and the black middle class not least, but also ironically enough, helps to give rise to the so-called Tea Party movement, which instead of turning en masse against the Republican Party and Democratic Party, in some ways they help to drag both political parties to the right, because recall that the Tea Party movement comes into play in opposition to the government bailing out distressed working-class and middle class homeowners.
Gerald Horne: It doesn’t come into play because of this loosening of financial regulations that turns the economy into one grand casino.
Paul: Right. I just want to go back to talking about the Clinton period. I had lunch with one of the leaders of one of the big international unions. I had lunch with him and some of his staff and his political consultant. This was in DC, and I said to them, much what you’re saying, you know, the Democratic Party is these multiple classes. You have Wall Street and you have the trade unions and workers.
Paul: I said, “But you guys don’t fight for leadership of the Democratic Party. You concede leadership to Wall Street.” In the final analysis, you end up with Wall Street approved candidates on the whole. I said, “Why do you do that?” And the answer from the political consultant and the union leader is nodding his head, was because they’re the only ones that have the money to fight the Republicans and the Republicans are just so much worse than those sections of the elites that we deal with in the Democratic Party that we’re dependent on them to have the cash to fight elections.
Paul: I wonder what you think of that, although it’s an interesting thing now. Sanders has actually shown that there’s no longer any need for that dependency, but the corporate Democrats are still in bed with Wall Street.
Gerald Horne: Well, as you were talking, I was thinking of an article that appeared in the Financial Times of London a few days ago about British politics. And about how a certain sector of the British elite is becoming more favorable, believe it or not, to Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the Labor Party. And that’s because the Tories have proven themselves to be so dysfunctional, the way they’re handling Brexit, and the way, from the elite’s point of view, they’re jeopardizing the British economy by withdrawing from the European Union. Some are pushing for this so-called Hard Brexit that will leave Britain’s economy in some way stranded and that makes them more favorable to the Labor Party of Corbyn because of their pushing a so-called softer Brexit.
Gerald Horne: And as I was reading this, I was thinking will there come a time when the elite of the US of A decides that that they need a different political configuration in terms of parties if they’re going to continue to survive. I don’t think they’re thinking that way as we speak, but if Britain is any guide, they may have to start thinking that way, sooner rather than later.
Paul: Hm. Alright, let’s move on with this undoing the New Deal. How do you assess the Obama years in the context of this New Deal and 1960s legislation and the process we’re talking about?
Gerald Horne: Well, I think that many are correct to be disappointed with the administration of President Obama. And I would say the disappointment not only comes on the domestic scene, that is to say with regard to the stimulus, because of course, he could argue that given the fact that it was difficult to scare up any Republican votes for this multi-billion stimulus of 2009, that he was constrained and constricted. But I think that the disappointment of the Obama years comes disproportionately from his foreign policy.
Gerald Horne: That is to say the apparent inability to embark on a new and different path that at the same time could have possibly affected the correlation of force in the United States. And I look particularly at the major blunder of the Obama years, which was the 2011 invasion and overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, which put wind in the sails of the right wing hawks, which they could then parlay into domestic gain in Washington DC, but also sent a signal to many developing countries, that they needed to bend the knee to Uncle Sam, which in turn helps to accelerate this movement of runaway shops abroad.
Gerald Horne: To me, that was the major disappointment of the Obama-
Paul: Let me … can I add one thing to that? During the … when Barack Obama becomes president, he controls both houses of Congress. The economy is an absolute disaster. There’s a real opportunity, many people asked him to be the next FDR and to take on the issue of banking, which means the possibility of even nationalizing a bank instead of a privatized solution to the auto industry and putting it onto the backs of auto workers, which he did. All the various measures.
Paul: There was a real moment there, an FDR potential moment. Instead, I mean, Obama is who he is, but he was a Clinton extension, an extension of Clinton. He certainly wasn’t an FDR.
Gerald Horne: Well, it’s not only that, but I think if labor leaders had been closer to the Obama administration than they thought they were, they would have pushed harder for labor law reform, because if there had been significant labor law reform, this would have empowered the working class itself to push for more social democratic measures.
Paul: Well, Obama promised them the Employee Free Choice Act, and I interviewed the guy who’s head of the AFL-CIO at the time, who said he would eat his shoe if Obama did not pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have allowed unions to organize more easily.
Paul: And of course, they didn’t even put it up for a vote in Congress.
Gerald Horne: Well, once again, one of the points I would like to stress today is the interrelationship between foreign and domestic policy. I mean, for example, going back to the Clinton years, one of the signature aspects of the Clinton administration was the Great Push to admit China to the World Trade Organization. This was part of a larger foreign policy scheme, that is to say that this was part of the payoff that China got for embarking on this anti-Soviet path, beginning in the 1970s.
Gerald Horne: Those at the top of the US political system did not recognize that China would not be satisfied with being a chief labor force forevermore and they would develop their economy to the point where it’s in the passing lane. And it’s interesting, as we mentioned before, that part of the gospel of Steve Bannon right now, the major ultra-rightist force in the States today, is not only pushing for these sort of alt-right, right-wing populist programs and politicians, but also this Holy Crusade against China, which it seems to me is a direct outgrowth of events that were beginning in the Clinton years, that is to say, China as the juggernaut, and which if not checked, that is to say, if Bannon is not checked, he’s going to lead the entire planet into disaster.
Gerald Horne: Thanks for joining us, Gerald.
Paul: Thank you for inviting me.
Gerald Horne: And thank you. Don’t forget, we’re in our winter fundraising campaign, if you like the kind of history we do, like the Undoing of the New Deal, we need your support, we can’t do this kind of work without dollars. It takes, for example, just to produce this kind of segment, well, it takes a host. It takes a producer. It takes a couple of guys in the studio. It takes a studio. A whole building here.
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