Resurrecting the New Deal


TO THE DISMAY of nearly half of American voters, President Bush will be inaugurated today.

No doubt, George W. Bush won the election "fair and square," as Bill Clinton put it. But many liberals are lighting votive candles and saying a prayer in private -- and not only because they believe that religion should be kept personal rather than made public.

Liberals will be commiserating in private because they have been driven into the closet. For some time, people have been slinging the word liberal around, silencing discussion with all the finality of a gunshot.

How did "liberal" become an epithet? Some think the media are responsible, specifically talk radio. But changes in the Democratic Party may have more to do with it.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal forced corporations to be more accountable to working Americans. After the unchecked greed of the Gilded Age and the devastation of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Democrats voiced concerns about the inequitable division of wealth. Americans were ready for FDR's New Deal. It was liberalism in pursuit of full employment and a fair wage.

As a result, the Democratic Party was branded the party of the working class. Since then, one Republican objective has been to reverse some of FDR's policies, to limit government control over business. Republicans have been successful, and this is one reason the distribution of wealth and income has returned to the lopsided levels of the 1930s.

Democrats also have yielded since the New Deal to pressure to limit government control over business. Interestingly, this change started with a Texan -- Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society, which funded social programs to help the poor and the underprivileged.

Today, these government programs are perceived by some to be handouts. But the good they do is far-reaching. The problem with LBJ's Great Society wasn't that it doled out money to "lazy" Americans; the problem was that it offered these social programs as a replacement for requiring corporations to be accountable for the social well-being of Americans.

The Great Society placed social responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the government. This divided New Deal Democrats from Great Society Democrats, alienating many working-class people.

Many working Americans think that the Democratic Party no longer includes them. These voters, who were once staunch New Deal Democrats, are voting Republican even though the GOP will offer no relief from the stranglehold that the corporations have on Washington.

Admittedly, contemporary Democrats may offer only a smidgen more relief from the political and economic power wielded by the wealthy. It is this smidgen, however, that keeps nearly half of us voting Democrat. At least, that is, until a viable alternative emerges. America needs a candidate, Democrat or Republican, who will regulate business and help redistribute income and wealth more equitably.

Yes, moral issues matter. But in a capitalist nation, there are few moral issues that don't involve economic class.

Yes, there are companies that choose to conduct business with an eye to social responsibility. But there are far too many whose singular priority is a bottom line.

The fundamental aim of a democracy is to protect its citizens from abuse by arbitrary powers, foreign and domestic. Unfortunately, protecting Americans from terrorism has trumped protecting Americans from the likes of Enron and WorldCom. A government for the people and by the people should regulate commerce, not the other way around. But maybe I'm just too liberal.

Gregg Primo Ventello is an assistant professor of English at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

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