Political history in the making

Professor Daniel Czitrom, in front of some of his political memorabilia

By Keely Savoie

The nomination of a woman by a major political party is a historic moment and the culmination of generations of struggle to fully include women and minorities in American politics, according to Daniel Czitrom, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College.

“The challenge Hillary now faces in uniting Democrats seems to me far less daunting than the one Donald Trump faces with trying to keep the Republican Party from imploding,” he said of the primary sweep that has positioned Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Czitrom, who specializes in American cultural and political history, has an urban appreciation for a gritty backstory, and has previously written about police misconduct. His latest book, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal That Launched the Progressive Era (Oxford, 2016), was reviewed by the New York Times. A self-described “radical small-d democrat,” Czitrom discusses his book, the history of progressivism, and the current state of politics.

Political pundits have called this election historic, in that a political outsider, Donald Trump, is the presumed Republican nominee, and an anti-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. How did we get here?

Trump and Sanders both reflect a growing anger in the American electorate, giving voice to very different kinds of populism.

It’s a mistake to see Trump as an anomaly or someone who has come out of the blue. He has made headlines for his inflammatory rhetoric against women, Mexicans, and Muslims. But a lot of what he is saying is in keeping with what we have heard from the Republican Party in the past. The campaigns of presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, to name a few, all relied upon racialized appeals to voters. We used to call it dog-whistle politics. Trump has thrown away with the dog whistle, reveling in his role as the id of the Republican Party.

Trump also represents the victory of what I call the entertainment wing of the Republican Party: right-wing radio talk shows, Fox News, and the legion of bestselling conservative authors like Ann Coulter. He is a very popular TV character, crucial in an era when many citizens experience politics through TV, and this aspect of Trump’s rise was missed or underplayed by most pundits.

On the other side, I think the Sanders campaign is historically important as the most successful insurgent campaign the Democratic Party has seen in many decades. Sanders has brought back the questions of economic inequality, poverty, and stagnant wages. The Sanders campaign is the first full-throated critique of big capital, finance capitalism, and growing inequality that we’ve seen since the New Deal era.

Why is there so much populist anger in the presidential contest?

There is a lot of anger about economic inequality. There’s a lot of anger that wages are flat. If you grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and one of your parents was a union worker, your family could afford to own a house, send the kids to a state university, go on vacation, maybe have a little place at the lake.

We forget that the so-called “affluent society” we had after World War II was heavily subsidized by the state: the GI Bill, the Federal Housing Administration  mortgage guarantees, Veterans Affairs loans, the National Defense Education Act, and the expansion of Social Security. Some of these programs reflected and worsened institutional racism, especially in housing. But we have forgotten how important public investment has been for improving lives.

The neoliberal idea that all problems can be solved by the marketplace has weakened our public institutions and made our society more unequal economically. We’ve had 30 to 40 years of relentless attacks on public institutions—universities, libraries, schools, parks and museums, and mass transit. All of this negatively affects everyone who can’t afford the privatized alternatives.  

What can political leaders do to bring about positive change for people?

Here we are in 2016 and we have had a tremendous expansion of rights in the last 50 years—of civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights—and those are enormous achievements. But a progressive movement that is only about individual rights can never effectively challenge corporate power, deepening economic inequality, or the financialization of the economy.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, the Democratic Party was identified with labor unions and their support of union issues. But by the ’70s it had started drifting away from that and cutting its ties to the union movement. The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in the ’80s to move the party even further right. That’s when it essentially jettisoned the labor movement. And that’s when blue collar workers looked at the Democratic Party and said, “What are they doing for me?” Republicans were able to appeal to those folks on social issues on which they are more conservative: abortion rights, gay rights, and of course the backlash against women’s rights and the civil rights movement.

The nation needs to pay more attention to growing economic inequality and the closely related disastrous situation of our inner cities. It needs to make major investments in rebuilding our infrastructure. We need to recommit ourselves to public institutions and public investment. We cannot get where we need to go by simply invoking the power of markets. There are plenty of historical precedents to guide us—think about the Morrill Act creating land grant universities in the 1860s, the Social Security Act of the 1930s, the Civil Rights Act and Medicare in the 1960s. We need to revive the Progressive Era ideal of social solidarity.

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