The 100th birthdays of Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey occurred early this year. Rick Perlstein’s op ed, America’s Forgotten Liberal, appeared in the NY Times on 5/27/2011. Humphrey is that forgotten liberal. Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Perlstein opines that “our current malaise as a nation” is the result of Humphrey’s razor-thin defeat and Nixon’s election in 1968. The Nixon presidency lead to the fracturing of America and ultimately the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Perlstein concludes,”how much better things might have been had today’s America turned out less Reaganite and more Humphreyish.”
Recently read Philip Dray’s There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America. He observes President Kennedy’s executive order Jan. 1962 granted federal employees the right to form unions and bargain collectively. Subsequently the Civil Service Reform Act in 1978 prohibited federal workers from striking. This set the stage for the disastrous strike by the Professional Traffic Controllers Organization, PATCO. When PATCO organized a strike Reagan told his aides: “Damit, the law is the law, and the law says they cannot strike. If they strike, they quit their jobs.” When 12,000 PATCO members walked off the job on Aug 3, 1981 the president ordered a return to work in 48 hours or face dismissal. His action destroyed PATCO, an action running against a more compromising approach of previous White House practice. In a defining action of his presidency Reagan, Dray asserts: “had turned his back on eight decades of labor progress”. The president, Dray concludes, was giving a strong message that “organized labor – unionism – was essentially incompatible with the emerging free-world philosophy of the administration”.
In the context of the political ascendency of Ronald Reagan Hubert Humphrey, a dying man, gave his last speech in Sept 1977 at the Minnesota State AFL-CIO State Convention. How appropriate at the close of his political career. Close to the beginning of his political life Humphrey was instrumental, and some say the founder, when on April 5, 1944 the Democratic and Farm-Labor parties merged. The newly organized Minnesota DFL Party affiliated with the Democratic Party. Humphrey consistently led in the New Deal tradition championing the rights of labor to organize to improve both their economic and social conditions. ( See the May 31, 2011 blog at this site: Hubert H. Humphrey’s 100th Birthday Anniversary)
Philip Dray’s final chapter in There is Power in a Union claims the Reagan Revolution shifted wealth from the middle class to the rich. This was achieved through tax cuts, and moving government money from entitlement programs into the military. With an anti-union White House organized labor began to suffered a three decade decline. Causes are complex. There are the social and economic adjustments since WWII, such as suburbanization, a shift from management to service jobs, globalization and management’s ability to hire lower-cost workers, the decline of American industry, and the ease that an employer can replace the workforce. Finally Dray mentions that organized labor is a victim of their own success having become complacent and comfortable with their very success.
Rick Perlstein in his op.ed suggests “our current malaise as a nation” might have been mitigated had we been more “Humphreyish” and less “Reaganite”. Political polarization would best be served with the political parties moving moderately to left of center and moderately to the right of center. Why could not the GOP Reagan political tradition remain tough but also humane and make use of a limited but responsible government? A moderate move to the right of center might alleviate “our current national malaise”.