Julian E. Zelizer: Liberal Tradition is Under Assault

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.]

In one of the unexpected moments from the past few weeks, some defenders of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's attack on public unions have pointed to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Patrick McIlheran of the Journal Sentinel wrote, "Somewhere, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is grinning past his cigarette holder at Wisconsin's governor. They are on the same page regarding government unions."

These commentators have noted that Roosevelt's doubts about public sector unions suggest that today's conservatives are more in touch with his positions than the Democrats.

Yet during the past few months, the nation has actually been witnessing a rather fierce assault on the liberal tradition that FDR helped to create. It is hard to imagine that FDR would actually be grinning if he could see what is taking place....

Historically, unions have also been one of the strongest supporters of other kinds of progressive policies as well, such as health care and education reform. Although union ranks have thinned in the private sector, public unions have grown.

Should the governors succeed in their effort, they would undercut a crucial part of the liberal coalition. During a conversation with a prank caller, who Walker believed to be the conservative billionaire David Koch, Walker revealed that this standoff was about much more than budgets....

The politics of deficit reduction usually don't work in favor of liberalism. A focus on the deficit creates a context both for cutting programs and for preventing Congress from updating and fully funding existing policies. During the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, the minimum wage remained on the books but greatly diminished in value when Congress failed to update the rates.

These are difficult days for liberalism and there is danger ahead. The question is much broader than whether President Obama will be re-elected or if Democrats can take control. Rather, what we are seeing is a rather strong assault by conservative forces against the political and policy foundations of the liberal coalition.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/8/2011

I think, sir, you vaguely realize what you're talking about.

First you write: <I agree that this is about more than budgets, but disagree with his assumption that an ever-expanding liberalism is a public good.>
If "this" is more than about budgets, isn't it un-American to take public actions/reforms, without thoroughly explaining to the general public all the underlying rationale behind those actions/reforms, i.e. what that "more" exactly mean?
Consequently, is it not against the spirit and principles of American society and democracy, as a whole, to avoid such a disclosure?
Secondly, where do you see that "ever-expanding" liberalism, threatening to engulf our democracy?
As far, as the unions' membership in question is concerned, their number has been decreasing for the last DECADE.
And then, what exactly do you mean by the term "liberalism"? Would you be so kind to explain it clearly and briefly?
Provided, you respond with the answers
to the questions asked above, we can discuss the issue further.

Alonzo L Hamby - 3/7/2011

I read Julian Zelizer's entire piece with great interest. I agree that this is about more than budgets, but disagree with his assumption that an ever-expanding liberalism is a public good. Both sides in American politics can and have overreached in the past and will do so in the future.

Anyone who has lived with public employee unions, as I have for around 40 years, knows they are a mixed blessing at best. When they call a strike, as they have a couple of times at Ohio University, the 2 x 4 wielding picketers come out not to face down university goons but to intimidate both their own members and non-union employees. No one to my knowledge has ever been hurt, but it's an ugly scene. Area elementary and secondary school strikes have been just as bad.

In practice, all unions are about obtaining maximum pay and benefits for employees while minimizing the amount of work they have to do for it--not about advancing some general public interest.

Another way to put it is simply to say they are motivated by human nature. Perhaps to that extent they are inevitable. But they should not be free to disregard the interests of the public their members serve.

My own sense of things is that anyone who wants to belong to a union should be free to do so, but that there is no right to strike against the public.

Liberalism and organized labor have a long history of association in American politics. From time to time, both have overreached. Labor militance in 1937-38 accounted for much of the reaction against the New Deal.

Roosevelt's own attitude toward public employee unions, by the way, seems to me that of a typical manager. WPA workers who went on strike were summarily fired. Neither the president nor Harry Hopkins wanted labor trouble in their back yard at the same time they were willing to tolerate it for major American industries.

Maybe they were on to something.