The Liberal Dilemma: Can the New President Achieve Both Guns and Butter?

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tags: election 2016



Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security (Oxford Univ. Press)

“Wake up every one of you to the two fronts on which our defense must be built!”

-Eleanor Roosevelt, 1940


As of this writing, according to the latest polls, Hillary Clinton is poised to become the next president of the United States. Amid the onslaught of news coverage given to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, however, too little attention has been paid to the demands sure to face “a progressive who likes to get things done” (Clinton’s words) once she steps through the doors of the Oval Office in January.

What much of the coverage has obscured is that Hillary Clinton has campaigned assiduously on planks to intensify the war against ISIS and simultaneously to close the decades-in-the-making divide pitting the richest Americans who have seen their wealth soar against the vast majority of middle- and lower-income earners who have seen their incomes stagnate. More so than in 2008 or 2012, racial injustice in the criminal justice system and systemic racism have also become flashpoints, and Clinton has promised to tackle both head on.

Thus, her campaign—staked on pledges to step up the war against ISIS while attacking discrimination and inequality at home—has invited a fair question about her agenda: how will she achieve both “guns” and “butter” simultaneously? Can she accelerate the military campaign against ISIS, strengthen homeland defense, and launch a fresh assault against economic and social inequities?

The historical record reveals some of the challenges that lay ahead for her. In September, I had the opportunity to talk about some of these challenges, featured in my new book Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security (2016), at the Washington History Seminar. Part of what I argued is that in the face of the fascist threat emanating from Europe, some New Deal liberals such as Fiorello H. La Guardia, New York mayor and Office of Civilian Defense director, prioritized the militarization of the home front, while other liberals including Eleanor Roosevelt prioritized enactment of a wartime New Deal.

Now, with the United States in its second decade of the war on terrorism, and with a somewhat hawkish, reform-minded progressive possibly about to become president, it’s important to recall how Roosevelt, who served as assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense while she was first lady, and La Guardia exemplified the rift among liberals: a desire to realize social progress at home against the urge to militarize domestic society. ...




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