In his heroically doomed 48-year campaign to promote the Washington Monthly, Charles Peters hit upon one especially apt (if un-catchy) slogan: “If you’re not afraid of being right too soon.”
Peters founded his little magazine in 1969. From the start, he needled mainstream liberals about issues that weren’t getting enough attention at the time: income inequality, entrepreneurship, Wall Street’s money culture, gay rights, the downside of meritocracy, the importance of reforming and supporting the military. Peters made a career of being annoyingly prescient.
Now, as the Democratic Party struggles to remake itself after a catastrophic loss to Donald Trump, I hope Peters again serves as a leading indicator. In a new book summarizing his once-iconoclastic ideas, he weaves a synthesis of mainstream and progressive, centrist and populist thought that would re-anchor the Democratic Party, both in its own traditions and in outreach to the restless, angry swath of the country that elected President Trump.
The fact that Peters is from West Virginia helps him get the big thing right: He knows that Democrats win when they embrace the aspirations of what country singer Jason Aldean calls the “fly over states.” They lose when they become seen as the party of the coastal elites and special-interest groups.
I should confess here that Peters has been my mentor, guilty conscience and friend for 45 years. I was one of several dozen journalists who were lucky enough to hear sermons from his political “gospel” and get “raindanced” as he edited my articles for his magazine. In a journalism world made up mostly of unmemorable characters, Peters is an American original.
Peters titled his book “We Do Our Part,” choosing the slogan of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration. His core argument is that the Democrats are doomed unless they seek to rebuild the United States as a fairer country, less obsessed with money and status but still respecting the wealth-creating power of our entrepreneurial capitalist economy.
Peters is blunt in describing how the Democrats let FDR’s New Deal coalition and his legacy of fairness slip away. The unraveling started during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, in a shift that Peters characterizes in one chapter as “From Doing Good to Doing Well.” It accelerated with the Vietnam War, which Peters saw as creating class cleavages between those who fought and those who didn’t. A classic Washington Monthly piece on this theme was “Let Those Hillbillies Go Get Shot” by Suzannah Lessard.
What Peters saw earlier than any commentator I know was that meritocracy’s rise would create a United States more unequal in its division of income and nastier in its class and status divides. You could be indignant about not being born a Roosevelt or a Rockefeller, but it was harder to complain about not getting high enough SAT scores for the Ivy League.
Peters’s chapters about “The Snob Factor” and “The Price of Glamour” are devastating, and no less powerful for his own mild status obsession and name-dropping. (The reader will discover that our Huck Finn was pals with Allen Ginsberg, Katharine Graham, Warren Buffett, Jay Rockefeller and other luminaries.)
The saddest figure in this story of the implosion of the old Democratic Party is former president Bill Clinton. On his way to the White House, Clinton was passionate about politics, in touch with his Arkansas roots and, as Peters says, “among the first to detect where the Democratic Party was going wrong in the 1970s.” He created a new political center — stitched with ideas from Peters’s canon of “neoliberalism” — that would keep faith with working people even as it built “a bridge to the future” by modernizing the economy and helping workers find their place in it.
But the Clintons, after leaving the White House, came to represent the loss of the Democrats’ connection with the ordinary American. As Peters writes, they entered a world where it seemed natural that Chelsea’s apartment in New York would cost $10 million and that Hillary would be paid $225,000 for a speech to Goldman Sachs executives.
Peters applauded President Barack Obama in principle but saw him as more comfortable with Wall Street than with the working-class voters of FDR’s coalition.
It’s grotesque that the aspirations of working-class Americans came to be represented by a braggart billionaire from New York who masks his shameless elitism with rhetoric about making the country great again.
But as Peters illustrates, the Democrats’ loss of connection with the country is largely their own fault. The interdependence that was captured by FDR’s slogan “We Do Our Part” got lost along the way. Peters’s book explains where to find it again.
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