Rupert Cornwell: US right turn makes JFK's liberalism a far off memory

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A presidential election campaign approaches its climax as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney criss-cross the land in search of the last few votes. But my thoughts have turned to a couple of candidates of long ago, back in the news these past few days.

One is George McGovern, best known for his landslide defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon 40 years ago, who has died in his native South Dakota. The other is Robert Kennedy, indirect subject of a new documentary on the HBO channel devoted to his widow, Ethel, among the last living contemporary links to Camelot.

The programme was a reminder of what the country lost with the assassination of RFK, whose short-lived candidacy in 1968 remains one of the great "what ifs" of 20th century American history: how different things might have been if he had gone on to defeat Nixon at that year's election.

Just the names of Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern get you thinking: whatever happened to the old-fashioned American liberalism under whose banner they so proudly fought? Not today's diluted "liberalism" as practised by Obama which is little more than a schoolyard taunt hurled by right-wing talk-show hosts, but the liberalism that set out to right the wrongs of American society, first and foremost the scourge of poverty.

For Bobby, the reality of what he would call "the disgrace of the other America" struck home during his 1967 Poverty Tour of the Mississippi Delta. In McGovern's case, the concern was on a global scale after President John F Kennedy appointed him director of the Food for Peace programme in 1962.

Listen to Obama and Romney and you'd imagine poverty had vanished. During last week's debate the President didn't mention the P word once. Romney did five times but, one suspects, mainly to make amends for his infamous remark about the 47 per cent of Americans who are "victims" and wouldn't vote for him.

But his dominant concern, like Obama's, was the middle class. Hardly a sentence was uttered during the debates without reference to it: jobs for the middle class, tax cuts, healthcare for the middle class, and so on.

In the US, the middle class is a pretty elastic entity, a metaphor for ordinary Americans who'd already seen their income stagnate for more than a decade before being clobbered by the Great Recession. Depending on the income model you use, they account for between a third and three-quarters of the population. They're a huge number of voters, and appeals to them make perfect political sense.

But the poor are with us, more than ever. The Census Bureau states 15 per cent of Americans, more than 46 million people, live below the poverty line, defined as an annual income of US$23,000 ($28,150) for a family with two children. Of those, six million live in extreme poverty - an income of half that or less. The US has the highest poverty rate of any rich nation.

While welfare programmes of the 1960s and 1970s may have taken the edge off what RFK saw in Mississippi, children "with bellies swollen by hunger", the basic problem has not disappeared. Since the 2008 crash, six million Americans have slipped back into poverty while tens of millions more who cling to the politicians' cherished "middle class" feel the cold breath of poverty at their necks. But no one talks about it like that, and up to a point you can see why.

The political spectrum has shifted to the right since liberalism's high-water mark in the 1960s; a relaunch of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society is inconceivable. In the Ayn Rand universe inhabited by the modern Republican Party, it's every man for himself. Welfare recipients are held to be lazy scroungers, and during the primaries Newt Gingrich's most reliable applause line was to mock Obama as "the food stamp president".

But something deep down is wrong. "Redistribution" may rank second only to "liberal" as the dirtiest word in the conservative lexicon. But the return of poverty rates to a level not seen in 25 years is just another facet of the US' ever-growing income inequality, where the richest 1 per cent have a bigger share of the cake than at any time since the 1929 Great Crash. Politicians still worship at the altar of the American Dream, the notion that anyone can make it big no matter how poor. The fact is social mobility is less here than in coddled, sclerotic Europe.

Soon after LBJ became president, an ally warned him not to squander his political capital on worthy causes such as civil rights and poverty. Johnson's reply was: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"


- Independent

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