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The Galbraith Dimension

By Thomas Geoghegan

WHO NEEDS THE DEMOCRATS?,Galbraith, Doubleday and Company. 86 pages.

IN THE leadership vacuum of the Democratic Party, it is not hard to explain the loss of nerve and the failure to press a reasoned critique against the Nixon administration. As if Vietnam were not enough to shatter liberal Democrats, the rediscovery of the Middle American working class by Spiro Agnew and Kevin Phillips has almost routed the opposition. George Meany and the unions seem prepared to kiss off the party, leaving the Democrats only a handful of blacks and over-30 academics to represent. The Democratic National Committee is fumbling for a constituency. The recent effort by the party treasurer to expel a radical named Galbraith from the Democratic Party Council indicates how convincing Nixon has been-whatever his personal charisma-in showing where the votes are.

The tart little spat, begun by party treasurer Robert J. Straus, focussed on Galbraith's acerbic but scarcely radical essay Who Needs the Democrats?, published last June. The essay summarized past Democratic blunders in tightly written prose and scores some good points against economic orthodoxies and bureaucratic style. But the indictment is incomplete. Galbraith fails to uncover the misshapen ideology which unifies all these blunders or suggest the basis of a new public philosophy. Liberal ideology must also come to grips with the paralyzing vision of an anti-Democratic, sullen, and silent majority. Only then can the Democrats construct an imaginative platform that will guarantee social justice, clearly differentiate themselves from the Republicans and hold together more than half the electorate once every four years.

Galbraith, one gathers, believes that the Democrats were repudiated on the issue of Vietnam. But Vietnam defeated the party in a clouded and complicated way. Americans threw out the Democrats for letting a social revolution run wild, one that was further inflamed by a clumsy intervention in Southeast Asia. Nor did the science of macroeconomics figure as decisively as Galbraith thinks. The only immediate economic question in 1968 was the extension of the surtax, which both candidates promised (no doubt prematurely) to repeal.

By far the most prominent grievance then was the popular sensitivity to the illegitimacy of public objects, of the incapacity of government to order humanely and defuse the socioeconomic environment. Most liberals mistook this indignation at various times for law-and-order, fascism, racism, and even war-weariness. A year later the public irascibility became mixed up with ecology. Americans simply wanted a government that could govern, one which could execute clearly conceived programs with a maximum of legal decorum. The same national mania which put the Republicans in power could have, with equal despair, made Robert Kennedy President.

As a coalition of minority groups, the Democratic Party normally reflects the social tensions of the country. But in 1968 these tensions revealed a unique loss of confidence in the legitimacy of the coalition. The malaise, this politics of despond, goes beyond the macroeconomic and foreign policy headaches of recent years. By confining his essay to high-blown matters of state, Galbraith misses the depth and immediacy of the new alienation from government.

DECAYING respect for public symbols grows right out of the character of interest-group liberalism as practiced-by the Democrats since the New Deal. Interest group liberalism expanded the power of the government but parcelled out to private parties the ability to make policy. The Democrats accommodated or simply bought off each organized interest group with a grievance. These (kind of) habits killed reform. Reform legislation passed, but usually in a castrated condition. Administrations either "decentralized" and shared public authority with private interest groups (agriculture, regulatory agencies) or emasculated the programs financially (housing, education)-or, more frequently, did both.

Gailbraith does well to emphasize the enormous concentrations of private socioeconomic power which thwart macroeconomic planning and continue inflation. A fling at price-wage controls, however, will not solve the crisis of modern liberalism. The country needs a full-scale commitment by a political party to run a government without the interest groups, break down private administrative conglomerates in the trades and professions, and restore a little more competition. It needs some old-fashioned Progressivism, interest-group trust-busting, and even a dose of Naderism before the next Democratic Administration can effectively plan and execute policy.

The Democrats must recapture the use of terms like "public interest." The legitimate use of coercion properly distinguishes the state from another over-bureaucratized pressure group. Here the cause of ecology might usefully clarify the issue. It dramatically heightens the differences between state administration and private administration by corporations. If the Democrats are willing to make unsentimental decisions about the use of coercion-as the Muskie bill does for the auto industry-they can begin to restore some of the prestige of government. Up until now, governmental programs self-administered by private groups (the war on poverty being a classic example) have failed to provide the important controls over economic life.

The cities illustrate most clearly how the Democrats need a whole new strategy of public control to stave off social disaster. At present, the urban crisis falls into a no man's land of divided municipal, state, and federal authorities. None of them are held responsible for the urban problem, and it is curious that Galbraith barely mentions the cities. The Democrats have failed to build a broad national constituency for urban programs. At the local level, faced with the defection of the suburbs and satellite towns, the cities suffer from a shrinking tax base and a slow loss of political power. They have been overrun with career commissioners and inflexible bureaucratic chiefs. The Democrats can make a sensible commitment to enlarge the political boundaries of metropolitan regions and plan for new cities. Idle talk of revenue sharing and decentralization obscures the difficult task of unifying political jurisdictions on a rational regional scale.

It follows, then, that the Democrats should carefully evaluate the federal-local relationship with more care than Galbraith gives it. But a more critical national priority deserves the notice of the party, especially if Democrats seriously hope to revive the New Deal coalition. Just as the American electorate balks at social revolution, it has an extremely high tolerance for liberal economic measures. Here is where the Democrats roll up their majorities. Galbraith should have warned the party to exploit this advantage to the full, chiefly with the issue of tax reform. The tax revolt of the laboring class, their dissatisfaction with their own so-called affluence, rates as a central phenomenon in American politics. If the Democrats come out loudly for tax reform and force Congress to look to the top income groups for revenue, it will remain the spiritual home of the American working class-no matter how many books Kevin Phillips writes. The Republicans can never deliver on tax reform so long as it means an attack on corporate privilege, oil depletion allowances, patent controls, licensing of utilities and the leasing of lands. The reform of all these items may seem visionary in light of past Congressional history. It would require a solemn party commitment and entail an enormously difficult investigation of ownership and pricing practices.

The Democrats should bluntly define reform not as a reduction of taxes but as a redistribution of income. If public spending has more value than private consumption, then the Democrats should launch a serious attack on the loopholes in the 1969 Tax Reform Act. They should even place the redistribution of income before their own Keynesian predilections for GNP growth through tax reductions. But only a few souls so far, notably Galbraith, have dared to proclaim the bankruptcy of the New Economics.

IF UNITED on real economic issues, the Democratic coalition can survive racial friction, but party leaders will have to acquire a mighty empathy for their working-class white constituents. In the last decade the Democrats callously shoved the burden of the black social revolution onto this much maligned class, which the Kerner Commission deigned to call racist. The federal government could have shifted the burden a little by creating more low and middle income housing for blacks and whites outside the existing corporate boundaries in the wealthier suburbs. (The suburbs vote Republican.) Instead, the Democrats permitted race to poison the party and leave a sordid mess which the Galbraith essay serenely ignores. But if the Democrats are to lead a moral revival in public policy, they had better pay their dues to their black constituents. In the War on Poverty, the Democrats simply tried to subsidize the black population rather than break up an apartheid economy. Housing and schooling still provide the arena for tough laws against economic discrimination.

HAVING devoted another pamphlet to the subject, Galbraith soft-pedals military spending in this essay. It should be clear, though, that the Democrats can more effectively put this issue across on economic grounds rather than moral ones. To stake a case against militarism on moral arguments might ultimately work but it would entail unnecessary years in the political wilderness. Given the current patience of voters with liberal ethics, the party might wisely reserve appeals to conscience for matters like racial poverty and apartheid. Military spending defeats itself almost from fiscal definition of the problem. It creates enormous budget deficits; it swells consumer demand without adding to the supply of consumer goods; and it preempts funds from urgently needed relief programs.

In foreign policy, Galbraith makes fun of the techniques used by the State Department to oversell the Communist conspiracy in Asia and Europe. He is perfectly justified in his skepticism but probably underestimates the almost constitutional permanence of such diplomatic policy. Rhetorical overkill lies at the heart of the American foreign policy establishment. To establish bipartisan cohesion among the branches and departments of government requires whipping up the public and overselling "remedies." Policies must be unambiguous, but unambiguous policies escalate a diplomatic crisis. The American foreign policy establishment is a broad coalition of agencies and publics that must be welded together by the rhetoric of victory. This kind of rhetoric, fortunately inapplicable (as yet) to the Middle East, is indispensable to a united front in peacetime.

As they fight for a homogeneous public philosophy, Democrats may ask whether this requires a realignment of the parties. Galbraith caught hell for suggesting a purge of the Southern bloc, which would mean allowing the Republicans to organize the House of Representatives and name the committee chairmen. If the legislative branch is in the hands of a conservative coalition, he argues, then the minority liberals must expose and attack the conservative power centers of Southern legislators. He excepted the Senate and, presumably, Senator Fulbright. The objective of a Southern purge, though, might also be accomplished through Congressional reform of the seniority system. Congressional reform deserves a much higher priority of the two. It would channel increased liberal energies into the legislative branch as an instrument for social change.

Most likely, though, any purge or reform must await the return of a strong Democratic president with the guts to lend his prestige to the effort. Not since FDR has the presidential party ever amassed enough muscle to intimidate the congressional party-although the prospects have improved somewhat since the Johnson-Rayburn days. While Galbraith may be right about the Dixie nemesis, no one should expect the Democratic Party to inflict on itself a massive internal bleeding in its current state of health. With perhaps a lingering nostalgia for the days of Southern populism, some liberals expect the problem to take care of itself as the black Democratic electorate grows in the South.

The Galbraith essay pokes into the pathology of Democratic hyperbole, bureaucratic caution, and the single-minded concentration on production which have afflicted American life. It is as much a social document as a party document-and besides, it sounds absurd to call the Democrats a party. The essay also shows off Galbraith's elegantly clean prose to great advantage. The hegemony of George Orwell over the modern political pamphlet may cause readers to regret Galbraith's detached sarcasm and lack of personal outrage. But they can admire the personal outrage he provokes in Robert Straus and his Democratic friends.

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