Charles Peters on Recapturing the Soul of the Democratic Party
Paul Glastris writes in the Washington Monthly:
Most of us, as we get older, tell ourselves that we’ll keep working past age sixty-five, or at least use our skills and experience productively in retirement. That’s especially true of writers. But few of us will pull off what Charlie Peters has done. At ninety years old, Peters, my mentor and the founding editor of the Washington Monthly, has just published an important book on the central issue facing the country.
We Do Our Part is a history of how American political culture evolved from the communitarian patriotic liberalism of Peters’s New Deal youth to a get-mine conservatism in which someone like Donald Trump could be elected president. It’s a fall-from-grace story interlaced with Peters’s rich life experiences and generally consistent with the Greatest Generation narrative we’ve all come to know. The arguments and anecdotes will also be familiar to anyone who has read Peters’s previous books and the Tilting at Windmills column he wrote for so many years.
But as he told me when, as a young Washington Monthly editor, I groused about having to commission a version of a story we’d previously published, “there’s no sin in repeating the truth if the truth hasn’t sunk in yet.” The truth Peters aims to impart in this book is one that all Americans, and especially liberals, need to understand: An America in which the elite serves the interests of the majority isn’t a pipe dream. That world actually existed, in living memory. And there are signs, in the country’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump, that it could exist again.
Peters was a six-year-old in Charleston, West Virginia, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office at the height of the Great Depression. He remembers unemployed men, mostly from the outlying rural areas, selling apples on the street corners and knocking on the back door of his home asking for food. He also vividly remembers the popular culture of his youth—Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart playing Average Joe heroes, comedies that mocked the pretensions of the rich. Over the course of the 1930s he saw the numbers of apple sellers and beggars decline as a result of New Deal policies that were crafted and implemented by thousands of idealistic bureaucrats who had poured into Washington to do their part for the country.
At seventeen, he caught a glimpse of the most brutal side of that era when the local police chief gave him a tour of the jail and, “trying to treat me as a man of the world, said he wanted to show me how they dealt with niggers. He opened a door to a closet that was full of bloody garments.” But soon after, as an Army draftee, Peters broke his back in basic training, and during several months spent recuperating in a racially integrated hospital ward saw signs of a more hopeful future. “Our laughter came so frequently and with enough volume that the nurses would tell us to quiet down. There was absolutely no racial tension. [It]…made you think of what could be.”
From there came Columbia University, law school at the University of Virginia, and a move home to Charleston to join his father’s law firm. In 1960 he ran for the state legislature while also helping lead John F. Kennedy’s presidential primary campaign in West Virginia. Both men won, and after a short time in the statehouse Peters, like the young New Dealers a generation earlier, went to Washington. There he ran evaluations for the newly founded Peace Corps, a job he held well into the Johnson administration.
In the standard telling, the decline of big government liberalism begins sometime around the Tet Offensive and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Peters fixes the date much earlier: 1946. That’s the year a number of senior advisers to the recently deceased FDR, people like Thurman Arnold and Abe Fortas, decided to become lobbyists. Few New Dealers had done this before, so the connections and insider knowledge these men possessed were rare and valuable. Arnold and Fortas grew rich and powerful—the advance guard of what would become a vast Washington industry.
Peters’s concern isn’t just with how lobbying corrupted the political process, though it certainly did that—Fortas, for instance, was denied the job of chief justice of the Supreme Court thanks to shady payments from a client-connected foundation—but more broadly with how it corrupted the incentives and worldview of those who came to Washington. Men like Fortas, a brilliant Yale Law School grad from a modest background who owned multiple homes and Rolls-Royces, set a new lifestyle standard in Washington. As more staffers and ex-congressmen followed the lobbying path, those still in government began to see their salaries, which they once considered comfortable, as penurious. (Eventually they became so, as all the high incomes bid up real estate prices and the local cost of living.)
This acquisitiveness was connected to another rising sin: . . .