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 Toward a Democratic Left (1968)

 *  “Steel,” Twilight Zone episode (broadcast Oct. 4, 1963)




The   Way   the   Future   Wasn’t

A review of Michael Harrington’s

Toward a Democratic Left (1968)*

 By the time Michael Harrington wrote Toward a Democratic Left, he was a celebrity—author of a best-selling book on poverty, sometime adviser to the Johnson Administration, and “America’s leading democratic socialist.”  In this book, he goes beyond the ground he broke in The Other America and outlines specific plans to deal with the many social ills America faced in the late 1960s.  He does not advocate socialism per se; he merely wants to push the United States a few steps to the left--toward greater economic equality, less corporate dominance of the political system, and a better quality of life. 

Of Coalitions and Realignments

Central to Harrington’s argument is the need to create a grass-roots coalition for social change that would resemble the old New Deal coalition, but with an important difference.  In addition to the industrial workers and their unions, the poor, and African-Americans, it would also pull in a new element: the burgeoning ranks of the “new class” of white-collar workers, many of whom were well-educated public employees (e.g., teachers, social-workers) who had no particular ties to the business community or the business ideology.  Their life experiences, Harrington claims, have already predisposed them to reformist ideas.

According to Harrington, such a grassroots coalition has to precede any really beneficial social change because well-intentioned liberal reformers will not make the right decisions on their own.  This position leads Harrington to curious statements about the current political scene, circa 1968.  One must remember that President Johnson had proposed the most massive reform program since the New Deal—a program that dwarfed Truman’s and Kennedy’s wildest dreams. And yet Harrington dismisses the War on Poverty as “nickels and dimes,” a phrase that led poverty czar R. Sargent Shriver to respond, “Oh, really, Mr. Harrington, I don’t know about you, but this is the first time I’ve spent a billion dollars.”

Grassroots coalitions are not enough, however.  Structural change in the political system would be necessary.  Following James MacGregor Burns, Harrington proposes that the two parties realign themselves: the Democrats should jettison conservative white southerners and become a cleanly liberal party while the Republicans, shedding their liberal wing, would become a cleanly conservative one.   Harrington seemed to have little doubt that if such a realignment occurred, the “deadlock of democracy” would be history and reform’s floodgates would finally open.  The 1964 election is his Exhibit A.  Senator Barry Goldwater’s “audacious strategy” of running as a conservative ideologue had backfired; it “elected so many liberals that it moved the nation to the Left.”  In a fair fight, the liberals win. 

A Better Bureaucracy?

Moving to specific reforms, Harrington tries hard not to pull shopworn liberal products off the shelves and proceed to checkout.  Despite being an old-line democratic socialist (albeit a youngish one), he believes that Big Government is alienating and unresponsive—and that we must try to make it less so.  He therefore proposes:

  • Public review boards for government agencies to which aggrieved citizens can complain about bureaucratic mistreatment;
  • A National Bureaucratic Relations Act to establish collective bargaining rights for users of government agencies (e.g., people on Social Security).  Harrington explicitly refers to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which established collective bargaining for workers.

He also expresses sympathy for government “ombudsmen” to whom bewildered citizens in need of help can direct questions and complaints, as well as for collective bargaining in public housing projects.

Moving to the Presidency, Harrington sees a need for the executive branch to explain its plans to the American people.  He advocates that the President “be obliged to make to the nation a periodic Report on the Future.”   Among other items, the Report on the Future will measure the contribution of federal spending “toward the abolition of poverty and racial discrimination.”

What is one to make of all of this?  Clearly, Harrington wants to make government more understandable to the average citizen, but by proposing new government offices—ombudsmen, review boards, and so on—he is only making government more complicated than it already is.  As for the actual workings of the National Bureaucratic Relations Act, a comparison with labor unions might be helpful.  Union members work together and share obvious common interests, and yet it is hard to get them to participate in union affairs.   So how can one expect the largely disconnected recipients of government aid to involve themselves in something similar?  Even assuming a few activists might set up a “Local Welfare Recipients Association,” can anyone reasonably expect that the grievances of these activists would reflect the grievances of welfare recipients as a whole?  Thanks, Mike. 

Reports on the Future are equally problematic.  To the extent that they could harness policy analysis and other sophisticated tools to measure the effectiveness of social spending, well and good.  But measuring effectiveness is one thing; getting politicians and bureaucrats to use such information is considerably harder.  Anyway, in a more limited sense, Presidents already make reports on the future; when a President proposes a War on Poverty or an Ownership Society, he outlines a vision for the future.

Harrington has other ideas.  One of the more radical is the consolidation of local governments, which at this time were highly fragmented and becoming more so.  The rich and middle-class were moving to millions of houses in hundreds of suburbs with the poor being left behind in a few dozen central cities.  These cities, left with a deteriorating tax base, were becoming increasingly dependent on federal aid.  Harrington believed that if local governments could be “regionalized” (perhaps by annexing the suburbs, perhaps through city-county consolidations), they could become efficient, effective, self-sufficient, and comprehensible.  He makes a good case. He was also prescient enough to see that regional “associations of governments” would over-represent the interests of the suburbs.

Toward a Democratic Left takes us back to a very different country, a place seemingly without a women’s movement or an environmental movement, and where social/cultural issues like abortion remained on the back burner. There was also no question about whether the United States would continue to have the world’s most successful economy.  A factory might close from time to time, but the idea of a Rust Belt was inconceivable. The Long Boom that had begun after World War II would go on forever, and there would always be an economic surplus that could be used to improve the collective life of the nation.   


*All references are to the Pelican edition (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968).




Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em, All Fall Down

A review of "Steel" 

Twilight Zone episode (broadcast Oct. 4, 1963)

 “Steel” takes place in the futuristic year of 1974—five years after boxing has been outlawed.  But boxing survives because the industry has replaced human beings with human-looking robots.  Steel Kelly, played by Lee Marvin, is the down-on-his-luck owner one such robot, an aging B2 model that should have been landfilled years ago but is kept functioning—barely—by Steel’s mechanic, Pole.  Kelly and Pole make their living by booking fights in backwater towns where people still pay to see a B2 in the ring.

After the opening credits, a bus pulls into Maynard, Kansas (a town that exists only in the Twilight Zone), which Pole sarcastically calls the “boxing capital of the world.”  Kelly and Pole get off, and, robot in tow, head to a diner for a quick beer on their way to the arena.    They talk about only two things:  their financial problems and how much longer before the robot stops working altogether—which of course are really the same thing.  Kelly uses words like “OK” and “fine”; Pole knows better. 

“Steel” has a lot going for it—the major exception being Rod Serling’s syrupy voiceover after the last scene.  The sets may be low-budget (the molded plastic chairs in the diner are the only truly futuristic touch), but veteran horror writer Richard Matheson wrote the script, and Lee Marvin was one of the most impressive he-man actors of his generation.

 Revisiting the Automation Scare--

This story is very much a period piece reflecting the fears and stereotypes of its era.  At the time, American intellectuals and politicians were giving lots of attention to “automation,” i.e., machines replacing human beings in the workplace.  Widespread anxiety about automation had been around since the late 1940s, but it reached a climax in the early 1960s.  If too many jobs were automated out of existence, it was thought, most of us would become permanently unemployed.  The message of “Steel” is that all of us might become Steel Kelly.

 --and the Face of Poverty

“Steel” also takes us back to a time before Americans got their current image of poverty, which has it that the poor are mainly racial and ethnic minorities: inner-city African-Americans, Native Americans, and, more recently, hardworking Hispanics who prefer to be paid in cash.  The current stereotype did not emerge until the late 1960s.  Until then, many movies and television programs portrayed the poor as middle-aged white men who had once had high hopes for success but whose skills are now obsolete or diminishing with age.  Now they are barely scraping by—and that’s the best they’ll ever do.