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The Guardian of Liberalism

America, cigars and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 1)

Yet Schlesinger has seen great progress in race relations in his lifetime. "Fifty years ago, Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma was published. If you read the account of race relations in that book, a great book, and see the contrast between that and today, it's extraordinary. You learn to appreciate it," he says. "If anyone told me 50 years ago that I would live to see a black man as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, black justices on the Supreme Court, a black governor of Virginia, for God's sake, black mayors of Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, not to speak of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit and so on, I would have been incredulous. Yet this has happened, and it's not unusual that the more changes come, the more passionate the need is for further change."

The progress is not enough for Schlesinger. He also understands that it is not enough for those who suffer racial discrimination. Because he believes that affirmative government--the federal, big-government programs--helped to achieve that progress, he deplores the fact that those programs are now threatened. Schlesinger would describe it as tragic if affirmative action had to be around forever. But he thinks it is still needed, because if the country is to make progress on race issues, access to education and jobs is vital.

"My view of affirmative action, basically, is that it was absolutely necessary to break entrenched habits of employment, entrenched patterns in the labor market--you had to do something to change that. But I always assumed it was a transitional device. I never believed that it should be a permanent feature of the labor market. It seems to me that the test of when it stops being vital depends on the attitude toward it of those whom it's designed to help. In other words, when minorities who benefit from it begin to feel that it creates more problems than it does benefits, then it seems to me you've got to begin to phase it out."

Another hot button issue today with Schlesinger is the stripping of federal power by a Congress that wants to return that power to the states. Schlesinger suggests that, before reducing its power, we recall why the country established a strong national authority.

"If the states' rights philosophy had prevailed, we'd still have slavery in this country," he says. "I think it's an illusion to think that the government closer to the people is more responsive to the people. Government closer to the people is more responsive to the larger interests in that locality or state. That's why the role of the national government has been to help those who are oppressed or excluded in their own localities. Most of the progress in making this a more decent country has come through the national government, not through local government. Local government is the government of the local oligarchy."

Schlesinger argues that despite the lapses of the national government, it is self-deluding to believe that power taken from the federal government will end up anywhere but in the hands of corporations. He adds that the only balance to "private and unaccountable" economic power is the power of the national government.

"The free market is not going to rebuild the infrastructure of the country," Schlesinger argues with an "any fool would know that" tone. "It's not going to provide adequate health care. It's not going to protect the environment. It's not going to improve our schools. None of these things are going to be done by the untrammeled free market. And the whole effort to destroy so many of the protections of the consumer and of the worker which is now going on--this dismantling of the structure that Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy and Truman and Johnson erected--is going to make matters worse. So I think there's going to be a recoil against this and I think it'll take place by '96."

That recoil, of course, depends on the American voter agreeing with Schlesinger's view that the Republican efforts in Congress are dangerous because they ignore many of the basic reasons for the problems the country faces. Schlesinger blames the public's anxiety for its general opposition to government, while at the same time supporting the services that government provides.

"I think we're passing through great structural change in this country as fundamental as the industrial revolution," says the historian. "We went from a society based on industry to one based on the microchip, and this is going to bring in its wake all sorts of changes, structural changes, in the patterns of employment. It will probably bring more 'disemployment' than employment, unlike the industrial revolution. And the fear of unemployment, and so on, will become a much more intimate fear for the middle class. The middle class has regarded personal economic insecurity with complacency so long as it was confined to the working class, the blue-collar workers. But now it's affecting them. Downsizing, the popular euphemism, is hitting middle managers--people in their 40s and 50s and so on.

"There's panic in the suburbs these days. And they're mad. The middle class is mad. They were mad at Bush in '92 and beat him. They were mad at Clinton in '94 and humiliated him. And Gingrich was the beneficiary of that. They'll be mad at Gingrich in '96 because there's nothing in the 'Contract on America,' 'Contract for America,' 'Contract with America,' that's going to meet the basic troubles. So I think that the government is a convenient scapegoat, because government up to this point hasn't met these troubles. But the notion that the reduction in government and that the free market, the untrammeled free market, is going to meet these problems is ridiculous."

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