Not Even Past

Which past president stood up most stalwartly for the anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-union principles that animate today’s conservative movement? Of course, most activists on the right would confer that honor on Ronald Reagan.

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If Mitt Romney’s association with Bain Capital ends up sinking his presidential campaign, he’s unlikely to appreciate the irony. But, if he needs consolation, he might consider seeking solace in American history. The fact is that no successful businessman has ever been a successful president, and only a few have even been serious contenders for the job. This might seem odd, given Americans’ long romance with wealthy entrepreneurs and the enterprises they build.

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To paraphrase Mark Twain, nearly everybody (everybody except conservative ideologues, of course) complains about rich people and big corporations bankrolling our campaigns, but hardly anybody seems to be doing anything about it.

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A Polish New Left

Across much of Europe, the economic crisis and dread of Islamic immigrants has boosted the fortunes of the populist right. In France, the National Front candidate won almost a fifth of the popular vote in the first round of the presidential elections this spring. Parties that preach fear and loathing of cultural tolerance are part of the governing coalition in both the Netherlands and Hungary. But, over the past decade, a cosmopolitan populist movement on the left has been steadily growing in what may seem a rather unlikely place: Poland.

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Last fall, Mitt Romney alleged that Obama “takes his political inspiration from Europe, and from the socialist Democrats in Europe.” I wish that were true, although socialism has American roots as well. But in point of fact, Romney could summon no evidence at all for his claim. In the richer European countries, citizens have the benefit of a cradle-to-grave welfare system—or did, until the current wave of austerity rolled in.

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Since the 1960s, professional football has supplanted baseball as our nation’s favorite sport—generating higher revenue and better television ratings. And, as the past few weeks have demonstrated, college basketball has captured the attention and diminished the productivity of the American workforce in ways baseball does not. But let’s not confuse popularity with superiority. Major League Baseball (MLB), the oldest spectator team sport in the nation, has become the most affordable and least exploitative one—and its labor relations are remarkably harmonious, too.

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Conservatives are supposed to cherish tradition, to draw on customs and policies which worked well in the past to guide what office-holders ought to do in the future. So it is ironic, if not hypocritical, that they constantly peddle a notion about the separation of business and government that has no basis in American history.

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Fifty years ago, liberals and radicals were eager and able to think big. Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, sparked a campaign to defend and develop diverse urban neighborhoods. In 1962, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, with its startling revelations about the depth and extent of poverty, as well as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the first environmental best-seller, appeared.

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On the night of his triumph in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich boldly announced: “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” Barack Obama did once work in a Chicago project inspired by Alinsky, the legendary community organizer who died in 1972.

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