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Historian Alan Brinkley on right-wing populism and “fighting back’’

Date Published: 01/22/2010

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Eminent historian Alan Brinkley (Columbia University professor, an authority on 1930s populist movements of the left and the right and the New Deal, also son of legendary TV anchor David Brinkley) was in town this week and offered some timely wisdom at the Humphrey Institute about the conservative populist uprising.

Brinkley is himself a progressive and a voice for "pragmatic liberalism.'' Although an admirer of President Obama and his agenda, Brinkley compared him unfavorably in some respects to Franklin D. Roosevelt, noting that FDR fought back against a right-wing populist revolt to his progressive agenda with passion and "almost incendiary'' rhetoric, sweeping to reelection in 1936. 

Brinkley said Obama has been too cool and passive and there has been "no effective rebuttal to many of the dishonest claims made by opponents of the health-care bill.'' And he suggested that for Obama, this is "not a time to conciliate, it's a time to fight.'' 

I liked his candid repsonse to a question I asked, as to whether progressives should be more clear about the growing economic inequality in the nation, and more honest about growing the public sector to provide more economic security, as insurance against private-sector abuse and failure. Brinkley said "progressives should talk about inequalities and (conservative) policies that have made (inequality) greater... Taxes do have to go up.'' 

But he added: "Nobody wants to be raising taxes and nobody wants to talk about inequality because nobody is sure how to fix it.'' 

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