John Edwards has imbibed the political equivalent of strontium-90, or one of those other slow-acting poisons mostly used by the KGB in old spy thrillers; it kills you before you even know it. So while Edwards is out there on the stump, relying upon enough canned rage to fill a fallout shelter, all I can think when I see him is, "I see dead people." Whether he takes the electoral dirt nap in South Carolina or Nevada is unknowable, but go down for the long count he will.
But Edwards' "ideas" live on. The conviction that government - headed by a passionate "fighter" - must crack down on big corporations and "special interests" runs like raging river through the political landscape, from the ideological backwaters of the Naderite-Kucinich frontier to the steppes of Lou Dobbsia to the mainstream of Hillaryville and McCaintown and out toward Mike Huckaburgh and the far horizon of Pat Buchanistan.
But Edwards, for all his handsome simplicity, articulates this vision the most passionately. In the last New Hampshire Democratic debate, Edwards attacked Hillary Clinton for her willingness to work with "entrenched interests." He went on: "Whether you're talking about oil companies, drug companies, gas companies, whoever - these entrenched interests are literally stealing our children's future. They have a stranglehold on this democracy ..."
Edwards then explained: "Teddy Roosevelt, a great American president - he didn't make deals with the monopolies and the trusts. Teddy Roosevelt took them on, busted the monopolies, busted the trusts. That's what it's going to take."
Unsurprisingly, that's not right on the facts or the argument. As I document in my new book, "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning," the progressives' tale of eager reformers forcibly bringing Big Business under heel is an enduring myth that ultimately perpetuates the very problem the crusaders set out to cure.
Let's start with Teddy Roosevelt. According to civics textbooks, Upton Sinclair and his fellow muckrakers unleashed populist rage against the cruel excesses of the meatpacking industry, and as a result, Teddy Roosevelt and his fellow Progressives boldly reined in an industry run amok. The problem is that it's totally untrue, a fact Sinclair freely acknowledged. "The Federal inspection of meat was, historically, established at the packers' request," Sinclair wrote in 1906. "It is maintained and paid for by the people of the United States for the benefit of the packers."
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