Most of us, as we get older, tell ourselves that we'll keep working past age sixty-five, or at least use our skills and experience productively in retirement. That's especially true of writers. But few of us will pull off what Charlie Peters has done. At ninety years old, Peters, my mentor and the founding editor of the Washington Monthly, has just published an important book on the central issue facing the country.
We Do Our Part is a history of how American political culture evolved from the communitarian patriotic liberalism of Peters's New Deal youth to a get-mine conservatism in which someone like Donald Trump could be elected president. It's a fall-from-grace story interlaced with Peters's rich life experiences and generally consistent with the Greatest Generation narrative we've all come to know. The arguments and anecdotes will also be familiar to anyone who has read Peters's previous books and the Tilting at Windmills column he wrote for so many years.
But as he told me when, as a young Washington Monthly editor, I groused about having to commission a version of a story we'd previously published, "there's no sin in repeating the truth if the truth hasn't sunk in yet." The truth Peters aims to impart in this book is one that all Americans, and especially liberals, need to understand: An America in which the elite serves the interests of the majority isn't a pipe dream. That world actually existed, in living memory. And there are signs, in the country's reaction to the election of Donald Trump, that it could exist again.
Peters was a six-year-old in Charleston, West Virginia, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office at the height of the Great Depression. He remembers unemployed men, mostly from the outlying rural areas, selling apples on the street corners and knocking on the back door of his home asking for food. He also vividly remembers the popular culture of his youth--Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart playing Average Joe heroes, comedies that mocked the pretensions of the rich. Over the course of the 1930s he saw the numbers of apple sellers and beggars decline as a result of New Deal policies that were crafted and implemented by thousands of idealistic bureaucrats who had poured into Washington to do their part for the country.
At seventeen, he caught a glimpse of the most brutal side of that era when the local police chief gave him a tour of the jail and, "trying to treat me as a man of the world, said he wanted to show me how they dealt...