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February 6, 2001

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What Went Wrong?

How Progressive Voices are Muffled in America

by Townsend L. Walker, Sr.

"The National Civic Federation is crucial to an understanding of how the power elite shaped social legislation in the twentieth century."

-- G. William Domhoff: The Higher Circles

Yes, Indeed - What went wrong that in the year 2000 no more than half the nation’s eligible voters (give or take a point or two) have divided their votes between the two presidential contenders and a few independents? What went wrong that the next occupant of the White House will conceivably have received no more than 25% of the potential popular vote? What went wrong that something like 75% of eligible voters will have said "NO!" to this man by voting or not voting? What went wrong that a nation is delusional in its consolation that this is a democracy at work? What went wrong that at this late date in our national history our ears are deaf to fascism's’ jackbooted drumbeat?

The answer, like many others, will be helped along immensely by knowing something about an obscure organization that had its beginning exactly one hundred years ago, by 1920 had effectively accomplished its mission, and within another twenty years had passed into oblivion. The victims of the activities of that organization embraced both then and now virtually everyone outside the inner circles of power. As G. William Domhoff observed thirty years ago in his The Higher Circles, "The National Civic Federation is crucial to an understanding of how the power elite shaped social organization in the twentieth century...providing a program of reforms that would make labor unions unnecessary or less powerful" (pp. 162, 166).

What, then, was this National Civic Federation that in the short space of twenty years (1900 to 1920) was able to set in motion a modus operandi that today contravenes the very essence of what my generation understood democracy to be? What went wrong, for example, that in the insufferably long eight years of the Clinton reign we have seen the idea of health care as a fundamental right, like the air we breath, fade from public view and market place medical care enshrined as the law of Moses and the prophets? What went wrong that a noose of self induced ignorance and technological vanity is allowed to strangle our capacity to think humanly and to act rationally?

A solid understanding of the significance of the NCF for this litany of perversions, flaws and failures begins necessarily with a snapshot of the American worker and the state of organized labor from the end of the Civil War onward, i.e. from1865 to the founding of the NCF in 1900. A verbal snapshot of the post-Civil War era was captured by the fiery labor journalist John Swinton in 1884: "The times are revolutionary. The energies of mankind in our day are immense. There is an extraordinary activity of the powers of life in our age. The world seems to be whirling more rapidly than ever before. Vast changes have been brought about in our generation; others are in progress; yet others are impending. Things are in the saddle. Questions from which there can be no escape are before us."

Seventy years later labor historian Philip S. Foner, in his History of the Labor Movement in the United States, would imbue Swinton’s picture with feeling and passion: "Never before had the nation witnessed labor struggles of such vigor and scope. In cities and towns the armies of labor organized and gave expression to the pent-up bitterness of years of exploitation in a series of strikes which shook the nation to its foundation. The year 1886, a contemporary report stated, has witnessed a more profound and far more extended agitation among the members of organized labor than any previous year in the history of our country... The year 1886 will be forever remembered as one of the greatest importance in the battle waged between capitol and labor. One historian speaks of 1886 as a ‘revolutionary year’, and in 1887 Frederick Engles, Cofounder with Karl Marx of scientific socialism, wrote that during ten months ‘a revolution has been accomplished in American society such as, in any other country, would have taken at least ten years’" (vol. 2, p. 11).


The whole of the nineteenth century was a trajectory leading ineluctably to the creation of the National Civic Federation in 1900. Once the power elite of the colonial period had secured for itself control of the political process and the reins of governance, it could not have been otherwise. Indeed, with the 1788 adoption of the federal constitution legitimizing slavery (the scruples of some notwithstanding) and barring the toiling masses from the right to vote with "the great wall of property qualifications," there was a certain inevitability in certain key events of the next hundred years."

(Historian Howard Zinn has astutely observed in A People’s History of the U.S., "When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.")

The creation of the NCF in the waning days of the nineteenth century was a predestined consequence of all that had gone on before -- necessary, that is, if the accustomed ways of privilege and wealth were to endure in the aging nation. And today, another hundred years later and long after the demise of the NCF, we still live with the various incarnations of the latter (e.g., the Council on Foreign Relations, the Business Roundtable, the Committee for Economic Development, etc. (See G. Wm. Domhoff, Who Rules America: Power and Politics in the Year 2000.)

Next Issue: Continuation on the National Civic Federation

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Townsend Walker, Sr. has been advocating universal health care since his retirement more than 20 years ago. He now edits New Vision- New Voices in Huntsville, AL. This essay has previously been published in NVNV and is reprinted here with permission.


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