Charles Peters on Recapturing the Soul of the Democratic Party

In a new book, the Washington Monthly founding editor explains where liberal elites went wrong — and suggests a way forward.

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

We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America by Charles Peters

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 with niggers. He opened a door to a closet that was full of bloody garments.” But soon after, as an Army draftee, Peters broke his back in basic training, and during several months spent recuperating in a racially integrated hospital ward saw signs of a more hopeful future. “Our laughter came so frequently and with enough volume that the nurses would tell us to quiet down. There was absolutely no racial tension. [It]…made you think of what could be.”

From there came Columbia University, law school at the University of Virginia, and a move home to Charleston to join his father’s law firm. In 1960 he ran for the state legislature while also helping lead John F. Kennedy’s presidential primary campaign in West Virginia. Both men won, and after a short time in the statehouse Peters, like the young New Dealers a generation earlier, went to Washington. There he ran evaluations for the newly founded Peace Corps, a job he held well into the Johnson administration.

In the standard telling, the decline of big government liberalism begins sometime around the Tet Offensive and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Peters fixes the date much earlier: 1946. That’s the year a number of senior advisers to the recently deceased FDR, people like Thurman Arnold and Abe Fortas, decided to become lobbyists. Few New Dealers had done this before, so the connections and insider knowledge these men possessed were rare and valuable. Arnold and Fortas grew rich and powerful—the advance guard of what would become a vast Washington industry.

Peters’s concern isn’t just with how lobbying corrupted the political process, though it certainly did that—Fortas, for instance, was denied the job of chief justice of the Supreme Court thanks to shady payments from a client-connected foundation—but more broadly with how it corrupted the incentives and worldview of those who came to Washington. Men like Fortas, a brilliant Yale Law School grad from a modest background who owned multiple homes and Rolls-Royces, set a new lifestyle standard in Washington. As more staffers and ex-congressmen followed the lobbying path, those still in government began to see their salaries, which they once considered comfortable, as penurious. (Eventually they became so, as all the high incomes bid up real estate prices and the local cost of living.)

This acquisitiveness was connected to another rising sin: snobbery, specifically the practice of signaling superiority to the hoi polloi through one’s purchases and discriminating tastes in food, drink, and culture. JFK himself, despite his war heroism and inspiring call to service, embodied the trend by marrying the high-born, fashionable Jacqueline Bouvier and surrounding himself with celebrities.

The twin viruses of greed and snobbery are not, to say the least, conducive to a focused and sympathetic concern for average Americans. But Peters reminds us that these behaviors were not widespread among educated people in Washington or throughout America in the 1950s and ’60s. The postwar prosperity and compression of incomes continued, the draft was still nearly universal—even baseball greats served their two years—and the federal government continued to deliver impressive new national projects, from interstate highways to Medicare, that the vast majority of Americans appreciated.

All that changed in the tumultuous late ’60s and early ’70s. Rising crime, race riots, and draft-deferred college students protesting the Vietnam War while working-class kids fought and died alienated white working- and middle-class voters. Lyndon Johnson’s lies about Vietnam, Richard Nixon’s about Watergate, and Carter’s fecklessness made educated Baby Boomers cynical about the government.

Under these conditions, the viruses of snobbery and selfishness spread wildly over the course of the 1970s and ’80s. Graduates from top colleges flocked to high-paying jobs at law firms and investment banks rather than to public service, and the caliber of the civil service accordingly declined. Magazines that catered to consumer chic and cultural signaling, like New York, Vanity Fair, and Washingtonian, grew fat with advertisers and subscribers. On PBS, the TV home of the educated elite, Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week became the number one show.

“Money had become a major and open interest of the meritocratic class,” writes Peters, in a way it simply hadn’t been from the 1930s through the ’60s. As a consequence, “the cause of lower taxes and of conservatism in general flourished, as shown by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.” Even elites who didn’t support Reagan were sympathetic to the growing idea that the market should deliver more “shareholder value.” So they didn’t protest (some even cheered) when corporations closed plants, busted unions, and spent their cash on stock buyback schemes rather than on new products and services. To the extent that they expressed their public spiritedness, it was by supporting causes—gay rights, the environment—that weren’t the central concerns of most middle- and working-class voters, whose incomes were stagnating while the meritocrats’ were soaring.

The result was greater and greater resentment of the educated elite. The Rush Limbaughs and Roger Aileses of the world fed off that resentment to boost their ratings and advance a conservative movement that didn’t, in the end, improve their audiences’ economic situation—a fact that Trump exploited by running against establishment conservatives as well as liberal elites.

Peters credits Bill Clinton with being the only Democratic president or candidate in decades who managed, through his policies and gift for empathy, to bridge the gap between the meritocrats and the white middle and working classes. And he sees evidence that Democrats have awakened to the problems of greed, snobbery, and elite detachment, including “the radical increase in awareness of income inequality” and “some meritocrats overcoming their snobbery to make a serious effort to understand the Trump vote.” He also sees signs “that people are beginning to question their relentless pursuit of money, or at least some of the reasons why they think they have to make a lot of money.”

More concretely, he is heartened by examples of elites returning to government service. These include the investment banker Steve Rattner, who joined the Obama administration and helped save the auto industry, and the top Silicon Valley talent Obama personally recruited to the new U.S. Digital Service after the disastrous rollout of the health care exchange website. Peters makes a plea for more Americans, especially liberals, to run for office at the local, state, and national levels—something that, in the months since his book went to press, actually seems to be happening.

Charlie Peters with JFK

Charles Peters with President John F. Kennedy.

If anything, I think Peters underestimates the degree to which Americans are hungry to serve. What confounds his call for more of the best and brightest to join government is a lack of opportunity. The problem is political. There are eight applicants for every slot in AmeriCorps, the national service program founded by Bill Clinton. But Democrats’ attempts to expand the program have been consistently checked by Republicans. Trump’s budget office has drawn up plans to eliminate it altogether. More broadly, the federal workforce, at 2.8 million employees, is the same size it was in the 1960s when Peters was part of it, even though the U.S. population since then has more than doubled and the federal budget has quadrupled in real terms. Lawmakers control the federal head count and don’t want to be seen as “growing the bureaucracy.” The most Democrats in Congress have been willing to do is beat back repeated Republican efforts to further decimate the federal workforce.

To make up for the inadequate number of staff, the government increasingly relies on contractors. Peters bemoans this trend, citing numerous examples of how it has hurt government’s performance. He’s right. But he doesn’t call for the obvious solution: boost the number of federal employees so more of the work can be done in house. This would require hiring a million new federal workers, according to University of Pennsylvania political science professor John DiIulio, and boosting their pay as well.

That is also the key to curbing the power of lobbyists, which won’t happen merely by inveighing against their greed. Lobbyists’ power comes mainly from their control of information—about the industries they represent, about the ways government programs work—that congressional staffers, many of them young and inexperienced, often lack. The way to neutralize that power is to strengthen government’s capacity to get that information independently, by hiring more staffers and researchers and paying them more so they can make a decent living without having to join the private sector.

Of course, a politician who called for hiring a million more federal workers, and raising their salaries, might appear suicidal in the current political climate. But if Peters is correct—and I think he is—that a key to bridging the class gap is for more Americans, especially the elite, to serve in government, a political way has to be found. The same bilious anti-government fever that gave America Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich has now given us Trump. Peters reminds us that government service was once a broadly shared and elite experience and value. To cure the fever, today’s liberals must figure out how to make it so again.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.