This is Henry Wallace, a Republican businessman, agricultural scientist and newspaper editor who -- despite his party affiliation -- became Franklin D. Roosevelt's first Secretary of Agriculture in 1933. For more than seven years, Wallace did that job so well that Roosevelt named him as his as his vice-presidential running mate in 1940. Had it not been for a revolt among Democratic delegates at their 1944 convention, Vice President Wallace would have become the 33rd President of the United States instead of Harry S. Truman.
There are all sorts of interesting facts about Wallace, an Iowan whose research into crop yields changed the way we grow corn today and later led to the first genetic corn hybrids, which have done wonders to increase food production around the world.
But here's what's truly remarkable about the man from my perspective. As Wallace arrived in Washington in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, America's heartland had become a radical place. Midwestern farmers had been suffering through their own recession for years before the stock crash in 1929, and the Depression only made their already desperate crisis worse. By the time Wallace took office, American farmers -- generally considered then as now a practical and conservative bunch -- were on the brink of open, violent rebellion. Not right-wing rebellion, mind you. Left-wing, socialist, communist rebellion.
Farm strikes began across the region during the Hoover Administration, but the intensity of the "Farm Holiday" movement didn't subside with the election of a Democratic president. By the end of 1933, pickets in Iowa and Wisconsin and the Dakotas were blockading roads that other farmers used to carry their goods to market. The traffic stops turned violent, and their movements became bolder. Law enforcement feared to venture into hotbed areas.Clashes between strikers, strike-breakers and National Guard troops turned fatal.
And so Wallace, who arrived in Washington with a scientist's sensibilities and no meaningful political background, took a look at the problem and came up with a solution. The farmers were going broke because they were too productive, which was driving down the price of food. Since individual farmers couldn't afford to stop producing (they were going broke in the first place), and since markets were only doing what markets do, American capitalism had created a vortex that was endangering the nation's food supply and threatening to radicalize its agricultural heartland. Communist Party organizers, recognizing an opportunity, converged on farming communities across the Northern Plains.
So what did Wallace do? He proposed a radical, left-wing solution: He paid farmers to stop growing crops. He paid farmers to slaughter hogs and not take them to market.
He took taxpayer money (well, actually, he borrowed it) and gave it to people to do nothing. He blatantly redistributed wealth.
And here's the point. This profoundly radical act (paying out farm subsidies) turned out to be profoundly conservative. In doing this thing that horrified American capitalists, Wallace conserved American capitalism. He didn't propose farm subsidies because he wanted to end free-market farming, or make farmers government-dependent tools of a socialist state. He proposed it because it solved a problem that was on the verge of tearing the country apart and providing an opening for radical opponents of capitalist democracy. By violating capitalism's moribund 1930s orthodoxy in order to save it from its own inherent flaws, Wallace conserved what was valuable about our system.
In setting an ideological hard line against Obama's jobs bill and other efforts to improve the economy, today's Washington conservatives seek to accomplish two things: 1. Obstruct everything Obama proposes in order to humiliate him; and 2. Keep the economy in crisis, in hopes of blaming Democrats for our national misery in 2012. They have branded as "socialist" every Keynesian effort the Democrats have proposed to get the economy moving again, and routinely refer to Obama's policies as radical.
From any kind of less-partisan perspective, Obama is the opposite of a radical. If you want to see radical, let the Republicans continue their failed economic policies. Let them expand the disparity between the wealthy and the middle class. Let them balance their artificially urgent austerity program on the backs of the poor and middle class, while the rich get richer.
If you want to be conservative, conserve our values by fixing what's wrong with our system, even it if means going outside of your comfort zone. You want to see radicalism, don't fix anything. You'll get your wish, and none of us are likely to be happy about it.