The lessons of Franklin Roosevelt are relevant today, especially the need for an activist government to “promote the general Welfare” by investing in infrastructure and combating the power of “organized money.” But many Democrats shy away from the debate, says Beverly Bandler.
By Beverly Bandler
Last Thursday – Jan. 30 – was the 132nd anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birth. You’d think that the Democratic Party would celebrate the occasion: the birth of the Democratic president who led the nation out of the worst economic crisis in its history, who guided the country through a catastrophic global war, who fulfilled the constitutional mandate on the federal government to “provide for … the general Welfare,” and who devised the policies that helped create the Great American Middle Class while also stabilizing the capitalist system.
“No president since the founders has done more to shape the character of American government,” notes historian Alan Brinkley in his biography of Roosevelt. “No president since Lincoln served through darker or more difficult times. The agenda of postwar American liberalism was set out by FDR in 1944, when he called for an ‘economic bill of rights.’”
Nicholas Lemann in his review of Ira Katznelson’s book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, reminds us that during Roosevelt’s first term the threat of fascism was real, that “alternate systems were on the verge of imposing themselves by force on many other countries.”
Yet, by the counter-force of his personal will and his creative policies, Roosevelt steered America – and arguably the world – away from that abyss. But modern Democrats are hesitant to celebrate the contributions of FDR and his New Deal.
These days, the Democratic Party acts more like an enabler of the Republican Party as it seeks to poison the memory of the 32nd president and bury the significance of what FDR accomplished. Instead of highlighting Roosevelt’s remarkable legacy, today’s Democrats seem afraid to argue the point that government is vital to a successful society. They shy away from that debate despite the fact that the lessons of Roosevelt are central to solving the problems that the nation faces in 2014.
Besides the mainstream Democrats and their timidity, many average Americans suffer from “terminal historical amnesia” and appear oblivious of the history of FDR’s era. Too many who came of age in the years of Ronald Reagan (and after Reagan) bought into his idiom that “government is the problem” and his prescription of ”trickle-down economics” (giving massive tax cuts to the rich and trusting that their investments and spending will spill over to raise the living standards of working- and middle-class Americans).
For some Americans, it doesn’t even matter that Reagan’s nostrums have failed miserably, as today’s rich have amassed huge wealth – and the power that goes with it – while pretty much everyone else has stagnated or lost ground.
Still, an appreciation of FDR’s accomplishments and a recognition of Reagan’s mistakes are alive among serious historians. When 238 participating presidential scholars took part in the Siena College Research Institutes Survey of U.S. Presidents in 2010, Franklin Roosevelt ranked as the top all-time chief executive. Ronald Reagan was not even in the top ten.
If only that awareness could penetrate Official Washington’s conventional wisdom. Though President Barack Obama has highlighted the problem of income inequality, which Roosevelt ameliorated and which Reagan exacerbated, Obama has shied away from making the forceful argument that Reagan was just a skillful front man for the same forces of “organized money” that Roosevelt fought.
Obama also has failed to dislodge the resistance to activist government that is represented by Republicans, the Tea Party and the Right – and some analysts wonder if Obama and the Democrats really want to do so.
Economics professor Richard D. Wolff says ”Obama and most Democrats are so dependent on contributions and support from business and the rich that they dare not discuss, let alone implement, the kinds of policies Roosevelt employed the last time U.S. capitalism crashed.”
The Republican Party and many of these corporatist Democrats would have the United States regress to that earlier, more primitive time, the days before Roosevelt. But look more closely at the inequities of the 1920s — and the era’s reckless capitalism that drove the country into the Great Depression. You won’t like what you see.
Yet, corporatist Democrats have let the Right get away with re-writing this history, canonizing Reagan as the “greatest president ever” (with his name etched into government buildings and his statue outside public facilities across the country), while consigning Roosevelt to a second-tier status (even questioning the effectiveness of his efforts to pull the nation out of the Great Depression).
Salvaging that history – as well as its important lessons about the necessity of government action on behalf of the people to counterbalance the destructive excesses of the “market” – can be the beginning of a crucial debate about where the United States is heading now and where it should go in the future.
That debate can start with our remembering one leader who dared to challenge an unjust status quo, someone who fearlessly fought the power of “organized money” and who helped save the American Republic. Some of us do remember.[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s "FDR's Legacy of Can-Do Government."]
Beverly Bandler’s public affairs career spans some 40 years. Her credentials include serving as president of the state-level League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands and extensive public education efforts in the Washington, D.C. area for 16 years. She writes from Mexico. As full disclosure, she notes that she considers herself a member of the “Democratic wing” of the Democratic Party, but a U.S. citizen first.
Sources and Reading
Brinkley, Alan. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Oxford University Press. 2009.
Davidson, Lawrence. “Forgetting the Why of the New Deal.” ConsortiumNews, 2012-08-20. http://consortiumnews.com/2012/08/20/forgetting-the-why-of-the-new-deal/
Katznelson, Ira. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Liveright; 1 edition (February 22, 2013).
Lemann, Nicholas. “The New Deal We Didn’t Know.” Lemann reviews Ira Katznelson Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York Review of Books, 2013-09-26. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/sep/26/new-deal-we-didnt-know/?pagination=false
Madrick, Jeff. The Case for Big Government. Princeton University Press; 1 edition (October 6, 2008).
Parry, Robert. America’s Stolen Narrative: From Washington and Madison to Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes to Obama. The Media Consortium; First edition (October 17, 2012).
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. “The Economic Bill of Rights.” January 11, 1944. American Heritage Center Museum. http://www.fdrheritage.org/bill_of_rights.htm
Siena Research Institute. “American Presidents: Greatest and Worst.” 2010-07-01.
Wolff, Richard D. “Ghost of the New Deal Haunts Democrats’ Agenda, but It’s Time to Summon FDR.” Truthout, 2012-10-10. http://truth-out.org/news/item/12016-bush-may-have-been-absent-from-the-rnc-but-the-dnc-banished-a-past-president-too