Dismantling FDR’s Legacy
With Mitt Romney exposed as another disciple of Ayn Rand’s gospel of makers and takers, Election 2012 is shaping up as a test of whether the United States will embrace the laissez-faire Gilded Age or uphold the New Deal with its middle-class values. Will Franklin Roosevelt be honored or rejected, asks Beverly Bandler.
By Beverly Bandler
The Republican Party wants to undo the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and what is left of the New Deal. Many Republicans hated FDR when he was alive. They hate him still. They refuse to accept that he saved capitalism and that he genuinely believed that the government had a duty to serve 100 percent of the country’s citizens, not only the 53 percent, or the 2 percent or the 1 percent.
According to a recently leaked video, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a closed-door fundraiser in May that he thinks 47 percent of Americans are deadbeats who consider themselves “victims.” In doing so, Romney revealed that he stands with his party’s Social Darwinists and shares the worldview of fiction writer Ayn Rand.
As political scientist Alan Wolfe writes, that view “boils down to two propositions. One is that selfishness is the highest of moral virtues. The other is that the masses, above all resentful of success, are parasites living off the hard work of capitalists far superior to them in every way.”
This current Republican leadership believes the U.S. should return to the laissez-faire days of the 1920s when, in spite of the post-World War I boom, more than half of the country’s population was living below a minimum subsistence level and without any safety nets for the recurring economic crises.
The federal government did not intervene when the cycles of boom and bust ruined the lives of many Americans (including former Vice President Dick Cheney’s grandfather and great-grandfather).
Between the starting point of the Depression in late 1929 and the 1932 election of FDR, Republican President Herbert Hoover’s response was one of “dismal pessimism.” He appeared so overwhelmed by the Depression that one observer remarked, “If you put a rose in Hoover’s hand, it would wilt.”
Hoover held to the conventional wisdom of the day that the crisis would simply have to resolve itself and that the government had no responsibility to do anything about it.
As Lawrence Davidson writes: “In the 132 years between 1797 and 1929, there was no effective regulation of the U.S. economy. No federal agencies existed to control corruption, fraud and exploitation on the part of the business class. Even during the Civil War, economic management on a national level was minimal and war profiteering common.
“As a result the country experienced 33 major economic downturns which impacted roughly 60 of the years in question. These included 22 recessions, four depressions, and seven economic ‘panics’ (bank runs and failures). …
“The Great Depression was a real moment of truth for the capitalist West because it suggested to the open-minded that the free-market ideology was seriously flawed. Free-market practices had brought the economic system to the brink of collapse, and Russia’s newly triumphant communists represented serious competition.
“So the question that had to be answered was how best to modify the capitalist system so as to preserve the position of the ruling elite. It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who came up with an answer, at least for the United States.
“Through a series of economic and social experiments he crafted the New Deal and promoted the notion of the welfare state … this was not socialism. In essence, the New Deal was capitalism with safety nets and subsidies…
“It has been 67 years since the end of WWII and during that time there have been 11 recessions impacting only 10 years of that time span. Most of these recessions have been mild affairs compared to the 33 that came prior to the onset of the Great Depression, and the welfare safety net has helped the hardest hit to survive. However, since the 1980s, the U.S. economy has become more unstable and some of the downturns more severe.”
The Great Recession that began in late 2007 follows Ronald Reagan’s deregulation fervor of the 1980s and fits more with the pattern of the pre-New Deal days. Now, the Republicans, in effect, want to impose a Herbert Hoover-style response to th ecurrent crisis by getting rid of President Barack Obama and electing Mitt Romney.
In the Republicans’ mythological age of the 1920s, there was great prosperity, which is true, but it was a prosperity that primarily benefited the rich. Wealth did not “trickle down” any better then than it has since the 1980s. In the 1920s in rural America, for example, nine out of every ten families lived without electricity.
The authoritarian and elitist Republicans don’t want Americans to know this history (particularly since the New Deal put the Democrats in power from 1933 until 1952 and the party was the dominant influence until 1968) or to know that GOP conservative policies helped create the Great Depression as they did the current Great Recession (admittedly, in the latter they had help from those Democrats who have forgotten history as well).
Republicans reject government intervention as a threat to “liberty.” They define “liberty” as the right for the powerful to get what they want, when they want, and how they want it with no restrictions. Today’s Republicans want a return to the rule of privilege. No questions asked; no accounting required.
The Democratic Party needs to remember this history and its lessons, lessons that are relevant to the 2012 election.
That history tells us that at a moment of great crisis eight decades ago, a man who could not walk led a crippled nation out of the Great Depression and then brought the United States to the threshold of victory in World War II.
In doing this, Roosevelt changed the federal government’s relationship to its people, creating a modern governing structure for a nation that soon would take the center of the world stage.
FDR’s New Deal saved capitalism from itself and laid the foundation for America’s Great Middle Class, which, in turn, drove the U.S. economy to unprecedented success and broad prosperity. Today’s Republican Party doesn’t want Americans to know this.
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. Bandler attended Sarah Lawrence College (‘59) and has a master’s degree in Public Administration from George Washington University (‘82). She writes from Mexico.