In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not merely win an election, he demolished a broken idea of a government of the privileged, by the privileged and for the privileged. In doing so he was the first Democrat since the civil war to single handedly defeat a Republican in a landslide.
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not merely win an election, he demolished a broken idea of a government of the privileged, by the privileged and for the privileged. In doing so he was the first Democrat since the civil war to single handedly defeat a Republican in a landslide. Only twice before had the Republican party been so thoroughly beaten. In its first election, where Fremont had lead the new party to an impressive showing, and in the election of 1912 where a schism between Teddy Roosevelt and President Taft had split the party. Even before the inauguration, word went forth that the new man was going to be in charge, and that there would be a new "policy regime" in place. FDR came to power promising "liberalism" would be the central governing ideology in the new administration. It was a word that Americans had hear before - Wilson had promised that he would be a "liberal", there was a "Liberal" party in England. However, it was vague and ill defined in people's minds.
He would, in his inaugural in 1933, argue that as long as the country demanded action, that this required a moral restoration, and that the constitution would allow it because it was "practical and simple", and as long as the essential form was preserved, as long as there were regular elections that were free and fair, then all would be well. In doing so he echoed William Jennings Bryan, uttered on July 8th at the Democratic convention in 1892:
They tell us that this platform was made to catch votes. We reply to them that changing conditions make new issues; that the principles upon which Democracy rests are as everlasting as the hills, but that they must be applied to new conditions as they arise. Conditions have arisen, and we are here to meet these conditions. They tell us that the income tax ought not to be brought in here; that it is a new idea. They criticize us for our criticism of the Supreme Court of the United States. My friends, we have not criticized; we have simply called attention to what you already know. If you want criticisms, read the dissenting opinions of the court. There you will find criticisms. They say that we passed an unconstitutional law; we deny it. The income tax law was not unconstitutional when it was passed; it was not unconstitutional when it went before the Supreme Court for the first time; it did not become unconstitutional until one of the judges changed his mind, and we cannot be expected to know when a judge will change his mind. The income tax is just. It simply intends to put the burdens of government justly upon the backs of the people. I am in favor of an income tax. When I find a man who is not willing to bear his share of the burdens of the government which protects him, I find a man who is unworthy to enjoy the blessings of a government like ours.
-- William Jennings Bryan's speech to the Democratic Convention July 8th, 1896
In this central paragraph of his speech, he ennunciates three crucial ideas: that democracy's principles are eternal, but their application is based on the conditions in the present; that what is constitutional is not based on what the supreme court says or not, but on some deeper notion of constitional order, and that the burdens of the government should rest on the people who receive the benefits.
Progressivism contended with socialism for the hearts and minds of those who saw themselves as laborers, as against the "idle holders of capital". The fundamental difference between the two notions was also stated in Bryan's speech:
We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer, the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day--who begins in the spring and toils all summer--and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak for this broader class of business men.
The populist progressive movement saw itself, then, not as anti-business or anti-market, but as an equalising force. It argued that the economic system should not be controlled for the benefit of, and the profit of, the money centers in the east. Socialism saw itself as anti-capitalist, and anti-property. Property itself was the evil, and was immoral.
Most American's are familiar with the classic film "The Wizard of Oz", and perhaps some are familiar with the original play and story by Frank Baum. The book was, and is, a progressive fairy tale. Much like the nursery rhymes of "Mother Goose" its political context and symbolism are woven into child like symbols which are forgotten with context - few could say who "Jack Sprat" was, even though they know that between he and his wife, "they licked the platter clean".
In the original books - it was a very popular series - it was not "the yellow brick road" that Dorothy had to follow, but the silver one, representing silver coinage. Her compatriots were not merely charming characters, but symbols of the different members of an envisioned labor coalition - the tin man representing the industrial worker, rusted in place; the straw man the farmer, taken to pieces; the cowardly lion was the Democratic party - afraid to fight.
Progressivism's essential thrust was for a "moral" order of government. Hence it supported prohibition, the right to vote for women - which occured first in the Rocky Mountain states, and for a greater religiousity in American life in general.- - -
However, the populism of Weaver and Bryan was not the only strand of the progressive movement. The other center of progressivism was not in the West, but in the East, and it was not part of the Democratic Party, but the Republican Party. Its leader was Theodore Roosevelt, popular governor of New York.
New York state is a nation unto itself. For much of American history it was the most populous state, and its politics stretched from socialism embedded in many of the neighborhoods of Manhattan, through landholding farmers who fought "rent wars" against families that had been granted tracts centuries before by a Dutch king, to the bustling crush of midwest industrialism, mixing protestant worship of god and work with financial and corporate innovation.
Roosevelt's progressivism was a genuine as Bryan's, and a good deal more successful at the ballot box. In his New Nationalism speech, he opens with a paean to veterans of the Civil War, then in living memory, and then he turns the corner rhetorically to lay out his vision. First he quotes Lincoln:
Of that generation of men to whom we owe so much, the man to whom we owe most is, of course, Lincoln. Part of our debt to him is because he forecast our present struggle and saw the way out. He said:
"I hold that while man exists it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind"
"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln's. I am only quoting it; and that is one side; that is the side the capitalist should hear. Now, let the working man hear his side...
Having established the ground for his being both an American and a Republican in the heritage of his ideas, he continues:
But I think we may go still further. The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted. Let us admit also the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor, which is the chief element of wealth, directly in the interest of the common good. The fundamental thing to do for every man is to give him a chance to reach a place in which he will make the greatest possible contribution to the public welfare. Understand what I say there. Give him a chance, not push him up if he will not be pushed. Help any man who stumbles; if he lies down, it is a poor job to try to carry him; but if he is a worthy man, try your best to see that he gets a chance to show the worth that is in him. No man can be a good citizen unless he has a wage more than sufficient to cover the bare cost of living, and hours of labor short enough so that after his day's work is done he will have time and energy to bear his share in the management of the community, to help in carrying the general load.
This idea, found also in the writings of Dewey in The Public and Its Problems, ennunciates what might be called "The Theory of the Leisure Class", to borrow Veblen's phrase, as part of democracy. In order to be a citizen, an individual must have sufficent wealth, and sufficent time and energy, as well as sufficent will and education. The argument that is being made is that Greek Democracy was right in demanding these essentials of its citizens, but wrong in limiting their access. It is an argument that shows up in diverse sources, from Veblen to Richard Wagner, that date from that time. The critique of Athenian democracy was not, as the Leo Straussian apologists have argued in such books as "Athens on Trial" a critique of democracy, but of the elitism and hypocrisy of Athens having such a small voting class, and of mobocracy - as the howling Parisian mob still echoed in everyone's ears. The vision was of a democracy - rule by a people with a coherent sense of themselves as a thinking people. Indeed, the quotes above come from a speech known as "The New Nationalism".
What differentiated Republican Progressives such as Roosevelt from the Populists such as Bryan was extremely simple - centralisation. TR believed that activity should naturally coalesce to a center, where it can be directed and harnessed. Bryan believed in decentralisation - of money supply, of regulation, of power. Thus divided, the Progressive movement remained either in opposition, in tenuous coalition, or as junior partner. All of this changed, of course, when "that lunatic" who was "one heartbeat from the presidency", ascended when that heartbeat failed.- - -
The two contending strains of progressivism, along with socialism, remained a potent, but disorganised, force in American politics. Debs' Socialist bids for the presidency attracted votes and attention, but were, in the American reality of a vast landholding class, doomed from the start. With the fall from grace of Wilson's administration, and 12 years of solid Republican victories under wild propserity, the movement seemed finally beaten. Politics in America seemed to swing back to a normalcy of a dominant Republican party of the North, against an opposition Democratic Party in the South with strongholds in the Northern cities. Only in backwaters such as Louisiana could populist progressives like Huey Long attract a following.
All of this changed with the Crash of 1929, and the subsequent economic Depression. With unemployment rocketting to 25%, and with their being no new frontier to move to, it became appearant that a second great national crisis had occured, one which would require the transfiguration of the country in a manner as thorough as the Civil War and its aftermath had transfigured the nation. Either there would be a permenantly lowered expectation, a constant struggling and scrounging after a few pennies, and begging or borrowing a cup of sugar or extra penny nail - or some other means would have to be found.
Arthur Schlesinger, in his history of FDR's presidency, recounts the marches on Washington, the shanty style "Hoovervilles" that sprung up, the growing milling discontent. Gradually, as he and others tell the story, there was a growing fear of a socialist revolution - or at the very least violence. This trepidation curdled the innards of many who had recently been immune to such concerns, because they themselves had lost a great deal of the wealth and ease they had had before, and because in 1917 communism had proven that it could seize power in a violent revolution, and in Germany a "National Socialism" had come to power on what seemed like a wave of popular support.
It is against this background, of half a century of a progressivism which had made piecemeal reforms, and the growing power of totalitarian "socialism" that FDR came to power. He saw his duty as a duty to save a fragile and precious form of government - Democracy. Over the next 12 years he would outline what "Liberalism" meant, and how it drew its strength from Democracy, and was, he argued, the next natural progression in the history of self-government.- - -
Roosevelt had first been seen amiable and shallow by the national press of his day. He would rupture this view with his dramatic speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 1932. He sets the tenor by declaring that the Democratic Party will break "foolish traditions", and then:
Let us now and here highly resolve to resume the country's interrupted march along the path of real progress, of real justice, of real equality for all of our citizens, great and small. Our indomitable leader in that interrupted march is no longer with us, but there still survives today his spirit. Many of his captains, thank God, are still with us, to give us wise counsel. Let us feel that in everything we do there still lives with us, if not the body, the great indomitable, unquenchable, progressive soul of our Commander-in-Chief, Woodrow Wilson
By doing so he takes the mantle of Democratic progressivism of the past, and then procedes to, by slight of hand, declare:
As we enter this new battle, let us keep always present with us some of the ideals of the Party: The fact that the Democratic Party by tradition and by the continuing logic of history, past and present, is the bearer of liberalism and of progress and at the same time of safety to our institutions.
Progressivism becomes Liberalism. FDR is forging a myth of the Democratic Party - his is not the Democratic Party of The Kansas-Nebraska act, of the southern plantations or Tammany Hall. He uses the word progress or progressive, but gives it a different substance.
The task for the remainder of his speech is to define what liberalism is, and how it is inevitable and historical - when it was neither. The common plan of rhetoric is, after an invocation of the source of a new idea's spirit, to define first what it stands in opposition to. This to draw in all of those who are opposed to some perceived ill in the world, but who do not see a way beyond it. Roosevelt happily obliges, first by saying that Liberalism is not "wild radicalism" - meaning revolutionary Leninist communism, National Socialism or other form of overthrow of the existing order - and that it is not the conservative notion of the Republican party. He ridicules it by calling trickle down economics "Toryism" and gests that the Tories had left the country in 1776. The country had forgetten this by 1980 when it elected a president who pressed "voodoo economics" into policy.
And then, without fanfare, he begins to define the idea itself. He spends several minutes giving a synopsis of his view of the economic boom of the 1920's - how it had taken the reductions in the price to produce goods, and instead of raising wages or passing the savings on to the consumer, how it had poured them into speculation which had collapsed. The idea of liberalism is beginning to appear out of the mist. It is heard first by the rhythm of the drum and a distant fife: Liberalism is a theory of government based on facts rather than rhetoric, it is modern in its use of economics and analysis to discern the truth. It is also concerned with fundemental fairness. In FDR's synopsis he notes how the inequitable distribution of wealth created surpluses that had no place to go but into stocks and schemes.
He is beginning the argument that sound moral and ethical policy, is also sound economic policy. He is arguing that policies that are unfair and inequitable will, eventually, lead to crushing economic collapse.
By doing so he is gradually taking up the theme of populism - that moral government is essential for economic health - and transfiguring it. He launches into a discussion of how the credit of the government is at the center of a web of credit which holds the entire economy together. He argues that the Republican administration of Hoover had not recognised it, but what he does not say is as vital: progressivism had not recognised the importance of government upholding such a web either. Indeed the populist solution had been for free banking. Though calling Wilson a progressive, and sounding out populist themes, he is, in fact, calling for a more extensive use of the Federal Reserve system which Wilson had signed into law in 1913, one of the cornerstones of his economic program, than anyone had believed possible.
Roosevelt is left, at this point in his speech, with the problem of tying together the disparate strands which he has started with - fiscal austerity for the government, centralised credit, repeal of protective tarrifs and prohibition of alcohol. He does so by refering back to his joke a the beginning:
"I list an important place for that prize statement of principle in the platform here adopted calling for the letting in of the light of day"
Prohibition, the tarrif, inaction by republican leadership, are all the result of hidden machinations and adherence to old ways. The essence of the Liberal order will be sensible action which brings relief to all. In so doing he ties the wildfire populist strain of progressivism, to Teddy Roosevelt's long battles against corruption in government and excessive corporate influence in the government. And in doing this begins the process of reforming the nation by laying out his platform: actions designed to meet the crisis.
He has reinvented the Democratic Party, from a coalition of opposition to the governing Republicans, to the party of government, driven by a historical logic - one which cannot be said to exist in any tangible sense, except in so far as some of the progressive elements of the past had happened to find their way into the Democratic Party. He traces his lineage implicitly from Teddy, and explicitly from Woodrow Wilson.
And by fusing their two disparate visions - produces a Democratic Party reborn.- - -
After winning the election of 1932 handily, Roosevelt's first challenge was taking action, but to take action, he had to deal with a supreme court still loaded with men appointed by Republican presidents, who held to the vision of a corporate state. The supreme court had for decades struck down progressive legislation: the income tax, minimum wage laws, suits that held corporations criminally liable - or severely limited their reach, as the Sherman anti-trust act had been limited. His second challenge was to find a justification for his actions.
He does both in his first inaugural. But Roosevelt was not a college lecturer trying to make a point - as Woodrow Wilson sometimes seemed in his addresses - but a pratical politician who had practical considerations. His most powerful action was his handling of the bank crisis of 1933. On March 12th he addressed the nation. He first asked for good will, and promised to be forthright and clear - two of the pillars of his political formula, he then explained the banking crisis. He explains in overview the solution, and delicately tells people that the Federal Government has now become the lender of last resort, and will reorganise banks.
The pattern of the speech is the same as his pattern at the nomination: first appeal for good will, then explain, then reassure while laying out a program, and finally argue that it cannot help but be any other way. At the pivotal point of this speech Roosevelt uses the word "liberal" twice in succession, not in a political sense, but in reference to terms of legislation. His entire tone is one of providing for the public the facts, without excessive complication. His argument is that the government is doing nothing "radical or complex" because the signs of its actions will occur in an orderly fashion. By radical he was implicitly refering to totalitarian or anarchist solutions, by complex, he meant that there was no hidden means to manipulate the new system.
At the pivotal point of the speech he offers what may be the most compressed view of what liberal citizenship meant, and where it exists, still means:
The success of our whole great national program depends, of course, upon the cooperation of the public -- on its intelligent support and use of a reliable system.
The public is no longer merely subjected to the cycle of economic boom and bust the way it is subjected to the cycle of seasons and hurricanes, the public is now no longer expected to support a system out of mere necessity. They must give intelligent support, and in return it will be a reliable system. The government must function, not as a patronage machine, which doles out aid inscrutibly, nor a government which spasmodically engages in great activity, only to subside with the crisis.
Before FDR, Americans had largely had a view of government as minuteman and police man - a government that would jump to national crisis, and then return to merely walking the beat. FDR proposes that vigilance is required on more fronts, and by more means.- - -
FDR's speeches would walk this line throughout the 1930's. He would fight public fear by throwing in the bright glare of mass communicated light, he would exemplify a government which was intelligent and intelligently run, to the end of producing effective results. In his second inaugural, he plainly stated the liberal theory of government:
We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster
-- Franklin Delano Roosevelt - Second Inaugural - January 20th 1937
But the tone and idea which he had introduced had already energised a generation to attack social problems which had long seemed intractable. No example can be clearer, or in the long run more fateful for the state of liberalism, than the shift in Black America, from accepting segregation, to an attack on both its form and substance.
FDR's rhetoric was not merely an appeal to intelligence, he constantly asserted that it was morally necessary to act as he did. In his appeals for cutting government waste, extending public works programs, rebuilding the banking system. His very notion of restoration itself rested on a very American Protestant appeal to the work ethic, and to happiness as the result of work, and not material possessions.
In doing so, FDR opened the gates to a flood of young men and young women. Some were called "The New Dealers", others were part of the same flood, though they did not subscribe to the politics. This flood was brought about because FDR's vision, and the mechanisms that he used, found a way to utilise human capital that had been left fallow.- - -
Why is this important?
To quote Niccolo Machiavelli - a political philosopher who is known for his advice to a prince, but who was a believer in government by the people as being more constant and more moral, and whose monumental political work Discourses on Livy is on the government of free republics composed of free people:
"No nation or institution will long endure, unless it refreshes itself at the springs of its creation."
The Democratic Party was born in Jefferson's belief in a free people in a free nation. It was refreshed by FDR, who called for light and air to be brought into all matters of government, and that government was a government of action, not reaction. A government of accountability. A government where the people had a fundamental right to elections, as the assurance of their freedom.