Few of us were born yet and those who were, octogenarians today, were too young to be listening, but the thunderclap from those words still resounds today. The man speaking was accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency, a candidacy that all but meant his election given the dire condition of the country as he spoke. What was needed, he said, was “a new deal for the American people.”
As he spoke millions had been decimated by a financial collapse of an economy built on fraud, lies and rampant speculation; all thought to be the birthright of people who believed that government had no right to regulate their activities and no obligation to help those who got hurt. That was what freedom was all about, they told us. Anybody can make it, but it is a cut throat world, and those who succeed are those who can make it work for them.
Our economy wasn’t the only one destroyed by these people. A war to end all wars had ended with no real winner, just empires crushed and millions displaced and the disruptions which followed included bolsheviks and socialists taking over Russia and threatening to sweep through Europe an onto our shores. Paranoia ran deep, as they say, and panic over what’s to some was rampant as the blue blood inheritor of family wealth, and Governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, told the Democratic National Convention that
The great social phenomenon of this depression, unlike others before it, is that it has produced but a few of the disorderly manifestations that too often attend upon such times.
Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much. To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience.
To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster. Reaction is no barrier to the radical. It is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.
This, and this only, is a proper protection against blind reaction on the one hand and an improvised, hit-or-miss, irresponsible opportunism on the other.
What followed his election was the transformation of the federal government from a passive and almost always irrelevant force, into the guarantor of the social welfare of the people of this country. It did not happen, as is often claimed, overnight. There were setbacks—including a hostile Supreme Court striking down statutes that the forces of the dog eat dog capitalism favored by the haves against the have nots—but the change wrought in our government was transformational.
From that day until this, those who profited by the unregulated economy, those who considered Franklin Roosevelt a traitor to his class and to their vision of this country, have wanted an end to that New Deal he proposed and brought on. They famously hated him, and the President said he welcomed their hatred. They did not accuse him of being a Muslim, though many darkly hinted he was a Jew actually named Rosenfeldt (as scary an idea then as Muslims seem to be today) and were certain that he was a secret socialist. With the Supreme Court they controlled, they were able to slow down the changes and, fighting back, the President described his, and our, opponents well.
The first includes those who fundamentally object to social and economic legislation along modern lines. This is the same group who during the campaign last Fall tried to block the mandate of the people.
Now they are making a last stand. And the strategy of that last stand is to suggest the time-consuming process of amendment in order to kill off by delay the legislation demanded by the mandate.
To them I say:I do not think you will be able long to fool the American people as to your purposes.
Pay no heed to the right wing contention that President Roosevelt would have stood with those who want to dismantle public employee unions today. They base that claim on an ancient letter he wrote just as the New Deal was in its infancy and the Wagner Act—the first real guarantee of the rights of workers— only two years old, still controversial and untested.
Those were different days and different situations. There are public employees who are appointees of elected officials who ought to be considered “management” and who are directly responsible to the electorate. But those who are hired to perform the… vastly broader public functions that existed when President Roosevelt wrote that letter, have had the right to organize since 1961 in the federal system and 1959 in Wisconsin. And were President Roosevelt alive then, he would have been foursquare in support of that and public employees today.
When he signed the Wagner (National Labor Relations) Act, made necessary when the Supreme Court held the National Recovery Act was unconstitutional, the President explained what the new law would do:
By assuring the employees the right of collective bargaining it fosters the development of the employment contract on a sound and equitable basis. By providing an orderly procedure for determining who is entitled to represent the employees, it aims to remove one of the chief causes of wasteful economic strife. By preventing practices which tend to destroy the independence of labor, it seeks, for every worker within its scope, that freedom of choice and action which is justly his.
Those of us who entered this world after these struggles, and benefited from the radical change in government’s relationship to the people, have often taken what was accomplished for granted. With social security and unemployment benefits in place, with protections for workers and regulations against financial speculation and fraud in place, we often have taken all of this for granted. We did not, therefore, scream out when President Reagan told the country that
government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem
and the era we entered then, which we have not yet come out of, is the anti-New Deal; a continuation of the decade long quest of the right to blot out what was accomplished then and later, and return the country to its dog eat dog roots. Here we are, with the country in ruin again, the result of “deregulation,” of even presidents elected as Democrats trying to sell the idea that “big government” is bad, and the prevailing view in Washington, D.C. is not that government has an obligation to spend money to replace the money that individuals can longer put in commerce, but that the deficit requires that the government cut back its expenditures.
David Gregory won’t ask the question, but Jon Stewart did while interviewing Austan Goolsbee, the obviously intelligent chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers:
We kept hearing for years deficits don’t matter. Dick Cheney famously said [that] Ronald Reagan proved deficits don’t matter when people came in the republicans came in for eight years, deficits don’t matter.
Suddenly deficits are the only thing that matter….
If stimulus is the thing that got us out of this recession and we still need to stimulate the economy to generate jobs, why has [the] administration in some respects backed away from stimulus spending and said well, actually stimulus spending did it there but now we actually have to address the deficit.
What Wisconsin is about, what Jon Stewart’s question (never satisfactorily answered) and what the New Deal was, and is, a response to, is the need for government to even the playing field, to make and enforce the rules of the road and to help those who needs it help, not just those who can and do contribute to expensive campaigns. The failure to do so, the failure to listen to the cries of pain, might have resulted in a very different history for this country if the Roosevelt administration failed to do what it had to do then, and still could today.
We have a government which is organized for the purpose of winning elections, and not for solving problems. We have a government which is funded by political contributions and not by taxes (which are a bad thing, because it cuts into how much money can be contributed to political campaigns.) Short of providing public financing for all campaigns, any other “reform” is considered an assault on the First Amendment and, indeed, our country has been based on the idea that anyone who wants to support one candidate over another should be able to do so any way they want. The result has become, sadly, a government that skirts on the edge of irrelevancy and worse. It is a scary thought, but no less true than ever before.
As Stewart also illustrated the other day, all of this happens under the gaze of supposed news correspondents who breathlessly interrupt reports of an historic decision by the government to view discrimination against homosexuals as a “suspect classification” justifiable only the strict scrutiny test (the way, for instance, racial discrimination is measured)so as to be able to report on whether a movie actress might have to go to jail.
Served by such idiots, it is perhaps unsurprising that many people stay home rather than vote when there is no presidential election at stake. Wisconsin should illustrate the hazard of such an approach and the people there are getting the government that results when people do not take the ten minutes out of their lives to press a lever, or who allow their disagreement with Democrats over one issue or the other, to cloud their minds about issues that are more forest than trees.
Maybe Governor Walker will do for us what President Bush (II) did and wake up the sleeping giant. It was the massive destruction of lives which made it possible for President Roosevelt to convince a Congress and the citizenry that major changes were required. That kind of energy is needed now, too, and we can only hope that Gov Walker has unleashed those forces that will make what needs to be done begin to happen.
[Postscript: Much of the foregoing was written last week for a post which you might have loved, but which was murdered by computers or internets. That is why there was nothing from Barth last week. Fortunately, there is always Rachel Maddow (or Chris Hayes) to say what needs to be said.]