“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.”
Those words were spoken by Franklin Roosevelt. Most Americans today are in doubt about our nation’s future. We, as a people, need to have a confidence in our institutions and in our ability to regain our place as a civilized decent society that cares for all segments of society.
We can learn from our past and it is time to review a period of our history that is similar to this one.
Many Republican opponents and conservative Democrats criticized FDR and the New Deal as a socialist plan that undermined the American capitalist system. It would appear his wise and astute political judgment saved the free market system and ensured and created a more equitable American social and economic system.
Last summer my wife, Louisa, and I, along with another couple, made a pilgrimage to Hyde Park, New York to visit the ancestral home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All of us are admirers of the former president and his wife, Anna Eleanor.
His presidency may have been, after the Civil War, one of the most difficult ones. In a survey of prominent historians he was listed as the third greatest president after Washington and Lincoln. Despite his prominent place in history, there are some conservative political commentators and historians who are claiming he and his leadership during the Great Depression and the Second World War were failures. New Deal policies are considered a failure because there was still a ten percent rate of unemployment after eight years. His war policies led to the rise of communism as a threat to democratic countries according to the revisionists. In this missive I will discuss the New Deal and not the war years.
Conservatives claims that the New Deal was a failure are ridiculous; especially considering that this nation faces another economic disaster today. When FDR entered the White House the unemployment rate was at 22 percent. A reduction to ten percent is a phenomenal feat. Our nation began to have confidence and changed its pessimistic outlook to an optimistic one by listening to the president on the radio with his friendly messages to the citizens of the country explaining the policies of his administration as a great experiment. He stated that he would experiment and if the experiment achieved results the policy would continue and if not the policy would be scrapped. Our nation began to regulate the financial industry of the nation.
When the regulations were rescinded in recent years, the banks and financial institutions decided to make our stock market a casino. Social Security was established and today this is the most popular government program. Many widows and needy children are grateful for the Social Security program.
Disabled Americans also are grateful for the program.
A national unemployment insurance became a safety net that was also a stimulus for the economy because the unemployed were able to consume and bolster the economy. Can you imagine how depressed this nation would have been if during this recession there was no unemployment insurance? Unions were given the necessary framework to grow and union membership grew and an emerging middle class arose from a working class that previously knew a lifetime of misery for themselves and their children.
During Roosevelt’s administration more Americans completed high school and that became the norm and not the exception. Many colleges, universities, sports stadiums, dams, bridges, libraries, clinics, schools, housing developments were built as part of the New Deal and that construction stimulated the economy. We became a more tolerant society because the First Lady challenged the nation to face the discrepancy between racism and our promise that all are equal. Roosevelt gave this nation a period of economic growth that has not been duplicated despite the continued high rate of unemployment. He was able to give the people a sense of hope. His formula was expressed in this statement:
“Confidence ... thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live.” Today politicians need to learn this lesson.
It is true Roosevelt made mistakes and he was the first to admit this. Our nation loved and hated the man and that wife. And yet, he was elected four times and most Americans approved of the New Deal both during his life and after his death. There is no popular campaign to abolish Social Security, for example. At one time, most Americans felt union membership is positive and most opinion polls indicate that a majority still do. Mr. Roosevelt in one address to the American people said, “Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-blooded in different scales.” He claimed those opposed to the New Deal did not realize that the suffering of the people must be addressed before selfish interests.
Today, this nation has a leadership that appears only willing to offer sacrifices and austerity for the most vulnerable of society. These cold-blooded politicians of both parties need to evaluate their proposals and policies. Advocating a tax policy that will increase the burden to the poor is unacceptable. Advocates of no stimulus dollars to keep police and fire personnel and teachers working is cold-blooded and dangerous for the economy, our safety, and the future. Refusal to increase taxation for the more fortunate is foolish and dangerous because it demonstrates a disregard for deficit reduction. Calling responsible regulations that will ensure a more transparent financial industry “job killers” is unacceptable and may lead to future recessions. Our leaders are not as honest and forthcoming in their explanations of why some unpopular actions may be necessary. Their timidity and fear that their positions may be unpopular with voters make an honest debate and discussion impossible. Americans want all their social programs intact and in fact increased without any increase in taxes because of the distorted realities of the political class.
There is hope though. It comes from the occupy Wall Street movement that has changed the political discussion from cutting services for the most vulnerable to demands that those who caused the misery pay the costs of their chicanery and fraud. All our leaders must experiment as Roosevelt did and err on the side of the warm-blooded.
This will bring this nation together for the common good and not for the elite’s selfish interest. Roosevelt did and it is about time our present president and Congress follow his style and pragmatic approach.
Roosevelt also said:
“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group.”
That is a valuable lesson.