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      So, a New York DA has charged Trump. There’s some posturing by DeSantis, but Trump will almost certainly go to New York and surrender. This is a watershed moment, no former President has ever been charged with a crime. This is a political act. Many President have committed crimes and have not been charged. It will lead to red state DAs indicting Democratic p […]
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“FDR: A Democracy-Builder”: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, democracy, and liberalism

[cross posted from Heidi Li’s Potpourri]

I am against the beatification, secular or otherwise, of politicians past or present. But some politicians have a record of greatness, some a record of achievement, some no record of anything, others a record of which to be embarrassed.  I believe that Franklin Delano Roosevelt has a record of greatness – not, not perfection, but greatness, that in part stems from his firm footing in the values of liberalism. Democracy, self-government by citizens, is a form of government that can further liberalism, so long as citizens and elected leaders appreciate the connection between each individual’s  autonomy, the need to permit others their autonomy, and the need to collaborate in the grand effort of self-government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt appreciated these connections, recognizing the value and dignity of the individual. Roosevelt appreciated the state’s affirmative obligation to do more than simply stave off threats to individual autonomy. He understood the state’s role in ensuring a social safety network that enabled the exercise of autonomy. While he experimented with the means to keep American democracy liberal, his programs were consistently aimed against absolutism and in favor of individual self-determination.

The selections below come from an article printed originally in 1995 (emphases mine, the link takes you to the full article). I find these selections as apt today as they were when first written, more than ten years ago.

What did Franklin D. Roosevelt accomplish? It is vital to understand it now, as we Americans consider making fundamental alterations in his legacy. Essentially, he preserved and enlarged the promise of human freedom in our time. Or, as Joseph Alsop put it, “On a very wide front and in the truest possible sense, Franklin Delano Roosevelt included the excluded.”

The America of 1933, racked by four years of depression, was all but exhausted with democracy. Every bank in the country was in the process of closing its doors. Thousands of square miles of farmland had become a desert. Between one-quarter and one-third of the work force was unemployed, and millions were being evicted from their homes and their land every year.
Depression was neither a natural catastrophe nor an isolated event. Things had never been quite so bad, but every 5 to 10 years, for the better part of a century, the country had suffered a wrenching economic collapse, much worse than any recession Americans have endured since World War II. Bank failures and Wall Street panics were common, and usually led to nationwide meltdowns.

Most elderly Americans lived in abject poverty. Working men and women worked six days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day. They were routinely joined at the job by their children; few people ever finished high school, let alone college.

A system of apartheid, rationalized by bad science and enforced by lynching, ruled in the South. Another system of quotas routinely kept blacks, women, Jews and ethnic whites out of the best jobs and schools.

Farmers could rarely make a living; more and more were reduced to the serfdom of share-cropping. Nine-tenths of rural Americans did not even have electricity.

The root causes of these conditions were basic, long-standing flaws in American democracy. More shocking than the conditions in which Americans of 1933 lived was how little say they had in anything that mattered. Banking and investment were dominated by a small circle of self-interested, often dishonest men. Politics in every large city was usually controlled by corrupt political machines. In the South, millions of blacks and poor whites were kept from the ballot box by poll taxes, literacy tests and force of arms.

The power of landlords and large corporations was rarely contained. Unions were small and powerless. The courts repeatedly struck down the most basic minimum wage, child labor, consumer protection and worker safety laws.

The Depression only brought these ongoing social crises to a head, yet few at the time saw more democracy as an answer. The very idea of democracy seemed to be outmoded in the swift and steely industrial world. Hard new nostrums abounded in the 1930s and ’40s: communism, fascism, socialism, technocracy, corporatism.

What Roosevelt possessed was the essential flexibility of mind for a democracy. It was indicative that during his first presidential campaign he promised above all “bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Not everything he tried worked well, and some things did not work at all, and many of the New Deal’s innovations have required revision. Roosevelt himself would have been baffled by the notion that they would not, for he was not erecting a Marxist utopia but a viable, modern democracy. What he did was to turn his entire administration into an ongoing debate on democracy. ….

Best of all, he extended this debate into the living rooms of every home in America. FDR gave the press unprecedented access to the White House, and there were the “fireside chats.”

Yet for all [Roosevelt’s] democratic pragmatism, we look for something more. The life of Richard Nixon provides an example of what can come from expediency ungrounded in any deeper principle. Was there any guiding spirit, anything more to Franklin Delano Roosevelt than tactics and timing, to account for the great outpouring of grief 50 years ago? [note from Heidi Li: The original article was published on the anniversary of FDR’s death]

There are at least two stories from his life that I think are telling. One was the account that he was unimpressed by the Grand Canyon: “It looks dead. I like my green trees at Hyde Park better. They are alive and growing.”

“He responded to what was vital, not to what was lifeless; to what was coming, to what was passing away,” wrote Mr. Schlesinger. “He lived by his exaltation in distant horizons and uncharted seas.”

The other story is from when he was first trying to win back some use of his legs after the attack of polio that crippled him. He would try, every day, to make it the quarter of a mile from his Hyde Park home to the post office on his crutches.

It was a torturous journey for a man with no working muscles from his hips down. Sometimes he would fall – and have to wait, lying face down in the road, for someone to come along and help him back up. “For better or worse, I believe that the Roosevelt who could not walk was in most respects very like the one who could,” writes Geoffrey Ward, and most current biographers would concur. It was Roosevelt’s strong, optimistic – and deceptive – character that got him through the loss of his legs to polio, and not the polio that built the character.

Yet what better training has any president had – in patience, in humility, in building a basic sympathy for the human condition? Franklin Roosevelt understood the clumsy, halting progress of us all, and nurtured it, and the American people loved him for it as they have loved few men since.

Breaking America’s Glass Color Barrier

vanessaIn reflecting upon the historic nature of the election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president, I’m reminded of another moment in our recent  history when the country’s color barrier was shattered.  In 1984, beautiful, talented, intelligent, and yes, articulate, Vanessa Williams tore down the walls of one of the strongest bastions of white entitlement at that time, the Miss America pageant.  Until that point, women of color were pretty much excluded from competition, even when token contestants were allowed entree to it’s rarefied atmosphere, there was scant expectation of them attaining victory.  However, Williams, standing head and shoulders above the field, simply could not be denied.  While we now take fully integrated competition in the fading glory of the event for granted, at the time, Williams’ victory seemed every bit as momentous as Obama’s.

As America’s Constitutional preclusion of blacks as citizens prevented African Americans from from holding elected office, for many years before the crowning of a black woman, the Miss America pageant was also institutionally racist.  Though the envelope had been steadily pushed, women who were not examples of pure, lily-white virtue faced an often insurmountable hurdle.  Even in the case of some white women, like Bess Meyerson, Miss America 1945, being Jewish almost cost her the crown.  From PBS:

The pageant’s long history of excluding women of color dates from its beginnings. At some point in the 1930s, it was formalized in the notorious rule number seven of the Miss America rule book. Instituted under the directorship of Lenora Slaughter, rule number seven stated that “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” As late as 1940, all contestants were required to list, on their formal biological data sheet, how far back they could trace their ancestry. In the pageant’s continual crusade for respectability, ancestral connections to the Revolutionary War or perhaps the Mayflower would have been seen as a plus.

It is no surprise that the nation’s first black Miss America was fair-skinned, deemed not quite black enough by some blacks and far too black by some whites.  “Light, bright, and damn near white,” was the sentiment of some African Americans, displeased that the coronation of such a light skinned black woman did nothing to validate the acceptance of the natural beauty of darker complexioned women with thicker lips and wider, blunter noses.

Almost immediately, the public would become divided over this history-making event. On one hand, black people would celebrate it as a defining moment for their race, while radical whites would protest it and even go as far as to threaten Williams’ life. Still, there was another group of African-Americans who would criticize Williams because her skin was too light, her hair was too straight, her eyes were the wrong color and her upbringing was too privileged. In short, they felt that Williams was not black enough, and therefore not a true representation of their race.

“Nigger” was the expression most often used against her in the hate mail she received during her reign from those whites furious that the integrity of an American institution had been compromised.  From Wikipedia:

Williams began competing in beauty pageants in the early 1980s. Williams won Miss New York in 1983, and went to the Miss America national pageant in Atlantic City. She was crowned Miss America 1984 on September 17, 1983 making her the first-ever African American Miss America. Prior to the final night of competition, Williams won both the Preliminary Talent and Swimsuit Competitions from earlier in the week. Williams’ reign as Miss America was not without its challenges and controversies. For the first time in pageant history, a reigning Miss America was the target of death threats and angry racist hate mail.

While there are some obvious similarities in the stories of Williams and Obama, the most striking being that their middle class blackness was questioned and assailed for it’s “Huxtable-esque” in-authenticity

Vanessa grew up in a cozy community named Millwood (pop. 2,500), about 40 miles northeast of New York City. For years the Williamses were the only black family in town, but Vanessa never felt different. Her parents, Milton and Helen, taught music to high school students in neighboring exurbs and were cultivated, prosperous. “We had a real nice raised ranch house, great clothes, new bikes, good foreign cars, a pool in the yard—I missed a lot of the black urban experience.”

…there are also major differences between the two.  Unlike the empty suit clad Naked Emperor, there was never any question as to Williams’ qualifications.  She actually had to answer the questions, sing the song, and wear the swimsuit.  She also fulfilled her duties as Miss America admirably, always honoring the blacks and women who came before her for their sacrifice.   Until the “scandalously sexy” photos of her surfaced, causing those predisposed to object to her holding the crown to wax apoplectic about her “unworthiness,” giving them an excuse to hide their racism behind the fake outrage attendant to the convenient adaptation of outdated, Victorian mores, Williams served exemplarily.  The hypocrisy of a culture celebratory of the judgment of scantily-clad women on superficial criteria condemning a woman for exploiting those same qualities on her own terms ws never acknowledged.  Secondly, contrary to the Astroturf tools of David Axelrod in the media and blogosphere, fond of manufacturing false racial controversy on Obama’s behalf, hardly anyone objected to Obama’s candidacy simply on the basis of his race.  In fact, in the grand scheme of things, his exploitation of his bi-racial background afforded him a huge advantage.

There is no question that Vanessa Williams’ shoulders are among those upon whose Barack Obama stands, she who actually faced bigotry in all of it’s ugly forms before and after society’s misogyny joined hands with its racism, forcing her to resign in shame, only to emerge victorious, provided a template Obama could do worse than follow.  At the same time, struggling in a society whose standards of feminine comport are external and arbitrary, Williams also has as much, or more, kinship to other modern women as disparate as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

With the ongoing specter of BlagObama-gate hanging over his head, the possibility of career-ending scandal derailing the Obama presidency is worthy of contemplation.  If this blows up, or other skeletons in his closet were to emerge, enabling political opponents to exploit the country’s residual racism to their advantage, it is not at all clear that he possesses the character, dignity, grace and strength necessary to persevere and overcome.

Like Vanessa Williams.

Or Hillary.