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      A few months ago I read a couple of books by the Singaporean intellectual Kishore Mahbubani. In “Has China Already Won he discusses Taiwan. The one exceptional trigger for a war involving China is Taiwan. Most of the time, the Chinese leaders have a lot of policy flexibility. There are no strong domestic lobbies to worry about. But the one issue where the Ch […]
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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.

40 Responses

  1. Reading this makes me teary. We have an opening and a need for a bold leader with clear values and positions. We need a fighter to forge a new path. Instead we have a pop icon that wants to be adored.

  2. Roosevelt’s challenge was to balance the interests of business with the interests of the working class. A similar challenge exists today.

    The use of credit cards for basic necessities such as food and health care is a frightening indicator that we are heading for disaster.

  3. excellent post Heidi!

  4. Furthermore, Bill Clinton was just as skillful a pragmatist and history will bear this out. He did not have the same challenging circumstances as FDR, but he understood how to achieve balance.

  5. Absolutely. LIke FDR, Bill Clinton possesses and possessed “the essential flexibility of mind for a democracy”. Like FDR, Bill Clinton experimented to meet the challenges he faced as President; some experiments worked better than others; but he understood that his job was to act, not simply to be be a mouthpiece for vague pie-in-the-sky promises.

  6. 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…….
    That can also be said of the last “New Deal” President LBJ. The historical verdict on LBJ is not in yet but as continuation of the FDR era, LBJ added the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, ESEA, EOA, Medicare and Medicade.

  7. OT but I have to share. I just got a call from NOW asking for a donation. Some poor guy on the other end of the line received a blistering condemnation of their pathetic representation of women’s rights this year.

    He just sputtered, “Oh, ok, thanks anyway…”

  8. The use of credit cards for basic necessities such as food and health care is a frightening indicator that we are heading for disaster.

    SOD: and now, the credit companies are arbitrarily raising rates drastically, and giving an “opt-out” alternative which will mean cancelling your credit and hurting your FICO score. If you don’t opt out, they are jacking up rates by ridiculous amounts. I have an office mate who has had her APR raised 4 times in one year from 7% to 35%, and she carries a balance. They are just reaching in and taking larger chunks of money from her without consequence. It’s outrageous. If that is happening nationally, as I suspect, and people are using those cards to live on, there is going to be another huge wave of bankruptcies and defaults.

  9. fif: Also OT, I just recieved a plea for money from the Nation, which fears a right-wing backlash to PE Obama. They postulate increased hate groups. I have written a nice letter explaining my dismay at their utter lack of recognition of sexism and mailed it back to them in their postpaid envelope.

  10. chatblu: that’s surprising coming from the Nation, because they have been critical of his right-leaning choices as of late–FINALLY. I see they’re using the pro-active r*ce card to justify his failings.

  11. My Favorite Presidents:

    Big Dawg

    My Favorite First Ladies:

    Lady Bird

  12. Oh, I forgot. I also loved Truman and Abigail.

  13. There is one thing for which FDR will forever be remembered with bitterness by the people of eastern Europe and the satellite states once under the enslaving and murderous heel of the USSR: the Yalta Conference. FDR knew what would happen in any territories occupied by the Soviet Union. It did, for 40 years.

  14. Don’t forget about Eleanor.

  15. of course, I could never forget about Elanor. Besides Hillary, she’s my favorite.
    And however unimpressed I am by President Carter, Rosalyn was pretty cool.

  16. the Yalta Conference. FDR knew what would happen in any territories occupied by the Soviet Union. It did, for 40 years.
    FDR was ill but the bigger consideration was the US had diverted men and war supplies to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan and, because of political pressure at home, had begun demobilization of the Army. When the US v USSR armies are compared at the end of the war, I am surprised that the Russians didn’t gab more territory. I suspect the uncertainty of the US nuclear capability caused Stalin to be cautious.

  17. Oh, you’ll all love this too: from Larry Johnson at NoQ:

    Jesus Christ!! The so-called “Progressive” has a piece up blaming Hillary for not saying anything publicly about the Israelis’ Gaza misadventure:

    Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama and Secretary of State-to-be Hillary Clinton were shamefully silent in the first hours after the attack.

    Bush’s reaction, and the non-reaction by Obama and Clinton, underscores the point that Hanan Ashrawi made on Saturday. “Israel has gotten used to not being held accountable and to being a country that is above the law,” said the Palestinian legislator and human rights activist. She called the bombings a “massacre.”

    With Washington condoning Israel’s assault, the violence may only get worse.

  18. excellent post Heidi, thank you.

    i especially love the line:

    “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.”

    I’m gonna steal that one fer sure.

  19. Hillary is not yet sec of state-it would be incorrect for her to comment on foriegn policy until she has conferred with the president elect or his chief of staff.

    Look Hamas broke the ceasefire and Isreal has a right to defend itself…as long as Hamas missiles continue to rain down on Isreal; Isreal has a right to defend itself.

    The fact that Isreals defence may appear disproportionate to the continued attacks is not relivant to the situation.

    The Idea of a proportional response to terrorism has been shown to interpreted as weakness by the terrorist.

    Besides Abbas the President of the Palistinians has been quiet and not really thrown his wieght behind Hamas and the Gazans.

  20. When I look back now, I feel really sorry for Pat Nixon. For all I know, she may have been an interesting person. But she was just ground down and ignored and patronized. She always looked so uncomfortable.

  21. Hi Murphy, fif, everybody.
    I too like Roosevelt’s line – it fits well with J.S. Mill’s notion of experiments in living, with a good pragmatic twist.

    I really feel this way about 51 Percent – I’m going to keep adding content, see what works, see what doesn’t. Already, the launch has brought in some new donations and an unsolicited guest essay soon to be published.

    Re NQ, Larry Johnson, and the middle east mess: so far the most intelligent materials I have seen and read are those presented by Shtuey here and at his blog.

    As for Senator Clinton: per usual, she can’t win: if she made any comment while Obama is being silent and Rice is still in office she’d be regarded as presumptuous; if does not comment armchair experts complain. What I hear is that she’s assembling a crack staff to deal with the intractable situation that is the Middle East.

    Senator Clinton, by the way, epitomizes the pragmatic democratic liberal: when her health care plan didn’t work out when she was First Lady, she revisited the issue in the Senate and was instrumental in getting SCHIP passed; when it was clear that Senator Kennedy and his Senate cronies were not going to let her use her smarts in solving the health care problem, she moved on.

    I know I am biased, but when I saw the clip of Senator and President Clinton smiling and dancing at the Times Square celebration and contrasted it with the slightly flailing seeming dashing about of President-elect Obama, I can’t help but think that at a political level, Senator Clinton will yet have the last laugh. And she who laughs last, laughs longest.

  22. I see they’re still doing the IACF tactic. Too boring.

  23. Hello fuzzybear and BB.

  24. The Nation, NOW, all the usual suspects – backed expediency over principle – not a good idea, especially because they could have had a Democrat in the White House and one who is truly liberal. Instead they have an illiberal “Democrat” over whom they have no sway and who never really demonstrated commitment to their stated ideals.

  25. Hi Heidi Li,

    I love this post. I grew up hearing about FDR. My parents lived through the dust bowl, the Great Depression, and WWII. My mom said when FDR died it was like losing a member of the family. He was the only President she had ever known.

  26. Heidi Li–another intelligent, informative post. I look forward to reading all new posts as they come up here, but I must admit to being especially thrilled to see your “byline” next to a new title.

    OT and a little late, but I want to say thanks to fif for responding to my New Year’s Eve request for evidence of Obama’s fraud. You both confirmed and expanded upon my own arguments (which, as I said, I’ve made until I’m blue in the face). I’m especially grateful for your efforts knowing that you weren’t feeling very well. I hope this post finds you on the mend.

  27. Heidi Li said:
    Instead they have an illiberal “Democrat”…who never really demonstrated commitment to their stated ideals.

    With all due respect, he never really demonstrated commitment to any ideals whatsoever.

    Great post, by the way.

  28. Heidi Li @ 8:27 said: “…I can’t help but think that at a political level, Senator Clinton will yet have the last laugh…”

    I agree, Heidi. Some things are starting to fall into place that make me believe you are absolutely right about this.

  29. “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.”

    somewhere along the line, notably during the Kerry campaign, “flip-flopping” became a cardinal sin. it was bizarre because the opposite was W having a feeling in his gut back in ’84 and sticking with it forever and ever, facts and changing situations be damned. I would love to see the concept of flip-flopping appreciated as growing, evolving and keeping up. and yeah, trying something and if it doesn’t work, moving to Plan B.

  30. New Post Up.

  31. Senator Clinton, by the way, epitomizes the pragmatic democratic liberal: when her health care plan didn’t work out when she was First Lady, she revisited the issue in the Senate and was instrumental in getting SCHIP passed

    Heidi: that is so true, and why I really trust Hillary. She is criticized for not being “inspirational” (though I strongly disagree), because she is so pragmatic and wonky. As she continually argued, that is the only way to create real change. She knows, because she’s actually done it. For Obama, it’s all philosophical. Now he will find out the hard way just how difficult it is to turn dreams into reality. I heard a conservative radio host criticizer her today for “dropping the ball on health care.” I never understand this distorted thinking when she is “blamed” for the failure of UHC at a time when NO ONE supported it. She pioneered the movement, and sure, she has said that she did too much too fast, but she was learning just like anyone would with an initiative of that size. As you point out, it lead to SCHIP, which has helped millions of children. How is that a failure? So much negativity and judgment, when she is the one out there putting in the grueling work days and taking all the heat to get something done.

  32. Hi Nell. You are very welcome. That was a very impromptu post that left out many examples that I’m sure other Conflucians can fill in if you ask on other threads and compose your “case.” Unfortunately, as I said, many O supporters refuse to accept evidence. I just saw a post here by Janicen today that said the Captain of her district caucus site told her had had received orders from the DNC NOT to screen attendees, which had never been done in 30 years. Worse, he was told that if he did, the district’s delegates would be stripped. Lynette Long’s site has a lot of documented evidence of caucus fraud too. If you google “Obama’s Lies” you might find that site I mentioned too. Happy hunting!

  33. In my house FDR is considered the first non-catholic saint…to speak ill of him infront of my great aunt will get you the harshest toungelashing you evr recieved from a 90 year old woman…

    My great great aunt and and uncle Dan Maguire ate dinner with the Rooseveldts he wasa prominent federal judge and chairman of the democratic party in Iowa in the 20’s and 30’s.

    Uncle Dan Died on the bench sort of worked until his hodgkins disease mad it impossible to do so…he felt he was doing good and not one of his court desisions was ever overturned on appeal…many felt FRD wanted him on a higher court.

    One of my cousins has some correspondence between him and FDR.

  34. The Nation gets no points for complaining now. The time to be critical was when there was still some leverage to be had with votes. Wasn’t the Nation the one that sent that pathetic open letter to Obama, begging him to be more liberal after his FISA vote?

    Thanks Heidi, for continuing to educate us all and providing an encouraging and inspiring direction to our efforts. I was teary-eyed though, reading your essay, because I don’t believe our next president has the stuff to measure up, or even the desire.

  35. kiki: There’s flip-flopping and there’s changing your mind because you got more information or were persuaded by a better argument. Kerry really failed at making that distinction and the flip-flop name stuck. By the time B0 started flip-flopping, the phrase lost it’s power due to misuse and overuse.

  36. My mother lived in occupied Norway during WWII. She told me the Norwegians loved Roosevelt and mourned deeply when he died. He had been a great inspiration to them and their resistance to the Nazis.

  37. Wonderful post!! Thank you, Heidi!

  38. I was only 3 years old when Roosevelt died but through my parents I saw a man who saved this country from a Depression and Defeat during WW2. If you’ve ever seen film of his funeral train and watched people crying along the route his body took — you would see just how emotionally attached Americans were to this President. I remember asking my mother what God looked like and she said President Roosevelt. When I picture God–for me its still FDR. We will never see his like again. He was a unique man — wounded like the country but he never lost his belief in the Greatness of America.

  39. SHV — thanks for the kind words about Lyndon Johnson. He has not gotten credit for his continuation of the Roosevelt safety net.

    In 1932 Roosevelt won in a landslide. The only influence voters had was Newspapers because radio was still in its infancy. The American people although less educated then Americans are nowadays voted their pocketbooks.

    All indicators say the economy will worsten in the coming years and yet today’s voters opted for a Messiah instead of a pragmatic leader. They say history repeats itself–only this time empty rhetoric will replace geniune policies which help ordinary people. We have much more to fear besides fear itself.

  40. In this increasingly desperate time in world history, the United States finds itself bereft of leadership, just when it is needed most.

    Well, I recall someone sayin’ that if the “horse don’t pull ya gotta carry that load.”

    I guess before too long we’ll find out who’s gotta back that strong.

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