Class War: Good Enough for FDR, Good Enough for Obama?


Historian Jean Edward Smith has some strong words for President Barack Obama in today's New York Times, arguing that Obama's health care retreat "suggests that the Democratic Party has forgotten how to govern and the White House has forgotten how to lead." As a little reminder/history lesson, Smith offers the example of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man who wasn't afraid to throw his weight around:

Roosevelt relished the opposition of vested interests. He fashioned his governing majority by deliberately attacking those who favored the status quo. His opponents hated him—and he profited from their hatred. "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today," he told a national radio audience on the eve of the 1936 election. "They are unanimous in their hatred for me—and I welcome their hatred."…

For Roosevelt was a divider, not a uniter, and he unabashedly waged class war. At the Democratic Convention in 1936, again speaking to a national radio audience, Roosevelt lambasted the "economic royalists" who had gained control of the nation's wealth. To Congress he boasted of having "earned the hatred of entrenched greed." In another speech he mocked "the gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs" who criticized the government's relief efforts.

The article continues along these lines, spinning off a nice little fairy tale where the brave FDR goes to battle against "the vociferous opposition of American business." But as it turned out, big business was typically quite happy with the new status quo. Consider the New Deal's National Recovery Administration, which sought to centrally plan the economy through hundreds of wage, hour, and price-fixing "codes of fair competition." Those codes invariably benefited the big firms and injured their small-scale competitors. And as historian Arthur Ekirch observed, "little attention was paid to the fact that it was industry itself that had largely prepared the regulations governing prices and production. Also ignored was the fact that the NRA meant the suspension of antitrust laws." How's that for "economic royalists"!

As for the claim that FDR's opponents were all heartless reactionaries (and thus worth ignoring), what about the principled opposition of progressive hero Al Smith? As governor of New York, Smith had championed many of the same economic regulations the New Deal later enshrined. Yet Smith spoke out repeatedly against the New Deal's creeping authoritarianism. In his mind, the central lesson of modern history was that alcohol prohibition "gave functions to the Federal government which that government could not possibly discharge, and the evils which came from the attempts at enforcement were infinitely worse than those which honest reformers attempted to abolish." Thus he legitimately worried that the New Deal would repeat and amplify the sins of the recently repealed 18th Amendment. Yet for raising these good-faith concerns, Al Smith was scorned by his longtime allies on the left. "Unless you're ready to subscribe to the New Deal 100 per cent and sign your life name on the dotted line, you're a Tory, you're a prince of privilege, you're a reactionary, you're an economic royalist," he later complained.

So FDR made a big show of attacking the "entrenched interests" while he quietly partnered with big business to create noxious legislation, and he found time to denounce the well-intentioned criticism of longtime friends and allies. Sounds like hope and change we can believe in!

For a few more reasons why emulating FDR would be a disastrous idea, see here, here, here, and here. And watch this: