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Volokh Conspiracy

Is it time for progressives to stop venerating FDR?


President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. (Associated Press)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt has long been an icon of the liberal/progressive left. There were always critics on the far left who considered him a crypto-fascist for his efforts to "save capitalism," but those critiques have not had much of an effect on the more mainstream left.

Yet it seems like the time has come for FDR's star to fall. Consider three of the most salient issues for the American left today, the issues that really motivate the grass roots:

1. Opposition to violence against African Americans, as in the Black Lives Matter movement. FDR refused to support federal anti-lynching legislation, and it wasn't because he had sudden federalist qualms about asserting federal authority over local matters. First, he didn't have any interest in bucking the powerful southern wing of his party. (By contrast, FDR's Republican predecessors all supported federal anti-lynching legislation.) While FDR's apologists such as Ira Katznelson suggest that's all there is to it, they aren't able to come up with any substantial evidence that FDR personally cared about civil rights for African Americans in general, or about lynching in particular. Instead, the (anachronistic) argument seems to be simply that because FDR was a "liberal," he must have had liberal views on race.

2. Rights of immigrants, documented and undocumented, especially with regard to Latinos. Somehow, it's not widely known that the Roosevelt administration engaged in the largest mass deportation of immigrants in American history, expelling hundreds of thousands—perhaps up to two million—of people of Mexican descent who were residing in the United States. An unknown but significant chunk of these deportees were American citizens, but that nicety didn't stop the deportations.

3. Sympathy of the plight of refugees. FDR was not willing to spend any significant political capital to help Jewish refugees from Europe. While Great Britain took in 20,000 Jewish children in the Kindertransport, FDR let a Congressional bill with similar aims die.

There is much more to be said. As is well-known, Roosevelt interned U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, setting the precedent for those who plan "Muslim registries" and the like. Less well-known, New Deal legislation was planned with the intentional destruction of jobs held by African Americans in the South in mind.

Surely this isn't FDR's entire record, and there are obviously aspects of that record that American liberals can still admire. But perhaps a revocation of the virtual sainthood FDR still enjoys is in order.