Perhaps the most important lesson of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is what it reveals to us about the sweep and scope of history — and how easy it is to bury truth under the winds of change.
Today, FDR is considered one of the best presidents ever. A survey of presidential scholars performed by the Siena College Research Institute five times since 1982 has consistently placed FDR as the “top all-time chief executive.” Other surveys of the experts consistently rank him in the top three.
That is what historians say, but what does history say?
The more you look at the contemporary record, the less confidence you can have that Roosevelt should be judged as anything less than an American dictator who charmed the country into surrendering its sovereignty and cut us loose from our constitutional moorings. It wasn’t just Republicans who said so at the time either — it was Jeffersonian Democrats; it was the Supreme Court; it was the local newspaper.
In fact, Roosevelt was much more openly called a socialist in the early years of his first term than President Obama is today. But both have embraced programs and principles of socialism, and should be judged accordingly.
Frankly, if you want to understand the battle between left and right that is raging today, if you want to understand the rise of the Tea Party, if you want to understand the agenda of President Obama, then you almost have to dig up a Rosetta Stone from history that puts the language of Roosevelt’s New Deal side-by-side with the language of socialism and the language of the Democratic Party. Such a Rosetta Stone exists in the contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the 1930s.
Take a look, for instance, at the following Associated Press story from June 1935 and see if you can connect the dots between President Roosevelt, President Obama and the socialist agenda.
As published in the Sandusky (Ohio) Register, the story bore the headline, “Roosevelt Urges Share-Wealth Taxes.” The subhead noted that “Big Incomes are Targets of Message.”
In some ways, this is of course similar to our current debate over the so-called Bush tax cuts. Up until recently President Obama too has been urging share-the-wealth taxes on big incomes. But as a result of the mid-term elections, he has stepped back and has now reached a compromise agreement that would keep taxes at their current rate. The significance of that compromise has yet to be fully analyzed, and it is possible that Obama got more than he gave. But not all Democrats see it that way. Many of them continue to push for tax increases on those with incomes above $250,000 a year, or at least $1 million if that isn’t possible.
The clamor of Democrats for higher taxes ultimately raises the question of just why some politicians think the government is entitled to a bigger share of rich people’s income. Perhaps the question can be settled by the AP’s rather blunt reporting from 1935.
The first paragraph of the Sandusky, Ohio, story said flatly that Roosevelt’s “share-the-wealth” tax program was “based on the philosophy that big fortunes are created by collective rather than individual effort.” A paragraph or two later, we read that the president called his initiative a “sound public policy of encouraging a wider distribution of wealth.”
A follow-up story by the Associated Press described the tax plan as “intended to break up great fortunes and reduce large incomes.” Imagine that.
Apparently my caution last week in hesitating to say outright that FDR had steered us on a path to socialism was unnecessary. It was obvious from the start to those who had to live under the New Deal. Just listen to the code words: “share the wealth,” “collectivism” and “wider distribution (read ‘redistribution’) of wealth.”
Collectivism, the notion that the group is more important than the individual, is the backbone of socialism, communism and fascism. Little wonder then that FDR and his backers admired Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, as acknowledged by John Franklin Carter in his sympathetic 1934 book “The New Dealers.”
Indeed, as my research proves, both left and right in the 1930s acknowledged that Roosevelt’s policies had socialist tendencies. And what is more important to us, those socialist tendencies have been continued and intensified for the past 75 years.
The five-point program proposed by Roosevelt in 1935 is certainly eerily familiar to those who are following the current political debate. The program included raising death taxes, raising taxes on incomes above $1 million a year, and raising taxes on business. Again, that should of course sound familiar. The first two were cornerstones of the program being pushed by House Democrats last week in opposition to the Obama-McConnell tax compromise.
In should also be noted that the politics of the New Deal were not unlike the politics of the Obama Deal — FDR proposed this package knowing full well that he could not win approval of it at the time. But he won political points for it nonetheless, and then got to play the role of conciliator. Likewise, President Obama has been pushing for an end to the Bush tax cuts for the past two years, campaigned strenuously on it, and only gave up out of political necessity.
But please, let’s not mistake pragmatism for ideology. In both FDR and Obama we are confronted with presidents who have conscientiously and deliberately aimed to dismantle the American market economy in the service of ideals that are foreign to our republic.
A Dec. 18, 1933, story in the Huntingdon, Pa., Daily News, reported on a speech made in London by George Lansbury, the leader of the opposition Labour Party in the House of Commons, who lauded FDR for taking the United States in the direction of worldwide governance and global socialism.
“Every step he takes from month to month appears to me to bring the United States nearer to the ideals of Socialism. The President is minimizing competition among individuals and minimizing individual profits.”
Well, as they say, it takes a socialist to know one.
Of course, it is doubtful that many Americans, then or now, would intentionally sign on to an agenda of less competition and less profit — or in Karl Marx’s famous words, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”
But Lansbury was right. Socialism DOES diminish competition, because there is no need to strive to be better when you are already having all your needs met while doing nothing, or next to nothing. And yes, under socialism there will be less profit, too, because with everyone taking it easy, there will be less success, and less to share.
Socialism, in short, is a recipe for disaster.
That is just what Roosevelt gave us, whether you call it the New Deal or the same old dole. You may as well just be honest and call it socialism because there is no reason to call it free enterprise. Freedom is an individual right; not a corporate one. I cannot be free as an individual if I am forced to do what is good for the collective.
Alexis de Tocqueville warned of this in 1840. He predicted in “Democracy in America” that we would eventually reach a stage in which the “collective” good was considered more important than the individual. At such a time, the government would arrogate to itself the ability to make decisions for each of us individually. It started even before the New Deal, and was perhaps perfected with Obamacare, with its “individual mandate” that we must each purchase health insurance.
But there is no reason for us to be silent. The small community newspapers of the 1930s were never silenced. Here is one more example, from an editorial in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in West Virginia, circa September 1934:
“The failure of all [the Democrats’] depression cures, which were for the most part such as to curtail individual liberty and personal freedom contrary to the constitution, constitute a great disappointment to the voters, and the high-handed coercive manner of the administration program has stirred a formidable resentment.”
As Tocqueville cautioned, “The true friends of the liberty and the greatness of man ought constantly to be on the alert to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs.”
Or put in specific terms: “The true friends of liberty” must fight against any government or any president — no matter how popular — who “sacrifices the private rights of individuals” for the benefit of the collective good. Period.
Frank Miele is the managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake.