Author’s Note: This article is Part One of a series of reflections on historic Democratic political speeches aimed at laying out what the author sees as the Party’s fundamental historical principles. These principles may serve to guide the party as it seeks to overcome internal divisions and devise a common message. The original post has been updated to correct formatting and include links to Sen. Sanders’ speeches mentioned here.
“If the Democratic Party is looking to win back the votes of Middle America and push back against the crony capitalism Trump seems likely to thrust upon us, the two-year governor from New York and four-term president seems to provide a viable roadmap to success.”
Democrats are scrambling after a decisive electoral loss to find their footing.Traditional Democrats advocate doubling down after an election fluke in which Hillary Clinton bested the President-Elect by nearly three million votes nationwide. Progressive Democrats and some outside the party argue that the party needs to embrace “the future,” that is, the white educated voters, Democratic and Independent, that buoyed primary contender Bernie Sanders in this year’s primaries. But the party risks further exile with an untried message in these uncertain times. How can the party avoid the risk of untested messages and still breathe new life into its brand? Perennial winner Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided several potential talking points for today’s pols looking to defend Democratic gains and capitalize on likely voter disillusionment.
1. Democrats are good at cleaning up messes created by free-market zealotry.
First, the Democrats must be ready (in 2018 and beyond) to respond to the likely deregulated mess that the Republicans will impose upon the country in the next four to eight years. When Roosevelt first ran for President in 1932, he brought moderate executive experience (he had served eight years as Under-Secretary of the Navy and two years as governor of New York). He faced the daunting task of convincing a populace weary of government indifference that government could restore their dignity after three long years of depression. He started in Chicago by breaking tradition and becoming the first presidential candidate to address a nominating convention. In an era that Republicans continued to preach an unrestrained free market, Roosevelt chided those who “prated” about laisse-faire principles “while…men and women starv[ed].” He reminded the public that while Republicans preached that recession prone-economic theories constituted “inviolable” precepts, these models “are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.”
2. Democrats believe in smart globalization and the welfare of the common man.
Roosevelt contended that xenophobia, not government welfare, sparked economic unrest. He urged Democrats who “squinted at the future with their faces turned toward the past” to embrace an “enlightened international outlook” that contrasted with the “impregnable barbed wire” of destructive tariffs. After all, tariffs had “ruined” the farmer and had caused the goods of the factory worker “not to move.” He also directly cited European land conservation efforts asking why such policies had not reached the States. With Trump threatening tariff imports and rollbacks of environmental protections, such rhetoric would prove relevant again.
3. Democrats can self-criticize and question the patriotism and morality of crony-capitalism.
Democrats must do all they can to clearly articulate the benefits the last eight years have brought, and the pain any repeal of these policies would bring. They must frame their collectivist vision as morally superior and patriotic. In 1936, having taken on the Supreme Court and Congressional Republicans who opposed his expansive economic policies, Roosevelt argued in Madison Square Garden that those seeking to roll back innovative programs like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance did not seek the good of the common man. They rather hid self-interest behind the smokescreen of populism. In Roosevelt’s telling, devious businessmen sought to convince the common man that only workers paid for these programs, and thus would get little return, instead of transparently admitting that companies stood to benefit from repeal, since they matched employees’ contributions. He chided deceptive profit-politics and the undermining of a basic trust in the government’s ability to steward money through conflicts of interest as unpatriotic, a clear and present danger to the republic:
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob… But they [who argue against unemployment insurance and social security] are guilty of more than deceit. When they imply that the reserves thus created against both these policies will be stolen by some future Congress, diverted to some wholly foreign purpose, they attack the integrity and honor of American Government itself. Those who suggest that, are already aliens to the spirit of American democracy. Let them emigrate and try their lot under some foreign flag in which they have more confidence.
While he blamed elite financial demagogues for short-sighted policy, he asked Americans to look introspectively to come to terms with “the loose thinking, descending morals, an era of selfishness, among individual men and women and among the Nations” caused by “the obeisance to Mammon.” The crowds understood Roosevelt three years after the 1929 stock market crash. Today, Americans could identify with a newcomer that calls out the opulent lifestyle political allies like Clinton and ostentatious businessmen opponents like Trump both represent.
4. Democrats are not scared to talk the language of faith. It just looks different than the faith the GOP promotes.
Roosevelt also invoked the country’s Christian faith, something Democrats in recent years seem hesitant to embrace on the trail. Instead of mistrust and self-interest, Roosevelt called for a return to “the altars of our faith” which underpin a democratic and collective ethic. At the heart of this ethic lay the commandment “do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
Roosevelt was not afraid to employ a rhetoric that embraced religious values and patriotism alongside economic redistribution, internationalism, and tolerance. In fact, even in this cycle, Bernie Sanders echoed FDR in his Georgetown University speech on democratic socialism and his defense of socioeconomic justice at Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the nation.
If the Democratic Party is looking to win back the votes of Middle America and push back against the crony capitalism Trump seems likely to thrust upon us, the two-year governor from New York and four-term president seems to provide a viable roadmap to success.
Roosevelt’s Full Speech “Welcoming the Hate” of his Banking Opponents (Uploaded by Brent Abrahamson):