My mother and father shared a lot in common. They had seven children together; they both were World War II veterans (my Dad was in the airborne, my mother was a Navy W.A.V.E.); they both grew up in a small town in western Ohio; they both experienced the Great Depression as children; they both had grandfathers who fought for the Union in the Civil War (one a German, the other Irish).
My mom and dad started dating after the war when they both went to Ohio State on the G.I. Bill (my dad went to law school with Bill Saxbe, who would be Richard Nixon’s and Gerald Ford’s attorney general; my mom got a degree in education).
They were both Democrats in a sea of red — their hometown, Lima, Ohio, was John Birch territory.
But my mother, unlike my father, had a special link to politics. Her grandfather, William W. Durbin, was a leading figure in the Democratic Party in Ohio. Mr. Durbin rode the railroads with William Jennings Bryan in 1896 when he ran for president. He helped Wilson win twice in Ohio. He fatefully suggested a young Franklin D. Roosevelt as a vice presidential candidate to his friend Jim Cox, governor of Ohio, who won the nomination for president at the 1920 Democratic convention in San Francisco (after 42 ballots).
When FDR ran for president in 1932, Mr. Durbin became his man in Ohio. His efforts at the 1932 convention in Chicago earned him a role in the Roosevelt administration — register of the Treasury, the person in charge of the national debt.
What this country needs today is another Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR was like Trump in only one respect — he came from wealth. But his view of America and of the American experiment in democracy could not have been more different from that of Donald Trump. FDR, despite his wealth, believed that this nation and its abundance belonged to the people, not to a privileged few.
My mother was in Philadelphia in June 1936 when FDR delivered his acceptance speech to Democrats assembled in old Franklin Field. She was twelve at the time, but despite her age she attracted a newspaper reporter because of her family, who relayed my mother’s ambition to become the first congresswoman from Ohio (Francis Bolton would take that distinction in 1940).
FDR’s speech in Philadelphia—where the country was founded—is his most important speech—and one that cries to us eighty-one years later as a dire warning—if we continue to let billionaires, some of whom are very strange with very strange ideas about popular government or the lack thereof, control our politics, democracy will die.
The speech FDR gave on June 27, 1936, has been dubbed his “economic royalists” speech. It is also known for Roosevelt’s prophetic pre-war words: “This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”
At its core, though, the speech was about the complete incompatibility between a capitalist economy that permitted a few to hoard most of the wealth and a political democracy that was supposed to ensure that all citizens had a say in their government and a fair chance to make a living.
Roosevelt began by harkening back to the reason the American Revolution was fought. It was to escape from the “tyranny of political autocracy.” Americans won their political freedom, he said, and this victory “gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own Government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.”
But, FDR said, out of the burst of American ingenuity based on political freedom, “economic royalists carved new dynasties.” The landscape was remodeled in a threatening way. “New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things,” he said. “Through the new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital—all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.”
Unable and unwilling to stay in their economic lane, these economic royalists sought to control the government. “It was natural and perhaps human,” FDR proclaimed, “that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control of the Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction.”
One thinks of Citizens United. One thinks of Steve Mnuchin, of Tom Price and private planes, of Donald Trump and his prince Jared Kushner. One thinks of the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon. One thinks of the outrageous, unholy fortunes assembled in Silicon Valley.
“For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality,” Roosevelt said. “A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.”
FDR was a fighter. “Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair,” he said. “If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.”
FDR took aim. “Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power,” he said. “In vain, they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjugation; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
We face today the tyranny of Donald Trump. It is a madness that swept the country, one that FDR would find abhorrent. The time to think about FDR and his 1936 speech is now as the Trump administration proposes a tax bill that further enriches the rich and reduces their tax burden.
The path forward is clear. We must become fighters like Franklin Roosevelt. Citizens United must be abolished, even if by Constitutional amendment. We must tax billionaires and multi-millionaires who hoard fortunes for fifty or hundreds of generations into the future. No one needs that kind of wealth. But more importantly, our nation cannot remain a democracy when so few have the kind of power that comes with unimaginable wealth.
The concentration of wealth is as un-American as Russians interfering with our elections.
My mother and father shared one more thing in common—October 5. On October 5, 1923, my mother was born. On October 5, 2009, my father died (my mother had predeceased him).
So as this momentous anniversary of birth and death approaches, I think of them both. I think of what their lives stood for and I feel more determined than ever to take back our country from these modern-day economic royalists.
James Robenalt is the author of Linking Rings, William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America. He has authored two other books and contributed to The Constitution and the Presidents, A Living History (Gormley, ed.). Mr. Robenalt lectures nationally with John W. Dean. www.watergatecle.com. He practices law in Cleveland.