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Is It Time to Cancel FDR?

Today’s progressives are the children of the old Republican Party, not the New Deal Democrats. Roosevelt and his followers stood for nearly everything they oppose.

Michael Lind
April 12, 2021
Original photo: AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo: AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo: AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Original photo: AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Seventy-six years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving his fourth term in office, died in his “little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia. The anniversary of FDR’s death raises the question: Why hasn’t the Democratic Party canceled him yet?

The political ancestors of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, have already been repudiated for being slaveowners and racists by 21st-century Democrats who have canceled or renamed the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day party dinners. Many contemporary Democrats would like to detach Franklin Roosevelt and his protégé Lyndon Johnson from the older Jefferson-Jackson tradition and honor them as founders of today’s Democratic Party, which celebrates New Deal programs like Social Security, and civil rights, Medicare, and Medicaid from the Johnson era. But separating them from their 19th-century forerunners is not that easy. In fact, Roosevelt and Johnson went out of their way to identify with the tradition of Jacksonian populism that modern-day progressives abhor.

In his second inauguration on Jan. 20, 1937, Roosevelt reviewed the inaugural parade from the Hermitage, a replica of Andrew Jackson’s plantation house that had been built in front of the White House. President Johnson hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office alongside portraits of FDR and Washington. After Johnson, the next president to display a portrait of Old Hickory in the Oval Office was Donald Trump.

Contemporary historians and journalists seldom think of FDR and the New Dealers as latter-day Jacksonians. But the electoral base of the New Deal Democratic coalition from the 1930s to the 1970s remained the generations-old Jacksonian alliance between white Southerners and Northern white “ethnics,” particularly Irish Americans, symbolized by the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960. Until the last generation, college-educated professionals and executives in America tended to vote Republican, while Democrats received most of the votes of the high school-educated working class. The kinds of voters who supported populist candidates from Jackson to Jimmy Carter are now the backbone of the Republican Party.

Today’s white Democrats have inherited the causes of the liberal, old-money Republican establishment.

For its part, the Democratic Party has been transforming itself into the older Republican Party under a new, ostensibly progressive label. In 2020, while losing some Black and Latino voters to Trump, the Democrats gained notably among only one major demographic—the affluent, highly-educated white men whose forebears were “country club Republicans.” It is no surprise that the geographic heartlands of today’s Democratic Party are those of the old Federalist-Whig-Republican coalition—New England and the regions of the Midwest and the West Coast that New Englanders settled in the 19th century. In addition to being in large part the children and grandchildren of yesteryear’s upscale Republican voters, today’s white Democrats have also inherited the causes of the liberal, old-money Republican establishment of Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay: conservationism (now “environmentalism”), family planning (now abortion rights and gender fluidity), and support for civil rights for racial minorities (now racial quotas in firms, government offices, university curricula, and literary and artistic canons).

But weren’t the New Deal and the Great Society America’s versions of European social democracy? Isn’t “democratic socialism” more or less the same as New Deal policy? That’s what democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders has suggested. But Norman Thomas disagreed. The leader of the Socialist Party in the United States during Roosevelt’s four terms, Thomas published an essay asking, “Is the New Deal Socialism?” Not at all, he answered: “Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher.”

In fact, Thomas had no trouble identifying Roosevelt as a Jacksonian populist: “His slogan was not the Socialist cry: ‘Workers of the world, workers with hand and brain, in town and country, unite!’ His cry was: ‘Workers and small stockholders unite, clean up Wall Street.’ That cry is at least as old as Andrew Jackson.”

Indeed, the New Deal can be seen as a Jacksonian counterrevolution among farmers, small-town provincial business elites in the hinterland, and white working-class urbanites, pitting themselves against the alliance of Northern industrial capitalists and moralistic Greater New England Yankee Puritans who dominated the federal government between Abraham Lincoln and Herbert Hoover. The New Deal was a religious rebellion as much as it was an economic struggle. Support for the New Deal Democrats was strongest among groups of white outsiders that were long despised by the mainline Protestant elites of Greater New England: white Northern Catholics, Jews, and white Southern evangelical Protestants.

Today many younger leftist academics and journalists understandably point to racist redlining practices under New Deal home-ownership programs, the initial exclusion of disproportionately Black farm workers and domestic servants from Social Security at the insistence of Southern Democrats. They also properly lament the wartime internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese American citizens and claim that the Roosevelt administration could have done more to rescue Jewish refugees before World War II.

FDR’s attitudes about race and ethnicity were indeed benighted by modern standards. But the only relevant question is whether Republican alternatives—Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, or Thomas Dewey—would have been any better. To complain that even race-neutral New Deal programs mostly benefited white Americans is wildly anachronistic, inasmuch as whites between the 1930s and the 1970s made up about 90% of the U.S. population. If the New Deal was so racist, why did Black Americans—who had long tended to support the party of Lincoln—begin a mass switch to the Democratic Party during the New Deal under FDR? In spite of his own prejudices, Roosevelt relented to pressure from Black civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph and integrated war production. The support of Jewish Americans for FDR—who privately shared the genteel snobbery toward Jews of his patrician class—was so fervent that it led Jonah J. Goldstein, a Jewish Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to declare that “the Jews have three velten [worlds]— die velt [this world], yene velt [the next world], and Roosevelt.”

The United States when FDR came to power was, in effect, two countries—a First World country and a Third World country—yoked together during and after the Civil War.

One America was the Northeastern-Midwestern industrial core, where WASP capitalists lorded it over mostly white workers, many of them from non-British immigrant diasporas. The other America consisted of the Southern and Western periphery, which was assigned by Northern and European capital to play the role of undeveloped resource colonies producing cattle, cotton, mineral ores, and oil and gas for factories elsewhere.

The historic achievement of the New Deal was to tame industrial capitalism in the core, to the benefit of workers and their families, while also using federal powers to industrialize the periphery, to the benefit of its inhabitants of all classes and races. In the core, the Roosevelt administration promoted a version of European tripartism or “corporatism”—state-brokered collective bargaining among employers and labor. The Supreme Court in 1935 struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act, a corporatist program for industry-labor cooperation that was the centerpiece of the First New Deal. But an informal version of corporatism was assembled piecemeal in the form of minimum wages, hours laws, pro-union regulations, and social insurance programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance. Marxists and libertarians tend to denounce all tripartism as fascist, but political scientists distinguish societal corporatism, which is compatible with electoral democracy and exists in many Western democracies to this day, from Mussolini-style state corporatism.

In the Southern and Western periphery, the New Deal took the form of state capitalism in a modernizing revolution from above. For New Dealers, the purpose of federal funding of rural electrification and the interstate highway system, a pet project of FDR that was only enacted under Eisenhower, was to break the power of Northeastern finance and decentralize industry. The decentralization of manufacturing to the South and West accelerated during World War II thanks to the Roosevelt administration and the Democrats in Congress, who plopped down war production facilities in formerly agrarian areas that became the “Gun Belt” and the “Sun Belt” after 1945.

Today’s left-wing academic historians often complain that the beneficiaries of New Deal peripheral modernization were chiefly landowners and Southern and Western businesses. It’s true! Thank you, Professor Obvious. The goal of the New Deal was not to foment a biracial communist revolution in the countryside against the kulaks, but to help the Jacksonian business elites of the South and West to catch up with their Northern rivals. Even so, in the long run poor white and Black Southerners alike benefited from industrialization and urbanization, which in turn helped make the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s possible.

In addition to decentralizing industry away from the Northeast and Midwest, the New Deal aimed at dispersing the population from crowded cities everywhere into the countryside and small towns, some of them “new towns” or “garden cities.” In its anti-urbanism, the New Deal was very Jacksonian.

According to Roosevelt’s adviser Rexford Tugwell, the squire of Hyde Park in the Hudson River Valley never “had a vision of the city as a high expression of human aspiration. He always did, and always would, think people better off in the country.” As the head of the Resettlement Administration in the New Deal years, Tugwell concluded that his boss’s vision of mass migration from urban tenements to family farms was unrealistic. Instead, he focused on subsidies for experimental communities based on single family homes and low-rise apartments, some of which began as cooperatives but became conventional suburbs like Greenbelt, Maryland. While some public housing developments were built in the New Deal era, the focus of the New Deal Democrats was on turning working-class renters into a home-owning, suburban middle class.

But at least today’s Democrats can praise the New Deal Democrats for Social Security and other social insurance programs, can’t they? The original Social Security program was quite stingy and only expanded later after FDR’s death. If Clinton, Obama, and Biden are cowards for refusing to embrace Medicare for All, so was Roosevelt, who viewed the idea of single payer government health insurance as politically toxic.

As for a universal basic income, an idea that is increasingly popular on the Democratic left, one of Roosevelt’s first actions as president was to abolish cash relief in favor of workfare, for reasons he explained in his 1935 State of the Union address:

The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of a sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers. The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.

Today, public sector unions such as teachers unions are mainstays of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt was skeptical about them. In a letter of Aug. 16, 1937, to Luther C. Steward, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, FDR explained the two reasons why, although civil servants could form associations for some purposes, collective bargaining by public sector employees should be illegal: The citizens are the employers of civil servants and cannot be bound by union contracts, and public sector worker strikes would paralyze the government:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service … The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress … Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees … Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.

Roosevelt thought his statement of principled opposition to public sector collective bargaining was so important that he released it to the press.

Finally, there is energy. While the Republican Party of Roosevelt’s day was more closely allied with the financial sector, the oil industry, especially in Texas, provided crucial support for FDR and later for LBJ. In this as in many other areas, today the two parties have flip-flopped. Like mid-20th-century Republicans, the Democrats are now the party of Wall Street and major corporations, while the GOP, with its Jacksonian small business base, draws a lot of support from the oil and gas industry.

The verdict seems clear. In the 21st century, there can be no room in the Democratic pantheon for a rich, white, male, heterosexual politician known for his extramarital affairs and who sought to identify himself in the public mind with Andrew Jackson, who disliked dense cities and wanted to promote suburban and exurban sprawl, who rejected single payer health care, who cultivated oil and gas tycoons, who condemned universal cash subsidies to all Americans as demoralizing and creating dependency, and whose typical supporters were the sort of non-college-educated, working-class voters who were drawn to Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Face it, Democrats. Dumping Jefferson and Jackson was only the beginning. It’s time to cancel FDR.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.