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Home Opinion FDR: The progressive as hero

FDR: The progressive as hero

Patrick Diamond - 27 July 2010

In contrast to social democrats today, FDR’s style of leadership empathised with the anxieties and frustrations of the people and boldly seized the opportunity of a crisis for progressive ends

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the world’s first great crisis leader, and arguably the first great politician of the television age. As well as an astonishingly adept communicator, FDR remains an important ideological antecedent for modern progressivism and social democracy, particularly in the current climate of capitalist crisis and the global politics of recession.

Roosevelt was a dominant leader because he appeared to have the answers to people’s problems during a period of extraordinary turmoil and uncertainty in American life, a nation that, as he put it, was by the early 1930s, “frozen by a fatalistic terror.” The United States was gripped by paralysis and self-doubt in the face of a severe economic depression and stock market collapse. FDR rose to the occasion, speaking directly to people and energising the nation behind the drive for recovery. He understood that recessions are moments of opportunity as well as crisis, but only if politicians are very bold in seizing them, as Andrew Gamble has recently reminded us.1 They have to frame narratives that are popular and credible, accompanied by radical solutions that are capable of unifying the country. And they have to be prepared to face great opposition, just as FDR did.

In contrast to Roosevelt’s victories, parties of the right historically have proved themselves to be more adept at seizing the advantage and framing the narrative. This is exactly what has occurred in Western Europe since the first banking crisis in August 2007, where Christian democracy has dominated the political landscape at the expense of the centre-left, which has suffered a succession of serious reversals and defeats. Social democracy has relatively little idea about how to protect people from global storms. First, it has allowed the crisis to be redefined as a crisis of debt, rather than a crisis of financial market failure. Second, the left has flirted with the rhetoric of capitalist collapse, when it is more likely that the crisis will lead to the rebirth and renewal of capitalism. The issue will be how to better protect people by promoting the resilience both of institutions and the population at large through a new social compact.

In Britain, before the financial crisis took hold, Labour promised “British jobs for British workers,” but this did not appear plausible or credible, particularly to skilled, ‘blue-collar’ voters. After the collapse of the banks it acted decisively to prevent widespread financial failure, but it had no long-term plan for institutional reform to rebalance the economy away from overdependence on financial services, hedge funds and derivatives. Arguably, social democratic governments have been insufficiently bold in challenging the vested interests of the markets. In the face of neo-liberal orthodoxy, they have been reluctant to position themselves as reformers of financial market capitalism, contesting the excesses of bankers and financiers. Yet this is exactly what the public have been demanding as a pragmatic response to systemic failure and unjustified reward in the financial sector.

It was precisely this error that FDR battled to avoid. He served as President from March 1933 to April 1945, the longest tenure in American history. FDR may have done more to alter the course of American society and politics than any president before or since. Roosevelt was a defining figure who understood the importance of the politics of security, in which governments strive to protect ordinary citizens in dark and dangerous times. In his second inaugural address in 1937, he took stock of what had changed in America since he assumed the presidency: “We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.”

Under FDR, the federal government assumed a new and powerful role in the nation’s economy, and in the health, welfare and well-being of its citizens. Trade unions were granted the right to organise and bargain collectively, and the Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938 put a floor under wages and a ceiling on hours. Financial aid was provided to the sick, elderly and unemployed who could not provide for themselves, and special assistance was granted to agricultural and rural America through price supports and development programmes. By embracing an activist fiscal policy in the late 1930s, the government took on responsibility for managing monetary and financial shocks. The New Deal programme as a whole ensured that the economic and political benefits of American capitalism were distributed more equally among the population.

All of this was achieved at some political cost, despite Roosevelt’s landslide victory in 1936 with 61 per cent of the popular vote. Many wealthy Americans could not even bear to utter Roosevelt’s name and he was commonly referred to by the rich as “that man in the White House”. But he was unwavering in his revolve to carry through a great programme of economic and social reform, declaring: “The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

FDR was a heroic progressive president, but of course his record should not be exempt from criticism. At the end of the 1930s, unemployment remained at very high levels; while weak purchasing power meant that without the outbreak of the Second World War, stagnation may have engulfed the American economy. The New Deal propped up many failing industries and sectors, and opportunities for innovation and the renewal of America’s infrastructure were missed. That said, Roosevelt’s triumph was in seizing the opportunity of the crisis and redefining it for progressive ends, transforming American society and politics and emerging as a defining figure in American history.

Patrick Diamond is a senior research fellow at Policy Network, Gwilym Gibbon fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford and a visiting fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Oxford

This is a contribution to Policy Network's series on The Classics of Social Democratic Thought

1. See Andrew Gamble, Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

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