Progressives are disappointed that – contrary to the hype – Obama is no FDR.
But FDR himself wasn’t who we think of as FDR until he was forced by protests, strikes and other forms of civil disobedience.
As historian Howard Zinn wrote in March 2008:
In 1934, early in the Roosevelt Presidency, strikes broke out all over the country, including a general strike in Minneapolis, a general strike in San Francisco, hundreds of thousands on strike in the textile mills of the South. Unemployed councils formed all over the country. Desperate people were taking action on their own, defying the police to put back the furniture of evicted tenants, and creating self-help organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.
Without a national crisis—economic destitution and rebellion—it is not likely the Roosevelt Administration would have instituted the bold reforms that it did.
Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates [i.e. Obama and McCain] have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War ….
They offer no radical change from the status quo.
They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for ….
They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live.
None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties. We should not expect that a victory at the ballot box in November will even begin to budge the nation from its twin fundamental illnesses: capitalist greed and militarism.
For instance, the mortgage foreclosures that are driving millions from their homes—they should remind us of a similar situation after the Revolutionary War, when small farmers, many of them war veterans (like so many of our homeless today), could not afford to pay their taxes and were threatened with the loss of the land, their homes. They gathered by the thousands around courthouses and refused to allow the auctions to take place.
The evictions today of people who cannot pay their rents should remind us of what people did in the Thirties when they organized and put the belongings of the evicted families back in their apartments, in defiance of the authorities.
Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.
Voting … is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.
Similarly, Zinn said in 2008:
The obstacles are a kind of resignation that things will go on as before. That’s always the obstacle to change. The obstacle to change is not that people don’t want change. People want change. But most of the time, people feel impotent. However, at certain points in history, the energy level of people, the indignation level of people rises. And at that point it becomes possible for people to organize and to agitate and to educate one another, and to create an atmosphere in which the government must do something. I’m thinking of the 1930s; I’m thinking of Franklin D. Roosevelt coming into office not really a crusader.
Roosevelt came into office, you know, with a balance-the-budgets history. It was not clear what he was going to do, and I don’t think he was clear about what he was going to do, except that he was going to be different from Hoover and the Republicans. But when he came into office, he faced a country that was on strike. He faced general strikes in San Francisco in Minneapolis. He faced strikes of hundreds of thousands of textile workers in the South. He faced a tenants movement and an unemployed council movement. And he faced a country in turmoil, and he reacted to it, he was sensitive to it, he moved. That’s what we will need.
We will need to see some of the scenes that we saw in the ’30s.
And Peter Dreier – professor of politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College – wrote last year:
In his recent book Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America, Adam Cohen [assistant editorial page editor of the New York Times] points out that when FDR was elected in November 1932, and even after he took office in March 1933, his ideas about what to do were very unclear.
He promised Americans a “New Deal,” but he had very few specifics. In fact, FDR was in many ways a cautious, even conservative, politician. The one clear idea he had in mind when he took office was to cut the federal budget, and the person he hired to do that job was his budget director, a conservative Congressman from Arizona named Lewis Douglas. He was also initially reluctant to use the power of government to regulate business practices, create jobs or to support union organizing or struggling farmers. He was clear from the beginning, however, that core values were at stake–articulated in his first Inaugural Address. That is what created the ground–and support–for his pragmatic experimentation.
Cohen’s book describes an ongoing battle for FDR’s heart and mind that took place both inside and outside the White House.
As Cohen recounts, “Farmers who stayed on the land were responding to their bleak circumstances with extreme politics and lawlessness.” Across the Farm Belt, hundreds of farmers would show up and stop a foreclosure sale by the force of numbers. Some farmers threatened to call a national strike if Congress didn’t act. In Sioux City, Iowa, farmers put wooden planks with nails on the highways to block agricultural deliveries. Cohen writes that in Nebraska, a group of farmers “showed up at a foreclosure sale and saw to it that every item that had been seized from a farmer’s widow sold for five cents, leaving the bank with a total settlement of just $5.35.”
These protests by farmers, Cohen explains, “increased the sense of urgency in Washington.” Henry Wallace and progressive Democrats in Congress kept FDR aware of these protests, which helped them outmaneuver their more moderate colleagues. This combination of outside protest and inside maneuvering led to passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, which, Cohen says, “radically changed the economics of American farming.”
This same dynamic played out in the big cities among veterans, tenants, the unemployed, workers and the elderly.
In the spring and summer of 1932, protest erupted among veterans of World War I, many of whom were out of work and hungry. More than 20,000 of them from across the country joined a Bonus Army march on Washington. The veterans held government bonus certificates for their military service, which were due more than a dozen years in the future. They demanded that Congress pay their bonuses immediately. Most of them camped in makeshift huts on the Anacostia flats, across the Potomac River from the Capitol. President Hoover ordered the Army to evict the veterans, which led to a bloody scene with horses, tear gas and machine guns in which two veterans were killed.
After FDR took office, the veterans returned to Washington. In contrast to Hoover, FDR invited the Bonus Marchers to camp at a nearby Army fort and provided them with meals, medical care and entertainment by the Navy band. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the veterans and listened to their complaints. FDR didn’t restore their bonuses, but he did issue an executive order setting aside 25,000 places for veterans in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the first of the New Deal public works programs.
In the 1930s, the United States was a nation of renters. As the Depression worsened, there were huge waves of evictions, because tenants didn’t have the income to pay rent. Utility companies shut off electricity and heat. In many cities, when word spread that a family was being evicted, a crowd would gather–sometimes ten people, sometimes a few hundred. The police would remove the furniture from the house and put it out in the street, and the crowd would bring the furniture back. This happened so often that some police officers would refuse to evict or arrest people. These protests set the stage for the New Deal’s housing programs, the first time that the government provided subsidies to create affordable housing.
In January 1933, several hundred jobless Americans surrounded a restaurant just off Union Square in New York City, demanding that they be fed without charge. In Seattle in February 1933, about 5,000 unemployed people occupied the County-City Building demanding jobs or relief. These and similar protests around the country set the stage for the nation’s first cash assistance program for struggling families.
Through the 1930s, workers engaged in massive and illegal strikes and sit-down protests in factories and retail stores throughout the country. In 1934, 1.5 million workers–including longshoremen, teamsters, factory workers and retail clerks–went on strike. In San Francisco, 130,000 workers joined a general strike.
In time, FDR recognized that his ability to push New Deal legislation through Congress depended on the pressure generated by these protesters. As the protests escalated, Roosevelt became more vocal, using his bully pulpit to lash out at Big Business for its greed and selfishness. He used his speeches and his fireside chats to explain his New Deal agenda and to encourage people to contact their representatives in Congress.
FDR was initially ambivalent about protest and about radicals. For example …. FDR wasn’t enthusiastic about the mounting protests by farmers, workers, veterans, community groups and the advocates of the Townsend Plan (for old-age insurance), but he understood their utility.
FDR once met with a group of activists who sought his support for legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”
Liberal Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig pointed out last week that – instead of mocking the Tea party – progressives should emulate it’s energy:
Many of my friends have been puzzled that I have not been a strong critic of the Tea Party. Indeed, quite the opposite, I stand as a critical admirer…. I am a genuine admirer of the urge to reform that is at the heart of the grassroots part of this, perhaps the most important political movement in the current political context.
My admiration for this movement grew yesterday, as at least the Patriots flavor of the Tea Party movement announced its first fight with (at least some) Republicans. The Tea Party Patriots have called for a GOP moratorium on “earmarks.”
This disagreement has thus set up the first major fight of principle for the Tea Party. As leaders in the Tea Party Patriots described in an email to supporters,
For two years we have told the media and the rest of the country that we are nonpartisan and that we intend to hold all lawmakers to a higher standard.
This, they insist, is their first chance for that stand with the new Republican Congress. And the Tea Party Patriots have now mobilized their list to pressure Republicans to support this first and critical reform in the new Congress.
Earmarks are … an essential element in the corruption that is Congress today…. they have become the key to an incredible economy of influence that effectively enables lobbyists to auction too many policy decisions to the highest special interest bidder. That economy won’t change simply by eliminating earmarks. But eliminating earmarks is an essential first step to starving this Republic-destroying beast.
We do face a common enemy. Special-interest-government is anathema to both the true Right and the limping Left. Progress would be to work together to end it.
Lessig is not alone.
As I’ve previously pointed out, progressives such as Dave Lindorff, economist Dean Baker, Daniel Ellsberg, Jonathan Capehart and many others say that we should be emulating the protest energy of the Tea Party, because we have to raise some hell before anything will change.
In fact, as I’ve repeatedly noted, the whole left-versus-right thing is just a distraction trick. It’s really the American people versus the giant bankers, captains of the military-industrial complex, and handful of others who are benefiting by shafting the average American.
Remember that one of the founders of the Tea Party – Karl Denninger – has slammed the current Tea Party (which was quickly co-opted by the mainstream GOP) for serving the rich and the Republican party instead of fighting against the giant banks, and is calling for non-partisan, Gandhi-style nonviolent resistance to take on the banskters.
And remember that “liberal” George Soros is paying a top aide to “conservative” Sarah Palin.
Of course, some have argued that there are more effective methods of disobedience than protests and strikes such as this or this. I will leave strategy to those who have better tactical sense than I have.
But one thing is for sure: unless we make the lives of those in power a little more uncomfortable, nothing will change.
Note to conservatives who dislike FDR: Glass-Steagall and other regulations against fraud wouldn’t have been passed unless the public had raised hell through protests and strikes.
Postscript: Yves Smith is having none of it, pointing me to an article by political science professor and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson which saying that FDR never worked for the status quo, and concluding that “FDR was simply not willing to make the kind of arrangements with bankers that President Obama was”.