A Tale of Two Democrats

Every once in a while I think about the fact that my life, like the lives of many members of the so-called Silent Generation, began during a depression—and may well end during another.

I can’t say that I remember much about the hardships of the first one. My family, like so many others, was rescued from the threat of poverty by a federal government job, when my father was offered a modest position in the Roosevelt administration. I do remember how my parents felt about FDR—the trust they placed in him. I don’t expect to ever feel that way about any politician in my lifetime.

I know what Obama is up against and want to give him the benefit of every doubt. But as Sam Smith pointed out in a typically eloquent post yesterday, these are very different times, the Democrats are a very different party, and the window for truly bold action may be closing.

In the late summer of 1933, when it appeared that the National Recovery Administration would not be able to provide adequate employment, FDR aide Harry Hopkins began laying the groundwork for a jobs program. Hopkins — who had pledged to himself to put four million people to work within four weeks — fell somewhat short. In the first four weeks only 2.8 million workers were put on the government payroll. Hopkins didn’t reach the four million goal until January.

In other words, Harry Hopkins got the same number of people employed in four weeks as Obama has promised within two years.

It was a different time in other ways. For example, Democrats didn’t apologize for the federal government as June Hopkins explained in Presidential Studies Quarterly:

“One hot summer day in 1935, federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins presented his plan for alleviating the effects of the Great Depression to a group of shirt-sleeved Iowa farmers, not noted for their liberal ideals. As Hopkins began to describe how government-sponsored jobs on public projects would provide both wages for the unemployed and a stimulus for foundering businesses, a voice shouted out the question that was on everyone’s mind: ‘Who’s going to pay for all that?’ . . .

“‘You are,’ Hopkins shouted, ‘and who better? Who can better afford to pay for it. Look at this great university. Look at these fields, these forests and rivers. This is America, the richest country in the world. We can afford to pay for anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this country. And we are going to pay for it.”…

To use the archaic language of the party’s earlier days, we need jobs and business — not stunningly non-specific stimuli and fiscal packages, but things people can see and feel, leading them to invest in America again as well….

FDR got his pressure from the left; Obama gets his from the right thanks to the unwillingness of progressives to push him. FDR could take action without a gang of media manipulators telling him to be careful. There wasn’t an inordinate pyramid of bureaucracy chipping away at every decision before it went into action. Liberals had more passion than status and really cared about those at the bottom of the American heap.

Are we trapped forever in this contemporary paradigm? Or can we face what has happened to us and start to change it? Can liberals once again represent the ordinary American or can such Americans only expect a few nods in their direction? Can we condemn a whole class of citizens because of what we fear some rightwing Republicans will say if we do something real to help them?

This is a time when status, style and semantics won’t save us. Reality has entered the house of America without knocking. It can’t be spun away. And time is running out.

There’s more to the post—read the whole thing here.


[1933 cartoon from the Basil O’Connor Collection at the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York; many of these FDR political cartoons have been placed online in a database created by students at Niskayuna High School in upstate New York.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s