Even in this awful economy, the voters seem content to toggle between the two main political parties. If Republicans aren’t doing the job, then let Democrats try. Barack Obama? He seems competent. There’s little agitation for a radical third-party response.
That was not the case in 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in the cataclysm of the Great Depression. The Socialist candidate for California governor, Upton Sinclair, had just scored over a third of the vote. The leftist Farmer-Labor Party ran strong in Minnesota, as did the Socialist-backed Progressive Party in Wisconsin. Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, a demagogue Democrat, was about to unveil a program to drastically redistribute wealth. Had he not been assassinated, Long might have made an independent run for president in 1936, taking enough Democratic votes to cost Roosevelt his re-election.
These conditions explain why Roosevelt’s first inaugural address — famous for “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — also contained darker, more militant talk. Roosevelt’s success in co-opting an increasingly anti-capitalistic population may have saved capitalism.
That is the thesis of a 2001 book, “It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States,” by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks. Roosevelt neutralized the third parties, they wrote, “by incorporating in his own rhetoric many of their demands.”
And sharp things he said. Could you imagine Obama suggesting, as Roosevelt once did, that the nation “throw to the wolves the 46 men who are reported to have incomes in excess of 1 million dollars a year”?
Of course, likening now to then is treacherous. Today’s economic decline has yet to approach the depths of the Great Depression. Today’s unemployment rate is nowhere near 1933’s 25 percent. Our bank deposits are insured. And there are enough social safety nets in place to stop a fall into the abyss.
But the similarities are noteworthy. On Tuesday, Obama addressed a nation in economic distress also caused by an orgy of financial fraud and speculation. People are boiling mad.
In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt attacked the Wall Street operators as “unscrupulous money changers.” They “stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men,” he said.
And the indictment of the financiers only grew hotter: “Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.”
Roosevelt called for strict supervision of banking to guard against “the evils of the old order.” Would Obama have used the word the word “evil” in his inaugural address? No way. Nor would he call the Wall Street sharpies “money changers” and add, as Roosevelt did, that they “have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization” — a Biblical reference to Jesus’ driving the buyers and the sellers out of the temple.
For one thing, Democrats, like the other party, raised a lot of campaign dough from the kingpins of finance. Vilifying them now would be awkward. For another, Obama’s style is cool and conciliatory.
Unlike in Roosevelt’s day, the Democratic left wing is not about to march off into third parties, much less make revolution. Obama is the revolution.
The 44th president has been dealt an easier hand than the 32nd, and thank goodness for that.
©2009 The Providence Journal Co.