Running Out of Roosevelt’s Steam?

When I was a small boy, I lived in a neighborhood where most houses had two pictures on the wall: a religious picture and a picture of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The area was called Packingtown, in Oklahoma City, and most of the workers who lived there, including my father, worked, when they had jobs, at the Armour and Swift meat packing plants. The people of Packingtown did not just support Franklin Roosevelt; they revered him. I learned as a child that Roosevelt personally saved my family from starvation and that his Party, the Democrats, was the champion of poor people like us.

Seventy years later some part of that simple faith is still part of me, and I think it is still part of others. Of course, today , as a sophisticated college graduate and a student of the New Deal, I know that the history is much more complicated, that the New Deal did much for working people but also had an ugly racist side. But even now, for me, a Democratic candidate has an automatic advantage because when I go to the polls, I remember Roosevelt’s 1944 Economic Bill of Rights, Harry Truman’s advocacy of national health insurance and his moves to desegregate the Army and Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights bills and war on poverty. It was that progressive- social democratic strain in the Democratic Party that won the allegiance of the packing house workers, that holds me and, I suggest, that motivates the base of the Democratic Party.

To be sure, the Democratic Party was never entirely what my emotions suggest. Until the 1960s it had a substantial racist and conservative wing. Big city political machines, which were focused on patronage, ran much of the Party. It always had plenty of the conservatives who were later called Blue Dogs, and in recent years the Party has been dominated by corporate interests. We had a Democratic President in the 1990s who prided himself on his
skill in “triangulating” between Republicans and Democrats. Our current Democratic president finds tolerable an unemployment rate in excess of 11 per cent and has looked for a “Grand Bargain” at the expense of Social Security, a keynote of the New Deal. Is it any wonder, then, that many ordinary Americans no longer feel that the Democratic Party is the party that works for their well-being? Franklin Roosevelt, I suggest, built up a head of steam that has propelled the Democratic Party for any years, but that steam is running out.

We have an important political period ahead. We in Social Democrats USA have determined to gain allies and to wage a battle for a social democratic platform for the Democratic Party. We may have a left challenger in the primaries for the presidency. If we can show the American people that the Democratic Party understands their needs and problems and that it is determined to bring help to them, we may yet restore the the Party’s progressive-social democratic heritage.

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