If we learn anything from the recently concluded Ken Burns PBS documentary on 'The Roosevelts,' it's that the progressive, humanitarian future foreseen by America's two great 20th century presidents has regressed in the last thirty years to a version of the darker, oligarchal, big money-manipulated past.
It was Theodore Roosevelt, a Progressive Republican, who declared he would stand up to "the malfactors of great wealth."
Nowadays Washington insiders would proudly wear that phrase as a team affiliation on their T-shirts. If someone or some (corporate) entity possesses great wealth, he must be good, because it's only by cuddling up to possessors of great wealth that Washington insiders can keep their positions. It's the new normal. Elections are too expensive for a Congressman to look a gift horse, however mangy, in the mouth. The Supreme Court tells us that's the way things should be.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had some interesting epithets as well for those who opposed his progressive social legislation -- banking regulation to prevent dangerous speculation, the FDIC to gaurantee deposits, the Civilian Conservation Corps to put people back to work, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, child labor laws, minimum wage, the Wagner Act to guarantee workers the right to organize, the GI Bill of Rights to loan veterans money to buy a house or go to college, Rural Electrification to bring the 20th century to farm country... the list goes on. He called these detractors "Economic Royalists," in one one of his famous Depression Era speeches. They "fear that we are threatening their power."
FDR understood that the the corporate bosses and billionaires of his era saw themselves as "royalty," who believed they deserved riches because they were born to them. FDR was born to that class as well. He knew and understood them. He knew they 'hated' him as a 'traitor.'
Banker and monopolist J.P. Morgan, the Darth Vader of the suffering inflicted on millions of exploited workers and their families during America's 'Gilded Age' -- i.e., the period when American society was increasingly divided into rich robber barons and impoverished masses -- clashed with both Roosevelts. He was shocked that Teddy Roosevelt invoked 'emergency' powers to prevent Morgan's takeover of the entire railroad system with the goal of setting tranporatation rates for all goods shipped by rail. It doesn't say anywhere in the Constitution you have the power to do that, Morgan complained.
"The Consitution exists for the people, not the people for the Constitution," TR replied.
Why don't we have political leaders who can speak truth to power like that? Imagine anyone saying something like that today? The good of the American people comes first; the search for precedent in the law courts a distant second.
FDR saved the country in 1933 by closing the banks until he had a plan to reform them -- and to restore Americans' confidence in their solvency. Many argue that he saved capitalism itself from perishing through its own excesses. The hatred of the billionaires was a price he was willing to pay for saving America from chaos and despair, and saving them from the real possibility of a Soviet-style, class-based revolution.
While the main lines of the Roosevelt story might be familiar, what continues to amaze me is that the words -- the public articulation of ideas, ideals and values -- routinely spoken by the two Roosevelts in the White House are just plain absent from today's political vocabulary.
In one of the documentary's many remarkable archived film moments, FDR observes that a public policy should not be judged by whether "it added to those who already had more than enough, but whether it added something to those who have too little."
You couldn't say that today without being attacked for being unfair to the 1 percenters. In the American political mind the concept of "having too much" no longer eixists. Given the routinely obscene compensation packages for CEOs, bankers and stock brokers, how could it? Politicians no longer say "malfactors of great wealth," they say "big donors with purchased access to elected officials." The Supreme Court says 'sure, go ahead, buy as many Congressmen as you want.'
As a result, the so-called 'man in the street' no longer realizes that the super-rich are fleecing the public good to feather their own no nests.
And there is no consensus that public policy ought to be concerned primarily with those who have too little. That government, again in the words of FDR, has an obligation to take action to ensure "a decent place, and a decent government" for its citizens. If you are unemployed, poor, hungry or homeless, or driven into penury by exorbitant medical costs, the general opinion today appears to be that such matters are your own business. 'Why come running to us?' Congression leaders ask today.' We take care of ourselves. Model your behavior on us.'
Americans wrote thousands of letters every day to FDR when he was in the White House because, in the words of one correspondent, this was the first time they thought someone in Washington actually cared about them.
Somehow we've lost the notion that "providing for the common good" was the purpose of government.
Maybe watching a documentary that provides a detailed passage through the major events of the first half of the 20th century will remind us of how hard life was for so long for so many "common people" and how far American had to come to create the social advantages so many of the Baby Boomers could take for granted. Do we have to go all the way back to 1900 and do it all over again?