Several years ago I was looking through my grand-daughter's fifth grade history book. At the time her class was covering the New Deal and I thought it would be instructive to see how it was covered. Like most modern histories it was overwhelmingly laudatory over FDR's policies and there long-term benefits. As the narrative proceeded it mentioned that things hadn't changed remarkably in the initial years but by 1937 "things were looking better."
I turned the page, expecting to find a continuation of the topic. Instead there was a new chapter entitled "World War II." My grand-daughter and any other young person whose knowledge of American History ended with the fifth grade, would most likely spend the rest of their lives convinced that the New Deal was a roaring success. Only a few of the inquisitive would have gone on and learned that many of the programs were failures, others ruled unconstitutional, and still others remain on the books like vampire bats with an eternal meal.
When Barry was elected in 2008, it wasn't unusual to see a headline or column bruiting the idea of a "new" New Deal, as if this is just what the nation needed. My history education was significantly different. Not only were several semesters of American History required but many of those who taught it were sold-out advocates of FDR. Our junior year teacher, Ray Baker, went beyond advocacy and approached worship.
However, at that time, a fairly well educated high school junior, if he was paying attention, quickly discerned that the teaching had ended and the indoctrination had begun. A group of us made it our mission to go beyond our equally biased text book and do some independent research. Sure enough, there were some chinks in the great man's armor and we quickly brought them to Mr. Baker's attention.
I'll credit Baker with this: he didn't shut us up but engaged us in spirited debate. This does not happened today - the modern student who decides to engage his professor/teacher is very likely to pay a heavy penalty. It's very sad, but the modern university professor is rarely open to debate - many I would wager have had little exposure to the "other side."
As a result, the image of FDR remains much as his earlier biographers pictured him: a wealthy nobleman who stepped down from his Hyde Park Olympus to minister to the masses. Interestingly enough, we have another paragon who has descended from a different Hyde Park, making an attempt to save the nation from its baser instincts.
Trumpeting the battle cry of his party, "equality for everyone," Barry is attempting to build another social Utopia, counting on his supporters to recall the glory days of FDR and his progressive fore bearers. Which is enough for me to do a reconstruction of that period and that party and the many blessings it and they have brought upon us.
First, let's go back to pre-Civil War days to see how the party developed it's enduring love affair with the downtrodden. In 1846, a first-term, Democrat representative, David Wilmot , proposed that no funds be approved for war against Mexico without the express understanding that any new territory gained, would be slave-free. The resolution sped through the House with support from all sides, but once it hit the Senate, the southern contingent, with enough votes to successfully filibuster it, prevailed. Guess the party of those Senators.
Our next historical stop will be in the Progressive era, the time we chose to elect a full professor to the presidency. Woodrow Wilson, as governor of New Jersey established his "progressive" credentials by signing a bill which made it mandatory to sterilize criminals and the mentally retarded. Elected to the top spot and with the support of W.E.B. Du Bois, Wilson was sworn in on March 4, 1913. A little over a month later, at the suggestion of Post Master General Albert S. Burleson, a Texan, that the railway mail service be segregated.
Comforting himself with the thought that he had made “no promises in particular to Negroes, except to do them justice…”, Wilson did away with merit appointments for civil service jobs, required all applicants to provide a photo, and, for the next 35 years, those African-Americans fortunate enough to get a postal job, worked in the back room. (April 11, 2013, was the centenary of this moment but I don't recall a celebration…strange.)
Going further, Wilson saw that “the old political formulas do not fit the present problems: they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.” Going even further than today's moderns, Wilson asked for “permission — in an era in which ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word — to interpret the Constitution according to Darwinian principle.”
Although that was never accomplished we did get the Fed, the income tax, Prohibition, and the 17th amendment…more accomplishments that no one celebrates. Guess the party of Woodrow Wilson.
Now we approach that most pivotal time: the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the wizard FDR.
The picture one gets is similar to that of grade school or high school history text books. They paint a rosy picture of the era, its accomplishments, and its enduring quest to elevate the "common man." But to get a more balanced appraisal of the era, it's essential to avoid the hagiographers and search out a real historian. Ira Katznelson fits the bill with two books: "When Affirmative Action Was White" and “Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time.”
Katznelson's labors are not attempts to diminish FDR but to accurately frame the conditions that drove the legislation that came out of his administrations. Putting it briefly and bluntly, successful legislation needed the support of Senators from the South…in 17 states segregation was still legal and these 34 Senators were able to block any legislation. Guess which party these Senators represented.
Some examples of what legislation was passed and is still considered remarkable are the labor laws of the New Deal and Fair Deal. Millions of workers secured minimum wages, maximum hours, Social Security, and the right to join industrial as well as craft unions. African Americans, on the other hand, missed out as the southern contingent saw to it that farm workers and household workers were denied these protections - of course, a substantial number were African American (In the spirit of equity, I have to point out that a majority of eligible white southern voters, the poor share-cropper and field worker, were also denied Social Security and the ballot as many could not pony up the poll tax.) .
(This "minor" withholding also initially cost working African-Americans [and impoverished whites] years and years of lost contributions to Social Security, as neither employee or employer were required to set money aside. In the longer run, with ever-increasing payouts, the losses were, and are, truly significant.)
Later even the GI Bill, despite the universal eligibility for the benefits offered, was written to make it possible to deny benefits to blacks. This was accomplished by allowing benefit approval to be administered locally - without national oversight. As a result, these benefits, including home loans (fully guaranteed by the federal government) were also refused to people of color. The education benefits of the GI Bill also wound up being dead letters as the segregation in higher education continued.
Even with the vote for GI's, the south prevailed. The 1944 Soldier Voting Act was to give every troop a say in the upcoming election. However, with Senator James Eastland and Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi writing the bill, it stipulated that absentee votes be counted only in states where the governor and state legislatures approved the use of the federal ballot. Guess which states didn't approve. Name the party of their Senators.
What Katznelson saw as “a notable, even extraordinary, attainment,” was despite contrary developments in Italy, Germany, and Russia, the U.S. kept a strong legislature - although, at various times, both FDR and Truman attempted "to shift authority from the legislative branch to the executive." This may seem an unnecessary exaggeration, but upon assuming office, George Kennan, who would later do much to shape American policy toward Russia and the Cold War, came to the conclusion that the U.S. would be more successful as an "authoritarian state." Walter Lippman, a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper columnist and one-time adviser to Woodrow Wilson, informed FDR prior to assuming office that “you may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.”
The next great period of dominant liberalism occurred in the '60s - years still viewed by many as the truly great years of the "American experiment." While the years 1932-1952 saw an unbroken string of one-party majorities in both houses and in the White House, Eisenhower brought in change. He waged no wars, built a substantial highway system, sent troops into Little Rock to enforce integration, and selected Earl Warren to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court ("the biggest fool mistake I ever made.") It was a selection that would usher in a new wave of liberal intellectuals anxious to put their theories into practice.
JFK appeared to be the dream of the left: young, handsome, articulate, a war hero, a great speaker, and a Harvard grad. However, he quickly found himself, and his armed forces, involved in Berlin, Cuba, and Cuba again (during his 2-1/2 years in office I was asked to visit my Draft Board on three separate occasions - he might be your hero, he's not mine). On the civil rights front he dithered; on one of the days immediately preceding his assassination, the Chicago Tribune ran a front page cartoon showing Kennedy, as a football player, being called for two penalties; the white referee flagged him for "pushing," the black referee flagged him for "holding."
The LBJ years were fantastic for the left as they once again gave the nation two houses overwhelmingly dominated by one party. However, civil rights remained a real stumbling block for much the same reason it had been for FDR: southern Senators were still a power to be reckoned with, but with a little less clout than before. Nevertheless, the inter-party debates and personalities demonstrated the party's views on integration.
Here are a few quotes from the era - all from members of the same party:
“Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend . . . the two currents will finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come” as “the American Negro [claims] his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life.” - Name the president and his party
"I'll have those n*ggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years."
- Name the president and his party
"I am a former Kleagle [recruiter] of the Ku Klux Klan in Raleigh County . . . The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia. It is necessary that the order be promoted immediately and in every state in the union."
- Name the Senator and his party
"President Truman's civil rights program "is a farce and a sham--an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty. I am opposed to that program. I have voted against the so-called poll tax repeal bill ... I have voted against the so-called anti-lynching bill." -
Name the Senate Majority Leader, later President, and his party
"I did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems of Negroes."
- Name the one-time Senator, Attorney General, and assassinated Presidential candidate and his party
"Everybody likes to go to Geneva. I used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you'd find these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva."
- Name the South Carolina Senator, later 1984 candidate for nomination for President, and his party
"I do not think it is an exaggeration at all to say to my friend from West Virginia [Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan recruiter] that he would have been a great senator at any moment . . . He would have been right during the great conflict of civil war in this nation."
- Name the Connecticut Senator who, along with Barney Frank, authored a major piece of financial legislation, and his party
LBJ, of course, had his problems, too. Not the least of which was Viet Nam, the draft, the Gulf of Tonkin, the guns-and-butter agenda, Medicare, Viet Nam, Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Viet Nam, Bobby Kennedy.
But his major initiative was the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The Bill passed and it has been considered a grand piece of legislation, mad possible only through a one-party super-majority. Or was it?
Let's look at the voting record for that Bill:
House bill (FOR-AGAINST):
Southern Democrats: 7-87 (7–93%)
Southern Republicans: 0-10 (0–100%)
Northern Democrats: 145-9 (94–6%)
Northern Republicans: 138-24 (85–15%)
Senate bill (FOR-AGAINST):
Southern Democrats: 1-20 (5–95%)
Southern Republicans: 0-1 (0–100%)
Northern Democrats: 45-1 (98–2%)
Northern Republicans: 27-5 (84–16%)
Conclusion: if the Northern Republicans had been as bigoted as popularly characterized, they could have successfully filibustered it, as their southern predecessors did.
Interesting Note: One year prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Bill, the Senate also passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963. which prohibited wage differentials based on sex. Howard Smith of Virginia chaired the House Rules Committee and hated the Civil Rights Bill. In an effort to get it defeated he added an amendment prohibiting sex discrimination. Later another representative observed that "Smith didn't give a damn about women's rights...he was trying to knock off votes either then or down the line because there was always a hard core of men who didn't favor women's rights."
We are now experiencing another incarnation of the dissatisfied liberal left. Once again, with super-majorities in both houses, they pushed through a piece of legislation which at the time, and now, is still opposed by a majority of Americans - a majority that's growing bigger daily as the real details of the bill act become apparent.
The current President is heavily supported by voters of color who have been sold the line that his party has been the one that has delivered. Despite a history of double-dealing and double-crossing, the party insists these groups "owe" him their support - they have been taught a history much like the one my grand-daughter experienced. Along with other smaller groups who for various social and financial reasons, have adopted the cloak of victimhood, and signed on to his great quest, there is a good chance my grand-children and yours will be saddled with another over-sized mandate which will not be effective or affordable.
But the votes, as usual, are being purchased with food stamps, housing allowances, welfare checks, disability allowances. Additional votes are being sought through a new immigration bill which will present newcomers with many of features enumerated above as well as a ballot and eligibility for Social Security payments. And as these goodies become more available, we are witnessing the undeniable emergence of a young, white (largely male) underclass, not too anxious to work or do much more than "kick-back." Many are into drugs, many still live with Mom and Pop, and many are, at best, semi-literate.
None of this bodes well for the country or its would-be leaders. Once the grasshoppers triumph over the ants, the leeches will assume power and we will, at long last, all be equal.