FDR knew America's promise of democracy and economic opportunity meant nothing if it didn't include the average worker.
In this country we insist, as an essential of the American way of life, that the employer-employee relationship should be one between free men and equals. We refuse to regard those who work with hand or brain as different from or inferior to those who live from their property. We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property. But our workers with hand and brain deserve more than respect for their labor. They deserve practical protection in the opportunity to use their labor at a return adequate to support them at a decent and constantly rising standard of living, and to accumulate a margin of security against the inevitable vicissitudes of life. - Franklin D. Roosevelt
During this election campaign, a good deal of criticism has been hurled at President Obama from his conservative opponents for his support of the so-called "Buffet Rule" -- his insistence that individuals making $1 million a year or more in annual income should pay a minimum tax of 30 percent. Republican leaders such as Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell have even gone so far as to label the president's proposal nothing less than "class warfare" -- an attack on the wealthy "job creators" they see as a vital to the U.S. economic recovery.
Three quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt faced similar criticism and a similar problem. In trying to come to grips with the worst economic crisis in our history at a time when the nation lacked the adequate state apparatus and institutions to deal with massive unemployment and poverty, FDR launched a series of government initiatives designed to mitigate the worst excesses of unfettered capitalism and to provide the average American with the one thing he or she needed above all else: economic security.
In this sense, FDR attacked the problem of economic decline from the opposite end of the spectrum under discussion today. For him, the goal was not to see to it that the free enterprise system delivered vast sums of wealth to those at the top of the economic pyramid, today's so-called "job creators," but rather to ensure that the average worker was paid a wage decent enough to enable him or her to be able to purchase the myriad goods and services the U.S. economy was capable of producing. This would contribute to the overall health of the economy and was in his view a far more reliable means of generating sustainable economic growth. This growth would not only benefit the average worker, but also his employer, as the increased purchasing power of the lower and middle classes would also generate greater profits for those in a position of ownership.
As is the case today, FDR's focus on trying to generate greater economic opportunity and equality through progressive taxation and government initiatives aimed at putting people to work was labeled "class warfare" by his critics. The president, they said, was taking the nation down the path of "socialism" or "fascism," pitting capital against labor and dividing the country along the lines of rich and poor. But for Roosevelt, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, his goal was not to try to initiate class warfare, but to eliminate it. As he once observed in one of his fireside chats on the subject:
There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and American history. They would try to refuse the worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent livelihood and to acquire security. It is those short-sighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.
All American workers, brain workers and manual workers alike, and all the rest of us whose well-being depends on theirs, know that our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy in which all can profit and in which all can be secure from the kind of faulty economic direction which brought us to the brink of common ruin seven years ago.
For Roosevelt, then, there was "no cleavage between white collar workers and manual workers," or between "artists and artisans, musicians and mechanics, lawyers and accountants and architects and miners." To insist on such was to misunderstand and challenge the "whole concept of American democracy," which, he believed, above all else was based on the concept that it was "our determination to achieve an economic freedom for the average man which will give his political freedom reality."
Given all of this, one would suspect that FDR would heartily agree with Warren Buffett and President Obama's assertion that taxing a multibillionaire like Mr. Buffett at a lower rate than his secretary is not only ridiculous and unsustainable, but also undemocratic. It also helps to generate and foster the one thing that both President Obama and President Roosevelt have argued is antithetical to American democracy: the creation of a class distinction between the privileged few and the rest of us.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.