FDR's 47 Percent: Will the Democrats Finally Heed Their Voices?

Dec 3, 2012David B. Woolner

President Obama should use the fiscal cliff to shift the debate away from deficits and take on the inequality that's undermining our democracy.

It has been well said that "the freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable, if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands, and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless…"

We believe in a way of living in which political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other—to ensure a maximum of human liberty not for a few but for all…

Today many Americans ask the uneasy question: Is the vociferation that our liberties are in danger justified by the facts?

...Their answer is that if there is that danger it comes from that concentrated private economic power which is struggling so hard to master our democratic government.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938

In his remarks on the so-called “fiscal cliff,” and in numerous campaign speeches, President Obama has repeatedly remarked that “we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” and that “if we’re serious about reducing the deficit, we have to combine spending cuts with revenue. And that means asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more in taxes.” The president has also said that he is “not wedded to every detail” of his current plan to reduce the deficit and that he is open to compromise. But he also has made it plain, as he did in his recent remarks at the White House, that he will refuse to accept any approach that isn’t balanced; that he is “not going to ask students and seniors and middle-class families to pay down the entire deficit while people like me making over $250,000 aren’t asked to pay a dime more in taxes.”

For the millions of Americans who remain out of work, or are struggling with hourly wages that when adjusted for inflation stand where they were in 1978, this is welcome news. But the president’s focus on taxes and the deficit is only part of the story. What the country really needs, according to most economists, is more stimulus, for the best way to reduce the deficit is to expand the economy, which would of course result in more government revenue.

The president has certainly made reference to this, and he has included a modest $50 billion in stimulus spending in his recent budget proposal to Congress, but for the most part the public discourse on how to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and fix our economy has been centered not on jobs or the vast structural inequality that now separates the top 1-2 percent from the rest of us, but on the deficit. This is unfortunate, for it means, in essence, that the country’s economic agenda is still very much in the hands of the conservative right; that we are still focused not on the cause of our economic woes—a collapsed economy brought on by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression—but on the by-product: the vast fall-off in federal, state, and local revenue that naturally came about as a result of this collapse.

A far better exercise would be to move away from the right’s obsession with the deficit and open up a conversation with the American people about a far more critical issue facing the nation: the ever-widening gulf between the rich and the rest of us and the very real consequences that this disparity in income has had on our economy and indeed on the very nature of our democracy.

Roughly three-quarters of a century ago, when faced with a similar set of circumstances—including a conservative right that was fond of labeling his policies socialist—Franklin Roosevelt did not shy away from addressing the conditions that led to the collapse of the world’s economy. He well understood—as did the millions of Americans who lived in or on the threshold of poverty—that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself.” He also understood that “the Federal debt, whether it be twenty-five billions or forty billions, can only be paid if the Nation obtains a vastly increased citizen income…The higher the national income goes the faster will we be able to reduce the total of Federal and state and local debts. Viewed from every angle, today's purchasing power—the citizens' income of today—is not at this time sufficient to drive the economic system of America at higher speed.”

Taking note of this—and in a reference to the bottom half of the U.S. population that today sounds all too familiar—FDR observed in a speech on the perils of monopoly that:

47 per cent of all American families and single individuals living alone had incomes of less than $1,000 for the year; and at the other end of the ladder a little less than 1 1/2 per cent of the nation's families received incomes which in dollars and cents reached the same total as the incomes of the 47 per cent at the bottom…

This clearly was unacceptable, he went on, for:

No people, least of all a democratic people, will be content to go without work or to accept some standard of living which obviously and woefully falls short of their capacity to produce. No people, least of all a people with our traditions of personal liberty, will endure the slow erosion of opportunity for the common man, the oppressive sense of helplessness under the domination of a few, which are overshadowing our whole economic life.

Hence, for Roosevelt it was economic plight of the average American—not the deficit—that was the key not only to the restoration of our economy, but also to the health and well-being of our democratic system of government; even to our very way of life.

The debate over the so-called fiscal cliff and the showdown between President Obama and Congress over what to do about it has attracted a great deal of attention from the media. But rather than fall into another round of endless bickering with the budget hawks about the deficit, the president should use this opportunity to remind the American people—as FDR did all those years ago—that an economy and a political system built on fundamental inequality is simply not sustainable. If we really want to help the 47 percent our highest priority should be to adopt policies based on the fundamental idea that “political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other,” not just the wealthy few at the top.

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.

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