What FDR Understood About Socialism That Today’s Democrats Don’t

He ruled at the height of government activism, but saw ideology as something to fear, not embrace.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in characteristic style: beaming, from the back seat of an open car. He had earned this smile. It was June 27, 1936, and he had just been re-nominated by acclamation in the smoke-filled Philadelphia Convention Center a few blocks away. It was, arguably, the high-water-mark of his career. Thanks to the monumental initiatives of Roosevelt’s first term, it was also a moment of transcendent significance in the nation’s history, though none of the 100,000 people sweating in the yellow-brick football stadium realized it.

This was the pinnacle of American socialism, by that or any other name.

In the four years just past, Roosevelt had transformed the purpose of the United States government, making it a constant companion in the lives of Americans. The Social Security Act of the previous year was merely the crowning achievement. Roosevelt’s initiatives, meant to curb the misery brought on by the Great Depression, directly funded millions of government jobs, employing everyone from photographers to brush-clearing conservation workers. To pay for this, he raised the income tax—which hadn’t even existed two decades earlier—to 75 percent on the highest incomes. The rich were subsidizing the poor, and that was A-OK with FDR.

The giant crowd bristled with excitement to hear their hero defend these policies. What followed was his so-called “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech, which historians rank among the greatest of his career, a tall order from the man whose oratorical roster included “nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “a day that will live in infamy.” But while those speeches perfectly captured individual moments, Roosevelt’s “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech came far closer to revealing his inner theories and motivations: Never before or after would he lay out his vision in greater clarity.

That vision included one truly insistent message: He was not a socialist.

Though he never used the term socialism in his speech, Roosevelt’s anger at those who accused him of ideological motivations, of applying an economic theory that was anathema to the United States, exploded from the lectern. In line after line, the fiery president defended his actions as pragmatic responses to the real, glaring needs of a changing society. The rich who criticized him, who cloaked their greed in an affinity for capitalism, were dangerously missing his point. He knew the ideological threats of communism and of fascism were real, and were overtaking democracy in European countries. An etched-in-stone commitment to the status quo would be an invitation to extremists everywhere. By fulfilling the government’s obligation to assist its people, he was instilling confidence in the American system. He was vindicating the Founding Fathers.

Now, in a time of far less suffering and little sense of economic crisis, some Democrats are embracing the very title that Roosevelt shunned. It is, in their eyes, truth in packaging. Their proposals sound much like Roosevelt’s: using the power of the federal government to create a fairer society, in which essential services are subsidized by higher taxes on the wealthy. But unlike FDR, they say that, yes, these programs amount to socialism. The Republicans who inveigh against them aren’t misstating their intentions, as Roosevelt claimed. The GOP may be dead wrong to demonize them—to turn a benignly descriptive word like socialism into a scare word—but, yeah, they’re socialists in pursuit of a socialist platform.

For Sen. Bernie Sanders, socialism was a way of distinguishing his left-wing views from those of the dominant moderate wing of the Democratic Party in Vermont. He has proudly, even courageously, worn the socialist moniker since the days of the Cold War, when fears of Soviet-style socialism were rampant. On the presidential campaign trail, however, he does more than just claim the title of “democratic socialist” for himself. By embracing policies shared by many other Democratic candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, he puts the socialist imprimatur on their platforms, as well. Some younger Democrats, eager to advertise their distance from the party’s tired status quo, have also embraced the term. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has won plaudits for her unambiguous endorsement of the pro-worker socialist tradition.

The Republicans, meanwhile, show every sign of putting the term at the very center of their efforts in 2020, with President Donald Trump sounding the charge in his State of the Union speech last winter. “Socialist” has already become a chyron for numerous Democratic initiatives on Fox News. And, indeed, polls suggest that initiatives such as “Medicare for All” attract solid support when described in generic terms, but rather less when the word “socialist” is affixed to them.

Would Franklin Roosevelt applaud these later generations of Democrats, who claim a piece of his legacy, attempting to demystify the term that was used to slight his record? The evidence strongly suggests he would not. Roosevelt the canny salesman might well say that attaching an ideological label to a pragmatic proposal such as Medicare for All—which is intended to eliminate waste and cut costs, after all—is foolish and misleading.

In Roosevelt’s experience, ideology was something to be feared, not embraced. Communism, fascism, Nazism (“National Socialism”) and even the unbending capitalist principles of his conservative critics were all looming dangers to the nation’s survival.

But his objections would also probably run well beyond political expediency. In Roosevelt’s experience, ideology was something to be feared, not embraced. Communism, fascism, Nazism (“National Socialism”) and even the unbending capitalist principles of his conservative critics were all looming dangers to the nation’s survival. This was the underlying message of his “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech. This was the point he desperately wanted to make to those who assembled in Franklin Field.

His audience had journeyed to Philadelphia from all over the country expecting to hear another of his declarations of bright skies ahead, in the reassuring tones of the man whose fireside chats comforted the families of America and who made “Happy Days Are Here Again” his anthem.

They would be disappointed.

***

In the moments before his 1936 convention acceptance speech, Roosevelt experienced what he later called “the most frightful five minutes of my life.” Paralyzed from the waist down by polio, with his withered legs held in place by steel braces, Roosevelt relied on the steady arm of his son James and the strength in his hips to cautiously wend his way to the speaker’s platform. Navigating through the crowded football stadium, Roosevelt paused to greet the bewhiskered poet Edwin Markham, whose “The Man with the Hoe” (“Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans …”) was beloved by the labor movement.

As the 84-year-old Markham stepped forward, someone jostled him and he brushed into James Roosevelt, who leaned into his father. The president’s leg brace buckled under the pressure, which sent Roosevelt sprawling, the pages of his speech fluttering into the air.

Lucky to escape serious injury, the president composed himself while aides scrambled to find the missing pages of the speech. Fortunately, it was one of the shorter acceptance speeches in Democratic Party history.

Roosevelt began solemnly, by referring to the times as deeply fraught, and himself as a person “upon whom many critical hours have imposed and still impose a grave responsibility.” He saluted those who “put partisanship aside” to assist in the “efforts to achieve recovery and destroy abuses.”

“Above all I thank the millions of Americans who have borne disaster bravely and have dared to smile through the storm,” he continued. “America will not forget these recent years, will not forget that the rescue was not a mere party task. It was the concern of us all. In our strength we rose together, rallied our energies together, applied the old rules of common sense, and together survived.”

Woven into this seemingly boilerplate language is the assertion that Roosevelt was not pushing a personal agenda, but rather bringing people together to solve problems that plagued the entire nation. The solutions weren’t intended to change America but to repair America. They were not precepts but “common sense.”

Nonetheless, Roosevelt explained, beneath the immediate symptoms lay a deeper sickness. Modern advances in industry and technology had served to separate individuals and even whole communities from the fruits of their labor. The changes in the economy have “raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved if we are to preserve to the United States the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.”

Roosevelt drew a line from the 18th-century royalists who tyrannized the fledgling colonies to his era’s “economic royalists,” building “new kingdoms … upon concentration of control over material things.” He warned, “There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small businessmen and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer.”

The president’s message was clear: His efforts to protect the ordinary American businessman and worker were solidly grounded in the core principles of “the American system of initiative and profit.” No revolutionary was he. But technology had changed, and the massive scaling of industries had empowered a small group of elites, while disempowering the very masses who had won their freedom in the Revolution. “Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government,” Roosevelt continued.

The president’s message was clear: His efforts to protect the ordinary American businessman and worker were solidly grounded in the core principles of “the American system of initiative and profit.”

The appeal to government was a plea of last resort. FDR’s administration answered the knock on the door. The wealthy, however, refused to acknowledge the problems or offer any solutions. Instead, they fell back on a biting critique of the expanded role of government, claiming it represented nothing more than Roosevelt’s ideological assault on American free enterprise.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt thundered. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjugation; and against dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”

Roosevelt claimed as his guideposts the Constitution and the Founding Fathers themselves. But he admitted that, in his search for solutions, he was often improvising and fully capable of making mistakes.

“We seek daily to profit from experience, to learn to do better as our task proceeds,” he said. “Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of indifference.”

Roosevelt’s assessment of his intentions and methods—responding to woes in a spirit of charity, crafting creative solutions, fulfilling the spirit of the Constitution and the dreams of the founders—represent the soul of pragmatism and the antithesis of ideology.

***

The enduring significance of the “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech is in its brilliant last three paragraphs, when Roosevelt announces a further motive for his New Deal programs: preserving democracy and capitalism around the world. Among Roosevelt’s many accomplishments, historians especially credit his early apprehension of the collapse of democracy in Europe, and the danger it presented to the United States. As Roosevelt stood to accept the Democratic nomination in 1936, almost no one in the giant crowd at Franklin Field foresaw the possibility of a global conflict in just a few years. He did, but hesitated to inflict a lengthy dissection of the threat on a beleaguered population. Instead, he alluded to it in a way that erased any doubts about the motivations behind his policies.

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events,” he declared. “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

“In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.

“I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.”

Roosevelt’s eagerness to be seen as a pragmatist was partly a political concern: Growing numbers of critics, including his onetime friend and fellow liberal Al Smith, were starting to use the socialist label to attack him. But there was a further motive: his own resistance to the left. He often felt the sting of ideological critics on his left flank, from the liberal populist Huey Long to the gentlemanly socialist Norman Thomas. He accepted their support at times, but didn’t trust them, precisely because he saw them the way many Republicans and Democrats did: as imposing a one-size-fits-all agenda.

The virtue and weakness of ideology is that it’s fixed: The same program applies in good times and bad, regardless of changing conditions. Roosevelt operated differently.

The virtue and weakness of ideology is that it’s fixed: The same program applies in good times and bad, regardless of changing conditions. Roosevelt operated differently. His claim to be making it up as he went along rang true. Until he became president, many people regarded him as a feckless aristocrat. In 1932, he campaigned on a balanced budget and purposely blurred the contours of his New Deal, partly because he hadn’t figured it out. Like many American leaders—including some of the Founding Fathers—he could be a bit of a Sphinx.

That description does not apply to Sanders, who, more than 38 years ago, became the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont. He has espoused the same priorities—a far greater government role in assisting the poor and providing services for all—in a long career that extended to the U.S. House and Senate and the presidential campaign trail. Consistency is his calling card. Younger voters trust him because he’s always sounded the same notes and his decision to be a socialist is a major part of his appeal, indicating that he’s willing to accept some derision in defense of his principles. He’s transparent about his intentions. He’s a very different animal than Franklin Roosevelt.

Nonetheless, Sanders is using FDR as his shield. In hopes of winning over some voters who may be distrustful of the socialist tag, he has drawn parallels between Roosevelt’s platform and his own. More recently, he’s begun to suggest that—just like FDR and every recent Democratic president—he is the victim of ideological scare tactics. The difference here is that a candidate’s own words matter. Socialism is indeed a slur that’s frequently flung at Democrats. (Roosevelt cheekily rebutted Al Smith’s claim by pointing to times when Smith himself fought back against people who depicted him as a socialist.) But it’s a different matter entirely when the candidate himself is using the term.

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez clearly see an opportunity to make socialism popular—an emblem of consistency, a sign that they will not bow to expediency, as many young people believe that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did. While Sanders has tried to draw parallels between today’s world and the 1930s, it’s actually helpful to his cause that times have changed. Without Russia and Germany falling into an ideological swoon, the whole notion of socialism seems less threatening today, more of a sleeping cat than a roaring tiger. And yet Roosevelt’s critique extended beyond communism and Nazism to the very nature of ideology itself—the way it both binds and blinds leaders, making them unable to see the direct needs of the people or the reality of the global scene. His rejection of socialism was about more than semantics.

The architect of the New Deal would surely rise up in fist-shaking fury when Donald Trump blasts away at all Democrats as socialists. But when the charge is leveled at Bernie Sanders, he might be tempted to think: He brought this on himself.

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