On the surface there are some interesting parallels. Both were Democrats who came from wealthy families and were educated in elite schools. Both decided on political careers and gained national attention as young men. The two men are Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kerry. Roosevelt went on to win election to the presidency four times. Kerry is now in the midst of a hotly contested presidential campaign.
Both men faced a powerful, well-financed Republican Party led by a right-wing incumbent. In 1932 it was Herbert Hoover, today it is George W. Bush. While it is true that the United States is not in the economic situation that it was during the Great Depression, it faces many serious problems that demand answers. Our country faces an intense struggle by working people to reverse the policies of the far right-wing capitalists.
Roosevelt was the major architect of the New Deal, a program designed to lift the United States out of the Depression. Though Roosevelt did not destroy capitalism, he had the political foresight and was receptive to pressure from below to implement many significant reforms. The imperative for the people’s movement today is to elect John Kerry and force him to organize a new “New Deal,” a program that begins to address the problems caused by decades of right-wing ascendancy.
Here is a comparison between what FDR did, and what a Kerry “New New Deal” should address:
Jobs: Roosevelt set up a number of programs that put millions back to work. The best known was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Not only did WPA build massive public works projects, it also set up cultural programs to employ writers, artists and actors. In 2004, there is a crying need for similar programs to put tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed people to work in union-wage jobs.
Social services: One of the great legacies of the New Deal was Social Security. And for the first time, workers who were laid off could receive unemployment insurance. In 2004, Social Security is in danger from the ultra-right. The Bush administration supports turning it over to the private sector and chipping away at unemployment insurance. These programs need to be not only protected but expanded and strengthened.
Workers’ rights: FDR signed into law the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) which gave workers the right to form unions. Millions of workers joined unions and fueled the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Several years later, the Fair Labor Standards Act became law, which provided for the first minimum wage, established the 40-hour week, and outlawed child labor. In 2004, all of these advances are under attack. The AFL-CIO and its member unions struggle to reverse decades of declining influence. The minimum wage has not been raised in years. On Aug. 23 the Bush administration implemented new regulations that take overtime pay away from millions of workers.
Regulatory reform: One of the goals of the New Deal in 1933 was to establish federal regulations that would rein in the excesses of the capitalists that had led to the Depression. Agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) were created. In 2004 the government needs to reverse the deregulation that give a green light to corporate ripoffs. Vital industries such as energy need to be brought under tighter control.
Conditions today are very different from 72 years ago. Broad sections of our country are involved in struggle against the twin evils of racism and militarism, and any struggle for governmental reform needs to place these issues front and center.
But the common denominator between the 1930s and today is struggle for the needs of working class people. What most textbooks omit from their coverage of the New Deal is that it did not happen by magic, but by the hard work and sacrifice of millions. The Unemployed Councils staged huge rallies for unemployment insurance and government jobs programs. African Americans struggled against the dual oppression of racism and economic exploitation. Workers fought for the right to form unions, which led to the formation of the CIO and its mighty struggles to organize auto, steel, and other industries.
It is vital that the people’s movement keep up the pressure on the Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign to develop and implement a bold new program to turn our country around. A look at how Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal responded to a similar situation 72 years ago would provide a rough guide.
The alternative would mean devastation for the lives and future of working people.
David Cavendish is a New York City teacher and peace activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.