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FDR: 1936 – When Democrats Were Democrats

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.”
– Woody Guthrie

There was a time, a long, long time ago, when we elected Presidents who stood up for people. In 1936, FDR spoke out in powerful, emotional terms about the injustices of an economic order that had gone terribly, terribly wrong. His words were not merely “I feel your pain” pandering and bi-partisan mush. He spoke in a rallying jargon that not only was a call to arms for the common man and woman but a shot across the bow of the “economic royalists” who sought to oppress the American people and benefit only themselves at the expense of the nation. He spoke in a “we mean business and you better not stand in our way” manner. He spoke in terms that let the greedy capitalists know that war against them was just around the corner if they failed to cooperate. He spoke in a way that made it very, very clear that the government intended to energize and organize the American people against their greed and corruption.  . . .

The following excerpts all come from FDR’s 1936 convention speech where he accepted his party’s nomination to run for President for the second time. Back then, the Democratic Party really was the “party of the people.” Tragically, that no longer is the case.


And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own Government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution—all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital-all undreamed of by the fathers—the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.

Little things like liberty and democracy cannot exist in our current climate just as they could not exist in FDR’s time without taking the country back from the corporations and the greedy capitalists and those who do their bidding in Washington. When the gap between rich and poor becomes as great as it is now, “political equality” becomes impossible. When corporate cash floods the offices of the RNC and the DNC and the Senators and the Congressmen, the wealthy are able to vote with their dollars and the will of the people is subverted. FDR was wise to tie his statements about the abuses of the economic royalists all the way back to the freedoms sought during the American Revolution. It’s exactly what is needed today: a second American Revolution.


It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.

The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor—these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small business man, the investments set aside for old age—other people’s money—these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.

Look at the jargon FDR used. Can you imagine Obama or frankly any Democrat using such inflammatory rhetoric? Today’s Democratic Party is a dead party. They refuse to enter the fray because they’re worried about being painted as anti-business and losing some of the corporate campaign cash they depend on. Again, FDR points out that the American people are facing “the problem that faced the Minute Man.” That sure sounds like a call to arms to me.


For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor, other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.

Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.

The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.

Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. 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 the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

Consider, if you will, the phrase “political equality.” The gold standard of liberty and of a society that preaches democracy is whether each and every citizen has an equal voice in the affairs of government. When the wealthy and powerful have greater voice, democracy and liberty die. Can anyone deny that such is the case in today’s America? This should be what our national discourse is all about. This should be what our elections are all about. This should define our expectations as citizens. The issue has been “taken off the table” by both parties because they cower in the shadows of corporate tyranny. And, still, we vote for them as if the great American horse race will somehow lead to the changes we seek. Clearly, a force beyond the voting booth is needed.


The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.

But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them.

A government has “inescapable obligations” to its citizens to protect families and their homes. The Obama administration has refused to call for a national moratorium on home foreclosures. In fact, their “refinancing program” has been a colossal failure and they have now acknowledged that more foreclosures will probably be the only way to clear these troubled properties off the books. That’s today’s Democratic warriors for you.


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.

FDR spoke about the class war being a war “for the survival of democracy.” Today’s wonky, passionless Democrats speak in technocratic jargon about campaign finance reform and lobbying reform. FDR threatened the economic royalists with revolution; today’s Democrats chirp like chipmunks about passing legislation that they can’t get through the Congress and get by a Supreme Court stacked by the economic royalists. Change cannot possibly emanate from such mediocrity. It is not clear how we can awaken our fellow citizens and issue a call to arms to which they might respond. The elections we witnessed on Tuesday looked like zombies marching to the polls, drunken, and duped with the belief that voting means real change and a restoration of democracy and the ideals on which the nation was founded. We may not have an FDR or even a party of the people to rally us, but today, it is we, those who are politically aware and those who write and speak out on the injustices, on whom the burden falls to get the job done.

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