I recently criticized PBS for ignoring the corporate assault on public education (with the exception of Bill Moyers), but the current airing of Ken Burns’ monumental series on “The Roosevelts” is television at its finest. We would not expect to see this seven-part, fourteen-hour series anywhere but on PBS. I sat glued to the television for seven straight nights. What struck me most forcefully was that the three great figures chronicled: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor–all felt a keen responsibility to stand up to the members of their own class and fight for the majority of Americans. Seeing this was a reminder that no one in high political office today is capable of defying the source of political campaign cash: Wall Street, the billionaires, and the big corporations.
No one has expressed these ideas better than this article by historian Joseph Palermo, which appeared on Huffington Post.
By exploring the lives and times of TR, FDR, and ER Burns shows that in our not-so-distant past the governing institutions of this country were actually responsive to the needs and desires of working-class Americans. This superb and moving portrait is a perfect fit for our times. The utter failure of our current “leaders” is glaring by comparison.
Yes, TR was a warmonger, and FDR signed the order that imprisoned innocent Japanese Americans. There are long lists of both presidents’ failures. But we shouldn’t let those flaws bury the fact that both TR and FDR were not afraid to stand up to big corporations and Wall Street if they viewed their actions as damaging to the country. That alone is probably the biggest difference between those leaders of the early decades of the 20th Century and today….
Over the past thirty years, Presidents and Congresses have become so subservient to corporations and Wall Street that the two major political parties are all but indistinguishable.
One of the reasons why our politics have become so volatile and opinion polls show over and over again that our people have nothing but contempt for the whole political class in Washington is the widespread recognition that the plutocrats, CEOs, and Wall Street bankers have effectively seized our governing institutions.
Another subtext for our times of the Burns documentary is the reminder that people who come from the richest .01 percent of Americans don’t have to be total assholes. Unlike the Koch Brothers, or the Waltons, or Representative Darrell Issa (the richest man in the House of Representatives) the Roosevelts didn’t feel they had a class interest in keeping their boots on the necks of America’s working people; they strived to uplift them.
And they saw the federal government not as a bazaar of accounts receivable to vacuum up precious tax dollars for the already rich but as a means to improve the lives of the 99 percent…
Today, when we see Democratic politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel bludgeoning teachers’ unions while supping at the table of big campaign donors from Wall Street we’re left with the realization that working people have few reliable advocates for their class interests anymore….
Ironically, in the 1990s, when the Democratic Party grew more diverse based on race and gender, it shifted far closer to the Republicans in terms of class. We’ve seen one Democratic president (Bill Clinton) push NAFTA and other “free trade” deals that decimated labor unions; unravel the social safety net in the name of “welfare reform”; and deregulate Wall Street. And we’ve seen another Democratic president (Barack Obama) refuse to send any bankers to jail for the massive fraud they committed in the mortgage markets; choose to beat up teachers’ unions with Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top”; and accommodate the profiteers inside our health care system.
All of these policies represent a capitulation to the interests of big corporations and Wall Street on the part of Democratic administrations at the expense of their own constituencies. The Burns documentary leaves one wondering what TR or FDR would do regarding these same policies. We’ll never know because history doesn’t work that way. But we can use our imaginations a little and recognize that compared to the responsiveness of the federal government during the Square Deal and New Deal eras, our current crop of “leaders” from both political parties have failed the majority of Americans and in doing so they’ve failed the country.
Another aspect of the Burns documentary is a revealing look at the kind of patriotism that TR, FDR, and ER exhibited throughout their lives. It was a patriotism that recognized that the country is strongest when all Americans had opportunities and the federal government not only helped to uplift them materially, but also protected them from the rapacious predators of the Wall Street ruling class.