The intensity of politics in a democracy emerges when the business community is challenged by other forms of countervailing power. Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, like FDR, were stigmatized by short-sighted business leaders; but their historic eminence shows their indispensable role in the dynamics of democratic capitalism. Their historic function is to rescue capitalism from the capitalists, functions belatedly recognized by intelligent capitalists themselves.
In a retrospective on the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a chorus of scholars and writers has chimed in at the National Archives to consider the legacy of the Man from Hyde Park.
Today we live in another conservative era, but Roosevelt’s legacy is in a new place. While it would be an exaggeration to call FDR fashionable, liberals are looking to the past as a source of renewal for today’s political battles. And conservatives are finding that much of what Roosevelt wrought is permanent. When government does not respond to Americans who need help, as Bush found after Katrina, the President pays a steep price. In that sense, FDR is now part of the DNA of America.
We can have ideological arguments about the FDR’s policies, and I was a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan’s efforts to dismantle the runaway excesses of both the New Deal and the Great Society. But it is essential to recognize that the majority of Americans has no desire to yank the country back to the 1890s or 1920s.
To give but one example: whatever Rick Perry‘s virtues, it would be fair to say that he would have been unelectable in a general election with a platform that sought to end Social Security and demolish what remains of the New Deal. Even Ike, a mere seven years after FDR’s death, acknowledged that there were chunks of the New Deal that were simply part of the American landscape.
That acknowledgement, however, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of everything that is done in the name of those policies FDR put into place. Excesses lurk in every corner, and the price of government involvement is eternal vigilance, lest scandals like the Long Island Rail Road disability claims fraud expand to engulf our tax dollars.