By Laurence D. Schiller
If you haven’t seen Ken Burns’ new series “The Roosevelts: An intimate portrait” which aired on PBS a few weeks ago, you need to get it on demand and see it. Burns’ deft touch reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Teddy, Eleanor, and Franklin, three amazing Americans. Amazing not just because they did great things in their lives, but amazing because they were able to conquer their own frailties and look beyond their privileged position in society to see, empathize, and do something about the hardships of others. This is relevant to us because the programs they espoused, many of which came to fruition in the New Deal, and others under JFK and LBJ, are precisely those which the new Robber Barons, the GOP political bosses, and their soldiers in Congress are trying to tear down.
TR and FDR used their position as President to fundamentally change the relationship between the people and government. Before them, it was ‘dog eat dog’ capitalism, and the majority of industrial workers lived in unspeakable poverty, worked 12-16 hour days, had no safety regulations in the work place, no pensions, sick pay, even days off. The 7 day work week was common while women and small children working for virtually nothing slaved to make the Robber Barons of the day rich. Mine workers lived in company towns in conditions beyond description. Labor had no Federal right to organize and attempts to do so were met with hired goons and bought police. No mine owner ever went to jail for having strikers murdered. Before Teddy, mining and timber companies ravaged our land, air, and water, making obscene profits off of public assets. They formed monopolies and fixed prices for goods and freight on the railroads. TR went after the Trusts and worked to break them up to allow actual competition. He also used his power as President to create National parks and reserves to save the public land from the rapaciousness of the Barons.
When unregulated capitalism combined with the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1920′s caused the worst depression in American, nay, world, history, FDR was elected over a Republican Party whose cruel philosophy was to literally stand by and watch people starve to death. When the Mississippi and Ohio flooded thousands out of their farms, even Hoover was moved to send government help, and was flayed by the bosses of his party for doing so. FDR, with the approval of the PEOPLE moved ahead with the strange idea that government should secure the well being of the people, not be a spectator. The New Deal, as FDR called it, put into being the essence of Progressivism. Laws were passed not only to put people to work, and the legacy of the WPA, CCC, and other Acts are with us still in the dams, roads, national lodges, hiking trails, bridges, rural electrification, etc. that were built under those programs, but to ensure that a Depression such as that of the 1930s would not occur again by the unregulated exploitation of capitalism by the Barons. Workers were given the right to strike and bargain for decent wages, a minimum wage was created, Social Security went into effect, the work day shortened and child labor restricted, banks were regulated and not permitted to gamble with deposits and mortgage money, and so much more.
The Robber Barons and political bosses hated him and the New Deal and called him a Socialist/Communist and a violator of the Constitution. Interesting enough, as George Will pointed out in the Burns’ series, FDR recognized that Jefferson’s vision of prosperous yeoman farmers could not be realized in an industrial age (even Jefferson realized this before his death), and felt it absolutely reasonable and necessary to use Hamiltonian means in terms of a strong activist government, to achieve what FDR called his New Bill of Rights – that Americans should have the right not to suffer from hunger and want.
This is all history, you say – what does it have to do with 2014. In fact, by now, you should have noted the parallels of then and today. The Robber Barons didn’t disappear by any means. Overtaken by WW II and the Cold War, and Presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon who were moderates in social and economic policy, the Barons, and their sons, bided their time until a champion arose in the form of Ronald Reagan, whose delusional economics and continuation of the use of Nixon’s White Southern Strategy gave them new entry into the White House and leadership of Congress.
The new Robber Barons, led by the Koch Brothers, but ably assisted by the Bruce Rauners and Jim Oberweis’, are leading the charge to buy our national and state governments with the intent of rolling back the New Deal and Great Society. Beginning with calling President Obama a ‘Marxist’, which is beyond preposterous, consider briefly what they have attacked, and forget all the noise about abortion, gays, and immigrants. Those issues are designed to enlist ignorant, racist, and homophobic folks in their cause and actually don’t figure much in the plans of men like the Koch Brothers. First, they have attacked the right to organize. Scott Walker, for example, in Wisconsin stripped public employees of the right to bargain for fair pay and working conditions. Second, the Glass-Steagle Act was repealed, allowing banks to risk depositors money in reckless derivatives causing the crash of 2008. Third, George W Bush stripped away hundreds of environmental regulations affecting our national lands, while the EPA has been starved of funds preventing it from enforcing regulations against the Barons whose companies have happily dumped pollutants into our air and water. The SNAP program has been cut, depriving millions of basic substance, while most Red states have refused to extend the Medicare provisions under the Affordable Health Care Act to their citizens, depriving millions more of basic access to medical care. Bruce Rauner, amongst others, has actually proposed the total elimination of the minimum wage, which would force people working full time even deeper into poverty than now. Rand Paul in his ugly Libertarian philosophy has proposed that even the Civil Rights Act should be overridden by the ‘rights’ of private property while Paul Ryan, the most dangerous political hack of them all – bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers – proposes an end to Medicare and the ‘privatization’ of Social Security, turning it from a service for the PEOPLE to a PROFIT making enterprise for the financial Robber Barons. Note too, how pensions have moved from guaranteed income to 401 K vehicles. Now instead of income for life, your hard earned retirement income is dependent on the vicissitudes of the Stock Markets the Barons manipulate and profit from. Pensions are expensive. 401 K’s, not so much. Having weakened pensions for companies, now they are going after pensions for public employees, and then will come Social Security’s turn. This is so consistent with the ‘I’ve got mine, too bad for you’ philosophy of the GOP.
To sum up, the basic pillars of progressivism are being attacked by these cold hearted Barons of privilege and the politicians they have purchased with their campaign money. Rauner, Oberweis, Dold, Kirk – the whole lot of them are willing to stand by and watch the wealthy push the rest of us down and deny the PEOPLE a basic dignified existence. Make no mistake, this is a critical time in our history. For the past 34 years the real income of the middle and working classes have dropped while the 1% have increased their grip on the overwhelming wealth of this country. We must make people see these Barons for what they are. They have no interest or understanding of the rest of us and they don’t care about whether folks live or die. Rauner might be shocked at that statement, but the implications of eliminating the minimum wage are clear. People will die. Dold might be shocked at that statement, but his 2 dozen votes to repeal the ACA are clear. People who didn’t have to will die. The Barons are truly evil men and we must stop them. This defines the basic difference between the Democratic (not Democrat, please) and Republican Party of today, a Party Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt would never be a part of.