Saving the Democratic Party from itself

(History tells us grassroots actions needed to spur action)

Often overlooked in the marvelous Ken Burns’ PBS Roosevelt series was that much of FDR’s New Deal rose as much from the grassroots as it did from the President’s skillful, if sometimes crafty, political leadership.

Today’s Democratic Party has lost its appeal among the very people for whom the New Deal was designed to help out. Spurred on by advisers like Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes and Frances Perkins, FDR was quick to understand the ferment that was stirring among the exploited workers, the hard-scrabble farmers and the terribly impoverished families of the Great Depression could explode into a terrible chaos that might rip the country apart.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to see that the growing strikes among workers in the early 1930s, the lines of unemployed at soup kitchens and the milk-dumping strikes and other actions of farmers might lead many into the revolutionary clutches of the Communist Party or even into the Fascism of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act on July 5, 1935

Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act on July 5, 1935

It was in that scenario that FDR and the Democrats forged the reforms of the New Deal and developed the “Roosevelt Coalition” that helped the Party wrest control from the hold of the Republicans. Now that has been reversed and there’s growing evidence that even the changing demographics of the nation (with GOP-favoring Caucasian voters soon to be in the minority) may not save the Democrats from continued minority status.

Essayist Kevin Baker made this exact point in a recent New York Times opinion piece (Sunday, Nov. 15) in looking to history to indicate that if the Democrats resort to tired old centrist policies they do so at their own peril. He wrote:

“The Democratic Party that shot to some 50 years of overwhelming electoral success beginning in the 1930s was helped in part by changing demographics. But many of those who built what George Packer calls “the Roosevelt Republic” started out as Republicans. Or “Bull Moose” Progressives, or Populists, or Socialists, or Communists, or simply the politically alienated and disengaged.

“The people who built that party rallied around big things — and usually big things they had come up with themselves. The reforms that Democrats embraced were almost all culled from grass-roots movements, and they were big enough to erase the lines between cultural and economic issues.”

(From an opinion in the Sunday New York Times, Nov. 15, 2014 by Kevin Baker, an essayist and the author, most recently, of the historical novel “The Big Crowd.”)

The Republicans have committed a masterful con upon the body politic. Hitting upon the theme of “Freedom” they have convinced far too many people that it is the shackles of “big government” that have brought about stagnant or dropping family incomes, failing farms and tight, expensive housing. Thus people – even the economically disadvantaged – have turned to Republicans and the Tea Party in the misguided belief that somehow the freedom they seek will solve their ills, rather than make matters worse by freeing big business and the wealthy of taxes and regulations.

The Republican message has been sadly adopted by the nation’s media, even among the so-called liberal media; GOP leaders are constantly being quoted, courted by pundits and sought out where they repeat their message scaring the public against “Socialistic Democrats” who are unpatriotic and anti-family. Such tactics have scared too many people.

The fact of the matter is, however, that most Americans agree climate change must be addressed, that taxes need to be more fair, that banks and hedge fund manipulators must be curbed, that comprehensive immigration laws are passed, and that workers at all levels need decent wages and benefits. The Republicans offer nothing in these areas.

Working people – union and nonunion alike – need to look at ways to make their voices heard, whether it be through letter-writing campaigns or street rallies, whether it be through growing more active within the Democratic Party or staging wildcat strikes. The time for a little creative civil disobedience may be now!

Many would like to start a third party – perhaps a Labor Party. As commendable as those desires may be, they’re unrealistic. The fate of working people rests in the hands of the Democratic Party; somehow working people must wake up the Democrats to return to the Party’s roots of serving all the people, and not merely the favored few. Ken Germanson, Nov. 15, 2014