Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.
Seventy-six years ago, on the eve of his inauguration as the 34th President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt published a book in which he outlined his thoughts on how best to restore the American people and their economy. Entitled Looking Forward, it offers its readers not only a glimpse into FDR’s thinking on specific policies, but also a sense of the ethical vision he brought to the art of governance and the critical need to combine the two in what he called a “reappraisal of values.” Indeed, given the dire state of the US—and global—economy in 1933, and the anti-democratic reaction to the economic crisis that gave rise to fascism in Europe and other parts of the world, FDR sensed a critical need to reassure the American people that liberal capitalist democracy could work—not just for the wealthy, but for all Americans. His faith in democracy stemmed in part from his confidence in the constitutional structure of the American government, and in part from his profound belief in the fundamental decency of the American people. So long as the contract between these two entities remained strong and unbroken, government would reflect the will—and the needs—of the people. But when the forces of greed and avarice interfered with this contract, or worse still, hijacked the purpose of government to serve their own ends, the people suffered. Never was this more apparent than in the early years of the Great Depression when thanks to the unregulated and speculative nature of the financial system, which collapsed under the weight of its own greed, the entire US and world economy fell into perhaps the worst economic abyss in history. As is the case today, human nature played a role in this collapse, but so too did government, for failing to protect the vast majority of Americans from the reckless and irresponsible behavior of, as FDR wrote, “the speculator, manipulator and even the financier.” To restore the nation’s economic health FDR understood that he must do two things. First, re-establish the bond between the American people and their government by making the latter more representative of what he called “the common good,” and second put in place the type of structural reforms that would protect the population at large from the worst excesses of capitalism, while at the same time allowing it to flourish.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.