Don’t Like Polarization? Blame FDR

One of the great themes of reformers and deep-dish thinkers these days is that our politics are too polarized between right and left, that there are no more moderates left.  It is true that there are hardly any conservative Democrats left, and very few liberal Republicans.  Over the last couple decades the Republican Parry has become much more fully and self-consciously conservative, and the Democratic Party much more fully and self-consciously liberal.

The critics have a point that moderates are occasionally useful for reaching legislative compromise, and are also correct that starkly polarized politics turns off a lot of independent voters and actually increases the volatility of American politics.  But the subtext of a lot of the chin-pulling about polarization is that it is—wait for it—somehow the fault of conservatives, for pushing the Republican Party to the right and for being a “divisive” force in our political life.

May I suggest that FDR deserves a lion’s share of the blame?  If you want to study a deliberately devisive figure, there was no one better.

In 1941, Roosevelt wrote of his intent to make the Democratic Party a fully wholly liberal party, clearly distinct from Republicans:

I believe it to be my sworn duty, as President, to take all steps necessary to insure the continuance of liberalism in our government.  I believe, at the same time, that it is my duty as head of the Democratic Party to see to it that my party remains the truly liberal party in the political life of America.

There have been many periods in American history, unfortunately, when one major political party was no different than the other major party—except only in name.  In a system of party government such as ours, however, elections become meaningless when the two major parties have no differences other than their labels.  For such elections do not give the people of the United States an opportunity to decide upon the type of government which they prefer for themselves for the next two or the next four years, as the case may be. . .

Generally speaking, in a representative form of government, there are usually two general schools of political belief—liberal and conservative.  The system of party responsibility in America requires that one of its parties be the liberal party and the other be a conservative party.

Of course, FDR tried to solidify Democratic liberalism in his great purge of 1938, which failed miserably.  After the 1938 election, Wisconsin Governor Philip La Follete wrote: “The result of the so-called purge by President Roosevelt showed that the fight to make the Democratic Party liberal is a hopeless one.”  Wrong.  They just needed a little patience.

As for “divisiveness,” let’s go to the tape.  During his first re-election campaign in 1936, FDR demonized the Republican Party, suggesting Republicans were anti-American, and compared Republicans to the Tories of the Revolutionary War who left the country.  Clearly FDR was trying to read the Republican Party out of the mainstream of American political life.  In his 1944 speech outlining the positive rights he wanted government to provide for everyone, Roosevelt wasn’t satisfied merely to set out these “new principles” of government.  He went on to imply that Republican opposition to his philosophy was the equivalent of the Fascism we were fighting against overseas.  He did so with the clever tactic of attributing this thought to someone other than himself:

One of the great American industrialists of our day—a man who has rendered yeoman service to his country in this crisis-recently emphasized the grave dangers of “rightist reaction” in this Nation. All clear-thinking businessmen share his concern. Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called “normalcy” of the 1920’s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.

In other words, even during wartime when the country was supposedly caught up on a spirit of unity for the war effort, Roosevelt exploited the war for partisan purposes.  Roosevelt’s speeches like this are worth remembering when contemporary liberals claim “divisive” conservatives are “questioning their patriotism.”

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