02 January 2013

FDR: Advice to Young Progressives

It is interesting to compare Franklin Roosevelt's advice to the Young Democrats of his day, to the actions and politicies of the present Democratic President.
"From the beginning, democracy has meant progress and its battle ever since Jefferson's time has been a steady conflict with the forces of reaction and special favors. Every time the policies involving greater opportunities for the common man have triumphed, our political enemies have sought to minimize those policies and to neutralize the decisions of the people. Today is no exception to that classical course of events.

Uniformly the party of Nicholas Biddle of Jackson's time, of Quay and Hanna of the Cleveland era and of the Theodore Roosevelt period has bowed to the progressive wing to the extent of pretending accord with the objectives of the progressive administrations but has found fault with the methods requisite for putting and keeping these principles at work.

Uniformly have they appealed to such elements in our own party as dreaded the departure from ancient habits or were responsive to the powerful agencies that financed and controlled local politics. Probably the hoariest story of corruption in American elections is the history of those monied magnates who contributed vastly to the campaigns of candidates of both parties with the idea that they could continue control regardless of the way which the political cat jumped.

Just as there are progressives in the Republican ranks, so there are reactionaries in our own party. Political affiliation is often the child of hereditary principles, begotten in the first instance of issues of terrific importance in the beginning but which have no more significance at present than the inflamed controversy of a century and a half ago as to whether the Capital of the United States should be at Washington or somewhere on the Monongahela River.

Always has it been the aim of the enemies of liberalism to seek to attach to themselves such members of our party. Sometimes they have succeeded; sometimes they have failed.

When they have succeeded they have not infrequently been successful in their efforts to supplant a Democratic administration with a Republican administration. Such happenings, though they have brought dismay for a period, have not sufficed to stop the general and inevitable movement to make our country a better country for all of us rather than to make it a lush pasture for the seekers and holders of privilege.

Every Democratic Administration has left a progressive mark on our own history and has influenced world progress as well. But when it has been succeeded by a typically Republican Administration, progress has slipped backwards—sometimes a few feet and often many miles. It has been said that a great many voters today want us as a nation to stop, look and listen. What they fail to understand is that nations cannot stand still because by the very act of standing still, the rest of the procession, moving forward, inevitably leaves them in the rear. Therefore, their desire to stand still actually means moving backward in relation to the rest of the world.

Republican and Democratic reactionaries want to undo what we have accomplished in these last few years and return to the unrestricted individualism of the previous century· Republican and Democratic conservatives admit that all of our recent policies are not wrong and that many of them should be retained-but their eyes are on the present; they give no thought for the future and thus, without meaning to, are failing to solve even current social and economic problems by declining to consider the needs of tomorrow. Radicals of all kinds have some use to humanity because they have at least the imagination to think up many kinds of answers to problems even though their answers are wholly impracticable of fulfillment in the immediate future.

Liberals on the other hand are those who, unlike the radicals who want to tear up everything by the roots and plant new and untried seeds, desire to use the existing plants of civilization, to select the best of them, to water them and make them grow-not only for the present use of mankind, but also for the use of generations to come. That is why I call myself a liberal, and that is why, even if we go by the modern contraption of polls of public opinion, an overwhelming majority of younger men and women throughout the United States are on the liberal side of things.

In considering the present and the future of American politics or policies, you have the right and the duty to say to those who want to stand still—Have you no program other than standing still? We are not satisfied if you tell us glibly that you believe in taking care of old people, that you want the young people to have jobs, that you want everybody to have a job, that you believe in a fairer distribution of wealth—we insist in addition that you give us specifications of how you would do it if you were in power."

Do not let the reactionaries and the conservatives get away with fine phrases. Pin them down and make them tell you just how they would do it.

The Democratic Party will fail if it goes conservative next year, or if it is led by people who can offer naught but fine phrases.

Last Winter, in speaking at the Jackson Day Dinner, I referred to the sad state the country would be in if it had to choose between a Democratic Tweedle Dum and a Republican Tweedle Dee. I want to amend that simile, so let me put it this way: The Democratic Party will not survive as an effective force in the nation if the voters have to choose between a Republican Tweedle Dum and a Democratic Tweedle Dummer.

If we nominate conservative candidates, or lip-service candidates, on a straddle bug platform, I personally, for my own self respect and because of my long service to and belief in, liberal democracy, will find it impossible to have any active part in such an unfortunate suicide of the old Democratic Party.

I do not anticipate that any such event will take place, for I believe that the Convention will see the political wisdom, as well as the national wisdom, of giving to the voters of the United States an opportunity to maintain the practice and the policy of moving forward with a liberal and humanitarian program. A large part of the responsibility for such a choice of fundamental policies lies in the hands and in the heads of the younger men and women of the nation. Be vigilant to keep Tories from controlling your own ranks—just as vigilant as you will be to keep Tory Republicans from controlling your own nation."

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Advice to the Convention of Young Democratic Clubs of America, August 8, 1939