A Tale of Two Roosevelts

A Tale of Two Roosevelts

Like many Unitarian Universalists, I experienced depression and sadness after the most recent presidential election. My eyes would well up with tears as I thought about the fear and hate that have become so prevalent in my country. But then I remembered what one of my heroes once said. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood on the inauguration platform at the Capitol with heavy metal braces strapped to his polio-stricken legs and confidently and powerfully spoke those words to a nation where fifteen million working men and women were unemployed. Nearly 60 million people, almost one-half the nation, faced an uncertain future without money for rent or mortgage, without food, without warm shelter or clothes to protect them from the biting winter cold. Factories, shops, offices were empty. Where the plentiful land and resources of the frontier had once been the great leveler of American society, the severe economic depression had become the new leveler: skilled engineers stood shoulder to shoulder with assembly line workers in breadlines, holding signs that read Will Work for Food. Unfettered, uncontrolled, unregulated capitalism had failed.

Thirty years before, another Roosevelt, Theodore, faced with the rapid growth of trusts—corporate combinations built to restrict competition and enhance profits by exchanging stocks—recognized that the “tyranny of mere wealth” by an oligarchy of bankers and corporate leaders more powerful than the government was alarming and threatening to democratic institutions. TR said, “The power of the mighty industrial overlords of the country had increased with giant strides, while the methods of controlling them or checking abuses …remained… practically impotent.

For Theodore Roosevelt, the Square Deal used government to build fences around corporate abuse. For FDR, not only would the New Deal use government to build fences around corporate abuse, but it would use government to improve the human condition. While TR would ask, “Is it fair?” FDR would ask, “Is it fair and will it help?” Hence, we have the Tennessee Valley Authority that electrified much of the rural South. We have the Securities and Exchange Commission that reined in the excesses of financial markets. We have the Social Security Act that not only established an economic safety net for all Americans, and lifted millions of our elderly citizens out of poverty, but has been instrumental in growing and maintaining a stable middle class.

Now, after the 2016 elections, liberals and progressives are faced with a government—a presidency, a legislature and eventually a judiciary—bent on undoing the work of the Square Deal, the New Deal, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Unfettered, uncontrolled, unregulated capitalism is back.

No one disputes the preeminence of capitalism in today’s world. It has achieved great strides in improving the standard of living in most countries. But as history tells us, any dominant social institution has within it the seeds of excess, greed and abuse. While the corporate capital economic system has improved many lives, it has also widened the income gap among people and threatened our physical world with scarring strip mines, a fractured earth, toxic rivers and unbreathable air.

From 1990 to 2002, the annual income of the top 1% of Americans exploded. The gap between the rich and everyone else, by every economic and statistical measure, has been growing for the past thirty years. CEO’s earn (if that’s the right word) 335 times what the average worker earns. For most of the past thirty years, wages have been stagnant. Only recently have some states and cities raised the minimum wage.

At the first UU Men’s breakfast after the presidential election, I was asked, “What do we do now?” Short of moving to Canada, here’s my answer: Support those UU organizations that are engaging our political and economic leaders to defend the rights of working men and women, such as the UU Service Committee. Join the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland’s Income Inequality task group to advocate statewide to reduce the income gap. Participate in programs offered by the UU’s for Social Justice in the National Capital Region as they seek to influence our nation’s leaders to lessen the wealth gap.

Political writer Jake Johnson notes that, “fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.” Only by joining with other UU’s who share our values can we strengthen our voice against unfettered, uncontrolled and unregulated corporate greed and the hate and fear that it has engendered. icon-fire

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