Saturday, November 27, 2010

That's how FDR did it

I've been compiling a reading list of books that address the evolution of political parties in American history for the Project.  My most recent find is a book by Susan Dunn called "Roosevelt's Purge", about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's efforts to influence Democratic primary elections so he would have more allies (read:  liberals) in Congress, particularly the Senate.  I've only read two chapters so far, and I've already seen parallels between President Roosevelt and ... the Tea Party.

First, let me say that I think Ms. Dunn may have discovered the first ever recorded negative comparison of an American politician to Adolf Hitler.  After losing a vote that was particularly important to him, and the support of several conservative Democratic senators, FDR announced that he would, as leader of the Democratic Party, be directly taking part in Democratic primaries and nominating events (though he asserted his involvement had nothing to do with revenge or retaliation).  He faced an immediate backlash from the press, who labeled his efforts an ideological "purge" of the party.  The Chicago Tribune went so far as to write that this would leave the party with nothing but "Hitler yes-men and Stalin Communists". (It should be noted that this was before the Holocaust and World War II.  Still, it's quite a reaction to a theretofore popular president from the normally admiring press.)

Ms. Dunn writes of the former president in glowing terms, characterizing his efforts as a way to appeal directly to the voters, whom he believed supported his agenda, to elect representatives who would also support it.  Still, it's clear there was more than a desire to push an agenda, however well-meaning the agenda itself may have been.  She even writes about one of the president's allies who suggested the aforementioned vote should be used as a "litmus test" of loyalty when deciding whom he should support in the primaries.  Terms like litmus test, party loyalty, and ideological purity are used by the media today as they were used back in FDR's day:  as a negative color of the actions of a leader or group inside a political party.

Whereas in the late '30's, they were applied by the press to President Roosevelt, they are applied today to the Tea Party; and it's not inaccurate.  Both sought/seek to create a clear choice for voters, to force them to look beyond labels such as "Democrat" and "Republican", and examine the ideology of the candidates themselves.  Though the motives of both FDR and the Tea Party can be questioned, it cannot be denied they both have the right idea.  Terms like "Blue Dog Democrat" and "RINO (Republican In Name Only)" didn't exist in Roosevelt's day, but he'd have certainly recognized the meaning behind the terms, and would probably have encouraged their use.

The more books I read on the history of politics in America, the more I'm impressed by how much it resembles our current situation.  Every presidential biography I've read so far gives examples (sometimes blindingly obvious ones) of party divisions, nomination fights, and the emergences of groups like the Tea Party, even if they had no official name.  I was never a very attentive student of history in school, and had a vague impression that the old saying didn't hold true; that we are not, in fact, repeating history over and over again.

On the other hand, if the champion of liberalism in the first half of the 20th century can be compared to an insurgent force for conservatism in the early 21st, then maybe history is repeating itself.

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