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When FDR Came to Wisconsin to Fight the Kochs and Walkers of 1934

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This past Tuesday evening, nearly 1,000 unionists and their supporters gathered here in Green Bay, Wisconsin to register their appreciation for Senator Dave Hansen, one of the 14 Democrats who have absented themselves from the state to deter passage of Governor Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill. The bill threatens to not only severely cut workers' incomes but also effectively eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

We also came together to consider what we were going to do next about that threat. Everyone -- from teachers and social workers to firefighters and snowplow drivers -- said they were ready to fight on against a governor who has insisted he will not negotiate. Most, though it pained them, said they were willing to sacrifice income to address the state's budget woes. And yet nobody was willing to give up their rights. Not only in "radical" Madison, but even here in supposedly conservative Green Bay, it seemed that Americans were ready to start making democratic history again -- not on the gridiron this time but in the struggle to win, and hold onto, the rights of democratic citizens and workers.

Listening to the speakers, I felt their enthusiasms and anxieties. But I also had questions and concerns. It angered me that union leaders were giving way on the dollar question when we all know that tax cuts and giveaways for corporations and the rich will continue. I wondered why nobody on the platform referred to the fact that the "class war from above" against labor and working people had been going on for more than thirty years now. It disappointed me that we were not discussing how we might address the hostility -- and plight -- of those private sector workers who believe public sector employees have it easy. And it bothered me that we were not talking about a movement to "take back America" from the likes of the billionaire Koch brothers and the Tea Party. But I stayed quiet -- recalling all too well how the efforts of some of us to organize Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice in support of the late 1990s revival of the labor movement had self-destructed in intellectual and political wrangling.

At the same time, I not only appreciated that my fellow citizens and unionists felt no less determined to defend themselves, their families, and their rights than I did. I also was pretty sure they had more experience in doing so than this tenured professor. And those thoughts led me to recall Franklin Roosevelt's visit to this city in the summer of 1934 to celebrate the tricentennial of the first settlement of the area by French "voyageurs."

The Great Depression continued to devastate American lives, but FDR's New Deal was giving Americans hope. It mobilized their energies and renewed labor's energies, which promised a mobilization of workers in favor of not only recovery and reconstruction but also real reform. Standing before a huge crowd at Bay Beach Park, the President spoke of what joined Americans together and of the struggles they had waged and were continuing to wage:

...Men everywhere throughout Europe -- your ancestors and mine -- had suffered from the imperfect and often unjust Governments of their home land, and they were driven by deep desire to find not alone security, but also enlarged opportunity for themselves and their children. It is true that the new population flowing into our new lands was a mixed population, differing often in language, in external customs and in habits of thought. But in one thing they were alike. They shared a deep purpose to rid themselves forever of the jealousies, the prejudices, the intrigues and the violence, whether internal or external, that disturbed their lives on the other side of the ocean.

Yes, they sought a life that was less fettered by the exploitations of selfish men, set up under Governments that were not free. They sought a wider opportunity for the average man.

Having achieved that initial adventure of migrating to new homes, they moved forward to the further adventure of establishing forms of government and methods of operating these forms of government that might assure them the things they sought. They believed that men, out of their intelligence and their self-discipline, could create and use forms of government that would not enslave the human spirit, but free it and nourish it throughout the generations. They did not fear government, because they knew that government in the new world was their own.

I do not need to tell you that here in Wisconsin they built a State destined for extraordinary achievements. They set up institutions to enforce law and order, to care for the unfortunate, to promote the arts of industry and agriculture. They built a university and school system as enlightened as any that the world affords. They set up against all selfish private interests the organized authority of the people themselves through the State. They transformed utilities into public servants instead of private means of exploitation.

People know also that the average man in Wisconsin waged a long and bitter fight for his rights. Here, and in the Nation as a whole, in the Nation at large... man has been fighting... against those forces which disregard human cooperation and human rights in seeking that kind of individual profit which is gained at the expense of his fellows...

In the great national movement that culminated over a year ago [1933], people joined with enthusiasm. They lent hand and voice to the common cause, irrespective of many older political traditions. They saw the dawn of a new day. They were on the march; they were coming back into the possession of their own home land.

As the humble instruments of their vision and their power, those of us who were chosen to serve them in 1932 turned to the great task. In one year and five months, the people of the United States have received at least a partial answer to their demands for action; and neither the demand nor the action has reached the end of the road. But, my friends, action may be delayed by two types of individuals. Let me cite examples: First, there is the man whose objectives are wholly right and wholly progressive but who declines to cooperate or even to discuss methods of arriving at the objectives because he insists on his own methods and nobody else's.

The other type to which I refer is the kind of individual who demands some message to the people of the United States that will restore what he calls "confidence." When I hear this I cannot help but remember the pleas that were made by government and certain types of so-called "big business" all through the years 1930, 1931 and 1932, that the only thing lacking in the United States was confidence.

Before I left on my trip... I received two letters from important men, both of them pleading that I say something to restore confidence. To both of them I wrote identical answers: "What would you like to have me say?" From one of them I have received no reply at all in six weeks. I take it that he is still wondering how to answer. The other man wrote me frankly that in his judgment the way to restore confidence was for me to tell the people of the United States that all supervision by all forms of Government, Federal and State, over all forms of human activity called business should be forthwith abolished.

Now, my friends, in other words, that man was frank enough to imply that he would repeal all laws, State or national, which regulate business -- that a utility could henceforth charge any rate, unreasonable or otherwise; that the railroads could go back to rebates and other secret agreements; that the processors of food stuffs could disregard all rules of health and of good faith; that the unregulated wild-cat banking of a century ago could be restored; that fraudulent securities and watered stock could be palmed off on the public; that stock manipulation which caused panics and enriched insiders could go unchecked. In fact, my friends, if we were to listen to him and his type, the old law of the tooth and the claw would reign in our Nation once more.

The people of the United States will not restore that ancient order. There is no lack of confidence on the part of those business men, farmers and workers who clearly read the signs of the times. Sound economic improvement comes from the improved conditions of the whole population and not a small fraction thereof.

Those who would measure confidence in this country in the future must look first to the average citizen...

That's where I'm looking. And from what I can tell, the people are hurting, but their struggle to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy continues.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.