Ken Burns' seven-part PBS series on the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is a remarkable achievement. Burns sheds a poignant new light on the personal and public lives of three monumental figures in 20th Century American history. And in doing so, he illustrates the relative rottenness of the hacks, partisans, and plutocrats who make up the political class that rules America today.
By exploring the lives and times of TR, FDR, and ER Burns shows that in our not-so-distant past the governing institutions of this country were actually responsive to the needs and desires of working-class Americans. This superb and moving portrait is a perfect fit for our times. The utter failure of our current "leaders" is glaring by comparison.
Yes, TR was a warmonger, and FDR signed the order that imprisoned innocent Japanese Americans. There are long lists of both presidents' failures. But we shouldn't let those flaws bury the fact that both TR and FDR were not afraid to stand up to big corporations and Wall Street if they viewed their actions as damaging to the country. That alone is probably the biggest difference between those leaders of the early decades of the 20th Century and today.
After thirty years of "supply-side" economics that has left working people still waiting for better times to "trickle down"; eight years of George W. Bush's misrule that brought us war and recession; the Far-Right ascendency in 2010 that has all but shuttered the federal government in an attempt to destroy Barack Obama; and a Supreme Court that is proudly subservient to every tenet of plutocracy -- I think it's okay to flip on PBS and feel a bit nostalgic for a time when there existed effective politicians who actually gave a damn about the quality of life of the majority of Americans.
Over the past thirty years, Presidents and Congresses have become so subservient to corporations and Wall Street that the two major political parties are all but indistinguishable.
One of the reasons why our politics have become so volatile and opinion polls show over and over again that our people have nothing but contempt for the whole political class in Washington is the widespread recognition that the plutocrats, CEOs, and Wall Street bankers have effectively seized our governing institutions.
Another subtext for our times of the Burns documentary is the reminder that people who come from the richest .01 percent of Americans don't have to be total assholes. Unlike the Koch Brothers, or the Waltons, or Representative Darrell Issa (the richest man in the House of Representatives) the Roosevelts didn't feel they had a class interest in keeping their boots on the necks of America's working people; they strived to uplift them.
And they saw the federal government not as a bazaar of accounts receivable to vacuum up precious tax dollars for the already rich but as a means to improve the lives of the 99 percent.
The Roosevelts also illustrates a time when Democrats had dirt under their fingernails. There was no need to remind them that Democratic politicians valued labor unions or sought new protections in the workplace. The leaders and rank-in-file were tied together.
Today, when we see Democratic politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel bludgeoning teachers' unions while supping at the table of big campaign donors from Wall Street we're left with the realization that working people have few reliable advocates for their class interests anymore.
Since 1984, Democratic politicians decided the party needed to "move to the center" given Ronald Reagan's landslide. But "moving to the center" meant moving away from serving the interests of working people and moving toward Wall Street and big corporations.
Ironically, in the 1990s, when the Democratic Party grew more diverse based on race and gender, it shifted far closer to the Republicans in terms of class. We've seen one Democratic president (Bill Clinton) push NAFTA and other "free trade" deals that decimated labor unions; unravel the social safety net in the name of "welfare reform"; and deregulate Wall Street. And we've seen another Democratic president (Barack Obama) refuse to send any bankers to jail for the massive fraud they committed in the mortgage markets; choose to beat up teachers' unions with Arne Duncan's "Race to the Top"; and accommodate the profiteers inside our health care system.
All of these policies represent a capitulation to the interests of big corporations and Wall Street on the part of Democratic administrations at the expense of their own constituencies. The Burns documentary leaves one wondering what TR or FDR would do regarding these same policies. We'll never know because history doesn't work that way. But we can use our imaginations a little and recognize that compared to the responsiveness of the federal government during the Square Deal and New Deal eras, our current crop of "leaders" from both political parties have failed the majority of Americans and in doing so they've failed the country.
Another aspect of the Burns documentary is a revealing look at the kind of patriotism that TR, FDR, and ER exhibited throughout their lives. It was a patriotism that recognized that the country is strongest when all Americans had opportunities and the federal government not only helped to uplift them materially, but also protected them from the rapacious predators of the Wall Street ruling class.
We've lost that sense of patriotic duty today. The "you're on your own" society has won out in recent decades over the idea that "everyone does better when everyone does better." So if you haven't yet seen The Roosevelts, by all means, sit back, put on PBS, and enjoy watching a time in America that predates the death of the liberal class.
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