This last month brought to public TV in the US, another of Ken Burns’ epic documentaries, The Roosevelts, a story of how the one family through Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor brought a can-do spirit to America – one that is so sorely lacking in America today. What is even more remarkable is that these people who tireless worked for those who were disadvantaged were themselves born to wealth and privilege.
For those who missed it, check out the official site for the documentary which includes a collection of video clips.
To outline everything they have done would take too much space. But here is a brief summary with details in the hyperlinks.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal centered on improving labor conditions, health and welfare, and conservation which included creating the National Park system by reserving pieces of land to be enjoyed by all of us. And the Panama Canal was constructed during his time in office.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) inherited a country in the middle of the Great Depression and notably created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to help relieve the historic crushing levels of unemployment.
The WPA built traditional infrastructure of the New Deal such as roads, bridges, schools, courthouses, hospitals, sidewalks, waterworks, and post-offices, but also constructed museums, swimming pools, parks, community centers, playgrounds, coliseums, markets, fairgrounds, tennis courts, zoos, botanical gardens, auditoriums, waterfronts, city halls, gyms, and university unions. Most of these are still in use today.
But perhaps his greatest accomplishments were the creation of the Social Security Act and his efforts to get the US ready for World War II in what was largely an isolationist country.
Eleanor as FDR’s First Lady worked tirelessly behind the scenes for civil rights, an issue that her husband was sometimes reluctant to champion because he didn’t want to lose favor with Southern Democrats he felt he needed to win presidential elections. But it wasn’t until two years after Eleanor’s death that segregation of public accommodations was finally declared to be illegal with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which caused many of those Southern Democrats to then become Southern Republicans (adopting the party of Abraham Lincoln no less).
When looking at this impressive list of achievements, one has to wonder how many of these could be accomplished in today’s toxic political environment. I say few if any. The Republican conservative movement was once one that also favored helping and protecting people, e.g. – Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System and Richard Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency. But in more recent years it has adopted a much more libertarian philosophy where especially the federal government should have little more to do than fighting wars. Helping people who are down on their luck in their minds is best left to charity. The chronic unemployment that still lingers on is attributed by many conservatives as workers just being lazy.
But most if not all of the accomplishments listed above can only be effectively done by the federal government. There is only so much that state and local governments can do. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow once did an interesting video to illustrate just this point. I invite the reader to check out one of my previous postings Government on the Cheap to see how people are hurt when the government is rendered ineffective by tax cuts that starve it from needed revenue.
While the federal government can run on deficits created by tax cuts – like what was done for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the state governments cannot get away with this. In deeply conservative Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback has tested conservative theories to the max by deep tax cuts which have led to massive deficits and cutting of needed services like in public education. Even many Republicans are turning against him as seen in this Meet the Press video segment titled The Anti, Anti-Tax Movement.
While the far-right critics of the New Deal can argue that its programs were nothing more than make work ones that were not really needed, we do have a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. For example, our roads, bridges, and transportation system along with our power grid are sorely in need of upgrading and repair to bring it up to 21st century standards. So investing in infrastructure projects like these is not only necessary but is a great creator of the jobs that we sorely need. For those of us who believe that good government can promote the common good for all and not just for those with money and power, we can only hope that those who are in the endlessly cutting taxes and government camp have finally overplayed their hand!