The Right’s Rotten History

Setting the record straight will protect FDR’s greatest achievements.

Whether or not right-wingers such as Fox News “entertainer and enlightener” Glenn Beck, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, and Texas Governor Rick Perry actually uphold Ronald Reagan’s conservatism, they are clearly sustaining his practice of using and abusing the past to reshape popular memory and the politics of the present. In particular, they’re mimicking his efforts to hijack the Founding Fathers and Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time, Beck and Company have actually broken with Reagan’s perverse “historical labors” in a very significant way.

In their respective books — “Broke“, “Saving Freedom“, and “FED UP!” — Beck, DeMint, and Perry, like their late Republican hero Reagan, celebrate the Founders as freedom-loving, God-fearing, small-government and States’ Rights folk. They variably ignore or downplay not only their revolutionary sins such as slavery, but also their finest revolutionary commitments and accomplishments like the separation of church and state. However, in contrast to Reagan, who did his best (worst?) to try to lay claim to FDR to historically bolster his own political agenda, Beck and Co. portray FDR and the New Dealers as subversives who ruined American life and liberties.

Reagan, himself a former New Deal Democrat, knew how much most Americans loved FDR and continued to revere his name. So he regularly sought to appropriate Roosevelt’s words in his campaigns, even as he set about trying to undo, and suppress the memory of, what FDR and his fellow citizens achieved in the 1930s and 1940s. Examples abound. Recall that to appeal to working and middle-class Americans, Reagan — to the dismay of conservatives such as George Will — enthusiastically cited and quoted both Thomas Paine and FDR in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention. And recall that in July 1987 Reagan audaciously re-stated FDR’s Four Freedoms — freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear — as “the freedom to work”, “the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor”, “the freedom to own and control one’s property”, and “the freedom to participate in a free market.”

Breaking with the Gipper, Beck and his ilk not only have no desire to lay claim to FDR’s memory and legacy, they also want to bury them. Truly, they talk as if they want to march on Washington and level the Roosevelt Memorial in favor of erecting a monument to the Gilded Age. Despite thirty years of conservative politics and policies — three decades of intensifying insecurities, deepening inequalities, and subordinating the public good to corporate priorities and private greed — they actually assert, as DeMint himself writes, that “America is clearly sliding towards socialism.” And they hold Franklin Delano Roosevelt most responsible for the slide.

Following Amity Shlaes‘ crackpot history of the New Deal, “The Forgotten Man“, Beck, DeMint, and Perry link the New Deal to fascism (Fascism? Socialism? What’s the difference? It’s all godless statism) and insist that it was World War II, not the New Deal, that rescued America from the Great Depression. Here they ignore how the New Deal, by way of the CCC, WPA, and PWA, dramatically transformed and improved the American landscape; how the New Deal energetically engaged a generation in rebuilding the nation and themselves; how the New Deal empowered working people and democratically expanded the “We” in “We the People”; and how the New Deal progressively nationalized the Bill of Rights. All of this afforded Americans the wherewithal, confidence, and courage to fight Nazism, fascism, and Japanese imperialism and extend and deepen freedom, equality, and democracy overseas and at home.

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In the name of the Four Freedoms, 16,000,000 Americans donned uniforms to fight fascism in the 1940s. But DeMint apparently wants us to forget that. You can hear it when he states unabashedly: “Socialists are now marching under the banner of a new secular-progressive style of freedom: the freedom from responsibility, the freedom to behave destructively without moral judgment, the freedom from risk and failure, the freedom from want, the freedom from religion, and the freedom to have material equality with those who work and accomplish more.”

Moreover, Beck and his buddies have nothing to say about the G.I. Bill that helped turn the Greatest Generation into the American middle class of the 1950s and 1960s. Sounding like American Liberty Leaguers of the 1930s, Beck and Co. also go on to lambaste Social Security as both the source of Americans’ loss of freedom and — failing to mention things like the Reagan and Bush tax cuts — the reason for the ballooning federal deficit. In that vein, Rick Perry not only exaggerates. He lies: “We are fed up that Social Security… teeter[s] on the verge of bankruptcy…”

And fancying himself a preacher — a preacher of “frugality”, I would note — Beck charges FDR with not only leading us away from our founding principles, but also from God: “The United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, which embraced personal giving and charity as fundamental. And that was the way most Americans lived: charity through voluntary giving, in service of God. Then FDR and progressives came along and changed all of that. Charity still meant fulfilling your financial obligations to a higher power, but that higher power went from being God to being the United States government.”

Sure, it’s all laughable as “history.” But we cannot leave it at that.

Reagan knew he could not denigrate Roosevelt because Americans not only revered him, but recognized how much they owed to the President and people who fought the Great Depression and struggled against fascism. But time is passing. The Greatest Generation is passing away. And the children of that generation — myself included — are turning 60. To defend the great democratic advances of the 1930s and 1940s and to build upon them, we must remember what they were and how they were secured, which means we must not only speak smartly of politics and policy, but also of the past.

Indeed, let us not forget Roosevelt’s words at the dedication of the FDR Library at Hyde Park on June 30, 1941:

[A] Nation must believe in three things.
It must believe in the past.
It must believe in the future
It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He serves as an historical adviser to the Four Freedoms Park project.