Monthly Archives: March 2016

Bernie Sanders and FDR: Small Similarities, Drastic Differences, Part 2

5. War and Conscription

Virtually everyone remembers FDR’s presidency, and many people remember him serving as Governor of New York. What fewer people remember is that he was also Assistant Secretary of the Navy under one of his mentors, Woodrow Wilson. In this capacity, he strongly supported American entry into World War I, a war that many Socialists considered a war for Wall Street. He also favored increasing the size of the Navy. While World War II was very hard to avoid, World War I was more of a case in which hawkishness prevailed over dovishness. Sanders applied for conscientious objector’s status during the Vietnam War, a conflict that in many ways was actually an outgrowth of both world wars. He also voted against war with Iraq and favors reducing the military budget. Granted, Sanders is hardly a pacifist. The more noticeable difference is in their views on conscription. FDR reintroduced conscription with the Selective Service Act in 1940, over a year before America entered World War II. Sanders not only did not want to be drafted but also does not want anyone else to be drafted. He has cosponsored legislation to end Selective Service except in national emergencies and voted to eliminate it in the 1990s.

6. Balancing Individual Freedom with “National Security” In General

On other issues in addition to conscription, FDR was much more in the authoritarian camp when it came to prioritizing his vision of national security over individual freedom. In 1940, he signed the Smith Act, banning the people or organizations from advocating the violent overthrow of the government and requiring all non-citizen aliens to register with the government. This legislation would be used as a hammer against Socialists and Communists during the Red Scare of the Truman and Eisenhower years. He also created the legal distinction of “enemy combatant” to prevent civilian court trails for German saboteurs and instead tried them in military tribunals, favored executing certain saboteurs, and interned over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans with no due process. Sanders voted against the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the Patriot Act, various legislation to ban flag desecration, and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. He is also opposed to the death penalty under any circumstances and has vehemently criticized Donald Trump’s proposals to ban Islamic immigration and require Muslims to register with the government.

7. Race and Civil Rights: FDR’s support for Japanese American internment was at least partially based on his belief in white supremacy. He explained his support for legislation effectively banning Japanese immigration by claiming that interracial marriage between Japanese and white people debased the white race. His views about black people were also hardly liberal. He avoided publicly endorsing a federal anti-lynching bill, allowed New Deal programs to be segregated by race,–even in Wisconsin, where the Republican governor objected–and refused to desegregate the military. His wife, Eleanor, was a strong civil rights supporter, but he was mostly uninterested in African Americans except as a potential voting bloc. His private facility at Warm Springs, Georgia was segregated, and he required his black and white servants to eat in different locations. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he compared black people to “semi-beast(s),” and as president, he was not above using the n-word. Even the Social Security Act was tainted by race, unsurprisingly given the fact that one of the main backers of the bill was segregationist Senator Pat Harrison (D-MS). Agricultural and domestic workers were denied coverage, specifically to exclude as many black people as possible. Nor can this racism be attributed entirely or even primarily to the era. The anti-lynching bill that FDR refused to support was voted for by a heavy majority of Republicans and Northern Democrats in the House. Republican presidential rivals, Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, and Thomas Dewey, all criticized FDR on civil rights from the Left, as did Congressional Republicans like Hamilton Fish III. He also clashed over civil rights with governors such as the aforementioned Governor Phillip LaFollette of Wisconsin and Harold Stassen of Minnesota. Granted, FDR was less racist than previous Democratic presidents and was willing to make some concessions to African Americans. His ambivalence and contradictions in his policies toward African Americans are more in line with Donald Trump, who blamed President Obama for the Baltimore Riots specifically due to his skin color yet has stated he supports affirmative action. Sanders, by contrast, was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, joining the Congress of Racial Equality, marching with MLK, and being arrested in Chicago. He has spoken of the importance of providing African Americans with equal access to the economic gains that he believes his policies will generate. And in June, he spoke on the Senate floor about the need to remove the Confederate Flag from public property. Furthermore, while his record on immigration has been mixed, he has consistently opposed the race-based anti-immigrant rhetoric of people like Donald Trump. Gay rights were hardly a mainstream political issue in the Roosevelt Administration. Yet FDR’s subordination of civil rights to economics makes it seem unlikely that, if alive today, he would consider LGBT rights a major priority. While Sanders’s chief focus is also economics, he has long been ahead of the curve on LGBT rights and has given these issues considerable attention through both public statements and cosponsoring bills.

So if Sanders is not like FDR, who is his closest counterpart in presidential politics? It is hard to find any U.S. presidents who closely parallel Sanders. There has never been a president who was a civil libertarian, far ahead of the curve on civil rights, and against capitalism. But I can think of two deceased third party candidates who are very much like Sanders. The first is the aforementioned Norman Thomas. Running for president on the Socialist ticket six times, Thomas was anti-censorship, anti-segregation, antiwar, anti-draft, anti-Japanese internment, and anti-capitalist. In fact, both Sanders and Thomas attended the 1963 March on Washington. One wonders if they met each other there. The second candidate is Benjamin Spock, who ran for president on the People’s Party ticket in 1972. Spock ran on a platform that included feminism, racial equality, legalization of marijuana, abolition of conscription, an end to the Vietnam War, legalization of homosexuality, full tuition and cost of living stipends for college students, a guaranteed annual income, limits on income for the wealthy, and free health care. And, as is the case with Thomas, Spock has a connection with Sanders. In the 1972 election, Sanders supported Spock and went on the campaign trail with him in Vermont. If FDR was still alive, he would probably endorse Hillary Clinton. But I can easily see Thomas and Spock stumping for Sanders.

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Bernie Sanders and FDR: Small Similarities, Drastic Differences, Part 1

Comparing a Democratic candidate to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is kind of like the reverse of Godwin’s Law. Every Democratic candidate wants to be FDR, and comparing oneself to FDR is a great way to market yourself to the Democratic electorate. Bernie Sanders in particular has been getting compared to FDR a ton lately. As a historian, I have to say that this comparison simply does not hold water. Sanders is radically different enough from FDR in his political views that comparing the two is extremely problematic. Hence, I will be devoting this two-part blog post to laying out the major differences between the two men.

1. Welfare For the Poor: One of the key complaints raised by leftists about the New Deal during the 1930s was the fairly limited amount of direct welfare payments. While the president did establish the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program as part of the Social Security Act, his main emphasis was on creating new jobs, unemployment insurance, pensions for the elderly, farm subsidies, and higher wages. In a 1935 speech, FDR warned that, “the lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” This quote is more in line with the views of a Hillary Clinton or even a John Kasich than a Bernie Sanders. Much of the expansive federal welfare payments that we associate with the New Deal were actually more a product of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Food stamps, for instance, did not even exist in the United States until 1964. Sanders, by contrast, has spent his political career supporting the welfare system put in place by LBJ–closer to the welfare system that leftists in the 1930s were upset at FDR for not establishing. Sanders voted against the welfare reform legislation that Bill Clinton signed in 1996, which imposed time limits and new work requirements on recipients. In his 1997 book, Outsider in the House, then-U.S. Representative Sanders lamented, “if, 5 years before, someone had suggested that a Democratic president and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress would have supported legislation that cut food stamps by over $20 billion, and terminated a child’s right to minimal economic support they would have been laughed at. Gingrich became Speaker, and Rush Limbaugh’s brutal attitude toward the poor had permeated both parties. The bill accepts the brilliant proposal that poverty is caused by the poor.” In 2003, Sanders voted against increasing work requirements for recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the successor to AFDC. And just this year, Sanders still claimed that Clinton’s welfare reform had been a mistake.
2. Corporate Welfare: Bernie Sanders voted against bailing out the banks when the Global Recession hit. He also opposes the federal government’s Export-Import Bank. This is the very same bank that was created under FDR for the purpose of fostering foreign trade. Which brings us to…..

3. Free trade: Historically, support for free trade was one of perhaps the three most central pillars of Democratic Party ideology for over a hundred years. There is now a significant anti-free trade component of the party, which Sanders hopes to tap into, but that is largely a recent phenomenon. Historically, it was Republicans who favored economic protectionism. In 1930, Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which raised import duties on foreign goods to the highest that they had been at any point in the 20th century. As president, FDR signed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act of 1934, designed to enable the president to negotiate with other countries for lower tariff rates. Sanders, of course, voted against NAFTA, a free trade deal FDR would have probably loved, and has repeatedly called for fair trade and criticized the FDR-esque trade policies of the Clintons. He also favors imposing tariffs on countries that manipulate currency.

4. Capitalism: FDR is stated by many scholars to have saved capitalism from itself by implementing reforms to the system that reduced calls for Social Democracy, Socialism, or Communism. In other words, by introducing new regulations and public assistance programs, FDR was attempting to address some of the complaints against capitalism without abolishing it. This parallels what took place in the Progressive Era, during which progressive politicians, including Teddy Roosevelt, preserved capitalism while reforming it. People can and have debated about the extent to which these reforms were positive or negative, but it is hard to argue with the idea that they were reforms. Norman Thomas, a Socialist Party presidential candidate who ran against FDR (remember this name, because we’ll be coming back to him), stated that with regard to the Socialist platform, the president “had carried it out a stretcher.” Sanders, by contrast, is a self-described Democratic Socialist. While some more radical Socialists do not consider him one of their own, he is a Social Democrat at the very least. Social Democrats, including many European politicians, favor the creation of a system that functions as a middle ground between capitalism and Socialism, putting them far to left of FDR. The difference in approaches between FDR and Sanders is showcased by their respective minimum wage policies. Sanders calls for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. FDR signed legislation in 1938 that created a quarter-an-hour minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation, FDR’s minimum wage would be $4.19 an hour, less than a third of what Sanders is advocating. Another example is national health insurance. Sanders favors going beyond the Affordable Care Act to create a single payer health insurance system. Despite the wishes of some leftists, FDR did not expend much energy promoting national health insurance.

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A Tale of Two Movements

There are two social movements gathering steam that I have not written much about before. One of these movements is an extension of other freedom movements and deserves our full support. The other often verges on ridiculous. The good movement is the movement for transgender rights. The semi-ridiculous movement is the movement for ex-felons. Transgender individuals have been subjected to discrimination based on their gender identity, a benign characteristic that many of them were born with. There is no reason why being transgender makes someone unqualified for a job, including military service. It is unjust to refuse to sell somebody a house because of their gender identity. Students should not be bullied for being transgender. It is my hope that Congress will pass the Equality Act in the near future and that it includes gender identity in its anti-discrimination provisions. While there is still much work to be done, and public support appears to be lower than support for gay rights, the movement has already made significant progress. For example, the U.S. military’s ban on transgender soldiers seems about to be eliminated. Lots of social conservatives are howling, because many of them don’t really believe in a meritocracy, regardless of what they say. Isn’t it ironic that they can, in the same breath, criticize Democrats for reducing the size of the military and for allowing more people to join? There has been some argument that the Gay Rights Movement should drop transgender people from their coalition due to the fact that transgender rights seems to have less societal support, putting civil rights bills that include gender identity at greater risk of not passing. This would be a great mistake. Gay and transgender people have fought together for equal rights for too long for one group to abandon the other for expediency.

The movement for ex-felons has also made some “progress,” though some of us may not want to use the term in this context. Birmingham has recently become the first city in Alabama to remove the box on city employment forms that applicants were previously required to check if they had been convicted of a crime. This means, for example, that if someone applying for a job as a school custodian was once convicted of assault for punching a kid in the face, nobody is going to know. It is certainly a good thing if ex-felons who are legitimately trying to turn their lives around can get jobs. But by “banning the box,” the city of Birmingham is eliminating the opportunity to evaluate applicants’ past felonies on a case-by-case basis. This is compassion at the expense of other people. Another goal of the ex-felons’ movement is to repeal all state laws that make it difficult for ex-felons to regain their voting rights once they have been released and paroled. It is not so much that I find this proposal to be a very bad one. It is more that I strongly disagree with the idea that this felon disenfranchisement is some great injustice or represents a civil rights issue. I want to tackle three of the most common statements that supporters of the movement make:

  1. Many Ex-Felons Were Convicted of Non-Violent Drug Offenses-Like most of the arguments covered here, there is an element of truth in this claim. Many people have been arrested and convicted for possession of drugs or selling drugs to other consenting adults. This is unjust, since it involves punishing people for personal choices that, although they are bad choices, the government does not have a right to prohibit. The solution, however, is to end the War on Drugs and pardon these individuals so that they no longer have felonies on their record, rather than change rules about ex-felons that not only apply to non-violent drug offenders but also to violent criminals.
  2. This is a Racial Issue-This claim has two parts. The first is that the criminal justice system has historically been biased, leading to cases of discriminatory conviction and sentencing. No sensible person can argue with that. Again, however, the solution is to review individual cases and reverse unjust convictions and sentences. By the line of reasoning that undergirds this argument, we should pardon everyone convicted of murder because some innocent people were convicted of murder by racist judges and juries. The second, related part of the claim is that felons are disproportionately black, meaning that felon re-enfranchisement would benefit black people and increase their political power. While I do not believe that most of the people making this claim are racist, it does have a very offensive implication: the idea that all ex-felons are black. That idea, of course, is ludicrous. Many ex-felons are white, and some of them were convicted for committing hate crimes against black people. If we repeal restrictions on the voting rights of ex-felons, we do not just re-enfrachise a low income black person who grew up in a crime-ridden ghetto with a broken family. We also re-enfranchise the rich, white man who thought beating up a black person would be a good way to amuse himself. While the case of Mark Wahlberg did not appear to directly involve voting, it illustrates this point. Wahlberg committed multiple crimes during the 1980s, including an attack on two Asian American people while trying to steel beer and throwing rocks and yelling racial slurs at a black, fourth grade girl. About a year ago, he applied for a pardon. One of his stated reasons was that he was having trouble getting a concessioner’s license. I wish that this case had gotten more attention, because it showcases one of the biggest problems with the ex-felon movement. It is not my intention to say that Wahlberg has not changed. He probably has. But I fail to see how a permanent reminder of his crimes on his record is unjust, as much of a hardship as it may be for a movie star with a two hundred million dollar net worth to have his restaurant impeded. Perhaps he should consider himself lucky that, unlike one of the men he assaulted, he can still see out of both eyes. A modified version of an old adage applies: “I cried because I had no concessioner’s license. Then I saw a man who had only one functioning eye. And I was the one who did it to him.” Furthermore, many black people convicted of violent crimes committed these crimes against other black people. In effect, trying to deal with the issue of African American ex-felons by rolling back restrictions on ex-felons is dealing with a symptom rather than a cause. Instead of giving ex-felons of all colors a pass for their crimes, we should be looking at the root cause–the history of slavery and racial discrimination in this country–of why predominantly African American communities tend to have higher crime rates. Beyond the issue of race, we should also be looking at the root causes of crime in other communities, such as child abuse.
  3. Restrictions on Voting Rights For Ex-Felons Are Like Poll Taxes, Literacy Tests, Voter ID laws, etc.–This is an apples to oranges comparison. Failing to pass a literacy test, not being able to afford a poll tax, or not having an ID are not crimes. Robbery, assault, rape, murder, etc. are crimes. Ergo, comparing the two is deeply problematic. While some correlation exists between states that enacted restrictive policies to keep black people from voting in the Jim Crow era and states that disenfranchise felons, there is significant variation. For example, Iowa was one of the first two states outside of New England that gave black men the right to vote. It is also one of eleven states where convicted felons can lose their right to vote permanently. Meanwhile, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, the Carolinas, Texas, and Oklahoma all allow convicted felons to vote after their incarceration, parole, and probation have been completed. Minnesota, the other of the first two non-New England states to extend voting rights to black men, has stricter laws about felon re-enfranchisement than Indiana, a former Ku Klux Klan stronghold. In conclusion, not all movements are created equal. The transgender rights movement deserves our vigorous support. The ex-felon movement deserves our vigorous criticism.

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