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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