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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