Happy Birthday Today to the Father of Class Warfare

by Burt on January 30, 2012

Franklin Roosevelt, of course. If FDR were alive today, and healthy, he would be celebrating his 130th birthday–and possibly launching his campaign for a 21st term as president of the United States. How might his campaign in 2012 compare with that of Barack Obama, who says he admires FDR very much?

They both like class warfare elections because class warfare takes attention away from a failing presidency and puts the focus on their opponents, who are often trying to free up the economy for investment. In other words, much is similar in the re-election campaign of FDR in 1936 and that of President Obama in 2012.

FDR’s 1936 campaign was the first in U.S. history to rely heavily on the class warfare theme. He believed he won votes when he attacked the rich, or when they attacked him, and he told speechwriter Ray Moley privately that he gained votes when he castigated the rich. Two weeks before the 1936 election, with double-digit unemployment, FDR in a major speech deflected criticism from himself by announcing that wealthy people had long been refusing “to pay a fair share” of the cost of government. Therefore, he boasted, “we increased still further the taxes paid by individuals in the highest brackets–those with incomes over one million dollars a year [to a 79% marginal rate]. Wasn’t that the American thing to do?”

After the election, when those millionaires sheltered their income to escape paying well over half of it to the government, Roosevelt publicly denounced them for “tax avoidance” and for not paying their “fair share.” In 1937, perhaps thinking of his next reelection campaign, he told two prominent Democrats, Senator Pat Harrison and Rep. Robert Doughton, that if they would form a “subcommittee to investigate tax avoidance,” that the Democrats would gain “at least 10,000,000 [votes]” by publicly shaming those who sheltered income. In other words, there were votes to be gained among the mass of lower-and-middle-income voters by making them envious of the high incomes earned by their employers.

The class warfare tactic worked for FDR in 1936, but in 2012 the opponents of that theme may be wiser, more articulate, and more effective. We shall see. “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s possessions” was good policy when God declared it to Moses as the Tenth Commandment. And running against that commandment may not work for President Obama as well as it worked for Franklin Roosevelt, whose birthday we remember today.

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House of Eratosthenes
January 30, 2012 at 11:11 am

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