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Commentary

When democracy and government saved America

Jack Lessenberry

If you think we’ve got troubles now, flash back eighty-two years ago today. Unemployment in Detroit was more than forty percent – and there was no social safety net.

Some people really were starving. Some were living in the parks. Few had any money in the bank, and even if they did, they couldn’t get it. The governor had closed all Michigan’s banks to prevent them from going out of business.

What economy there was functioned in part on a barter system. Things were utterly terrible.  There was no Social Security, no welfare.

The crisis had long since drained private charities. But on that day, a new president took the oath of office and told people something hard to imagine any politician saying today.

“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.”

And he added,

“It can be accomplished in part by the government itself, treating the task as we could treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time … accomplishing greatly needed projects.”

That was Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the speech where he uttered his most famous line,

“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Yes, government did in fact create jobs, even if today, we repeat as dogma that only the private sector can do that.

The next day, the President closed all the banks in the country. Meanwhile, the government worked feverishly with the head of General Motors to create a new bank, the National Bank of Detroit.

It opened on March 24, and was a success.

Slowly, gradually, the nation recovered confidence.  It took a long time, and the economy wasn’t fully restored until World War II began eight years later.

But an active government had in fact created jobs, saved people, and almost certainly saved democracy in America. Prior to Roosevelt, there was growing sympathy for extremist movements.

Sixty thousand people marched through the streets of Detroit singing the international anthem of Communism the year before.  Our system was, indeed threatened.

When I was growing up, many people remembered those times.  I met elderly voters as late as 1988 who voted Democratic, even when they didn’t much like the candidates, because they felt Franklin Roosevelt had saved them.

I am mentioning all this today because I am annoyed sometimes at the sheer idiocy of those who say that government can do nothing right, and that our only hope lies in destroying unions and taking away teachers’ pensions, and then expecting better quality education.

We once had the world the Koch Brothers and folks like Senate Majority Arlen Meekhof seem determined to recreate. That would have been 1932. I suggest you read more about it.

Roosevelt said something else in that famous inaugural speech:

“We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” he said, adding that by electing him, the people had signaled that they wanted “direct and vigorous action.”

Today, I’m not sure our leaders or the people trust democracy much anymore.

They’ve restricted it with gerrymandering and term limits.

But once upon a time, in a crisis long ago, democracy and government saved America. You might want to learn more about that sometime.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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