Politics & Policy

A Deficiency of Hope

Obama, FDR, and pessimism about America.

Today’s Democrats like to portray themselves as the party of “progress,” possessed of “the audacity of hope” — and their Republican opponents as stodgy defenders of the status quo, offering no prospect for improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Yet this rhetoric is routinely belied by presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama’s representations of economic growth as (at best) a zero-sum game. Consider his post-primary remarks in Portland, Oregon: “We can’t drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times . . . and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK.” Similarly, Michelle Obama has remarked, “The truth is, in order to get things like universal health care and a revamped education system, then someone is going to have to give up a piece of their pie so that someone else can have more.”

To the Obamas, both the world in general and America in particular have only a fixed quantity of resources (natural and financial). Their politics of “hope” consists of living with less to provide an expanded “pie” for others, to avoid offending other nations by our wealth and comfort, and to make the supply last as long as possible. Accordingly, Democrats oppose expanding our energy supply by allowing oil exploration in Alaska, off the Florida coast, or in the shale fields of Wyoming, or by developing new nuclear plants. Better to adjust our wants downward rather than persist in believing that we can enjoy an ever-rising standard of living for all.

The stance of leading Democrats like Obama and Al Gore has obvious links to the “limits to growth” movement of the 1970’s — and to Jimmy Carter’s notorious “malaise” speech, in which he admonished Americans that their irritation at waiting in long lines for gasoline resulted from an underlying deficiency in their character, rather than from the cockeyed rationing scheme he had introduced. But the origins of this political stance lie much farther back, with a politician celebrated — like Obama — for his inspiring rhetoric, and his promise of hope in tough economic times: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR offered a comprehensive statement of his outlook in the 1932 presidential campaign address he delivered to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. Early in that speech, Roosevelt defined democracy as “a quest, a never-ending seeking for better things.” He then proceeded to dampen such hopes. Following the doctrine espoused several decades earlier by Harvard historian Frederick Jackson Turner, FDR attributed monumental importance to the closing of the American frontier. The unavailability of more free land for Americans to settle meant the disappearance of a “safety valve . . . to which those thrown out of work by the Eastern economic machines” could migrate “for a new start.” Moreover, we could no longer “invite” foreign immigrants “to share our endless plenty.” Not only had the “freedom to farm” vanished; “opportunity in business” had narrowed thanks to the growing domination of the economy by “some six hundred odd corporations.”

These developments, Roosevelt maintained, required not only a reorientation of government policies, but “a re-appraisal of values.” “The day of the great promoter or the financial Titan,” whose entrepreneurial exploits might benefit the whole country, was “over”; “a mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, an organizer of more corporations,” was now “as likely to be a danger as a help.”

Americans’ “task” was no longer “the discovery or exploitation of natural resources,” or even “producing more goods.” The era of economic expansion had been replaced by “the day of enlightened administration,” in which government would be charged with “the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand” rather than encouraging the exploitation/construction of new ones, “seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production” (like Karl Marx, Roosevelt thought that advanced capitalism suffered from a problem of overproduction), and (anticipating the Obamas) “distributing wealth and products more equitably.” The Democratic presidential candidate (then, as now) called on Americans to exercise “reciprocal self-denial” for “the general advantage.”

Looking back at the exponential improvement in Americans’ standard of living over the past three-quarters of a century (amid a substantial increase in our population largely through immigration), we can only laugh at Roosevelt’s belief that the closing of the geographic frontier meant straitened economic prospects. The transformation of the U.S. economy in the high-tech era demonstrates that the growth of large corporations hardly stifled American entrepreneurship: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates made fortunes while improving the lives and enhancing the productivity of people worldwide. The contribution of American innovation and entrepreneurship to actual progress around the globe is nowhere more manifest than in the Green Revolution, in which American scientific research deserves credit for vastly increasing the food supply in impoverished nations.

Fanciful as they were, Roosevelt’s illusions had serious consequences. As Jim Powell (FDR’s Follies) and Amity Shlaes (The Forgotten Man) have documented, his “limits to growth” outlook proved a self-fulfilling prophecy in the years leading up to World War II. Attempts to fix wages and prices, along with “agricultural” programs that appallingly paid farmers to slaughter their farm animals and destroy crops in an era of widespread hunger, deepened the economic woes engendered by the 1929 stock market crash and the protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff, leading to the Great Depression.

Meantime, FDR’s repeated attacks on businessmen, whether rhetorical (depicting them variously as “economic royalists,” “unethical” Ishmaels whose “hand[s]” were “against every man’s,” ignoble “self-seekers” and “money changers”) or legal (such as the feckless prosecution, born of personal grudges, of former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon) discouraged private investment. Little wonder Wendell Willkie, the onetime Democrat and eventual 1940 Republican presidential candidate, in an essay in Fortune that year (cited by Shlaes) decried Roosevelt’s having taught the American people “that our day is finished, that we can grow no more, and that the future cannot be equal to the past,” and challenged the President to “give up this vested interest you have in depression,” and instead help the country “to build a New World.”

In one major respect, Roosevelt lived up to his reputation for optimism: his leadership during WWII. Unlike Obama, FDR never sought unconditional personal meetings with leaders of nations that threatened us, or thought that their determined hostility would somehow be appeased thereby. Nor did he imply that foreign resentments of America’s vast power were at all justified by our supposedly excessive standard of living.

But Barack Obama’s denunciations of the supposed arrogance of American power — our naïve belief that our military arsenal, or the threat of its use against saber-rattling tyrants seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, can enhance the prospects for democracy in the world; and our disinclination to subsume American sovereignty under irresponsible international bodies like the U.N. or foreign courts — are simply an extension into the realm of foreign policy of Roosevelt’s domestic-policy pessimism. After an interlude of Democratic optimism under President John F.Kennedy –who instituted a tax cut to promote business investment and encouraged America’s readiness to “pay any price, bear any burden” for the defense of freedom — the Democratic Party is once again the party of diminishing expectations.

Like the late theoretician John Rawls, many liberals seem inspired by John Stuart Mill’s vision of a “steady state” economy — in which people’s standard of living remains constant rather than improving, so that we can devote ourselves to nobler things than wealth (while simultaneously redistributing the wealth we have to enhance the prospects of the “less advantaged,” as if the Great Society’s failures were unrecognized). Hence the appeal of the specter of “global warming”: as with the mid-1970s’ bugaboo of “global cooling,” the motive is to cut back on ordinary people’s standard of living, or at least restrict its rise, in the name of an imagined vision of non-materialistic global brotherhood.

The best prospect for John McCain and the Republicans in this year’s elections is to stress the contrast between their genuine program of reasonable hope — victory in Iraq, adopting health-care policies that enable consumer choice, and renewing the Bush tax cuts to fuel entrepreneurship and job creation — and the Democrats’ policy of pessimism, resignation, and perpetual fighting over a permanently fixed economic pie.

— David Lewis Schaefer is professor of political science at College of the Holy Cross and the author of Illiberal Justice: John Rawls vs. the American Political Tradition.


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