Book Saloon: Traitor to His Class

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By R.W. Brands (Doubleday, 2008)

When the New Deal was in its infancy, amid a world in economic collapse and with fascism sweeping across Europe, Roosevelt rightly saw mass unemployment for the danger it was to American Democracy; many in the upper classes openly admired the “efficiency” of the the fascist governments, while the dislocated and desperate working classes saw communism as a viable, and certainly more humane, economic and social model.   Confronted by such polarization and upheaval in what was at the time, outside of the urban centers, essentially still a developing nation, Roosevelt proposed sweeping government programs in conservation, road-building, hydropower, designed not just to relieve unemployment, but to disperse the working population and the spread the fruits of modernity to the backward and less populous areas of the country.  The purpose if this effort was twofold: to build a basis for more geographically widespread economic development  and relieve the industrial cities from the crushing burdens of mass unemployment and social unrest.  Reasonable enough, and in retrospect, a stunning success.  But Republicans, who had caused the Depression in the first place, distrusted and resented the creation of a large class of impressionable young people dependent on the Administration for a living.  Ironically, it was a labor leader, AFL President William Green, who eerily foreshadowed Glenn Beck by calling the Civilian Conservation Corps something akin to “fascism, Hitlerism, and in some respects of Sovietism.”  Plus ca change.

Many of the problems Roosevelt faced in 1933 were quite similar to those we face today: underutilized productive capacity, mass unemployment, gross disparities of wealth, infrastructural deficits, and an outlaw banking industry contemptuous of regulation; what he didn’t face was a hostile, cloistered, and elitist media deeply invested in the status quo, so he had considerably more latitude for action than does the Obama Administration today.  Indeed,  had Fox News existed back then, Beck, O’Reilly, et al would have had something legitimate to complain about regarding President who was masterfully manipulating the media.  The key difference was that in that more innocent era, the press wasn’t drawn from the upper reaches of society; with few exceptions, most reporters both identified with and sprang from the middle and working classes who comprised the great bulk their audiences.  And, in the manner of future presidents from Nixon to Obama, Roosevelt, when he felt he had something important to convey, chose to bypass the “media filter” as Bush called it, and speak directly to the people in his many iconic fireside chats.  He recognized that a President can be a moral leader, and perhaps his greatest responsibility was to restore the confidence of the American people, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” Brands writes, was essentially a lie, but it was a lie that comforted millions; quite the opposite of the lies told by the first president of the following century, who relentlessly exhorted us to fear, and fear some more.

As the depression dragged on despite Roosevelt’s efforts, Republicans assumed the role they are taking today, decrying the deficits, calling the New Deal a failure, and demanding a rollback of its most controversial elements.  A conservative Supreme Court tended to agree, and the “economic royalists” of the day behaved similarly to the economic royalists now; fortunately, they hadn’t yet gotten around to consolidating their control over the media and Congress and were widely seen for what they were.  Indeed, one wonders, reading this book, whether such a Presidency could ever occur again, since the interests Roosevelt successfully battled back then have learned so many important lessons from that defeat, and their spiritual and even biological heirs have never given up the dream of burying his legacy and restoring the untrammeled plutocracy they once enjoyed, along with the vast wealth they have once again amassed.

It’s telling that George Bush’s one great political defeat was his attempt to abolish Roosevelt’s greatest achievement, Social Security, and equally telling that they are now all but maniacal to defeat one of his greatest unachieved goals, universal health care.  The success and popularity of Social Security demoralized and discredited Republicans for nearly fifty years, and they rightly see a similar result for their political future if universal health care becomes reality.  Fortunately for them, their decades of investment in reshaping the media and their relentless, almost religious worship of Chicago School voodoo economics to the exclusion of real economic theories that have actually been proven to work, has paid off in spades for them.

The economic royalists of the 1930′s were once cloistered in their estates and country clubs; now they dominate the media, rule the business schools, and force even ostensibly “liberal” administrations to prostrate themselves before their Randian fantasies.  They never learned, and perhaps no longer need to, the crucial lesson of the Roosevelt era, which Brands summarizes near the end of the book:

In the generations that followed, as the American economy continued to thrive and as the benefits of America’s material fortune rained down upon the wealthy even more than persons of moderate means, the objective and honest of those who had once denounced Roosevelt for class betrayal recognized that, in a world rife with fascists, militarists, and communists abroad at home and irresponsible demagogues at home, he was the best thing that could have happened to them.

Obviously, Fox News didn’t get the memo.


  1. rmp says:

    “The key difference was that in that more innocent era, the press wasn’t drawn from the upper reaches of society; with few exceptions, most reporters both identified with and sprang from the middle and working classes who comprised the great bulk their audiences.”

    Some great points, but I have to differ on your inference that today’s media come from the upper reaches of society. I don’t have time to research it, but I would bet that reporter/punits of today still come from the middle and working classes. The difference from the New Deal era is that people including reporter/pundits can move more easily into the upper middle class and become obsessive of maintaining or moving higher and forget their grounded roots. The corporate can dominate their thinking and what has become success in their minds.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Look at the backgrounds and educations of the MSM from TV to the Times, and you’ll find almost all Ivy League and privilege, and a lot of nepotism, too. With fewer and fewer outlets and all of them top-heavy, they’ve gotten quite inbred. And there pay levels alone make their “real American” identification pretty hypothetical. I doubt they know many of them. 20 or 30 years ago, when newspapers were extremely profitable, they did bring up a deep bench of reporters from all backgrounds, but they’ve all but stopped that by now, and it shows.

      • Skeptic says:

        I have to agree with the Hag on this one.

        In fact, it used to be that old-school reporters often did not even have college degrees, just a work ethic, and a nose for news. Sounds more working class than middle class to me.

        As for the middle class… drawing from those ranks is not necessarily an advantage, either, given the blind sense of entitlement that I have often found there.

        It is the media’s sense of entitlement that we are up in arms about, right?

        • Honestly, I’m expecting this to change. The middle class these days is a rapidly shrinking remnant of what it once was. Even before the meltdown, to be economically middle-class, i.e. to have what my parents had, meant at least $100K in most parts of the country if you had a couple of kids, and much more than that in places like LA, San Francisco, or the NY Metropolitan area. As we’ve recently discovered, a lot of that was available only to two-income families, or those willing to take on unwise amounts of debt.

          The comparison between middle class in the Fifties and Eighties is misleading, though, if expressed in purely economic terms. My parents’ houses — rented or owned — never had more than two bedrooms, or a single bath, and they never owned more than one car or TV set at a time, although they did buy a new car every three years or so.

          What they did have was college educations courtesy of the GI bill, medical care courtesy of the U.S. Army, and enough money for some discretionary spending and a decent amount of saving. The definition of middle class for them had more to do with values, education and career aspirations (on my father’s part) than it did with money above the level of comfortable.

          Even so, with middle-class status no longer an option for any sort of blue-collar worker, service jobs which are notoriously low-paid and lacking in any sort of genuine health or retirement benefits, not to mention the well-documented failures of public education, it’s hard to imagine how the middle class can be a source of much of anything — there are just too few people who fall into that category.

          I think that the banana republic is a much more likely scenario, for the near future at least. Membership in the 20% of the population already favored will tend to become permanent, as will membership in a much larger underclass. There’ll be wide variations in this underclass, but no part of it is likely to resemble what we call middle class by any current definition. Being a nurse or airline pilot will be much more like being a waiter or hedge-trimmer than either will be like the people who hire them.

          The folks on Wall Street seem to think that this is not only desirable, but stable. I disagree with them on both counts. Whether or not we have reporters to tell us what’s going on at that point will hardly matter. By the time we go all the way down the road they’re having built for us, we won’t need weathermen to tell us which way the wind is blowing.

          • cocktailhag says:

            Well, it’s been sold as the Natural Order of Things for so long, too many people believe it, nor do they realize that the middle class, and to a lesser extent, working class prosperity of midcentury was an historical anomaly based on the progressive, redistributive policies of the New Deal era. It was no accident, just as the inequality of today.
            Bad weather ahead, WT…..

          • Skeptic says:

            You’re right, of course, William.

            I was speaking of the middle class in the past, and you’re describing its disappearance in the future.

            That middle class sense of entitlement that I noted was also from the past, and is not likely to continue as we travel down that road.

        • cocktailhag says:

          That, and its elitist attitude… Watching, say, David Gregory go on about “entitlements” and Teh Deficit makes me want to punch him.

  2. nailheadtom says:

    The Severan debasement of the US currency has more to do with the mythological coming extinction of the “middle class” than the rise of the plutocracy. And, by the way, if it were not for the left-wing media that isn’t quite radical enough for you, how would you know of the increasing disparity between the incomes of the middle class and our economic aristocracy? Would streets be closed to access by the plebs in favor of the upper class, like in Soviet Moscow or anywhere in the US that the president is visiting? Would you or your friends be denied hospitalization for illnesses visited primarily on the lower classes? Does the money Bill Gates or Steve Schwartzman or Mark Cuban aquires sweep food from your table? In other words, does some wealthy person make you poor and can you prove that a dollar in his pocket means one less in yours?

    • cocktailhag says:

      The bureau of Labor statistics is a good place to start. While no individual high salary is to blame for the plight of the middle class, executive pay that has gone from 30 to 400+ times that of the average worker has, and thirty years ago teachers, firemen, airline pilots, etc. used to be solidly middle class. Now they can barely afford to live, particularly in more expensive cities. whose prices are, yes, driven up by the rich. It’s not complicated.

      • nailheadtom says:

        Comme d’habitude, you don’t bother to answer the question, instead painting rhetorical graffiti. You have no personal experience of the debilitating effects of other’s personal wealth, because there is none. The wealth of another person has not made it impossible for you to make a house payment, buy a car, purchase a T-bone, or get an OSU Beavers sweatshirt. A six-figure bonus for a bank employee in Manhattan has zero effect on you economically, even if it does get your envy/outrage siren wailing. You have things and can do things that your great grandparents couldn’t even imagine, yet the fact that someone may have more is just too much for you. And if they do have more, it must have been obtained through some unfair advantage and thus remedied by government action.

        It’s easy to have a perverse kind of admiration for a brazen stick-up artist or glib confidence man, both willing to risk their freedom for financial gain. But there’s no similar emotion available for gutless whiners that want politicians and government agencies to be the mechanism behind thefts, the proceeds of which they will never see. Maybe there are lower forms of moral bankruptcy than the advocacy of theft through government coercion but it’s near the bottom.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Where does the money come from? The salaries of lesser employees, profits, and the prices the companies must charge. Money doesn’t fall like manna from heaven.
          Giving so much money to rich people makes them think they’re worth it, which is the worst part, because they aren’t. If you think that some banker who helped his company lose billions is worth more than a teacher who teaches children to read, or a policeman who keeps the streets safe, that’s more a product of your twisted value system than any reality.

          • nailheadtom says:

            “Giving so much money to rich people. . .”

            So, income is a gift? And who is the giver of the gift? And if they hadn’t received the gift, then they wouldn’t be rich, would they?

            After I give my boss 40 hours of my life and expertise, he “gives” me a paycheck.

  3. rmp says:

    Good discussion. But Hag, I’m still not convinced on the Ivy league backgrounds because I suspect you are talking about pundit ideologues, especially right wingers who are part of the Serious foreign policy group. I just checked David Gregory who was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of Carolyn Surtees, an account manager, and Don Gregory, a film and theatrical producer. Gregory graduated from American University in 1992. While there, he worked for the campus television station, ATV, and received a degree in International Studies from the School of International Service.

    The disappearance of the middle class is the essential point in this discussion. Virtually all of our combat military are coming from the service class or those still fighting to stay middle class and are victims of the elite, no military experience class you are criticizing.

    I just watched a public TV show on a PTSD military victim and book author on his experience that I highly recommend:

    Shadow of the Sword is the story of Marine Jeremiah Workman’s combat experience, both as it happened in 2004 and how it lives within him today in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The 74:59 minute video made on 10-15-09 is from the Chicago Pritzker Military Library series. Workman is being medically retired in seven weeks and will continue to work with fellow PTSD veterans. You can browse for other presentations in the archive

    • cocktailhag says:

      It isn’t Gregory’s upbringing as much as his attitude. His indifference to his inferiors during the health care debate is especially egregious. He has the usual war=cheap, human needs=expensive thing going on.

      • rmp says:

        That’s because of Gregory’s thirst to be part of the upper crust which is what drives the other middle/service classers to cave in to integrity and true journalism which pays little in big dollars and much in personal satisfaction and service to others. The me instead of community attitude is killing our country including those who claim to be journalists and only serve the corporate elite.

    • rmp says:

      An article on economic crisis victims:

      US Workers Starved Into Servic

  4. nailheadtom says:

    many in the upper classes openly admired the “efficiency” of the the fascist governments, while the dislocated and desperate working classes saw communism as a viable, and certainly more humane, economic and social model.

    They’re the same model, statism. You’re a syndicalist, hated and dispensed with by either.


    what he didn’t face was a hostile, cloistered, and elitist media deeply invested in the status quo, so he had considerably more latitude for action than does the Obama Administration today.

    H.L. Mencken, one of the greatest newspaper men in U.S. history, while willing to give Roosevelt an opportunity to lead the country out of its economic woes, came to have a less favorable view of FDR:

    “. . . unquestionably he will be the chief instrument of the revolution. It has been in the making, in fact for many years–at least since the Jackson era. Even in those remote days judicious men saw what was coming. They realized the essential weakness of democracy, and predicted some of its worst excesses–now unhappy and inescapable realities. They warned that giving the vote to incompetent, despairing and envious people would breed demagogues to rouse and rally them, and that the whole democratic process would thus be converted into organized pillage and rapine.

    It has come to pass under Roosevelt, and no seems to be able to fetch up a plausible remedy.”

    Baltimore Sun, July 21,1940

    Westbrook Pegler, one of the country’s most popular columnists, detested FDR and said so almost every day.


    As the depression dragged on despite Roosevelt’s efforts, Republicans assumed the role they are taking today, decrying the deficits, calling the New Deal a failure,

    Which it was, failure that is. As the most astute economists predicted it would be.


    It’s telling that George Bush’s one great political defeat was his attempt to abolish Roosevelt’s greatest achievement, Social Security.

    Bush spastically tried to give the citizens some options outside the federal Ponzi scheme, hardly an attempt to “abolish” what would be criminal activity for any private organization.


    • cocktailhag says:

      What Bush did, as he did with the federal budget and the wars, which was steal all the money for his cronies. That he’s a spaz is secondary, and not particularly relevant. Pegler was practically a fascist, and Mencken was an irascible old racist, and both were deeply elitist. Of course they felt that way. Your point?
      This “The New Deal was a failure” thing is just the latest is a bunch of righty revisions created out of whole cloth for the use of the gullible. Your “astute economists” are completely invented, and an insult to my intelligence. Please don’t assume everyone is as susceptible to absurd propaganda as you are.

      • nailheadtom says:

        Pegler pointed out the dangers of facism/communism early on. You should take some history courses.

        • cocktailhag says:

          I have a degree in history, you idiot, and Pegler was hardly alone in pointing out the “dangers” of communism, but his politics, like yours, were more closely aligned with the fascists. That is, nationalism, militarism, xenophobia, indifference to human suffering, and an unholy alliance with the wealthy elite. Only you and Jonah Goldberg don’t get this, albeit deliberately and solely for propaganda purposes.

          • dirigo says:

            Hag, I know this is a large, gagging oxymoron, but Nail in the Head just seems to be a know-it-all know-nothing.

            He’s not paying the least attention to anyone here, not in any courteous way, as if you mattered; and he appears to have descended onto your site, as if alighting from a helicopter from heaven, just to straighten us all out.

            It doesn’t matter who we are, what we’ve done, or what we’re saying. He has labels to stick on our foreheads and boxes for us to get in.

            He’s not interested in your point of view. You don’t matter. He’s only interested in his lecture, his hectoring, his premises, his assumptions.

            Alas, it’s yet another failure to communicate.

            I plan to ignore him. Vigorously.

          • He’s just a Libertarian, caro, nothing special about him. As Libertarians are wont to do, he’s mistaken the Internet for a shouting hall, and sees the world, when he sees it at all, as something to poke sticks into, hoping he can get it to make a noise.

            You can’t argue with a Libertarian because Libertarians aren’t part of society; they’re simply incapable of perceiving it except as all narcissists perceive it, as an instrumentality to be bent to their own purposes, which are small-minded at best, and as often as not, utterly, irredeemably nasty. John Donne would have loved Nailhead Tom, if only as an object-lesson — the man who, miraculously, is an island, entire of himself.

        • dirigo says:

          To my mind, this is not at all about recrimination.

          It’s about moving on, while monitoring the reaction of the super patriots (the hectoring crowd) over a forty year span, and keeping the record straight.

          We have to, as Emeril might say, kick it up a notch and go to the next level, with or without them; which is why I’d like, without any fair thee well, to ram a true 21st century American health care bill through Congress.

          Emphasis on ram.

          A lot of these people are still grappling with the results of the election.

          The fact is: we won.

  5. cocktailhag says:

    I agree with both of you, WT and Dirigo, but on some level I do value seeing that mindset in action, and you have to admit, compared to a lot of righties, Nailhead’s practically a scholar. Through carefully edited reading, he’s reached that intellectual nirvana where he and his ilk have been right about everything, and we liberals have been wrong, since Adam and Eve. I bet his ConservaBible is already ordered at Amazon, and that will take care of the last pesky contradictions.
    I know how he feels. I grew up as a Republican, although not a “conservative” one in modern parlance, and only fled in embarrassment when Reagan brought in the bible-thumpers, and I began to realize that the guys who had been wrong about the revolution, the bill of rights, slavery, the New Deal, civil rights, etc., could be counted on to be wrong again.
    When confronted with this information, I changed my mind, and continue to do so all the time. Nailhead just digs in, come what may.
    Reading him reminds me that I made the right choice, even if I did have to say, to a lot of people, “Oops. I was wrong.”