Will America see a major renewal of the middle class? We know it can be done

Don't despair! We may be at a crucial hinge of history, like the one FDR faced in 1933. A new era is waiting

Published September 9, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

It's easy to get lost in despair and outrage over the state of affairs in America. Women and queer people are being forced back into the kitchen and closet, climate change is killing scores of Americans every week, our schools and public areas are under constant assault by armed Republican gangs and GOP-sanctioned mass shooters. Over the past decade more than a million American lives have been lost to "deaths of despair" as a result of our 40-year experiment with Reagan's neoliberalism.

And it's not just domestic bad news coming out of the GOP's open opposition to democracy. After Trump betrayed Ukraine, Russia attacked them; China is openly threatening a similar sort of war against Taiwan. There's lots to be concerned about.

Nonetheless, I'm hopeful right now. I believe we're on the cusp of a new "great turning" of American history, a replay of the crisis into which President Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped four generations ago, while revisiting many of the same solutions.  And, ironically, it's all coming about for for many of the same reasons.

In 1933, the United States was in the worst moments of its second greatest crisis of all time, eclipsed, in danger to the nation, only by the Civil War which had ended four generations previously:

  • Climate change caused by human activity — particularly deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices — was driving farmers off their land while throwing up hundred-mile-long dust clouds from the Midwest to New York City. (My old friend Dennis Weaver wrote heartbreakingly in his autobiography "All the World's a Stage" [I wrote the foreword] about his family's escape in their broken-down 1930s car from Oklahoma's Dust Bowl to Oregon so they could pick strawberries, he as a migrant farm-worker child.) 
  • Food prices were skyrocketing relative to income; homelessness was epidemic; entire regions of the nation were being depopulated as crime, fear and despair stalked our nation.
  • The three previous Republican presidents had cut taxes on the morbidly rich from 91 percent down to 25 percent and deregulated Wall Street, throwing the nation into a depression so severe that fully a third of the country was unemployed and people were literally starving. The stock market had crashed to lows with a speed not seen in living memory; every bank in America had collapsed, the final few hundred just in the week before the new president was sworn in.
  • The nation was still reeling from a world war and a flu pandemic that had killed millions. Parents despaired that their children would never reach the standard of living they'd enjoyed; well over half the country was living in poverty.
  • The morbidly rich had literally never done so well; the preceding decade was called the "Roaring 20s" because wealthy people were lighting their cigars with $1,000 bills, while speculators and industrialists were in a wild competition over who could throw the most gaudy, expensive and wasteful parties.
  • Meanwhile, when working people tried to organize unions, local police, right-wing "militia" gangs and private security people would attack with dogs, chains and live ammunition. Because there were no laws protecting the right to unionize, working people across the nation were routinely murdered for the crime of demanding a living wage.
  • Minorities — from racial minorities to gays to Jews — fared even worse than working white people. Lynching had made a comeback, the Klan and hundreds of "white citizen" organizations and "citizens' militias" were on the rise, and few prosecutors in the nation would try to hold anybody to account. Local and state ordinances only protected wealthy white men, and as there were no federal laws against murder or depriving people of their civil rights, even federal courts turned a blind eye to the spreading violence.
  • Fascists were rallying in American cities and rural areas, wearing swastika armbands and sporting Confederate flags, preaching a new form of government that had already taken over Italy and was on the verge of seizing complete control of Germany and Spain. So many Republican politicians had taken to the floor of the U.S. House and Senate to praise Adolf Hitler and his new German fascism that the nation's bestselling author, Rex Stout, compiled their speeches into a book titled "The Illustrious Dunderheads." (My father gave me a first edition copy for my birthday five decades ago.)
  • Across the Atlantic and Pacific the world was rattled by talk of war. Japan was undergoing a massive rearmament and talking loudly about war with China; Mussolini and Hitler were publicly imagining a world without democracies where, in an echo of Tacitus, unitary fascist world leadership would bring about "a thousand years of peace."

Into this maelstrom a new president stepped up to the microphone on the balcony of the Capitol and spoke:

"This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth," he told the nation, "the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself: nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

This was no happy-talk speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt at his inauguration. In the next sentence he acknowledged the multiple crises facing America:

[Stock] Values have shrunk to fantastic levels: taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.

More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return.

Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

And yet in that moment FDR galvanized the nation. 

On March 19, 1933, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anne McCormick wrote a full-page article for the New York Times Magazine titled: "The Nation Renews Its Faith: Out of the Swift Succession of Events That Has Marked Two Weeks of the New Deal, This Fact Stands Out: That the Confidence of the People in Government Has Been Re-established."

"One reason for the present meekness of both Houses," McCormick wrote, "is that every member is practically buried under avalanches of telegrams and letters from constituents. These messages come to Democrats and Republicans alike. Sometimes profane, always imperative, they are mostly variations of a single order: Support the President: give him anything he wants."

The people had seen the disastrous consequences of Republican rule, and rose, united, to reject it and support the new Democratic president. 

The result was the creation of the first more-than-50-percent-of-the-people middle class in world history and a major leap forward for American — and worldwide — democracy.

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If my analysis of today's conditions is correct, we're at a similar hinge-point of history:

Like in 1933, the morbidly rich are riding high.

Almost exactly like 1933, in fact: This is only the second time in American history when three men have owned more wealth than the bottom half of the nation, when giant corporations fought unionization tooth and nail, and about half of all new income created every year goes straight to the top 1%, and is typically taxed at less than 3%.

Like in 1933, Republicans crashed the economy and presented a united front to sabotage Democratic efforts to rebuild it.

In 1933, three men owned more wealth than the entire bottom half of the nation, and half of all new income went to the top 1%. That's true again in 2022, for only the second time in American history.

Republicans have fully revealed their true economic agenda, and twice in the past two decades we've watched them give multi-trillion-dollar tax-cut and deregulation gifts from the public purse to their billionaire owners while driving our economy straight into the ditch. The Bush Crash of 2008 and the Trump Crash of 2020 are analogous to the Republican Great Depression of 1929.

Like in 1933, women are at the forefront of progressive change.

While women got the vote in 1920, they first participated in a measurably big way in the election of 1932 that kicked the GOP out of federal office and set the stage for the New Deal. Women then were outraged that Republicans had thrown their families into poverty, hunger and homelessness. Women today are outraged that Republicans want to seize control of their bodies and their lives.

Like in 1933, climate change is changing the face of America and influencing our politics.

Deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices during the decades of the Industrial Revolution led to the Dust Bowl, which wiped out family farms and produced dust storms that shut down or nearly shut down entire cities (including New York). Americans demanded action, and FDR delivered with the Civilian Conservation Corps, putting Americans to work planting millions of trees across the country and ending the Dust Bowl.

Today, 50 years of lies from the criminal fossil fuel industry and the billionaires it created have stalled initiatives that could have prevented or softened the impact of global warming. 

The result is drought, floods and forest fires like never before seen in the memory of modern humans. Americans want action and the GOP continues to claim there's no such thing as global warming or, if there is, we shouldn't do anything to stop it.

Even as the fossil fuel industry continues to fund lies about climate change, fully 66 to 80 percent of Americans now want "major climate mitigation strategies." And Democrats — without a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate — just delivered the largest climate bill in the history of America.

Like in 1933, working people are rising up against employers who deny them the right to unionize.

Firing, beating and even killing strikers and union organizers was widespread during the Republican Roaring '20s; today most of the anti-union activities are done by giant law firms with the blessing of dozens of 5-4 anti-union Supreme Court decisions between 1970 and today, nearly every one objected to by Democratic nominees to the court.

While workers aren't being killed in the streets like in the '20s, giant profitable corporate employers shutting down stores and firing union organizers while giving their CEOs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation are driving a similar working-class rage across the country. Gallup notes: "The National Labor Relations Board reported a 57% increase in union election petitions filed during the first six months of fiscal year 2021."

Labor unions today are enjoying a resurgence in popularity not seen since the 1950s. Gallup reports that 71 percent of Americans approve of unions, and 40 percent of unionized workers describe their unions as "very important" to them. 

Like in 1933, religious hustlers and televangelists are preying on low-income Americans while making themselves rich and grasping for political power.

Giant profitable corporations shutting down stores while giving their CEOs millions in compensation are driving working-class rage across the country — and a resurgence of labor unions.

Radio came into its own in a big way in the 1920s, and by 1933 was dominated by hard-right religious figures supporting Republican politicians. Billy Sunday, Sister Aimee McPherson, and Father Charles Coughlin (who briefly supported and then turned on FDR) dominated the American airwaves, preaching fascism, racism and worker exploitation to every part of America, just like right-wing hate radio hosts and televangelists do today on over 1,500 radio stations from coast to coast.

In 1925, right-wingers successfully prosecuted Tennessee high school biology teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. Today, right-wingers — again citing "values" and religion — are threatening to prosecute high school teachers for informing schoolchildren about America's true racial history, climate change and the simple reality that some people are gay or trans and have been throughout human history.

Like in 1933, right-wing rhetoric is driving an explosion of attacks on people of color.

That year, which saw the inauguration of FDR and the beginning of the end of the Republican dominance of American politics (for the next two generations), also saw a 350 percent increase in lynching in America over just the previous year. Roosevelt took the victims' side, calling for civil rights legislation. As notes:

The Great Depression impacted African Americans for decades to come. It spurred the rise of African-American activism, which laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The popularity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal program also saw African Americans switch their political allegiances to become a core part of the Democratic Party's voting bloc.

Today we're seeing a newly revived and broadened civil rights movement, as killer cops, discriminatory employers and brutal, racist white supremacist gangs are being held to account in ways unimaginable just 20 years ago. While Republicans and right-wing media continue to demonize minorities and call for everything from giant walls to Muslim bans, groups representing race, religion and gender identity interests are collaborating under the banner of the Democratic Party.

Like in 1933, a Democratic president is calling out fat cats and fascists in the GOP while uniting Americans in a great project to rebuild our nation.

FDR railed against the men he called the "economic royalists," saying:

For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. … There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. …

It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. 

And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the minuteman.

President Biden is calling out the same people, those who use their great wealth to oppress workers while promoting what Biden calls "semi-fascism":

Too much of what's happening in our country today is not normal.

Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic. …

And here, in my view, is what is true: MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.

They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they're working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.

MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.

They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.

Between the obscene excesses of the GOP — from gifting billionaires with trillions of tax dollars to using hate as a political weapon to fighting forward progress on climate, voting rights and rebuilding the middle class — and the united front Democrats are now offering, change is in the air.

Inflation is down, gas prices are normalizing and even former Republicans are disgusted by Trump's treasonous behavior and his followers' support and rationalization of it. 

Women and young people, in particular, are registering to vote in record numbers and on my talk radio show I'm sensing electricity in the air.

Between the obscene excesses of the GOP and the united front Democrats are now offering, change is in the air.

We just saw four special elections for seats in the House of Representatives, and in every one Democratic candidates outperformed Biden's 2020 vote in those same districts. A ballot initiative in Kansas to outlaw abortion was soundly defeated in that red state, as Democratic candidates are integrating criticism of Republican support for the Dobbs decision into their campaigns.

Republicans are running scared, frantically scrubbing their websites of any mention of their extremist anti-abortion positions and deleting references to their climate denial and embrace of billionaires.

While we can never discount the impact of billions of right-wing dollars authorized by the Supreme Court's corrupt Citizens United decision, or the ability of Republican-controlled swing states to suppress or even refuse to count or acknowledge the vote, this all still points to a positive, 1933-like political trend this fall.

And if Democrats can pull it off again, four or five generations after FDR did, it may well signal a second repudiation of Republican trickle-down style economics and a second major renewal of the American middle class. 

This election may well be the turning point when Reaganomics and neoliberalism are finally rejected and America gets back on track to work for its people rather than just its billionaires.

By Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of "The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America" and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

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