What FDR Understood About Socialism That Today’s Democrats Don’t

President Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at Franklin Field on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in characteristic style: beaming, from the back seat of an open car. He had earned this smile. It was June 27, 1936, and he had just been re-nominated by acclamation in the smoke-filled Philadelphia Convention Center a few blocks away. It was, arguably, the high-water-mark of his career. Thanks to the monumental initiatives of Roosevelt’s first term, it was also a moment of transcendent significance in the nation’s history, though none of the 100,000 people sweating in the yellow-brick football stadium realized it.

This was the pinnacle of American socialism, by that or any other name.

In the four years just past, Roosevelt had transformed the purpose of the United States government, making it a constant companion in the lives of Americans. The Social Security Act of the previous year was merely the crowning achievement. Roosevelt’s initiatives, meant to curb the misery brought on by the Great Depression ,directly funded millions of government jobs, employing everyone from photographers to brush-clearing conservation workers. To pay for this, he raised the income tax—which hadn’t even existed two decades earlier—to 75 percent on the highest incomes. The rich were subsidizing the poor, and that was A-OK with FDR.

The giant crowd bristled with excitement to hear their hero defend these policies. What followed was his so-called “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech, which historians rank among the greatest of his career, a tall order from the man whose oratorical roster included “nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “a day that will live in infamy.” But while those speeches perfectly captured individual moments, Roosevelt’s “Rendezvous with Destiny” speech came far closer to revealing his inner theories and motivations: Never before or after would he lay out his vision in greater clarity.

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