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Joe Biden delivering Labor Day speech

US President Joe Biden speaks at a Labor Day event with United Steelworkers of America Local Union 2227 in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania on September 5, 2022. Biden celebrated Labor Day by delivering remarks on the dignity of American workers in both Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

On Joe Biden, FDR, and the Promise of Labor Day

If there is any day on which it is important to remember the connection between defense of democracy and defense of the labor movement—and social and economic rights more generally—it's Labor Day.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Joe Biden’s election in 2020 was surrounded by an extraordinary outpouring of commentary about whether he could be this generation's FDR, and his "Build Back Better" agenda could be a transformational agenda equivalent to the New Deal.

This expectation, which many, myself included, considered mistaken, was soon proven wrong, as a combination of razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress, Biden's own timidity, and unyielding Republican obstruction led to the defeat of the most ambitious political proposals—the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Enhancement Act, and the labor-friendly PRO-Act—and the dramatic scaling back of the most ambitious "Build Back Better" social and economic policy ideas.

Biden is no FDR, and his administration will bring forth no New Deal, even if he has lately scored some legislative "victories."

But this does not make the parallels completely mistaken. And the most obvious parallel is simply that both Democratic presidents were elected amidst great crises in which the future of democracy itself was placed in question through a combination of global and domestic enemies.

This parallel has received renewed attention in connection with Biden's so-called "Soul of the Nation" speech last week, in which he stated very clearly that the Trumpist movement, and the forces of MAGA Republicanism, pose a fundamental threat to democracy. Presidential historian Michael Bechloss, a regular talking head on MSNBC, was most explicit about this parallel while speaking on "All In With Chris Hayes." He said: 

1940, when Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term. . .  Roosevelt didn’t say ‘the paramount issue this year is the minimum wage,’ although that was pretty important, or whether Texans get an oil depletion allowance or something like this . . . He said, "Look, these are all important, but what is really at stake at this moment is whether our children are going to get to live in an American democracy, especially with Hitler and the fascists looming in Europe and marching."

Bechloss was not wrong to emphasize the importance of FDR's rhetoric of democracy in the lead up to WWII, when FDR gave two of his most important speeches on the topic: his December 29, 1940 “Arsenal of Democracy” speech and his address on January 6, 1941 focused on the "Four Freedoms."

But Bechloss was wrong to locate FDR's anti-fascist rhetoric only in the lead-up to war.

For the theme of the threat to democracy shaped FDR's entire presidency, going back to his 1932 campaign. And perhaps the FDR speech that most resembles Biden's in its democratic anti-fascism was his famous renomination acceptance speech, also given in Independence Hall, on June 27, 1936. This speech, often referred to as the "Rendezvous with Destiny" speech, is probably the most radical speech in U.S. presidential history, and the reason is simple: because it is the presidential speech most centered on what can only be called class struggle.

Beginning with a reference to the "clouds of suspicion, tides of ill-will, and intolerance [that] gather darkly in many places," FDR immediately pivots to the need to address the challenges of freedom in the face of the current darkness, and "to give to 1936 what the founders gave to 1776"—a reinvigorated "American way of life." What follows is a powerful critique of the "economic royalists" whose predation of ordinary working Americans—subjected to what FDR calls "economic slavery"– parallels the "despotism" of King George III, and an equally powerful defense of a social democratic agenda premised on the idea that "freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place."

When FDR gave that speech, he had already secured passage of the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, and he faced relentless attacks from the right that he was a "Socialist" or even "Communist." He well understood that fascism was ascendant in Europe and that fascist groups in the U.S. were actively opposing both his administration and democracy itself (it is worth noting that while Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald K. Smith, and a range of other fascist sympathizers had strong followings during this period, the Republican Party itself was not then fascist or "semi-fascist" in the manner of today's MAGA Republicans).

And FDR also understood that the fight for democracy must also be a fight for social justice. This was his central theme as he won landslide re-election in 1936, and it was his central theme in his 1941 "Four Freedoms" speech as well.

If there is any day on which it is important to remember this connection between the defense of democracy and the defense of the labor movement and social and economic rights more generally, it's Labor Day.

FDR understood this connection, and so too does Joe Biden, who made clear in his speech last week that democracy is both valuable in itself, and also an indispensable means for promoting public policies that improve the lives of ordinary working Americans.

Biden understands now—as FDR understood in 1940—that imminent threats to democracy require a broad-based coalition politics, a kind of "democratic united front" that gives pride of place to the defense of democratic procedures and the rule of law and places a temporary hold on more ambitious social and economic reforms. But he also understands that "delivering" for the citizenry is an essential dimension of democratic self-defense, and that the promise of a more just, social democracy should always be kept alive.

He understands what FDR understood back in 1936: "Here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world."

We are still fighting this fight. And Labor Day this year was a good day to remember that what hangs in the balance is not only precious political principles and formal arrangements, but the promise of a better life, and a better future, for the ordinary working Americans who comprise the vast majority of the society that democracy is supposed to serve.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey Issac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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