A milkman working his route during the London blitz 1940
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
April 12, 2022
On April 12, 1945, a visibly exhausted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt jerked in his chair while having his portrait painted in Warm Springs, Georgia. FDR put his hand up, said “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head,” and lost consciousness. He died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage within hours.
When FDR entered the White House in 1933, he undertook to rebuild the nation after Republicans had run it into the ground.
Believing that businessmen were the engine that drove the economy and that any government regulations or taxes that hampered them would hurt growth, Republicans under presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover had slashed taxes and regulations. The superheated economy boomed, but real wages stagnated, and the profits from dramatically improved production all went to the top 1% of the economy.
When spokespeople tried to point out that the new economy shut farmers, immigrants, and minorities out, Republicans accused those groups of falling behind because they were lazy. But then, in October 1929, the stock market crashed and the Roaring Twenties stopped dead. People lost their jobs, their homes, and their hope.
In the presidential election of 1932, desperate voters threw the Republicans out of office and put in Democrats, led by former New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR recognized that the economic crisis created by unfettered capitalism threatened to end democracy forever as starving Americans turned either to communism or to fascism, as Europeans were doing.
FDR understood that to preserve democracy and the economic system on which it rested, the government must regulate business, protect workers, and provide a basic social safety net. His “New Deal for the American people” did exactly that, and it helped Americans weather the Depression until the extraordinary deficit spending of WWII ended it altogether.
Ordinary Americans celebrated a government that worked for everyone, rather than just the rich. And on April 13, they mourned the man who had piloted the country through that transition.
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
April 6, 2022
Today, all but two of the Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against a resolution finding Trump aides Dan Scavino and Peter Navarro in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas from the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Among the early “no” votes was Representative Greg Pence (R-IN), whose brother, Vice President Mike Pence, was in danger from the mob on January 6 after then-president Trump blamed him for his refusal to overturn the election. The two who voted in favor were committee vice chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) and committee member Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
The Republicans explicitly backed former president Trump and insisted that the investigation of the January 6 insurrection was simply a way to try to keep Trump off the ballot in 2024 and to distract from scandals potentially involving President Joe Biden’s son Hunter (who holds no government office).
The Democrats, in turn, warned that Trump’s attack on our democracy must not go unchallenged. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) called the Republicans a party “drenched in Putin propaganda” and noted that it had turned even on Cheney, who used to rank third in the leadership of House Republicans, “[b]ecause if you don’t go along with Donald Trump…a cult…they will attack you.”
An important current feeding the Republicans’ embrace of Trump is that the Republican leadership is wedded to an ideology that sees the most important American principle as a specific form of individual economic “freedom,” not democracy.
After World War II, Americans of both parties began to defend the concept of democracy, in which every person was equal before the law. That meant civil rights for Black and Brown Americans, as well as for women. But it also meant that the government tried to keep the economic playing field level enough that everyone had an equal shot at rising to prosperity.
Beginning with the New Deal in the 1930s and reaching into the 1970s, the government regulated business and protected workers and consumers. Those opposed to such a government insisted that such protections hurt their freedom to arrange their businesses as they saw fit. Second to their hatred of regulations was their dislike of the taxes that funded the government bureaucrats who inspected their factories, as well as underpinning social welfare programs. But it was the promise to cut taxes for working Americans that enabled them to take the White House in 1980.
The idea that America meant freedom for individuals to act as they wished took over the Republican Party after the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Beginning in 1981, the party focused on tax cuts to put more money in the hands of the wealthy, who would, they insisted, use it to expand the economy. Using the government to defend the “demand side,” by protecting equality, would destroy the ability of business leaders to arrange the economy in the most productive way possible. It was, Republicans said, “socialism.” And so, Republicans focused on cutting regulations and slashing taxes.
Rather than revise their ideology when their “supply side” economics concentrated wealth upward rather than promoting widespread prosperity, the Republicans doubled down on it, promoting deregulation and tax cuts above all else. They have now, in the second generation since Reagan, become convinced that their version of “freedom” is the fundamental principle on which the United States stands and that any challenge to it will destroy the country.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in late February, the attendees had little to say about authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of democratic Ukraine, which had happened days before. But they had plenty to say about Democrats.
On February 26, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) gave a speech in which he said “We survived the war of 1812, Civil War, World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War,” but “[t]oday, we face the greatest danger we have ever faced: The militant left-wing in our country has become the enemy within.” He claimed: “The woke Left now controls the Democrat Party. The entire federal government, the news media, academia, big tech, Hollywood, most corporate boardrooms, and now even some of our top military leaders… They want to end the American experiment. They want to replace freedom with control.”
This is completely wrong historically, of course. But the rising extremism of the Republican leadership suggests that it is concerned that American voters, including Republican voters, are turning against the ideology of “freedom” that focuses on concentrating wealth on the supply side of the economic equation and would like to see the government try to restore some semblance of equality. This would mean higher taxes on the wealthy.
A YouGov poll released April 1 shows that 60% of Americans think that billionaires don’t pay the full amount of taxes they owe. Among poorer voters, only 16% thought billionaires were playing fair, while a whopping 63% thought they were not, and 20% were not sure. Two thirds of Americans think that households should pay at least 20% of their income over $100 million in taxes. In not a single demographic category did that number fall under 50%, and the only category for which it was 50% was Republicans.
More broadly, Americans have called for higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations now for years. In 2018, two thirds of Americans said they were dissatisfied with “the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S.”; in 2017, 78% said that what bothers them about the U.S. tax system is that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share, and 80% said what bothers them is that corporations don’t pay their fair share.
Biden’s proposed $5.8-trillion 2023 budget, released at the end of March, proposes tax increases on the wealthy and on corporations. It would end Trump’s 2017 tax cut for the wealthy early. That cut sliced the top marginal income tax rate from 39.6 to 37% until December 31, 2025. It would also tax the interest on stocks and bonds, which currently is not taxed until those assets are sold, which means that their owners can accumulate large sums of money without ever being taxed on it, while wage workers pay full freight on their income. Biden wants to make American households worth more than $100 million pay a tax rate of at least 20% on their real income as well as on the gains on their unsold stocks and bonds.
The administration also wants to get rid of the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Biden’s proposal would raise the corporate tax rate from the Trump low of 21% up to 28%.
The White House says these taxes would raise $1.5 trillion over the next decade, and it wants to use that money to fund public housing, science, police departments, climate change adjustments, education, pandemic preparedness, and, in this precarious time for democracy, increases to the military. While Trump’s tax cuts drove the national debt up to an astounding $23.2 trillion by the end of 2019 (up from $19.9 trillion when he took office), Biden promises to use money from his proposed tax increases to pay down the deficit.
Biden’s plans signal an end to the era of “freedom” in American politics and a return to a focus on equality and democracy. In this, they, hark back to the principles of the original Republican Party. During the Civil War, when faced with a mounting debt in their fight to protect the government, the Republicans invented the U.S. income tax in order, as Senate Finance Committee chair William Pitt Fessenden (R-ME) said, to make sure that tax burdens would “be more equalized on all classes of the community, more especially on those who are able to bear them.” Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA) agreed, saying: “It would be manifestly unjust to allow the large money operators and wealthy merchants, whose incomes might reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, to escape from their due proportion of the burden.”
Meanwhile, Senator Rick Scott’s “11-Point Plan to Rescue America” promises to put income taxes on the 50% of Americans who currently don’t make enough to be taxed. It’s part of his plan to “grow America’s economy, starve Washington’s economy, and stop Socialism.”
It’s no wonder the Republicans are trying to keep the national focus on Trump and the culture wars.
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
March 12, 2022
In our history, the United States has gone through turning points when we have had to adjust our democratic principles to new circumstances. The alternative is to lose those principles to a small group of people who insist that democracy is outdated and must be replaced by a government run by a few leaders or, now, by a single man.
The Declaration of Independence asserted as “self-evident” that all people are created equal and that God and the laws of nature have given them certain fundamental rights. Those include—but are not limited to—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The role of government was to make sure people enjoyed these rights, and thus governments are legitimate only if those they rule consent to that government.
The Founders’ concept that all men were created equal and had a right to consent to the government under which they lived, the heart of the Declaration of Independence, was revolutionary. For all that it excluded Indigenous Americans, Black colonists, and all women, the very idea that men were not born into a certain place in a hierarchy and could create a government that reflected such an idea upended traditional western beliefs.
From the beginning, though, there were plenty of Americans who doubled down on the idea of human hierarchies in which a few superior men should rule the rest. They argued that the Constitution was designed to protect property alone and that as a few men accumulated wealth, they should run things. Permitting those without property to have a say in their government would mean they could demand that the government provide things that might infringe on the rights of property-owners.
These undercurrents have always tossed our republic, but four times in our history, new pressures have brought these two ideas into open conflict. In the 1850s, 1890s, and 1930s and in the present, we have had to fit our democracy to new circumstances.
In the 1850s, the pressures of western expansion forced Americans to figure out what, exactly, they wanted the nation to stand for. Northern states, whose mixed economy needed educated workers, and thus widely shared economic and political power, opposed the hierarchical system of human enslavement. Southern states, whose economy rested on the production of raw materials by enslaved workers, opposed equality. Aside from occasional flare-ups, the two systems had muddled along together for sixty years, despite the reality that the enslavers were shrinking farther and farther into the minority as population in the North boomed.
The U.S. acquisition of western land with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo opened the opportunity for enslavers to address their weakening position by dominating the national government. If they could spread enslavement into the new territories, they could overawe the North in Congress and pass laws to make their system national. As South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond put it: “I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson that ‘all men are born equal.”’
When Congress, under extraordinary pressure from the pro-southern administration, passed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, overturning the Missouri Compromise and letting slavery spread into the West, northerners of all parties woke up to the looming loss of their democratic government. A railroad lawyer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, remembered how northerners were “thunderstruck and stunned; and we reeled and fell in utter confusion. But we rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach—a scythe—a pitchfork—a chopping axe, or a butcher’s cleaver” to push back against the slaveowning oligarchy. And while they came from different parties, he said, they were “still Americans; no less devoted to the continued Union and prosperity of the country than heretofore.”
Slavery apologists urged white voters not to worry about Black Americans held in slavery, but Lincoln urged Americans to come together to protect the Declaration of Independence. “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop?… If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out!”
When voters agreed with Lincoln and elected him to the presidency in 1860, southerners tried to create their own nation based on human inequality. As Georgia Senator Alexander Stephens, soon to be the vice president of the Confederacy, explained in March 1861: “Our new government is founded…upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
In office, Lincoln reached back to the Declaration—written “four score and seven years ago”— and charged Americans to “resolve that…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The victory of the United States government in the Civil War ended the power of enslavers in the government, but new crises in the future would revive the conflict between the idea of equality and a nation of hierarchies.
In the 1890s, the rise of industrialism led to the concentration of wealth at the top of the economy. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie celebrated the “contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer,” for although industrialization created “castes,” it created “wonderful material development,” and “while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.” Those at the top were there because of their “special ability,” and anyone seeking a fairer distribution of wealth was a “Socialist or Anarchist…attacking the foundation upon which civilization rests.” Instead, he said, society worked best when a few wealthy men ran the world, for “wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if it had been distributed in small sums to the people themselves.”
Once again, people of all political parties came together to reclaim American democracy. Although Democrat Grover Cleveland was the first to complain that “corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters,” it was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who is now popularly associated with the development of a government that regulated the excesses of big business. He complained about that “small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” and ushered in the Progressive Era with government regulation of business to protect the ability of individuals to participate in American society as equals.
The rise of a global economy in the twentieth century repeated the pattern. After socialists took control of Russia in 1917, American men of property insisted that any restrictions on their control of resources or the government were a form of “Bolshevism,” but in the 1930s a worldwide depression brought voters of all parties behind President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used the government to provide a “New Deal for the American people.” His government regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and promoted infrastructure. Then, after Black and Brown veterans coming home from World War II demanded equality, that New Deal government, under Democratic president Harry Truman and Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, worked to end racial and, later, gender hierarchies in American society.
Now, once again, we are at an inflection point. The rise of global oligarchs and the internet, which enables those oligarchs to spread disinformation, has made significant numbers of American voters once again slide away from democracy to embrace the idea that the country would work better with a few leaders making the rules for the rest of us. In nineteen states, Republican-dominated legislatures have passed laws that restrict the vote and entrench minority rule, even up to allowing state legislatures to overturn election results. If that is permitted to stand, that minority can choose our president, and it is increasingly backing one single man, one individual, to rule over the rest of us.
If history is any guide, we are at the point when voters of all parties must push back, to say that we do, in fact, believe in the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, and that our government is legitimate only if we have a say in it.
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
March 10, 2022
On June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day operation in which the Allied forces in World War II invaded German-occupied western Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his 29th Fireside Chat.
Roosevelt told the American people that Rome had fallen to American and Allied troops the previous day. He used the talk not only to announce this important milestone in the deadly war, but also to remind Americans they were engaged in a war between democracy and fascism. And while fascists insisted their ideology made countries more efficient and able to serve their people, the Allies’ victory in Rome illustrated that the ideology of fascism, which maintained that a few men should rule over the majority of the population, was hollow.
Rome was the seat of fascism, FDR told his listeners, and under that government, “the Italian people were enslaved.” He explained: “In Italy the people had lived so long under the corrupt rule of Mussolini that, in spite of the tinsel at the top—you have seen the pictures of him—their economic condition had grown steadily worse. Our troops have found starvation, malnutrition, disease, a deteriorating education and lowered public health—all by-products of the Fascist misrule.”
FDR continued: “We and the British will do and are doing everything we can to bring them relief. Anticipating the fall of Rome, we made preparations to ship food supplies to the city…we have already begun to save the lives of the men, women and children of Rome…. This, I think, is an example of the magnificent ability and energy of the American people in growing the crops, building the merchant ships, in making and collecting the cargoes, in getting the supplies over thousands of miles of water, and thinking ahead to meet emergencies—all this spells, I think, an amazing efficiency on the part of our armed forces, all the various agencies working with them, and American industry and labor as a whole.”
“No great effort like this can be a hundred percent perfect,” he said, “but the batting average is very, very high.”
That speech highlighting logistics as a key difference between democracy and fascism comes to mind these days as we watch democracy and authoritarianism clash in Ukraine.
A report last month by Washington, D.C., nonprofit Freedom House, which studies democracy, political freedom, and human rights, painted a bleak picture. “Global freedom faces a dire threat,” authors Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz wrote. “Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy—a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law—are accelerating their attacks.”
In 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that the ideology of liberalism on which democracy is based has “outlived its purpose.” Multiculturalism, freedom, and human rights must give way to “the culture, traditions, and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has been open about his determination to replace western-style democracy with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy,” ending the immigration that he believes undermines Hungarian culture and rejecting “adaptable family models” with “the Christian family model.”
According to President Joe Biden, Chinese president Xi Jinping believes that autocracies are “the wave of the future—democracy can’t function in an ever complex world.”
Freedom House documents that for sixteen years, global freedom has declined. Authoritarians are undermining basic liberties, abusing power, and violating human rights, and their growing global influence is shifting global incentives toward autocratic governments and away from democracy, “jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security, while encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance.” Over the past year, 60 countries became less free, while only 25 improved.
“They’re going to write about this point in history,” Biden told a group of news anchors in April 2021, shortly after he took office. “Not about any of us in here, but about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century…. Things are changing so rapidly in the world, in science and technology and a whole range of other issues, that—the question is: In a democracy that’s such a genius as ours, can you get consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?”
The last few weeks have demonstrated the same advantage of democracy over authoritarianism that FDR saw in the fall of Rome. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supposed to demonstrate the efficient juggernaut of authoritarianism. But Putin’s lightning attack on a neighboring state did not go as planned. Ukrainians have insisted on their right to self-determination, demonstrating the power of democracy with their lives.
At the same time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the weakness of modern authoritarianism. Putin expected to overrun a democratic neighbor quickly, but his failure to do so has revealed that his army’s perceived power was FDR’s “tinsel at the top”: lots of bells and whistles but outdated food, a lack of support vehicles, conscripted and confused soldiers, and compromised communications. The corruption inherent in a one-party state of loyalists, unafflicted by oversight, has hollowed out the Russian military, making it unable to feed or supply its troops.
That authoritarian government, it turns out, depended on democracies. As businesses pull out of Russia, the economy has collapsed. The ruble is worth less than a penny, and the Russian stock market remains closed. Today, the Russian economic ministry announced it would take the property of businesses leaving the country. Notably, it claimed the right to take about $10 billion of jets that had been leased to Russian airlines, quite possibly a way to get spare parts for the airplanes the huge country needs and can no longer get.
Putin is trying to prop up his power by insisting his people believe lies: on Friday, he signed a law making it a crime for media to produce any coverage the government says is “false information” about the invasion. He is now pushing the false claim that the U.S. is developing biological weapons in Ukraine, and has requested a meeting of the U.N. Security Council tomorrow to discuss this issue. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called the story “classic Russian propaganda.”
In contrast, democracies and allies, marshaled into a unified force in large part by Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the U.S. State Department, have done the boring, complicated, hard work of logistics, diplomacy, and intelligence, a combination that has crushed the Russian economy and is enabling the Ukrainian army to hold off an army 8 times its size. While there is a horrific humanitarian crisis inside Ukraine, those over the borders have managed the extraordinary logistics of processing and moving 2 million refugees from Ukraine in two weeks.
In 1944, FDR pointed out that democratic government was messy but it freed its people to work and think and fight in ways that authoritarian governments could not. In Fireside Chat 29, he warned his listeners not to read too much into the fall of Rome, because fascism had “not yet been driven to the point where [it] will be unable to recommence world conquest a generation hence…. Therefore, the victory still lies some distance ahead.” But, he added, “That distance will be covered in due time—have no fear of that.”