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What Do the Democrats Need in 2020?

An October 2018 report, Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, indicated that poor national leadership and our political polarization were main concerns. Our recent midterm election offers little hope that the two problems will diminish. Thus, we ask ourselves, “What type of political leadership is now needed? Who might furnish it? Trump supporters might answer Trumpian and Trump. But most of us seek a better answer. 

In a recent New York Times op ed—“What Kind of Democrat Can Beat Trump in 2020?”— columnist Frank Bruni cited various opinion-givers and answers. Two of the former were past Obama chief strategist David Axelrod and onetime Nebraska Senator and Governor Bob Kerry. Both agreed, in Axelrod’s words, “that there’s a market out there for a more unifying figure.” 

Bruni’s own opinion is that “Trump’s eventual adversary . . . . must be tougher than usual without being callous, mingle the right measure of pugilism with optimism,” and be charismatic enough “to loosen Trump’s stranglehold on the media.” He or she must also be consistent, direct, blunt, original, stirring, visionary, “convey strength,” and “not sneer at Trump and condescend to his supporters.” 

All of what Bruni endorses makes sense. But the views of David Axelrod and Bob Kerry are especially pertinent. We need a unifier with a progressive unifying vision, and history supports that view. A strong partisan could possibly beat Trump in 2020 (provided he is still in office), but such a competitor could still leave our country deeply divided.

No, what we need is someone who recognizes that differing, even competing, viewpoints can be a plus when crafting legislation, someone who follows the example of our outstanding presidents. The three best according to a wide consensus of polls(see here and here) were, in chronological order, Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). All three stressed the importance of a unified nation.

In his farewell address to the nation (1796), Washington stated, “The unity of Government . . . is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty, which you so highly prize.” But he warned against enemies that would seek to deemphasize the “immense value” of such union; against “the baneful effects of the spirit of party”; and against “the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge.” Such a spirit, he stated, “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” 

Although Lincoln abhorred the evils of slavery, unity was so important to him that in the midst of the Civil War he wrote (August 1862), “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” In 1865, delivering his second inaugural address, he recalled that his first such address had been “devoted altogether to saving the Union without war,” but now “with malice toward none; with charity for all,” the war effort had to be completed and “the nation’s wounds” bound up. 

But among our three great presidents, it is FDR who provides the best example of what we need now. A thorough reading of Robert Dallek’s recent biography of FDR (reviewed here) makes this clear. Although the economic condition of the country in November 1932, when Roosevelt was first elected, and in November 2018 are far different, the disunity that runs rampant at both times is similar.

Regarding 1932, Dallek cites the perception of “a steadily degenerating confidence in the future which had reached the height of general alarm,” and writes of a “deep cultural divide between urban and rural Americans, or modernists and fundamentalists.” Moreover, “rural folks who aggressively supported ideas and traditions largely in harmony with their established way of life” felt threatened by the growing dominance of the big cities. Many of these same folks especially distrusted all the southern and eastern European immigrants who had come to the cities before the 1924 National Origins Act discriminated against them and Asians. “The belief that these groups could never be turned into citizens who fully accepted Anglo-Saxon economic and political traditions” was widespread.

Substitute evangelicals for fundamentalists and Hispanic immigrants for “southern and eastern European immigrants” and Dallek’s words about 1932 apply to today.

More importantly, however, FDR possessed ideas and qualities that potential presidential challengers to Trump need to embrace and refashion for the present. In a 1932 interview Roosevelt declared that what the country needed was “some one whose interests are not special but general, some one who can understand and treat the country as a whole. For . . . no interest, no class, no section, is either separate or supreme above the interests of all.” As Dallek writes, “If Roosevelt was to find the means to overcome the nation’s crisis [the depths of the Depression], it would have to rest on shared support from every region and every ethnic, religious, and racial group.” (Today’s equivalent would be a leader whose personality and vision for the future could appeal not only to many of the young and well-educated, to liberal believers and humanists, to big-city dwellers, and to women and minorities, but also to the old and less educated, religious traditionalists, rural and small town residents, and white men. And such a leader could do so without sacrificing progressive ideals.)

FDR thought of himself as a liberal and progressive, but in a non-ideological, pragmatic, creative, and imaginative sense, one open to compromise and experiment. In such a way, he dealt with the biggest problem of his day, the massive unemployment of the Great Depression. Dallek writes: “Because no one had surefire remedies for the Depression, he signed on to a program of experimentation or trial and error.” And in “Bipartisanship Made the New Deal Possible,” the Roosevelt Institute indicated his willingness to work with Republicans. 

In a review of liberalism and an essay on progressivism, I have made clear my preference for a vigorous but also tolerant, pragmatic, “big-tent” liberalism or progressivism. Such was also FDR’s preference, evidenced by his strong popularity among a large percentage of U.S. citizens. They overwhelmingly elected him president four times, and generally approved of his policies; in the spring of 1941, for example, he had a 76 percent approval rating. (Even a prominent group of present-day Republican and independent presidential scholars agree that FDR was one of our five greatest presidents.) 

Of course, FDR had his enemies such as many wealthy businessmen, conservative politicians, and the Hearst press, but he knew and understood the common people. Dallek thinks that FDR “was an instinctively brilliant politician,” who “principally relied on his feel for public mood to guide him in leading the country.” After polls came into fashion in mid-1930s he often consulted them, and his policies reflected the mood of the country. 

One of the great spokesmen for the masses, the Lincoln biographer and poet Carl Sandburg, whose epic poem The People, Yes appeared in 1936, strongly supported FDR. In a 1940 speech, he compared FDR to Lincoln for executing “the will of the people” and “carrying out the good sense of the nation.” Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written that “no one communicated with people and heard their voices more clearly than Franklin Roosevelt. He absorbed their stories, listened carefully, and for a generation held a nonstop conversation with the people.”

But FDR was more than a follower and interpreter of the people’s will. He was also their leader. In her most recent book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, Goodwin singles out FDR, along with Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, as exemplars of the “pinnacle of political leadership.” She states that his “confidence and infectious optimism restored the hope and earned the trust of the American people through both the Great Depression and World War II.” 

To take another example of his leadership, in his State of the Union Address in January 1944 he called for a “second Bill of Rights.” It would provide for rights to a job, adequate income, a home, and adequate medical care. Although he would die in office the following year, before this dream could be realized, his vision continued to inspire future progressive leaders. 

Now, after our midterm elections, former President Obama hopes“we’ll begin a return to the values we expect in our public life—honesty, decency, compromise, and standing up for one another as Americans, not separated by our differences, but bound together by one common creed.” To pursue such a course, we can see that in 2020 we want a Trump challenger who is a unifier like FDR, but also someone with his vigor and toughness—Dallek devotes many passages to FDR’s heroic battle against polio, which struck him in 1921and left him partially paralyzed the rest of his life. If Bruni is correct that we need a political leader who is optimistic, charismatic, media savvy, original, bold, blunt, and unsneering toward those who voted for Trump, what better exemplar of these qualities than FDR?

Listen to the stirring words of his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, 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 paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

At a time when one of four people was unemployed, more than 9,000 banks had gone out of business, and some $2.5 billion deposits had been lost, FDR went on to say that “the measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” He realized that recovery relied not on “changes in ethics alone,” but that “action, and action now” was needed. 

And act he did. During his first week he declared a week-long bank holiday and signed an Emergency Banking Act, which did much to restore confidence in the banks. Several days later, he skillfully used the first “of his 30 Fireside Chats” to tell in simple language more than 60 million radio listeners what had “been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.” In her leadership book, Goodwin recognizes that presidents were at their best when “guided by a sense of moral purpose,” and Roosevelt’s actions were often guided by such an aim. 

Thus, from the first year of his presidency, Roosevelt demonstrated boldness, vigor, and media savvy, as Bruni believes any successful Democratic challenger to Trump should possess. Of course, no such person can or should try to emulate all aspects of FDR’s presidency. He or she will be a unique personality, confronting new and unique challenges. But in his biography of FDR, Dallek says he wrote it “to remind people . . . what great presidential leadership looks like.” Like all of us, Roosevelt had his failings, as will anyone who emerges as Trump’s chief rival in 2020. But more than most of us, he or she will need Dallek’s reminder that FDR-type leadership can exist.