Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, not only takes on corporate power and greed in America. By featuring rarely seen footage of FDR calling for a “Second Bill of Rights” in January 1944 and of the Flint, Michigan, sit-down strikers fighting for their rights in 1937, the film also challenges our political passivity with the democratic ideals and struggles that made the men and women of the 1930s and 1940s the most progressive generation in American history. Conservatives and libertarians have rightly tried to portray Roosevelt and his New Dealers as revolutionaries. In the best American sense of the term, they were.
“I do not look upon these United States as a finished product. We are still in the making,” Roosevelt would say.
Running for president in the midst of the Great Depression, FDR made very clear his determination to renew the radical-democratic vision of Thomas Jefferson and the Founders. Recognizing Americans’ pronounced need for “work and security,” citing the imperative of a “more equitable distribution of the national income,” and insisting that “economic laws are not made by nature [but] by human beings,” Roosevelt promised initiatives that would oversee financial transactions, develop public-works projects, rehabilitate the nation’s lands and forests, ease the burdens of debt-ridden farmers and homeowners, and establish a system of “old age insurance.” Decrying how economic and industrial developments—aided by government largesse to railroads and other corporations—had led to both the “concentration of business” in the hands of a class of “financial titans” and the decline of economic opportunity and freedom for the majority of citizens, he proposed the enactment of an “economic declaration of rights” to renew the nation’s original “social contract” as articulated in the 1776 Declaration’s guarantee of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“I do not look upon these United States as a finished product. We are still in the making,” Roosevelt would say. Or as Solicitor General Robert H. Jackson told the National Lawyers Guild in 1938: “We too are founders… We too are makers of a nation… We too are called upon to write, to defend and to make live, new bills of right.”
FDR and the New Dealers saw as well that radical change required radical action not only by the administration, but also from the bottom up, for the president would need the backing—the propulsion—of organized working people. Responding to labor’s needs and demands, the administration in 1935 created the Works Progress Administration and secured passage of both the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act (aka the “Wagner Act”). Aided by the new National Labor Relations Board, union-organizing drives took off anew and battles like those at Flint ensued, for industrial democracy like any other progressive advance had to be won—or as FDR himself said: “New laws, in themselves, do not bring a millennium.”
Knowing full well what his fellow citizens aspired to achieve, FDR sustained the prospect of a social-democratic United States. In January 1941 he proclaimed the Four Freedoms—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear—and charged a generation with renewed purpose and promise. And three years later—with polls showing that both Democrats and Republicans wanted to expand Social Security to cover old-age pensions for all, job insurance, student aid, and public works—he elaborated upon freedom from want and fear in his annual message to Congress by advancing the idea of an Economic or Second Bill of Rights to “assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.” These rights included: “The right to a useful and remunerative job… The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation… The right of every family to a decent home… The right to adequate medical care… The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment… The right to a good education.”
Roosevelt’s call for enhancing American freedom and equality antagonized the usual powerful and propertied suspects. But it garnered the enthusiastic support of the AFL, the CIO, and National Farmers Union, and helped to propel FDR to a fourth presidential term that November. He would pass away the following spring—before he could lead a postwar campaign to pursue a third New Deal.
As Michael Moore himself apparently appreciates, the vision that Roosevelt projected in the Four Freedoms and Second Bill of Rights continues to move us. We saw evidence of that last January when 2 million Americans—full of hopeful expectations and ready to be called upon—turned out in the nation’s capital to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.
In Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore is not asking if we still feel the democratic impulse and imperative that makes us Americans. In the shadows of our own great depression, with the rich still getting richer and working people losing their jobs, savings, homes, and health care, he is essentially asking us what we, the American Founders of this day, intend to make of it.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America .