Bernie’s Brooklyn

The contempt for Bernie’s democratic socialist vision during the Democratic primaries was an illustration of just how far the party has moved from Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Like many key figures in his administration, Roosevelt was a Keynesian capitalist, not a socialist. Neither were the coterie of middle-class reformers FDR brought to Washington from New York City’s settlement house movement of the Progressive Era. But the New Deal’s policies were not simply the handiwork of far-sighted technocrats. Instead, FDR’s team responded to pressure exerted from below. 

The Great Depression had spawned both labour militance, leading to a strike wave that shut down the West Coast waterfront in 1934; and social movements, including the retirement pension campaign led by Dr. Francis Townsend that had launched a year earlier. In 1935, both efforts helped create two of the New Deal’s most enduring legacies: the right for unions to organise and strike (as stipulated by the Wagner Act) and the Social Security system. 

Yet when FDR and prominent allies such as New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia spoke of the president’s “social security programme,” the lowercase term referred to far more than simply pensions. As FDR outlined in his “Economic Bill of Rights” and other speeches, he viewed it as the federal government’s responsibility to provide jobs, health care, and secure housing for the American people. Rather than democratic socialism, FDR created a blueprint for social democracy akin to what exists in many European countries today.

Many fundamental elements of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 agenda — including free college tuition, rent control and massive federal investment in housing, and vast public works projects that provide public-sector jobs (now the Green New Deal) — were realities in the Brooklyn where he grew up.

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